Study Counseling: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Training Info

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Master's degree and Ph.D. programs in counseling can lead to careers in and out of clinical practice. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Counseling Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

If you want to deliver direct services to clients, a master's degree is the highest degree you'll need. Carefully consider work settings and individuals you want to counsel, because these factors will determine the type of program you enter and will influence your job prospects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of marriage and family counselors is projected to grow by 41% from 2010-2020, followed by employment of university-based counselors at 34%, which is well above average. At the other end of the spectrum, employment of counselors at elementary and secondary schools is only projected to grow by 8%, which is below the average.

Students who want to conduct research and teach or practice counseling psychology will want to look at Ph.D. programs. Employment of postsecondary instructors is projected to grow by 17%, while counseling psychologists may see a 22% growth from 2010-2020.

Master's Doctorate
Who Is This Degree for? Bachelor's degree holders interested in counseling individuals or groups in private practice, mental health facilities or schools - Individuals interested in teaching and researching counseling at the postsecondary level
- Individuals interested in becoming psychologists
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Elementary or secondary school counselor ($63,000)*
- College or university counselor ($49,000)*
- Substance abuse counselor ($41,000)*
- Marriage and family counselor ($49,000)*
- University psychology teacher ($76,000)*
- Community college psychology teacher ($70,000)
- Counseling psychologist ($73,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 5-8 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 10-12 graduate-level courses
- Approximately 600 hours of clinical experience
- Comprehensive exam
All master's degree program requirements, plus:
- An additional 10-12 graduate-level courses
- Practicum placements
- Externship
- Dissertation
Prerequisites A bachelor's degree in any field with some classes in psychology A bachelor's or master's degree in counseling or psychology
Online Availability Coursework can be completed online; clinical internships are completed in person None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Master's Degree in Counseling

Master's degree programs in counseling train students in the theories and techniques of counseling. You'll participate in small clinical labs and seminars with 5-6 other students. Lecture-based classes could have 40-50 students. The clinical internship component often requires working very closely with a mentor who observes you conducting counseling sessions with individual and group clients. Some master's programs train you to conduct counseling with specific populations, such as school counseling or marriage and family therapy, while others are more general.

Accredited master's degree programs prepare students for licensure in the state in which the programs operate. If you plan to move to a different state after graduation, you will need to talk to a program adviser about this so that you can make sure that you fulfill all of the educational requirements for licensure in the state you plan to move to.

Pros and Cons

Counselors working in private practice often set their own schedule, but this may require working some evenings and weekends to accommodate the schedules of their clients. Counselors working in institutions, such as schools or rehabilitation centers, are likely to work a standard 40-hour workweek.

Pros

  • A master's degree is the preferred qualification for most counseling positions
  • Employment opportunities are not restricted to a particular area of the country
  • A master's program in counseling will also prepare you to enter doctorate programs if you so choose

Cons

  • Financial assistance options may be limited and competitive and are usually available only for full-time students
  • The intensive, full-time program probably would not leave time for additional employment
  • You may be competing with graduates of Ph.D. programs for similar counseling jobs

Courses and Requirements

Courses cover a wide range of psychology and counseling topics, such as assessment, behavior disorders and group dynamics. Examples of master's-level courses include:

  • Growth and development
  • Research methods
  • Counseling techniques
  • Abnormal psychology

In addition to these courses, students participate in counseling labs that allow them to put theory into practice before entering an internship. Internships usually are structured so that students work 20 hours per week for two consecutive semesters. At the end of the program, you're required to complete a comprehensive examination. Programs often use the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination published by the Center for Credentialing and Education for this purpose.

Online Degree Options

Accredited online programs will fulfill the educational requirements for licensure. A typical program will allow you to complete all coursework via the Internet and come to class only for specific on-site clinical training. Your internship could be completed in any approved internship site, but it will need to take place face-to-face. Requirements for online programs do not differ from those of on-campus programs, but some are designed for part-time attendance and, consequently, will take longer to complete.

Get Ahead with This Degree

Look for classes that train you to work with groups that face more specific difficulties than those covered in general counseling coursework. Some programs offer coursework in counseling for gay and lesbian adolescents, grief and bereavement and bilingual students. Your program may have the option of completing additional coursework and clinical hours to earn a graduate certificate in an area such as substance abuse counseling. Such additional qualifications could prepare you to enter into employment working with a specific population and to develop a reputation as a specialist in that area.

After graduating, finding a job that provides as many hours as possible of face-to-face clinical work will help you meet the requirements for licensure. You will need to complete 3,000 hours of clinical work to qualify for licensure.

Degree Alternatives

A master's degree in clinical social work provides another path to a career in counseling. Social work programs often take a more systemic approach to mental health than master's programs in counseling, with courses focusing on the social and cultural contexts of clients. Conducting a research project is more likely to be a requirement for social work programs. Clinical social workers have many of the same duties as counselors and must complete the same amount of clinical hours to receive licensure. Employment of social workers is projected to grow by 25% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS, and the mean wage reported for May 2011 was $54,000.

Ph.D. in Counseling

A Ph.D. program in counseling differs from a master's degree program in that it requires students to conduct research, write a dissertation and fulfill teaching requirements. However, the Ph.D. in Counseling differs from Ph.D. programs in other areas of psychology, such as cognitive psychology or developmental psychology, in that the graduates usually choose to go into clinical practice rather than conduct research. Accordingly, these programs tend to put more emphasis on clinical training than on research training. Therefore, if you want to teach psychology and have a clinical practice, the Ph.D. in Counseling will provide you with appropriate training; however, if you want primarily to do research, Ph.D. programs in other specialties may better serve you.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Can qualify you to become a licensed psychologist (once work experience requirements are met)
  • As a licensed psychologist, your earning potential would be greater than that of a counselor (mean wages of $73,000 for a psychologist vs. $48,000 for marriage counselors)*
  • You will be qualified to teach at community colleges and universities
  • Students have opportunities for financial assistance; for example, you may receive tuition remission and a stipend for living expenses for the first 3-4 years, with the chance to apply for additional funding for the remaining years

Cons

  • Most clinical practice jobs, such as positions at a rehabilitation center or working in a private practice, only require a master's degree
  • Because of the emphasis on clinical practice, the Ph.D. in Counseling may not provide the most rigorous training in research for students wanting to go into academia
  • Online study opportunities are limited at the Ph.D. level

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 salary figures)

Courses and Requirements

The first two years of Ph.D. programs essentially follow the same schedule as that of master's degree programs; students complete coursework, practicum experiences and a work placement. A comprehensive exam is taken at the end of the first two years for a student to become a doctoral candidate. Some programs also require a research project to be completed before becoming a doctoral candidate. The next year is spent taking advanced coursework, which could include:

  • Neuropsychology
  • Psychological theory
  • Advanced statistics
  • Research design

Students then must prepare a dissertation proposal and commence research once the proposal is approved. Doctoral candidates also are required to complete a 1-year full-time or 2-year part-time internship, preferably at a site approved by the American Psychological Association, and to serve in teaching roles.

Online Degree Options

It is rare to find Ph.D. programs in counseling online. Even with programs that allow you to complete some requirements online, you will still need to go to on-campus sessions to complete some aspects of the coursework and possibly to work with research teams. Internships will occur at approved sites and will be face-to-face.

Stand Out with This Degree

Completing a research assistantship early on in the program will give you the chance to work alongside professors and develop your research expertise and interests. Read clinical literature for exposure to specialty areas not covered by coursework - something you read may spark a research interest. Take your teaching commitments seriously. Being qualified to teach is one of the clear advantages of graduating from a Ph.D. program, so you will want to be prepared and earn positive teaching evaluations.

Degree Alternatives

Students who are primarily interested in working with psychopathological populations and doing research into the causes and treatments of psychological disorders may be better served by a degree in clinical psychology. Clinical psychology programs are very similar to counseling psychology programs, but the clinical program will focus on clinical research. Areas that you may explore include personality disorders, depression and emotional processes. The employment outlook for clinical and counseling psychologists is the same; however, Salary.com expected clinical psychologists to earn a median wage of about $83,000 in April 2012.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
      • MS in Professional Counseling
      • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement
      • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Prevention
      • Master in Christian Counseling
      • Master in Christian Counseling of Substance Use & Addictive Disorders
  • Online Programs Available
    2. American University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Healthcare Management
  • Online Programs Available
    3. The George Washington University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSHS in Health Care Quality
  • Online Programs Available
    4. The University of Scranton

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Health Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    5. George Mason University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Health Administration in Health Systems Management
      • Master of Science in Health Informatics
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Health Admin
      • MS Criminal Justice with Behavior Analysis Specialization
  • Campus and Online Programs
    7. Centenary University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA in Health Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSM in Healthcare
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Utica College

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Health Care Management
      • Masters in Health Care Administration
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Acute Care
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Long Term Care
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Service Organization

Featured Schools

Grand Canyon University

  • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
  • MS in Professional Counseling
  • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement

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American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

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The George Washington University

  • MSHS in Health Care Quality

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The University of Scranton

  • MBA - Healthcare Management
  • Master of Health Administration

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George Mason University

  • Master of Health Administration in Health Systems Management
  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

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Saint Joseph's University

  • MS - Health Admin
  • MS Criminal Justice with Behavior Analysis Specialization

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Centenary University

  • MBA in Health Administration

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Colorado State University Global

  • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

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