Professional Counseling Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a professional counseling program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and a PhD and potential careers.
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Professional Counseling Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

If you're the person whom everyone comes to for advice, and you've wondered if you could turn your problem-solving abilities into a career, consider earning a master's degree or PhD in the field of professional counseling. Whichever degree you choose to pursue, there's encouraging news on the job front. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall job growth in clinical, school and counseling psychology will be faster than average, about 22% from 2010-2020. Growth for mental health counselors is expected to be 36%, which is much faster than average.

As a professional counselor with a master's degree, you could be helping people work through mental health issues, emotional problems, substance abuse or other difficulties. If you'd like to work as a university faculty member or enter into private practice as a psychologist, you typically need a PhD.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to counsel others Someone who wants to become a professor at a university or enter into private practice
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) State license required for some positions:
- Mental health counselor ($39,000)*
- Career/vocational counselor ($54,000)*
Same careers open to master's degree holders, plus the following:
- Postsecondary teacher (psychology) ($68,000)*
- Psychologist ($69,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time, 3 years part-time About 4-6 years (full-time)
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 16-22 graduate-level courses
- Internship
- Practicum
- Comprehensive exams
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 16-22 more graduate-level courses
- Internship
- Practicum
- Comprehensive exams
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- GRE or MAT
Same as for master's degree; may be required to complete master's degree as part of PhD requirements
Online Availability Yes Limited

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

Master's Degree in Professional Counseling

Earning a master's degree in professional counseling will provide you with the training to guide and counsel people as they learn to overcome personal difficulties. In some programs, you can specialize in a certain type of counseling, such as family, marital or mental health, to mention just a few. Other programs may be more general and feature coursework in a variety of counseling topics.

Graduates of professional counseling master's degree programs are employed in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals and corrections facilities. A master's degree in professional counseling may be offered as an M.S. or an M.A. degree depending on the school. To work as a doctor or university professor, you'll need to pursue a PhD in the field.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A master's degree can enable you to gain entry into a career as a professional counselor
  • Job growth is expected to be good in the mental health counseling field
  • Online and other flexible types of class formats are readily available for working students

Cons

  • Financial assistance, such as waived tuition or an assistantship, isn't as common for master's students as for doctoral students
  • State licensure is required for many types of counseling positions
  • If you'd prefer to work in research or as a professor for a university, a PhD would be necessary

Common Courses and Requirements

In most master's degree programs in professional counseling, you'll take courses in counseling theory, psychotherapy, research methods, counseling ethics and psychopathology. Since the people you'll be counseling will have a variety of backgrounds, there may be a multicultural component in your degree program to provide training in working with a diverse clientele. In many programs, you'll learn how to administer and use the results of psychometric instruments that measure various characteristics of your clients, such as career aptitude or personality. You may also be required to complete a practicum or internship in order to graduate.

Online Degree Options

Completely online master's degree programs in professional counseling are available, but some may have a residency requirement. Additionally, some online programs may be completed on a part-time basis only. Other than possible differences in completion time, degree and graduation requirements for online programs often match classroom-based programs at the same university.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Take your master's degree in psychology and incorporate a technical dimension and a specialization to increase your appeal to employers.

  • Learn how to administer and score a variety of assessments electronically. Many professions open to master's graduates utilize such instruments to discover a client's career interests and personality type.
  • Find a niche to occupy in the counseling field that is underrepresented or that caters to an underserved population.
  • Join an organization for professional counselors. There may be a counseling chapter on your campus, and membership will give you the opportunity to network with professionals in your field of interest.

PhD Degree in Professional Counseling

If you choose to earn a PhD in a field that prepares you to be a professional counselor, such as counseling or counseling psychology, you'll be entering into a challenging, research-intensive program that in most cases will require full-time enrollment. In return for your dedication and effort, you'll be poised to compete for jobs in a number of lucrative, interesting and thriving fields. Many graduates of PhD programs in professional counseling work in universities as professors or researchers, but you'll also have the option of working with patients in private practice.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A PhD qualifies you for the highest level of research and faculty positions at a university
  • PhD students often receive financial support, such as assistantships, while earning their degrees
  • Postsecondary psychology teachers enjoy good compensation (median salary was $68,000 in 2011)*

Cons

  • PhD programs in professional counseling can be very competitive, admitting only a handful of students each year
  • Most PhD programs in counseling psychology require at least four years of full-time attendance
  • Competition for tenure-track professorships could be intense

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

By choosing to complete a PhD program in professional counseling, you'll receive training in conducting research using both quantitative and qualitative methods, including factor analysis and inferential statistics. Additionally, you'll take more advanced classes covering many of the same subjects as required for the master's degree, along with courses in personality, cognition and human development. In many programs, you'll also be completing an internship and at least one practicum, plus writing a dissertation featuring original research.

Online Degree Options

Online PhD programs leading to a career in professional counseling aren't commonly available. Hybrid programs combining face-to-face and online instruction exist, and a few completely online programs may be offered by for-profit schools.

Campus-based study could be much more common than online programs because full-time enrollment is frequently required or strongly encouraged at the doctoral level. Many schools also provide financial assistance to PhD students, such as teaching or research assistantships, that would necessitate being on-campus.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Move to the front of the line by developing your research and writing skills as much as possible.

  • Learn about and adopt technological programs that can be used to assist you in performing research during and after completing your degree program. Doctoral programs in counseling psychology are very research-intensive, and a high-level of efficiency would be helpful.
  • Take the opportunity to submit articles for publication in professional journals. If you plan on teaching in a university, publication can increase your chances of success.
  • Attend conferences in your concentration area or another area of specific interest. It will give you a forum to meet and network with experts in the field.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Walden University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Clinical Psychology - General
      • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Health Psychology
      • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Teaching Psychology
      • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Forensic Psychology
      • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Industrial & Organizational Psychology
      • PhD in Forensic Psychology - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Liberty University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PHD: Counselor Education and Supervision
      • EDD: Community Care & Counseling: Marriage and Family
      • EDD: Community Care & Counseling: Traumatology
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Regent University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Grief Counseling
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Human Services Counseling
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Human Services/Student Affairs
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - International
      • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Research Concentration
  • Stanford, CA

    Stanford University

  • Cambridge, MA

    Lesley University

  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
      • PhD in Psychology - Trauma & Disaster Relief
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - General
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Couple Therapy
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Medical Family Therapy
  • Toledo, OH

    University of Toledo

  • Cambridge, MA

    Harvard University

Featured Schools

Walden University

  • PhD in Clinical Psychology - General
  • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Health Psychology
  • PhD in Clinical Psychology - Teaching Psychology

What is your highest level of education completed?

Grand Canyon University

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision

What is your highest level of education?

Liberty University

  • PHD: Counselor Education and Supervision
  • EDD: Community Care & Counseling: Marriage and Family
  • EDD: Community Care & Counseling: Traumatology

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies
  • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Grief Counseling
  • Ph.D. in Counseling & Psychological Studies - Human Services Counseling

What is your highest level of education completed?

Lesley University

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • PhD in Psychology - Trauma & Disaster Relief
  • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families

What is your highest level of education?

University of Toledo