How to Become a Counseling Psychologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a counseling psychologist. Research the education requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in counseling psychology.

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Do I Want to Be a Counseling Psychologist?

Counseling psychologists are professional psychologists who help individuals strengthen their mental health and get through common life problems with their home, job or social lives. They might focus on specific issues like family and marriage, substance abuse or behavioral disorders.

These professionals often go on to start their own practices, where they can plan their work schedules. However, client demand is often heaviest on weekends and evenings. Counseling psychologists might find work at schools, businesses, hospitals, government offices or mental health clinics.

Job Requirements

Prospective counseling psychologists must earn a doctoral degree in counseling psychology, complete a post-doctoral internship and obtain state licensure. All professionals using the title 'psychologist' and providing clinical or counseling services must be licensed in the state in which they practice.

Counseling psychologists have the option of obtaining either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Ph.D. programs traditionally focus on research and are often more appropriate for individuals who want to work in academia or a research setting. Psy.D. programs focus on equipping students with the tools needed to understand current research and apply it to their clinical practices, but they don't necessarily prepare students to conduct original research as a career. The following table contains the requirements for beginning a career as a counseling psychologist, as stated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov).

Common Requirements
Degree Level Ph.D. or Psy.D.
Degree Field Counseling psychology
Licensure State licensure varies according to state and is required in order to deliver mental health services and use the title 'psychologist.' Continuing education requirements must be met in most states to retain licensure.
Experience A 1-2 year internship is required in order to qualify for licensure.
Key Skills Good communication skills and analytical skills. For university positions, an ability to teach.

Step One: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step for prospective counseling psychologists. Students can earn a degree in a related field, such as education or psychology or in an unrelated liberal arts field. All students, regardless of major, should get some exposure to psychology by taking key courses such as developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, educational psychology, social psychology and statistics.

Success Tips

  • Gain experience in a counseling-related setting. Volunteering or working in a mental health setting demonstrates commitment to the counseling profession. Some undergraduate programs offer structured internships for credit that allow students to set up appropriate work experiences with mentors and to document their progress. This type of experience also give a student an opportunity to develop a relationship with a counseling professional who may be able to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school applications.
  • Join a student group for psychology students. A group such as Psi Chi, an honors society for students studying psychology, may offer opportunities to meet professional psychologists or attend conferences. This can increase students' exposure to the different career opportunities for counseling psychologists and help them make decisions about their own careers.
  • Create a graduate school application timeline. Applying to graduate school can be time consuming and complicated. Documenting the various requirements for the different programs a student might apply to can help him or her plan to obtain letters of recommendation, study for and take the GRE and write personal statements in a timely manner.

Step Two: Earn a Doctoral Degree

A student will need to decide which doctoral degree is most appropriate for his or her career goals - the research-oriented Ph.D. or the practice-focused Psy.D. Regardless of which type of program a student chooses, the program will need to be accredited by the American Psychological Association and will likely require 2-3 years of advanced coursework and 1-3 years completing a dissertation. Counseling psychology programs also require clinical training and supervised experience, usually undertaken during a 1-year full-time internship.

Step Three: Complete a Post-Doctoral Internship

Doctoral graduates must complete an approved post-doctoral placement to gain the experience necessary for licensure. During the post-doctoral placement, graduates conduct supervised clinical work and undergo periodic evaluations with an adviser. Students who plan to work in academia also begin developing a research portfolio.

Success Tip

  • Read up about licensing requirements before starting your internship. While meeting the general licensure requirements will be appropriate for licensure in most states, some states may have different requirements. Students should find out as early as possible what the requirements will be in the state in which they want to work. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) provides information on licensure in every state (www.asppb.org).

Step Four: Obtain Licensure

All practicing counseling psychologists are required to be state-licensed. Most states require completion of a doctoral degree and clinical post-doctoral internship and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology. Some states also require an ethics examination.

Step Five: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

Most states require that licensed psychologists meet continuing education requirements. Specific requirements vary by state, but a common requirement is 20 hours of continuing education per year, or 40 hours every two years. Some states require that psychologists update their knowledge of professional ethics as well as subject matter. The ASPPB provides information on the continuing education requirements of every state.

Step Five: Obtain Specialty Certification

Counseling psychologists who practice in a specific focus area, such as with a certain population or treating a specific psychological disorder, may want to consider getting a certification that designates this specialty. Psychologists usually need several years of clinical practice before being able to qualify for specialty certification. Information on specialty certification is available from the American Board of Professional Psychologists (www.abpp.org).

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  • School locations:
    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Pennsylvania include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
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    • Florida (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Florida include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Post Master's Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
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  • School locations:
    • Massachusetts (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Boston University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
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        • Counseling Psychology, General
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  • School locations:
    • Georgia (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Georgia include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
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