Master's in Counseling vs. Counseling Psychology: What's the Difference?


Published November 15, 2023 · 4 Min Read

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If you know you want to help people improve their lives by navigating challenging situations but aren't sure which degree to pursue, consider comparing master's in counseling vs. counseling psychology programs. These degrees sound similar, and some even use the terms interchangeably.

However, there are differences in approaches between the two program types. This guide compares these degrees to help you find your ideal pathway.

Master's in Counseling vs. Counseling Psychology

The terms "counselor" and "psychologist" are often used interchangeably, but there are differences in education, career opportunities, and job scope. The positions share a common goal of helping people struggling with emotional problems and mental health issues. Both professions require a master's degree and offer actionable advice to individuals, families, and others involved in a patient's life.

A master's in counseling program helps students use research to guide future practice. Many counseling psychology students continue to doctoral programs in psychology with options to further specialize or subspecialize.

Mental health professionals are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 18% job growth rate for the profession from 2022-2032 — far faster than projections for all occupations.

What is a Master's in Counseling?

A master's in counseling is a graduate program that prepares you to practice as a clinician. The program typically requires the completion of 60 credit hours, which a full-time student may finish in four academic semesters. Part-time students may need three or more years.

Counseling programs are typically accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and follow a nationally endorsed set of standards. The program emphasizes human growth and development, multiculturalism, career development, and ethics.

Various concentrations can open the door to different career paths. With this degree, you can work in schools, substance abuse programs, marriage and family counseling, and mental health counseling.

What is a Master's in Counseling Psychology?

A master's in counseling psychology is a graduate degree program that focuses on a specific type of practice within the broader field of psychology. Enrollees can advance their education by pursuing doctorates.

The program usually requires students to complete 60 credit hours. Full-time students often complete the program in 2-3 years. These programs may be accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), while doctoral programs are generally accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Master's in counseling psychology programs emphasize how patients function individually and in relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Using this understanding, counseling psychologists can work in addiction treatment, family dysfunction, rehabilitation psychology, and more.

Popular Online Master's in Counseling Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Focus and Orientation

Master's in counseling enrollees learn the importance of boundaries for themselves and their patients, along with ways to set boundaries in everyday life. Students must develop objectivity to separate their experiences, values, and expectations from those of their clients. Many times, students develop this skill as they reflect on their backgrounds and how they came to embrace their beliefs.

Master's in counseling students also learn to set clear goals with their clients, for which boundaries and objectivity are essential. Clear goal setting helps guide counseling sessions and establishes outcome measures. Finally, enrollees must incorporate patience into their learning and practice, as it can take some people weeks or months to open up to their therapists and identify key issues.

Students graduating with master's degrees in counseling psychology learn many of the same counseling skills applied in clinical settings. They also learn research skills to establish a foundation for administering psychological testing to children and adults, which can be applied in doctoral programs.


Available specializations depend on the program. Those in a counseling psychology program may specialize in the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse, marriage and family, urban education, crisis counseling, and rehabilitation. There are also options in forensic psychology, military psychology, and psychopharmacology.

Students in master's in counseling programs can specialize in marriage and family counseling, school counseling, substance use disorder, rehabilitation, and clinical mental health. If you know your ideal specialty area, prioritize programs that offer coursework in the concentration.


Coursework varies among programs, but in general, master's in counseling degrees focus on a strength-based and developmental emphasis, while master's in counseling psychology programs typically follow a medical model.

In addition to the curriculum developed for the specialization, students in master's in counseling programs take courses in ethics, cognitive behavior, humanistic theory, and advocacy. Graduates with master's degrees in counseling psychology may also complete coursework in psychological testing, career and life assessment, and issues in clinical supervision.

Clinical Training and Practice

Both programs require Internships and/or practicums. The required hours for a master's in counseling can vary by specialization and state for licensure.

For example, a master's in counseling with a specialization in mental health counseling may require four semesters and 12 credit hours of practicum and internships. Specialization as a school counselor may require nine credit hours of practicums and internships.

A master's in counseling psychology may require 14 or more practicum hours, allowing enrollees to focus on assessment, diagnosis, testing, and tracking treatment.

Career Opportunities

Career opportunities for graduates of these programs are somewhat similar, but the approach to treatment differs. Career opportunities for master's in counseling degree-holders include work in school systems and addiction centers, as well as marriage and family counselors and mental health counselors.

Graduates with a master's in counseling psychology can work in several settings, including colleges and universities, mental health centers, independent practice, and rehabilitation agencies.

To earn a license, a master's in counseling or master's in counseling psychology graduate must complete 2,000-4,000 supervised clinical hours. The number of required hours varies depending on your state. You must also pass a state-specific examination.

Most states offer at least two licenses: a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC). An LPC license allows you to render services under supervision, and LPCC licensure qualifies you to practice independently.

How to Choose Between a Master's in Counseling vs. Counseling Psychology

There are many similarities between a master's in counseling vs. counseling psychology, but they are also functionally different. Prospective students should consider their differences to find the best psychology program.

In practice, a master's in counseling graduate focuses on general therapy, helping people manage their day-to-day lives through talk therapy. They may be involved in research but do not usually lead it. Instead, they apply research results to treatment modalities.

On the other hand, a graduate with a master's in counseling psychology applies disorder-specific therapy through psychological tests. They also complete research to advance the field.

Advantages of Earning a Master's in Counseling

  • A focus on individuals, groups, and families
  • Strong employment opportunities
  • Independent practice with LPCC licensure
  • Diverse career paths
  • Tangibly improve lives and track patient progress

Advantages of Earning a Master's in Counseling Psychology

  • Improve the field through research
  • Strong salaries and employment opportunities
  • Many specializations

Base your decision to pursue a master's in counseling vs. a master's in counseling psychology on informed research to make a confident choice. As you pursue your education, consider each degree's learning objectives, career options, and educational advancement opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions About Master's in Counseling vs. Counseling Psychology

What are the admission requirements for a master's in counseling vs. counseling psychology?

The admission requirements for both degrees are a bachelor's degree in psychology or a similar field from a regionally accredited institution, a 2.7-3.2 GPA, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Some programs also require GRE scores.

How long does it take to complete a master's in counseling vs. counseling psychology?

Full-time students can complete a master's in counseling or counseling psychology in two years, while part-time learners may take four or more years to complete the program. Some online accelerated master's in counseling programs can be completed in 18 months.

What type of accreditation is best for a master's in counseling vs. counseling psychology?

Accreditation ensures students receive an education that reaches national standards of quality. Master's in counseling programs are accredited by CACREP, while master's in counseling psychology receive accreditation from the MPCAC and APA.

Page last reviewed on October 9, 2023

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