Earning A Counseling Psychology Degree Online

What Is a Counseling Psychologist and What Do They Do?

Counseling psychology is a broad subdiscipline of applied psychology that facilitates well-being, development, problem solving, and interpersonal wellness. Emphasizing strengths and adaptive strategies in coping with adversity, the field focuses on challenges and life stressors experienced by client populations. Typically, counseling psychologists work with clients who have milder symptoms, though they sometimes diagnose and treat severe psychopathology.

Counseling psychology takes a developmental perspective, addressing areas such as cultural diversity, interpersonal and family relations, life stressors, vocational adjustment, and rehabilitation. Counseling psychologists provide assistance with individual, couple, family, community, and workplace issues.

Counseling psychologists provide assessment, intervention, and guidance regarding resources to help manage and solve problems. Common specialties in counseling psychology include vocational guidance, substance abuse, rehabilitation, education, marital and family therapy, and community mental health.

Graduates of counseling psychology programs often work in higher education institutions, rehabilitation hospitals, employee assistance programs, crisis centers, and recovery centers. A typical work day might involve duties such as meeting clients for intake and assessment, consulting with social services agencies, and discussing treatment recommendations with clients.

How Do Clinical and Counseling Psychology Differ?

Clinical psychology shares much in common with counseling psychology, though some clinical programs focus on research and abnormal psychology. Both counseling and clinical psychologists conduct assessment, interviewing, diagnosis, and treatment of psychopathology; however, many clinical programs focus on preparing students for careers in professional scientific research. Clinical psychologists often work as researchers, supervisors, educators, or consultants. Common employment settings include psychiatric hospitals, mental health facilities, and private practices.

Coursework for clinical psychology programs closely resembles counseling psychology programs, and some schools offer one joint, clinical-counseling program. Doctoral students in clinical psychology face tough competition, so interested students should ensure that they meet admission requirements.

Clinical programs suit students with career goals in scientific research, psychopathology, and behavioral health. Counseling programs suit students with career goals in holistic psychotherapy, human development, and vocational adjustment and training.

Can You Get a Degree in Counseling Psychology Online?

Many students benefit from the scheduling flexibility and convenience of online study. Distance learners often complete foundational courses online at the undergraduate and master’s level, and some programs offer doctoral level coursework online.

Potential benefits of the online format include a greater selection of programs, savings, and additional opportunities for collaborative work. Some programs offering an online master’s degree in counseling psychology also provide opportunities for distance learners to collaborate internationally, which is a valuable and enriching experience for students planning to focus on multicultural issues.

Online counseling psychology students complete the same coursework as their on-campus peers. They also receive access to most comparable services; only the delivery methods differ. Distance learners set their own study pace and rely on self-motivation. For campus-based programs, classes meet on a predetermined schedule, and students access resources, such as library materials and tutoring, in person.

In addition to online coursework, all graduate students in counseling psychology complete laboratory and practicum work in person. Like traditional programs, online graduate programs in counseling psychology require at least one year of consecutive, on-site field experience. Some hybrid programs require up to one year of residency on campus.

Are Practicums and Internships Required in an Online Counseling Psychology Program?

Online counseling psychology programs follow state rules regarding licensing, meaning that the vast majority of programs require internships. Undergraduate psychology programs typically do not require internships, but some programs encourage them. Some students pursue clinical work experience at the undergraduate level either to make themselves more attractive candidates for graduate school admittance or to prepare for entry-level jobs.

Students interested in graduate study should note that the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits only doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology, and does not accredit any programs offering a Ph.D. in counseling psychology online. Since some states require candidates for licensing to hold degrees from APA-accredited programs, students intending to pursue licensure should factor this into their educational plans. All counseling psychology programs, online and traditional, must comply with the requirements of state licensing boards in order to maintain their accreditation status, so it’s important to investigate all applicable licensing regulations in your state of employment.

While locating appropriate internships for counseling psychologists can prove more challenging for online students, the internet offers routes to streamline and refine your search. Many students begin their search at the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers, and platforms such as Handshake and LinkedIn fill in the gaps for others. The APA also maintains a list of research opportunities for undergraduates.

What Do You Need to Be a Counseling Psychologist?

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the APA, holders of doctoral degrees in counseling psychology reported $87,389 of debt related to their graduate education, which is lower than the mean for all graduates of doctoral programs in psychology.

Students who enter with a bachelor’s degree take about five to six years to complete the necessary requirements for a Ph.D., which includes one year of internship work. Obtaining state licensure may add an additional one to two years, depending on state requirements.

Online study offers benefits for counseling psychology students by saving travel time; offering the convenience of completing foundational coursework asynchronously; and improving cost efficiency of childcare, room and board, and commuting.

Average Salary for Psychologists by Degree Level

Bachelor of Arts (BA), Psychology$78,321
Master of Arts (MA), Psychology$71,667
Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)$73,482

Source: PayScale

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling Psychology

All counseling psychologists hold at least a bachelor’s degree. While most counseling psychologists major in psychology, many graduate schools do not require applicants to hold an undergraduate in psychology. Other common undergraduate majors for professionals in the field include education, social work, sociology, human services, and general liberal arts or humanities. Some students pursue online pre-counseling bachelor’s degrees with specialties in marriage and family counseling, school counseling, or mental health counseling.

At the bachelor’s level, students find many programs offered completely online. For graduate study, counseling psychology programs require on-site supervised field work such as internships. Our page featuring online bachelor’s degrees in psychology offers a more in-depth look at what to expect.

Example Courses

Social Psychology

This course studies behavior, thought, and emotion in social contexts, examining the relationships between individuals and society. Students explore topics such as social influence, persuasion, conformity, impression formation, attraction, prejudice, and stereotyping. Students also develop the skills and awareness necessary to integrate and critically evaluate research and theory in social psychology.

Cognitive Psychology

With an emphasis on contemporary research and theory, this course surveys mental processes and mechanisms of thinking. Topics include neurocognition, cognitive development, reasoning, language processes, problem solving, and memory. Students analyze research, complete lab work, and examine milestones in cognitive development.

Introduction to Case Management

This course addresses the history, principles, and functions of case management in counseling. Students identify case management models and develop practical strengths-based competencies to prepare for case management roles. Topics include interviewing, medical evaluations, effective communication skills, and developing and coordinating plans for services.

Abnormal Psychology

This course surveys clinical, theoretical, and experimental perspectives focused on the study of major psychological disorders. It enables students to distinguish between abnormal and normal patterns of behavior, and to demonstrate knowledge of appropriate treatments.

Statistics and Research Methods

Emphasizing design, sampling, and data analysis, this course prepares students for research. Topics include basic concepts of measurement such as validity, reliability, and scoring; basic statistical concepts including correlation, frequency distributions, and variability; research design and program evaluation; and ethical considerations such as informed consent.

Online Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology

Most professional positions in counseling psychology require an advanced degree, and many licensed counselors hold a master’s degree. Other graduate degrees held by counseling psychologists include education and social work.

Motivated distance learners can complete their coursework in an accelerated format, which allows them to finish their program quicker. Some programs also offer discounted tuition rates or other incentives to attract in-state students interested in completing their degree online. Some hybrid programs offer cost savings on things like childcare in addition to campus-based networking.

Review our summary for more information on what to expect from online psychology programs at the master’s level.

Example Courses

Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling

This course focuses on the clinical, therapeutic, and practical factors involved in counseling. Topics include confidentiality, therapist-patient privilege, scope of practice, trends in mental health professions, and professional misconduct.

Psychopharmacology

This course prepares students to counsel patients and how to prescribe psychotropic medications. Students explore classifications, side effects, indications, and contraindications. Topics covered include alternative medicine, psychoneurology, pharmacokinetics, and medication management strategies.

Personality Assessment

To prepare students for accurate diagnosis and treatment of clients in mental health counseling, this course examines the principles and methods of personality assessment with an emphasis on ethics and diversity.

Theory and Philosophy of Counseling

This course provides an in-depth survey of the major contemporary theoretical perspectives in counseling, such as humanistic, existential, cognitive-behavioral, psychoanalytic, and client-centered therapy.

Marriage and Family Counseling

Including both didactic and experiential learning, this course offers an integrative and contemporary study of marital and family therapy. With an emphasis on postmodern family therapy and family systems approaches, students examine relationship dynamics, strategies of intervention, and the fundamentals of assessment with couples.

Online Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology

Students interested in pursuing advanced postdoctoral research or in teaching at the postsecondary level need to complete a doctoral program as a prerequisite for these career paths.

Since the majority of work for many doctoral programs takes place on-site, you might choose to study online as an undergraduate and/or at the master’s level during your early years of education in order to expedite your path toward a doctoral degree. Some doctoral programs offer online coursework toward the Ph.D., and some schools offer grants or other incentives to students who enroll in online doctoral programs. Keep in mind, that since fully-online doctoral programs in counseling psychology do not receive accreditation by the APA, they do not meet all state requirements for professional licensure.

Example Courses

Behavioral Neuroscience

This course explores the influences of biological mechanisms on the mind and on behavior. Students perform data analysis and research design for laboratory components. Topics include neuroanatomy; neurochemistry; and the roles of neurotransmitters in motivation, learning, memory, sensation, and perception.

Advanced Developmental Psychology

Designed for students already familiar with undergraduate developmental psychology, this course focuses on the cross-cultural perspectives of human development. Students examine the interplay of social, environmental, biological, and cultural factors from infancy to old age.

Vocational Psychology

Taking a multicultural perspective, this course covers theories of career development, exploring applications for effective assessment practices. Students complete case studies and self-assessments, develop and implement career counseling interventions for selected populations, and discuss empirical studies on the psychology and history of work.

Group Psychotherapy

With an emphasis on group dynamics, this course studies the major theoretical frameworks, techniques, and interventions of group therapy. Students design and apply group interventions by developing core skills in group facilitation and by analyzing group therapeutic change processes.

Multicultural Counseling

To prepare students for cross-culturally responsive counseling, this course surveys the theory, concepts, research, and practices related to culturally and ethnically diverse clients. Topics addressed include discrimination, oppression, stereotypes, cultural heritage, and family systems.

Required Licenses and Internships to Become a Counseling Psychologist

Specific criteria for licensure vary by state, but general processes for candidates are similar. In most states, licensure requires a doctoral degree, a supervised clinical internship of one to two years, and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Some states also offer licensure at the master’s level with proof of completion of specific coursework.

Licensing agencies in some states stipulate that only students with degrees from APA-accredited programs may apply for licensure. Others require state-specific exams or impose additional educational or field experience requirements for specialties such as substance abuse counseling or school counseling. Check with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards and the American Counseling Association for detailed information on licensing requirements.

Students interested in maximizing opportunities for licensure in other states should seek programs and internships that meet APA standards. Counseling psychologists at the doctoral level with at least two years of postdoctoral professional experience also qualify for certification in counseling psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Careers for Counseling Psychology Degree Holders

Career paths in counseling psychology often focus on vocational rehabilitation and guidance, mental health crisis counseling, improving relational functioning, and facilitating well being. The field typically attracts compassionate, ethical practitioners with strong emotional resilience, good boundaries, and interpersonal communication skills. Graduates with a master’s or Ph.D. in counseling psychology often follow a scientist-practitioner model, combining advanced clinical training with in-depth research in the field. The list below outlines five well-known careers in counseling psychology.

  • Substance Abuse Counselor
    These professionals specialize in assisting, counseling, and supporting clients and families who struggle with addiction. Job duties include evaluating patients using assessments and interviews, leading support groups, managing caseloads, and making referrals to community services. Typically, substance abuse counselors hold a master’s degree and a professional counselor license.

  • Rehabilitation Counselor
    Rehabilitation counselors provide vocational guidance to individuals with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They conduct patient diagnostic evaluations; analyze and interpret pertinent vocational, social, educational, and medical information; and develop treatment plans. These counselors also help arrange job training and placement and assist patients in locating community resources. Rehabilitation counselors typically possess a master’s degree and a state license.

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor
    Licensed mental health counselors assist clients with mental health challenges such as depression and substance abuse. They work in homes, shelters, courts, hospitals, and institutions. Responsibilities include conducting intake, outreach, assessment, and psychosocial intervention. This position requires a master’s degree, two years of supervised clinical experience, and a state license.

  • School Counselor
    School counselors help students with the adjustments, development, and achievement of academic goals. They consult with teachers, parents, and guardians; identify problems and obstacles; and develop plans to address them. School counselors also intervene in difficult situations and serve as liaisons, connecting students to support services. School counselors need advanced degrees and must pass strict background checks.

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
    Licensed marriage and family therapists provide counseling services to individuals, couples, and families to help them improve their relationships. Often working from a family systems theory perspective, they conduct assessments; identify social, emotional, and relational issues; and help clients improve communication. Responsibilities also include crisis intervention, providing assistance with conflict resolution, conducting outreach, and determining appropriate community referral sources. This position requires a master’s degree and a state license.

Salary for Counseling Psychology Degree Holders

Data from PayScale reports that average professional salaries for graduates with a master’s in counseling psychology range from $37,840 to $51,062. Other factors influencing salary include experience level, highest degree earned, license type, and geographic region. Additional salary variables for some employees include health insurance benefits and bonuses.

Salary expectations for counseling psychologists in independent private practice who establish their own rates typically differ from those employed in human services settings such as community mental health centers, government agencies, public hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities. Local economic and job market conditions also influence salary fluctuations. The table below features median annual salaries for five commonly held positions in counseling psychology.

PositionMedian Annual Salary
Substance Abuse Counselor$37,840
Rehabilitation Counselor$42,608
Licensed Mental Health Counselor$46,451
School Counselor$48,727
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist$51,062

Source: PayScale