Professional Degrees

If individuals are interested in a career in counseling or psychology, there are various degrees they can pursue. These fields are very diverse and offer a number of opportunities for those who wish to obtain a master’s or doctoral degree.

Master’s Degree

There are many different master’s level programs that train students in basic counseling skills. These programs focus on areas such as community counseling, clinical counseling, couples and family therapy, addictions counseling, and vocational counseling. Programs will offer either a master of arts (M.A.) or master of science degree (M.S.). An individual may also obtain a master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.). Generally, completion of a master’s program in counseling, psychology, or social work requires 2 to 3 years of fulltime coursework and a supervised internship.

Licensure varies from state to state for master’s level clinicians, but, generally speaking, after completion of a master’s program from an accredited university, a candidate may apply for licensure after 1 to 3 years of postgraduate experience supervised by a licensed clinician and after successful completion of the state licensure exam. With a master’s degree in counseling or psychology, one can obtain one of two licenses in most states: licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) or licensed professional counselor (LPC). If an individual possesses a master’s degree in social work, he or she may obtain licensure as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Individuals who obtain a master’s level degree in the discipline of social work or psychology work in a variety of settings, including community mental health agencies, guidance counseling centers, residential treatment facilities, and drug and alcohol treatment facilities and hospitals, to name a few.

Doctoral Degree

There are also a variety of doctoral programs in counseling and psychology, some of which can be started after an individual receives a bachelor’s degree and others that require that a master’s degree be obtained first. Applied psychology doctoral programs include school psychology, counseling psychology, clinical psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. In all 50 states, the doctorate is the entry level degree for licensed psychologists. Only individuals who have obtained a doctoral degree in professional psychology (clinical, counseling, school, or industrial-organizational) and met a variety of requirements for licensure may call themselves “psychologists.” This title is protected and regulated by state licensing boards. The reasoning for such regulation is to protect the public from individuals who are not competently trained to treat individuals with psychological issues

Most school psychology degrees are offered by an education department within a university, and candidates earn either a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or doctor of education (Ed.D.) degree. School psychologists are specialists in the assessment and treatment of learning and behavior problems of children and young adults. While school psychologists are most commonly employed by school systems, they can also be found working in hospitals, universities, community mental health centers, and private practices. In some jurisdictions, it is possible for individuals to practice as a school psychologist without a doctoral degree. These individuals have earned an educational specialist degree (Ed.S.) and they can be called a school psychologist only while working in a school setting.

Programs in clinical and counseling psychology are offered through departments of education or psychology within a university. The most common degree for these programs is the Ph.D. However, the doctor of psychology degree (Psy.D.) is becoming more common. Historically, the major distinction between Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs is that the Psy.D. programs focus more on the development of clinical skills than on research skills. Ph.D. programs focus on training clinicians, but they also have a much greater emphasis on the development of research skills as well. While these distinctions between Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs in clinical and counseling psychology generally remain, there is variability in the amount of emphasis a program places on the science and practice of psychology within each degree. There currently are Psy.D. programs that require their candidates to complete a research-based dissertation, and there are Ph.D. programs that permit their candidates to complete clinical case studies in lieu of a dissertation.

Clinical psychology programs educate students on mental health assessment and treatment. Historically, clinical psychologists emphasized the assessment and treatment of individuals with chronic psychiatric conditions. While some clinical psychologists still specialize in working with individuals who have severe psychopathology, others have specialized in helping less impaired individuals deal with life crises and stages. Clinical psychologists work in a variety of settings, including academia, private practice, mental health centers, and hospitals.

Counseling psychology programs tend to emphasize training in psychotherapy and research methods. Counseling psychologists generally work with persons suffering from adjustment issues rather than severe psychopathology. These psychologists are often employed in academia, college counseling centers, community mental health centers, hospitals, and private practice.

Individuals who get degrees in clinical, counseling, or school psychology may then enter a subspecialty in psychology. Some common subspecialties include forensic psychology, health psychology, and neuropsychology.

Forensic psychologists work in a variety of settings as well. These individuals function as clinicians in corrections facilities, work as consultants to trial lawyers, serve as expert witnesses in jury trials, and formulate public policy regarding psychology and the law. Some forensic psychologists have a juris doctor degree (J.D.) as well as a degree in clinical or counseling psychology. There are some programs in the United States that offer concurrent programs, so that the individual can earn both degrees at the same time.

Health psychologists have specialized training in how psychological variables impact health promotion and disease prevention. These individuals are interested in how psychology contributes to the promotion and maintenance of healthy living and to the prevention and treatment of illness. Health psychologists design programs for individuals who wish to stop smoking, lose weight, decrease stress, or maintain physical fitness. These persons are employed by rehabilitation centers, public health centers, academia, hospitals, and private practice. Individuals who function as health psychologists who focus on the treatment of children are called pediatric psychologists.

Neuropsychologists have specialized training in neurology and psychology. Their practice emphasizes how brain disorders and trauma may be manifested in a client’s behavior, personality, and cognitive functioning. Neuropsychologists have developed various specialized assessment instruments that are intended to better isolate the likely region of brain dysfunction or differentiate between types of functional impairments that have resulted from brain impairments.

Finally, industrial-organizational psychologists, or I/O psychologists, are interested in the relationship between individuals and their work environments. These psychologists might work to increase workplace productivity while improving quality of life for the worker. Frequently, they play a role in personnel selection. I/O psychologists are employed by companies, businesses, government agencies, and academic settings.

Individuals can also obtain mental health doctoral degrees in fields that are outside of psychology. Two such fields are social work and counselor education. The Ph.D. is the most common degree for a doctorate in social work. Social work programs tend to take a broader, systematic perspective in helping individuals deal with emotional, health, and adjustment issues. These individuals are trained to help clients identify and qualify for various types of assistance. The entry level degree for social work is the M.S.W., so most individuals seeking a Ph.D. in social work are doing so because they want to work in an academic environment.

The same is true for individuals who obtain a doctorate in counselor education. Counselor educators can become licensed as professional counselors and work in a variety of settings (hospitals, mental health clinics, private practice) with a variety of clients (children, adolescents, couples, and families). Counselor educators can become licensed as LPC. Since the entry level degree for the LPC license is the master’s degree, most individuals seeking a Ph.D. in counselor education desire to work in an academic environment where they will specialize in training students seeking the MA degrees.


  1. Lloyd, M. A. (2002). Master’s- and doctoral-level careers in psychology and related areas. Available at
  2. Lloyd, R. R. (2006). A guide to psychology and its practice. Retrieved from

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