Studying Counseling Psychology

Posted October 2019 by M.S. Broudy, B.A. English, B.A. Psychology; M.A. Social Psychology; Ph.D. Psychology; 7 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 11+. Questions on counseling psychology? Email Toni at:

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that counseling psychology “addresses the emotional, social, work, school and physical health concerns people may have at different stages in their lives, focusing on typical life stresses and more severe issues with which people may struggle as individuals and as a part of families, groups and organizations”. You may be thinking that this is a rather broad description and you would be right. But, counseling psychology provides services for a diverse population across the lifespan. It encompasses assessment and treatment for people of all ages experiencing a multitude of issues, including life transitions, vocational difficulties, and more severe mental health problems.

A Brief History Of The Development Of Counseling Psychology

The subject of counseling psychology was born out of the humanistic tradition that began after World War II. The theories of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow brought attention to the everyday struggles that contributed to people’s problems. As a result, many psychologists believed that psychology needed to emphasize mental health issues in “normal” people rather than focus on more severe psychopathology. Further, the aftermath of WWII brought a need for psychologists with different skills. In the early 1950s, The Veterans Administration created a new position—called “Counseling Psychologist (vocational)”—that highlighted the reentry of veterans to civilian life. This position had an education and vocational focus, which required a different emphasis than the traditional study of mental illness. Work at the VA helped counseling psychologists differentiate from the rest of psychology and form their unique niche. This was reflected by the change of APA division 17, known initially as the Division of Counseling and Guidance, to the Division of Counseling Psychology in 1951. Recognized as its own practice within psychology, formal training and research in the field of counseling psychology gained momentum. The first academic journal dedicated to counseling psychology, the Journal of Counseling Psychology, was created in 1954. Over the rest of the 20th century, counseling psychology came to reflect the study of individual strengths and holistic health while dealing with issues of diversity, social justice, and the potential of personal development.

How Does One Become A Counseling Psychologist?

Counseling psychologists go through four to six years of graduate training in order to obtain their Ph.D. They must gain admittance to an APA accredited counseling psychology doctoral program. They are trained in therapy, assessment, and research design. Besides academic learning, they must also participate in practical training, including a full-year internship. They are trained in research methods and an approved dissertation on a topic of their choice is also required.

Where Do Counseling Psychologists Work?

The short answer is that counseling psychologists, due to the flexibility of the field, can work wherever they want within the discipline of psychology. Depending on their specific training, they can provide services in almost any type of mental health setting, including hospitals, university counseling centers, and private practice. They can also perform research at a university or government-funded agency. Further, they can teach at the graduate and undergraduate college level. Much like clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists have numerous options from which to choose.

Counseling Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology

Speaking of clinical psychology, the two fields share considerable overlap. Those people that want to differentiate between the two types of psychology often have considerable difficulty finding the contrasts. In fact, some argue that the distinction between clinical and counseling psychology has become so negligible that they should merge into one field of study.

Having said that, psychologists often point to history and areas of emphasis as the main distinctions between counseling and clinical psychology. Present day differences are largely based in individual college programs rather than an overall view of the two types of psychology. For example, a counseling program may encourage the study of vocational interests, upholding the historical traditions upon which counseling psychology is based. Many psychologists, however, would say the following differences are largely theoretical rather than based on current practice:

Type Of Client

Although this is much less true than 50 years ago, counseling psychology has a stronger focus on healthy people with less severe mental illness. The creation of clinical psychology was largely based on behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory, which primarily studied psychopathology. Additionally, clinical psychologists have a history of treating serious mental health issues, dating back to when they began to replace psychiatrists as therapists.

Areas Of Focus

Speaking in generalities, clinical psychologists have preferred the study of psychopathological conditions, whereas counseling psychologists have studied vocation, minority issues, and cross-cultural psychology. This reflects the historical values of counseling psychology, with its focus on the struggles of non-pathologized individuals. In 1987, counseling psychology further clarified its mission at its annual conference in Atlanta; its focus was to be on methods to promote an individual’s strengths and coping abilities across their lifespan, rather than on mental illness.

Place Of Employment

Presently, clinical and counseling psychologists often work side by side in the same settings. However, a counseling psychologist is more often found providing counseling services at a university counseling center. A clinical psychologist more frequently works in hospitals and inpatient settings.

Training Emphasis

Clinical psychology programs tend to emphasize abnormal psychology training and external practicum experience more than counseling psychology. In contrast, counseling psychology programs focus more on multicultural training and holistic education. Additionally, you are more likely to find a psychoanalytic theoretical orientation in a clinical psychology program, while counseling psychology teaches more cognitive-behavioral methods.

Still confused? Joseph Hammer is a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky. If you are seeking more clarity between the similarities and differences between counseling and clinical psychology, please refer to his easy-to-read chart.

How To Choose Between Counseling And Clinical Psychology

Realistically, there is not much difference anymore between counseling and clinical psychology. Practically speaking, if students are choosing between the two fields, their decision will likely come down to the attributes of a specific school’s program and individual professors who will guide their study. For example, if you want to study a particular problem within psychology, one would do well to find a psychologist at a school who specializes in that area. If the offerings at said university also appear a good fit for your needs, then applying to it would make sense. Therefore, you are applying to work with a specific professor at a specific school rather than worrying about whether or not it is a counseling or clinical program.

The Future Of Counseling Psychology

The future of counseling psychology is under much debate. As it has evolved since the 1950s, it has become an almost mirror image of clinical psychology. It would be fair to ask what is the point of having two almost identical disciplines listed under separate fields of study? Although the practical differences are few, the original vision of counseling psychology remains. It is the study of optimal human functioning while coping with the realistic stressors of life. It emphasizes the person as capable despite struggling through life’s biases, hardships, and differences. It is a hopeful and helpful psychology in the face of the imperfections of the human condition. While the application of counseling psychology may have lost some of its uniqueness, the spirit of counseling psychology is alive and well.

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