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.

Should I Become 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. The following table summarizes the requirements for becoming a counseling psychologist.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Ph.D. or Psy.D.
Degree Field Counseling psychology
Licensure 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 1-2 year internship is required in order to qualify for licensure
Key Skills Good communication skills and analytical skills; instructional skills for university positions
Salary $74,030 (Annual mean salary for a counseling psychologist)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2014), O*Net Online

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 then document their progress. This type of experience also gives 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

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.

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 should also work on 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 (

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 ( A specialty certification may not only advance your career but also might make you worth a higher salary.

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