Counseling psychology is an area of professional psychology with strong ties to positive psychology.
It is a non-pathologizing, strengths-based approach that can help clients thrive.
Although counseling psychology has existed for more than a century, it is perhaps less well known and understood than other disciplines such as clinical psychology.
In this post, we explain what counseling psychology is, how you can pursue training in it, and what it looks like in action.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Counseling Psychology?
- A Job Description
- 2 Popular Theories of Counseling Psychology
- 2 Examples
- A Look at the Research
- Useful Interview Questions for Your Sessions
- Training in Counseling Psychology
- 3 Programs, Courses, and Online Options
- Master’s and Doctorates in Counseling Psychology
- 3 Books on the Topic
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Counseling Psychology?
A simplistic way to define counseling psychology is in contrast to clinical psychology. Many psychologists working as therapists are trained in one of these two disciplines.
Counseling and clinical psychologists work side by side, performing many of the same tasks. Clinical psychologists work from a more psychopathological perspective, serving those with persistent or serious mental illness.
Although counseling psychologists have training with these populations, they are more likely to work with clients on developmental or career issues (Roger & Stone, n.d.).
Counseling is one of the oldest disciplines in professional psychology, originating in 1900 (Society for Counseling Psychology, n.d.). Although we typically think of psychologists as working with mental illness, the early counseling psychologists worked primarily with mentally healthy individuals, providing vocational guidance and life advice.
Today counseling psychologists are less specialized, conducting therapy for clients with all types of issues. They work in a variety of settings, including university counseling centers, hospitals, and independent practices. Others work in academic settings, as professors, teachers, and researchers.
Many counseling psychologists keep a focus on vocational issues, working as career counselors or in human resources. Wherever counseling psychologists work, they help their clients live healthy lives.
A Job Description
Counseling psychologists often work as therapists in an independent practice.
These psychologists are business owners who can work online or in a physical office, using a variety of different theoretical orientations.
They may provide mental health diagnoses or retain the non-pathologizing stance of their training discipline. They usually charge hourly for their sessions and may or may not accept insurance.
Counseling psychologists can also work in university counseling centers. Their work has some similarities to those in independent practices, since the bulk of their job is seeing clients for therapy sessions. The content of these sessions can differ from those in independent practices, as some time will be spent discussing academic issues, such as study habits and class selection.
Career counseling is another area in which counseling psychologists work. As psychologists, they are qualified to give any number of aptitude tests and psychological assessments. They may work with younger people who are looking for direction or people who are transitioning into another career.
They help clients identify their strengths, find the roles that would give them meaning, and then go through the process of applying, interviewing, and landing the dream job.
Counseling psychologists may also be called upon to share their expertise with those in other industries. For example, they may lead a seminar for university professors about how to talk to students about suicide. This is a form of consulting, in which the psychologist shares their psychological knowledge with those who can use it, such as those in business or marketing.
2 Popular Theories of Counseling Psychology
Counseling psychologists work from many popular approaches. Two popular theories that counseling psychologists use in therapy are attachment theory and psychodynamic theory.
Attachment theory posits that early interactions with caregivers during times of threat or uncertainty form the basis for affect regulation, relationship building, and self and other representation in adulthood (Bowlby, 1969). It is a theoretical lens that many counseling psychologists use to understand their clients’ behavior in relationships.
Counseling psychologists use this theory to understand all types of client behaviors, including their willingness to seek treatment, self-efficacy, and psychological wellbeing (Cheng, McDermott, & Lopez, 2015; Zamudio, Wang, & Jin, 2020). Attachment theory helps the counseling psychologist apply knowledge of the client’s childhood experiences to inform treatment and their view of the client.
Psychodynamic therapy is a collection of modern clinical techniques that stem from Freud’s original psychoanalysis. Psychodynamic therapists focus on helping their clients understand their past in novel ways. They are attuned to unconscious processes and listen for what their clients may leave unsaid.
Similar to attachment theory, psychodynamic theory values information about early childhood experiences and relationships. It differs from attachment theory because it does not prescribe different ways of relating based on a set of experiences.
To illustrate what counseling psychologists do, it is helpful to look at practical examples.
What follows are hypothetical scenarios in which counseling psychologists might find themselves.
In a human relations setting, the vocational guidance skillset of counseling therapists is very useful. We all know that work life is not separate from real life. If a counseling psychologist is working in a company and an employee is going through grief, they may be called in to help.
In this scenario, the counseling psychologist would not perform therapy because of ethical boundaries but may triage the client, having a brief conversation with the employee about their experience. They can then make a recommendation that they go to therapy or take a leave of absence, for example.
Likewise, the counseling psychologist may be called upon to create a program to acknowledge grief in the workplace and provide easy access to resources for struggling employees.
Higher education adjustment
Counseling psychologists working in university counseling centers often see students having difficulty adjusting. This can be for many reasons including homesickness, academic issues, or problems with drugs and alcohol. These psychologists usually see students who are in their office by choice, but depending on the university policy, they may also see students who are required to be there.
This was my experience at a college counseling center. We were often sent students who had been to the hospital because of an alcohol-related experience. Part of their reintegration at the school was speaking with a counselor about what happened. My job was to perform an assessment for an alcohol problem and a recommendation about next steps, such as whether they needed more counseling or if they were okay to return to class.
A Look at the Research
Counseling psychology is responding to the social forces of today and is producing more and more research about multiculturalism and social justice (Singh, 2020; Vera & Speight, 2003).
Counseling psychologists are looking for ways to expand their influence outside of the therapy room, using the clinical skills and knowledge of systems to effect real social change. Researchers have also been working toward racial equity by directing their efforts toward minority populations (Zamudio et al., 2020)
At the same time, counseling psychology research is also looking inward, analyzing itself as a field to understand the theories that lead to successful clinical work, including humanistic, behaviorist, psychodynamic, and brief therapies (Amari, 2020; Hill, 2012).
This is a pursuit that has been present in the field for the past few decades (Bordin, 1980), as counseling psychologists look to bolster their identity as a field, refine their approach, and develop evidence to support their work with clients.
Useful Interview Questions for Your Sessions
A counseling psychologist sometimes plays the role of interviewer, especially in the beginning sessions of a therapy engagement.
If you are a counseling psychologist, the following interview questions can help you gather important information right from the start. If you are simply interested in counseling psychology, these questions provide a window into the work.
Have you been to therapy before?
This is one of the most useful questions to ask. If the client has been to therapy, it will be helpful to learn about their experience. You want to know what they were in treatment for, when it occurred, how long it lasted, and why it is no longer ongoing.
You also find out what they liked and disliked about therapy, and about their therapist. This will give you some preliminary idea about what works for this client and what puts them off.
If someone is coming into therapy, it is likely for a problem that has stuck around, something that they could not solve or overcome on their own. It is important to understand why they are starting therapy now.
Asking a form of this question brings attention to the present moment and helps you build the context for what is happening in the client’s life.
What in your life is most important?
This question helps you to get at your client’s values. Understanding what the client values will help give you an idea of what they are working toward, why they have taken the step to enter therapy, and hopefully how you can improve their lives.
It is important to establish this understanding early in treatment, to ensure you are on the same page as the client about what they want.
Training in Counseling Psychology
Training in counseling psychology usually happens within a graduate program. We’ll get into these programs in a bit, but learning about how counseling psychologists train is useful for those interested in this career.
Training in counseling psychology comprises three components: coursework, fieldwork, and research. Coursework is like any university experience. Classes are often taught in lecture or discussion format and focus on specific areas such as psychological assessment or systems theory.
Fieldwork is an important part of this training, since counseling psychologists get to work as therapists before they graduate. They learn through supervision, working under senior psychologists who oversee their work. Fieldwork can take place in a variety of different settings and places that counseling psychologists can work as therapists.
Supervision is the main process through which counseling psychologists in training hone their skills.
Lastly, counseling psychologists are also trained as researchers, and their degree programs often culminate in an independent research project such as a thesis or dissertation. Even if these students never hold a research position, creating a project and writing up a research document help them understand how knowledge is generated in their field.
3 Programs, Courses, and Online Options
Before you can pursue graduate training in counseling psychology, you will first need a bachelor’s degree.
It may not be necessary that your bachelor’s be in psychology, but it will certainly be a good start if you study psychology as an undergraduate.
A bachelor’s in psychology can be completed online. Here is a list of online bachelor’s degrees in psychology.
Many master’s degrees are research focused. If you are looking to become a therapist, it is important that you understand the specific program’s offerings. You may be able to go right from your bachelor’s to your doctorate, depending on your location and the program.
There are many options for master’s degrees in clinical psychology available online; check out this list of programs.
Doctoral programs provide the most specific training in counseling psychology. If you are looking to complete a doctoral program in the United States, it is important that it be an accredited program, which means that it meets the standards of the American Psychological Association (APA) as being fit for licensure.
Also examine this list published by the Division 17 of the APA: The Society for Counseling Psychology.
Master’s and Doctorates in Counseling Psychology
Master’s and doctorates in counseling psychology are the most typical ways that counseling psychologists train. The doctoral degree is of particular importance for counseling psychologists in the United States and Canada, since these countries require a license to practice, and a doctoral degree to receive the license.
Master’s degrees typically take two years to complete. They may or may not provide field experience and, depending on the program, could be more focused on research than clinical practice. Doctoral degrees typically take 5–7 years to complete. The PhD is more research focused, preparing graduates to enter the field of academia as professors or researchers.
The PsyD is more clinically focused, preparing graduates to enter the field as well-trained therapists. Both types of programs usually end with an internship component.
Both types of degrees can provide specialist or generalist training. For example, some programs may focus on couples and families, others may focus on working in schools, and others give an overview of many areas.
If you are looking to understand a potential program’s offerings, check out the list of faculty provided on its website. If there is a professor with a specialty that you admire or desire, consider reaching out to them and asking some questions about how you could work with them.
Wherever you live, it is important that you ensure that the program you are interested in will provide you with the qualifications that you need to practice where you are located.
3 Books on the Topic
If you are interested in learning more about counseling psychology, look no further than these three books:
1. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients – Irvin D. Yalom
This book is not about counseling psychology, but rather therapy itself. Irvin D. Yalom paints an intimate portrait of what it is like to work with clients.
He provides advice and wisdom that can be useful for therapists at any stage of their careers or those with a preliminary interest in the field (Yalom, 2002).
Find the book on Amazon.
2. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy – Carl R. Rogers
Carl Rogers, founder of client-centered therapy, is one of the most important figures in the history of counseling psychology.
In this book, he shares insights gathered while working with clients over the course of a long career.
His most important piece of advice: Do not try to change your client. Instead, build a supportive relationship that the client can use to jumpstart their own growth (Rogers, 1995).
Find the book on Amazon.
3. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel van der Kolk
This book is about trauma, how the body holds trauma, and how trauma can color the perceptions of one’s everyday life.
Counseling psychologists, although they may deal with mostly healthy people, still encounter trauma in many of their clients.
This book will help you understand trauma therapy and, if you are a clinician, give you a new perspective on how to work with trauma (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Find the book on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
Counseling psychology is an exciting field, constantly being updated and with a long and interesting history. Since its creation in 1900, the field has evolved from a mostly career counseling niche area to a discipline that produces some of the best therapists working today.
If you are looking to become a therapist, consider pursuing this discipline through graduate training. Training in counseling psychology will put you at the top of the hierarchy in terms of clinical skill once you graduate.
If you are just dipping a toe into this arena, try reading one of the above books or seeing a therapist who is trained in counseling psychology. These steps might inspire you to get training of your own.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Amari, N. (2020). Counseling psychology practice as the pursuit of the I–Thou relationship. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(4), 410–426.
- Bordin, E. S. (1980). A psychodynamic view of counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 9(1), 62–70.
- Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. Basic Books.
- Cheng, H. L., McDermott, R. C., & Lopez, F. G. (2015). Mental health, self-stigma, and help-seeking intentions among emerging adults: An attachment perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 43(3), 463–487.
- Hill, C. E. (2012). Shopping around for theories for counseling psychology practice: Reaction. The Counseling Psychologist, 40(7), 1061–1069.
- Roger, P. R., & Stone, G. (n.d.). Counseling psychology vs. clinical psychology. Society of Counseling Psychology – American Psychological Association Division 17. Retrieved January 20, 2021, from https://www.div17.org/about-cp/counseling-vs-clinical-psychology/
- Rogers, C. R. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.
- Singh, A. (2020). Building a counseling psychology of liberation: The path behind us, under us, and before us. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(8), 1109–1130.
- Society for Counseling Psychology. (n.d.) What is counseling psychology? Society of Counseling Psychology – American Psychological Association Division 17. Retrieved January 20, 2021, from https://www.div17.org/about-cp/what-is-counseling-psychology/
- Vera, E. M., & Speight, S. L. (2003). Multicultural competence, social justice, and counseling psychology: Expanding our roles. The Counseling Psychologist, 31(3), 253–272.
- van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
- Yalom, I. D. (2002) The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. HarperCollins.
- Zamudio, G., Wang, C. D. C., & Jin, L. (2020). Adult attachment, social self-efficacy, familismo, and psychological wellbeing: A cross-cultural comparison. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(7), 922–952.