Coursework within a PhD in counseling program prepares students to counsel, diagnose and treat people with a variety of psychological issues or symptoms. It also requires the student to focus on a research area within the field, preparing them to become researchers, practitioners, educators or a mix of the three.

Who earns the PhD in Counseling?

Students who tend to earn the PhD in Counseling are those who are interested in becoming a counseling psychologist, a researcher in the field of counseling psychology or a counseling psychology educator. Sometimes, it’s a mix of two or three of those professions. Whichever of these professions a student is interested in entering will dictate which doctorate-level counseling psychology program he/she chooses.

Doctorate-level counseling psychology programs fall into two categories: PhD and PsyD. In general, PhD programs emphasize research as much as or even more than practice, whereas a PsyD program generally emphasizes practice over research. For this reason, some PsyD in Counseling Psychology programs replace a dissertation with field work. Both kinds of program still typically involve practica, internships and field work.

A doctorate-level counseling psychology degree is not required to become a counselor. Those interested in becoming a school counselor, a marriage therapist or another kind of licensed therapist could do so with just a master’s degree in the field (or in some cases even a bachelor’s degree). However, to open up your own practice or to teach at the college-level, a PhD or PsyD in Counseling Psychology (or another psychology area) is typically required.

Steps to get into a PhD in Counseling program

Although application requirements for counseling psychology programs vary, a lot of schools request the same kinds of materials. The following steps are typically required for admission into both PhD and PsyD in counseling psychology programs.

Letters of recommendations

Most programs will ask for three letters of recommendation. Often at least one of the letters must be from a previous faculty member the student worked closely with, ideally in the psychology field. A psychology practitioner is generally accepted as a referral source. Personal recommendations are rarely accepted.

Personal statements

The essay portion of these applications typically requires students to write about their backgrounds in counseling psychology (or just psychology in general) and why they’ve chosen to apply to the specific program.

A previous degree in psychology

Sometimes, a master’s in a psychology field is required for admission in a PhD or PsyD in Counseling Psychology program. Other times, a bachelor’s degree in psychology mixed with some clinical experience in the field will suffice.

Test scores

Official scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) are typically required. Its usually the general test scores they ask for, although some programs ask students to submit GRE scores from the psychology test as well. For students whose first language is not English, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is required.


Applicants are generally required to submit their resumes or curriculum vitae. This is because counseling psychology doctorate programs are looking for students with experience in the field and not just previous education.

A specific GPA

Usually, at least a 3.0 GPA in previous coursework is required for admission. This number varies. What doesn’t typically vary is the school asking applicants to have a minimum GPA.

PhD in Counseling Program Requirements

No two PhD in Counseling Psychology programs are exactly the same. But there tends to be similarities across programs, with all programs requiring a mix of research, coursework and clinical/field work. Here’s a sample of the program requirements that a student may come across in doctoral-level counseling psychology programs.

  • Students take 99 credits, including everything from clinical psychology courses to credits earned in professional practice fieldwork.
  • Completion of two sections of doctoral practica and a supervision practicum, to gain clinical training, on-site seminars and rigorous supervision.
  • Completion of a dissertation that must be defended orally.
  • Completion of various assessments to demonstrate knowledge within different areas of clinical psychology, including a comprehensive assessment.
  • Completion of a pre-doctoral internship in the field of counseling psychology.

Counseling psychology doctoral programs may differ in how they mix coursework with on-site trainings (via practica and internships), but generally any PhD or PsyD in Counseling Psychology program will include both — in addition to a dissertation. A master’s degree is sometimes completed within the program. Four to five years is the average completion times of these kinds of doctoral programs.

Goals of the PhD in Counseling

The main goal of a PhD or PsyD in counseling psychology program is typically to prepare students for careers in counseling psychology, either as a practitioner, researcher or educator. Of course, that incorporates a lot of goals into one. Here’s a sample of goals and objectives you may expect to find in a PhD in Counseling Psychology program:

  • Demonstrate core foundational knowledge and skills essential for the professional practice of counseling psychology in a variety of settings and populations.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of professional ethics and standards of psychological practice, teaching and research.
  • Demonstrate the ability to contribute to the field of psychology via grounded research methods and practices.
  • Gain a working knowledge of the science of psychology and strength-based interventions. Gain eligibility to take the Clinical Psychologist licensure examination.

Each program has varied goals, but generally prepare students for ethical, diverse, grounded careers in counseling psychology.

PhD in Counseling program description

Whether it’s an on-campus program or an online program, many PhD counseling programs have similar requirements. These programs typically take 4-6 years to complete. Students should plan to start with coursework, as they brainstorm dissertation topics with their advisors. Practica and field work, which give students hands-on experience in the field, are sprinkled throughout the program. The last couple of years blend coursework, fieldwork and writing the dissertation.

Faculty in both campus and online PhD counseling programs are either current practitioners in the field or previous practitioners. They’re often engaged in academic research within the field. Students typically choose professors engaged in the type of research they’re interested in to be their dissertation advisors.

Before students finish their PhD counseling program, a one-year internship in the field and the passing of a comprehensive exam is usually required. The internship specifically is a required to become a licensed psychologist after graduating.

Counseling PhD coursework

Counseling psychology PhD and PsyD programs include a mix of coursework, research and field work. Much of the program is spent working on the dissertation and gaining on-the-job training via practica and an internship. But there are also many prerequisite, core and elective courses that must be taken, mostly earlier in the program.

Here’s a sample of courses you may expect to take in a PhD counseling program:

  • Lifespan Development
  • Introduction to Psychopathology
  • Biological Basis of Behavior
  • Psychological Testing
  • Theories of Psychotherapy
  • Ethics and Standards of Professional Practice
  • Research Methods
  • Group Counseling

Coursework will typically be separated by prerequisites, core requirements, electives, practica, internship and dissertation. Specialties are usually explored in the dissertations, with the classes preparing students for a more general career as counselors or psychologists (in private practice or academia, most often).

The first couple of years of this traditionally 4-5 year program include more coursework than research or field work. The last two or three years include more research and field work. Toward the end, students spend much of their time working on their dissertations.

The Online PhD Degree in Counseling

How the Online Program Works

Being a counselor is very hands-on. It requires a bunch of in-person interactions as you help guide people through an array of issues.

Here’s how it works online:


Coursework for online PhD in counseling programs can be completed anytime, anywhere. Often, lectures are delivered in video format, sometimes even from live broadcasts of the in-person class. Students typically engage with each other and professors via discussion forums, email and sometimes even video conferencing. Exams are typically timed, and can be completed anytime, although some may require the presence of a proctor or have a set time.

Hybrid Programs

Some PhD counseling programs have an on-campus portion. These are referred to as “hybrid programs,” which may require campus intensives. These intensives could be just once a year, for a week or two at a time, or could be more frequent. While on campus, students do a lot of work in a small amount of time, to maximize the experience.

Face-to-Face Opportunities

Even though coursework may be completed online, PhD in counseling programs have in-person aspects. Students typically complete practica and internships in their own cities or towns. Often, a faculty member will supervise these from afar. So in this sense, online students gain as much hands-on experience as on-campus students.

Online Student Support

Many online programs offer students a lot of the same services as on-campus students. These range from access to a 24/7 IT help desk to academic advising.

PhD in Counseling Q&A

Since an online PhD in counseling takes up so much time and energy, it’s important to get your questions answered ahead of time. Here are a few answers to some of the most common questions regarding online PhD in counseling programs:

Do I ever have to do work at a scheduled time?

Most online PhD in counseling courses don’t require students to complete work at a specific time. Some may require exams to be taken at a certain time or in the presence of a proctor, which would require being somewhere at a specific time. But this is not typical. Field work — internships and practica — will have scheduled work times, at least for the in-person portion.

Is the academic quality the same?

Many doctorate-level counseling programs boast offering the same quality to online students as they do on-campus students. This is often largely due to the coursework being the exact same. Lectures from in class are filmed; the books are the same; the faculty members are the same; etc. The main difference is where students complete the coursework, which comes down to a preference.

How do I collaborate with instructors and other students?

Many online PhD in counseling programs require students to have discussions in online discussion forums. Students can post in these forums whenever they want. Other common forms of communication in these online programs are email and video conferencing (through programs like Skype). Hybrid programs even include brief on-campus intensives, where students take courses on campus for a few days or weeks out of the year.

Are online PhD in counseling psychology programs recognized by the APA?

There are currently no fully online PhD programs in any specialization of psychology that are accredited by the APA. This could change and the APA is not the only accrediting body out there. Students can still earn respectable online degrees in counseling psychology. There are, however, hybrid programs accredited by the APA, which are mostly online with brief campus visits throughout the year.

How Online Programs Provide Real-World Experience

Online PhD counseling programs don’t remain purely online. Since it’s such a hands-on degree program, much of the program — even if it’s offered entirely online — includes in-person interactions. Here are a few ways online PhD counseling programs provide that.


In their local areas, students in online PhD counseling programs complete a practicum (or multiple ones), which consists of working directly in the field. These are typically done under the supervision of a faculty member and on-site supervisor. It’s both a mentorship and hands-on work experience in the field of counseling.

Supervised Internships

Supervised internships are a requirement in nearly every PhD in counseling program, and required to become a licensed psychologist. At on average one year long, internships are typically longer than a practicum and include more responsibilities (similar to that of a job). Still a learning experience, these internships include supervision from whomever is deemed the internship coordinator.

Academic Residencies

Some online PhD counseling programs (specifically hybrid programs) include academic residencies. These last anywhere from a weekend to a couple of weeks at a time, where students come to campus and spend many hours a day in lectures and gaining hands-on experience. A lot of credits are typically completed during these brief intensives. The rest of the program is done entirely online.

Finding the Right Online PhD in Counseling Program

Narrowing down the right PhD in counseling program may prove difficult, since there are so many excellent programs out there to choose from. Here are some things to consider when trying to choose a program:


It’s important to choose a program that has faculty members with counseling experience. Ideally, faculty members who are still practitioners, but at least ones who were once practicing psychologists or counselors.

Another reason faculty is so important is your dissertation. You should choose an online PhD counseling program that has a faculty member involved in the kind of research you may want to explore in your dissertation. This person can be your advisor.


Try to land financial aid (scholarships, grants, loans) but also know what you can afford. If one school costs $20,000 a year, that will land you a bill of upwards of $100,000. Shop around. Know your options. Talk to the financial aid office. Also, know the average salaries the type of counselor you want to be makes, to weigh if a specific program is worth the cost of attendance.


Find a format that suits you best. Have a sporadic work schedule or need to travel a lot? A fully online program could be for you. Or maybe a hybrid program, which gives the best of both worlds in the form of both online courses and on-campus intensives, works best. Consider your schedule and how best you learn and choose the best format accordingly.


What did alumni from the program go on to do? Is it what you want to go on to do? Looking at a school’s alumni gives you a peak into what the degree program can accomplish for you, which is vital.


Looking into if the school is accredited, what awards it has won, where it ranks, how it’s viewed in the field and what students think of the experience — can help determine if it truly is the right program to enroll in.

Resources Counseling Students

Here are 10 scholarships, fellowships and otherwise-helpful resources for students who are looking to pursue a doctorate in counseling: