PhD in Counseling: Your Complete Guide to Selecting a Doctorate in Counseling

A PhD in Counseling is the highest degree available in the field. It takes between three and six years to complete and covers advanced coursework that prepares graduates to supervise and train other counselors. The key element of any PhD is the doctoral dissertation project, which involves writing about and presenting the findings of original research. A PhD in counseling qualifies graduates to work in advanced clinical practice, research, education, or in supervisory roles in the field.

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What Can You Do with a PhD in Counseling?

Should You Pursue a PhD After a Master’s in Counseling?

Calculating The Costs of PhD Counseling Programs

Doctorate in Counseling Coursework and Field Experience is Intense

Counseling Psychology Degrees are Not The Same as PhDs in Counseling

Different Types of Specialized Counseling PhDs To Pursue

A doctorate in counseling will take you directly to the highest levels of knowledge and expertise in the field. That means the whole counseling community – from practitioners out in the field to academics and research professors – look to that elite group for a higher level of understanding of the human condition and how to help people.

Counseling PhDs are involved in:

  • Groundbreaking Research in Counseling – Counseling is an evidence-based profession, and that evidence is usually developed by researchers who have learned their experimental skills through doctoral counseling programs. With dedicated training in experimental design, quantitative and qualitative analysis, and the ethics of human research, these are the experts that forge new paths in the practice of counseling.
  • High-level Treatment Options – When all the other options run out, when nothing you have tried is working, when your usual network of clinical contacts all shake their heads at your case, a doctoral graduate in counseling is who you turn to for ideas or a referral. The kind of specialist treatment they can offer is well beyond the level of care that a master’s-level graduate in counseling can provide, even after years of experience.
  • Clinical Supervision and Teaching – Counseling PhDs are uniquely designed so that every graduate also gets a dedicated course of instruction in training other counselors. Since all licensed clinical counselors are required to earn 2,000 or more hours of post-graduate supervised experience before licensure, this makes doctoral graduates in the field a key piece of the process of developing the next generation of clinical counselors. PhD graduates are also commonly hired as instructors in master’s-level counseling degree programs, working academically as much as clinically in the field.

Those skills and that respect don’t come easy, though. Earning a doctorate in counseling is serious business. You’ll be putting a lot of commitment and a lot of hours on the line to get there.

So what you have to ask yourself as you consider moving up to the next level is, what new sort of fulfillment and opportunities will it bring you?

What Can You Do with a PhD in Counseling?

Earning a counseling PhD unlocks new positions and new opportunities in practice, and also in academia.

Most PhD graduates are bound for positions in research or academia. When you went through your undergraduate program in counseling, or even a master’s program, most of your instructors probably had PhDs in the field. A doctorate is the traditional way to prepare for a career as a university professor or researcher in the field.

But modern counseling doctorate programs also expand your clinical and leadership skills. That can make a PhD key to becoming a leader and respected supervisor in clinical counseling. It’s also a path to developing trusted expertise in your area of practice, the practitioner that everyone in the region consults on hard cases or refers the most difficult clients to.

  • The Clinical Path – Pursuing advanced clinical training puts counselors in a position to solve problems that master’s-level clinicians can’t approach. This role can put you into leadership in mental health treatment organizations or as a trusted resource in your local counseling community, someone used for consultations and relied on to offer supervision to newly minted counselors.
  • The Academic Path – The academic world is founded in research, teaching, and experimentation. You can aim for a position teaching counselors at any level of college, or for a research position at non-profits or academic institutions. Many counselors taking the academic track also end up having real and heavy influence on public mental health policy issues. It’s a path to thought-leadership and influence on the larger world of counseling and mental health treatment.

Many PhDs in counseling follow a hybrid between clinical practice and academic research. Doctoral degrees in counseling also specifically prepare you to fill one of the most important roles in the field: clinical supervisor.

You underwent clinical supervision as you were learning how to become a counselor and then afterward, as you built up your practice hours to qualify for licensure. You probably looked up to your supervisor as a fearsome figure with incredible insight and almost telepathic understanding of clients. Many of those supervisors got those kind of advanced skills in the same way you can, by pursuing a PhD in counseling.

What Will a PhD in Counseling Do For Your Salary?

It’s harder to calculate what kind of salary bump you might get out of earning a doctorate in counseling. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is the go-to source for salary data for counseling professions. They do not specifically track that information against level of education, however.

For master’s-prepared counselors, it’s relatively easy to figure it out. That’s because a master’s is the minimum qualification level required for licensed professional counselors, so you know that just about everyone in that group also earned a master’s degree.

Some of them have also earned doctorates, but there is no real way to separate them out.

You can make a guess, though, that anyone who put the time and effort into getting a PhD is probably in the upper range of salaries for counseling professions. The BLS data for the top ten percent of earners in related counseling professions come in over the following rates:

  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors – $78,700
  • Rehabilitation Counselors – $66,180
  • School and Career Counselors and Advisors – $58,120

Many PhD grads also go on to academic pursuits. The median salary for postsecondary teachers, which is the category that college instructors fall in, is a cool $80,790 per year. Those in the top ten percent of the profession earn more than $180,360 per year.

Demand is jumping for college professors; BLS forecasts an increase of 9 percent between 2019 and 2029 for that profession, much faster than the average rate of growth.

If the higher salaries aren’t enough, consider the extra flexibility in positions that are available, too. You can take you career in any direction, landing on the top of the resume stack at any organization you apply with.

Should You Pursue a PhD After a Master’s in Counseling?

All of the respect and skills that come with a PhD sound great, but now it’s time to talk about what it takes to earn one. The price tag is steep, both in terms of time and money. Although you can expect a salary bump to come along with your new expertise, that’s probably not going to be your biggest motivation.

Instead, you’ll have to look inside. It wasn’t easy to earn that master’s degree you already have. You spent two hard years cracking the books, observing counselors in practice, and interning on the job, working with difficult cases and seeing people in real trauma.

More than likely, you also put in another two years of supervised clinical practice, more than 2,000 hours, qualifying for state licensure. Now you are eligible for, or already have, the ability to treat patients in independent practice.

As a practicing clinical mental health counselor, you are already doing a lot of good with the skills you have developed. You can also make a solid living anywhere in the country. Counselors are always in demand. There are many new opportunities and fulfilling jobs that a PhD can qualify you for, no question. But it’s a demanding process that will add years to your career path.

You might start by looking at what that process looks like and whether or not you have the time and qualifications to pursue it.

How Do You Qualify to Enroll in a PhD in Counseling Program?

Almost all PhD candidates in counseling come from extensive backgrounds as a professional counselor. That means they have already earned a master’s degree in counseling, and passed the rigorous state tests and qualifications to become licensed professional counselors (LPCs) or Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs).

That existing master’s degree is one important qualification you will need before you apply to a PhD in counseling program.

In most cases, you will need a master’s from a CACREP-accredited program to be considered for a PhD in counseling program.

In some cases, you may be required to take additional coursework upon admission. That’s particularly true if you don’t have that CACREP-approved master’s in your back pocket. Many schools also have a minimum GPA requirement that you must have earned at the master’s level.

The license to practice is also often a requirement. In most cases, that license will have to be current and in good-standing. Additionally, many schools will want to see your scores on the NCE (National Counselor Examination) or NCMHCE (National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination) that you had to take to qualify for licensure.

Some programs require you to submit scores from another test, the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). These usually have to be recent, so don’t count on using test scores from your master’s application. Also, you may be asked to submit writing samples of an academic nature, or to write an essay about your aspirations that the PhD can help you accomplish.

Multiple letters of recommendation and a current curriculum vitae are also par for the course in PhD application packets. The more impressive the recommendations, the better off you are, of course.

On top of all that, of course, you will face interviews with faculty members or the admissions committee. All these programs receive more applications than they have slots for enrollment. You need to have both the ambition and the brains to prove to those professors that you will take the opportunity they give you and do great things with it.

How Long Does a PhD in Counseling Take to Complete?

You can complete a PhD in counseling in somewhere from three to five years in most cases. Four years is typical for full-time study. Three is more accessible if you are in an accelerated pathway, and five or six isn’t unheard of if you are taking coursework on a part-time basis.

That period typically includes between 50 and 70 semester credit hours of coursework, along with several hundred hours of practicum and internship time.

Plenty of programs let you structure your schedule to meet your own needs. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of that.

There’s no one answer to how long it should take. By the time you have reached this point in your career, you may have professional obligations taking up your time. Maybe the reason you are aiming for your PhD is that you’ve already started supervising other counselors and want to up your game… but that supervision work takes time out of your schedule already.

Whether it’s family and the kids’ soccer practice or your current professional obligations, few doctoral students have the luxury of following a prescribed full-time academic schedule and completion times typically reflect that reality.

Specialty Accreditation Ensures First-Rate Education in Counseling PhD Degrees

You’re already familiar with CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. They are the outfit that put that big fat stamp of approval on your master’s in counseling program.

Turns out they also work at the doctoral level. There are 84 CACREP-accredited PhD programs in counseling in the United States.

CACREP treats their doctoral accreditation standards as an extension of their master’s-level requirements, so most of what they verify in PhD programs is very similar to what you saw at your master’s program.

The PhD program requirements sets additional standards for:

  • Admissions criteria
  • Knowledge evaluation
  • Minimum credit hours offered
  • Dissertation topics
  • Faculty standards
  • Practicum and internship hours

They also require a strong emphasis on teaching, leadership and supervision, and research. All of those are in line with the roles PhD graduates in counseling are expected to fill in the community.

What About the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council?

There is another specialty accreditor in the area of counseling—MPCAC, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. Although it’s smaller and newer than CACREP, there is some chance that you actually earned your counseling master’s degree from an MPCAC program.

If that is the case, you’re probably wondering whether or not you should look for a PhD program also accredited by MPCAC. But you would be looking for a long time… there aren’t any!

The clue is right in the name. It’s the MASTERS in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

The reason is that the folks behind MPCAC spotted a small gap in the accreditation and licensure program standards—although a master’s in psychology offered all the skills needed for counseling work, psychology programs are accredited by the APA (American Psychological Association)—but not at the master’s level. That made none of them easily accepted for counseling licensure by states.

MPCAC crosses the boundary, giving a counseling perspective on both counseling and psychology master’s programs that state licensing boards can rely on. But that’s not needed at the doctoral level, since there’s no additional licensing process involved.

What About Earning a PhD in Counseling Online?

Online counseling doctorate programs can take a lot of the sting out of the time and energy that a PhD requires.

Studying online offers you the kind of flexibility in your schedule that traditional programs have trouble matching. You can engage with professors and fellow students through email, class forums, or chat sessions any time. Zoom puts in the same virtual room when real-time connection is needed. Materials can be accessed any time, day or night.

That’s the kind of freedom you need if you are trying to hold down a job while you are studying, or if you have regular family commitments to meet. It’s no big deal to put on your scholarly cap after you put the kids to bed, or to sneak in some reading and Q&A on your lunch hour at work.

Other programs shoot for the best of both worlds by taking a hybrid approach to education. Professors and students may meet once or twice a quarter in person in weekend sessions that allow you to hold down a regular job while still getting the kind of face-to-face instruction and consultation that some people really need to grasp advanced concepts.

Either way, a PhD in counseling online, even if only partly online, can really make advanced studies accessible for people with both personal and professional obligations.

Another factor is location. With only 84 PhD programs with CACREP-accreditation in the country, the cities where you can earn this degree aren’t nearly as plentiful as they were at the master’s level. Many states don’t have a single PhD in counseling program—Texas, for some reason, has eight of them, but then the Lone Star state covers a lot of territory so that’s not as crowded as it seems—so the ability to attend remotely is a lifesaver for many students.

Calculating The Costs of PhD Counseling Programs

The precise cost of your PhD in counseling is going to vary based on the college you go to and how long it takes you to get through the program. Private schools are going to be more expensive, public schools a little less. Either way, you’re going to end up cutting checks that may be closer to what it cost for your undergraduate degree than for your master’s program.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) pegged the average cost for a year of graduate-level education at American colleges at $19,314 in 2019.

That figure covers tuition and fees, but not housing or other expenses. If you add it up for the three to five years a doctoral program typically takes, you can see that you are going to end up putting between $60,000 and $96,000 into your PhD.

That’s on top of opportunity costs, too. If you are pursuing a doctorate, you already have a master’s in counseling. It’s a pretty good bet you’ve also been in the field a few years and have a thriving practice going.

Although many people continue working through the course of their doctoral studies, you usually can’t keep up the same case load or hours that you could if you weren’t doubling up. That means leaving some money on the table in terms of salary on top of what you will spend on school itself.

Paying for a Doctoral Degree in Counseling: Loans Are the Most Common Financing Option for Counseling PhD Degrees

That salary may end up getting a big chunk taken out of it for a few years depending on how you end up paying for your tuition costs. Most people don’t have the kind of cash laying around to shell out more than $19,000 a year out-of-pocket.

That means either taking out loans or getting grants of some sort to help pay for it.

Again, unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’re probably already familiar with student loans. The federal government is the big player here—the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau calculates that more than half of all student loans are originated through the Department of Education. Much of the rest is goes through schools themselves, but is backed by the federal Perkins Loan program.

Interestingly, NCES data shows that while almost 70 percent of students use federal student loans to finance their undergraduate degree, only around 10 percent of graduate students do so. The amount borrowed is lower, also, with an average of $25,600.

That may suggest that your time in professional practice won’t be wasted if you use it to save up some of the tuition cost for your PhD, instead of relying on loans. It might also reflect the strong competition to get into PhD programs and the relative availability of scholarships and fellowships to those accepted.

Scholarships and Fellowships Offer Funding You Don’t Have to Repay

Doctoral students have often exhausted their options for federal grant money toward school tuition. The lifetime limit for the Pell Grant program is the equivalent of six years of full-time study. That was enough to get you through your bachelor’s program and maybe even cover you during your master’s studies. If you used it then, though, it’s going to have run empty by the time you apply to your PhD program.

On the other hand, there is another option that is more commonly offered to graduate students that you probably didn’t have access to as an undergrad. Those are fellowship programs.

A fellowship is a sort of scholarship, but one with more strings attached. Fellowships may or may not offer direct tuition grants. They are often offered for research funding, which can be an important part of your doctoral program. And they frequently have some service commitments, including pursuing specific research projects, serving as a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses, or participating in a specific internship.

The National Board for Certified Counselors Minority Fellowship Program is a good example of the kind counseling fellowship that could be available to you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funds up to 24 doctoral-level minority fellowships annually, in return for a two-year commitment of service in qualifying positions in high-need communities.

One good thing about fellowships is that they are usually demand-driven rather than needs based. That means you don’t have to qualify on the basis of your family’s financial status. You qualify based on your pursuits and competency.

Of course, traditional scholarships are still on the table for grad students. Those often do come with financial qualifications and often other kinds of qualifiers, such as ethnicity or the counseling specialization you are pursuing.

In both cases, competition is fierce at the doctoral level, so you’ll need to shine up your CV and work on your essay-writing skills. Recommendations from your grad school professors and professional associates won’t hurt, either.

Doctorate in Counseling Coursework and Field Experience is Intense

A PhD program is intense enough that you will usually only take one or two classes per semester. If that seems light, there’s a reason for it: you’re going to have to put all your brains and effort into those two courses just to get by.

The good news is that courses at the doctoral level are tuned in to your interests and ideas like you have never experienced before. It’s true you’re going to be getting a lot of data and learning a lot of things from your professors. But the course of study is often more of a collaboration than something dictated by the curriculum. Although you usually have very few elective options, it doesn’t matter as much since the core curriculum will be designed around your interests anyway.

Certain areas are required to be covered by CACREP standards for PhD in counseling programs. You can expect the specific topics of study in these areas to be tailored around your research and specialization, however.

  • Counseling Theory and Practice – These courses get right to the core of expertise in counseling skills. You can expect to undertake a scholarly examination of the theoretical basis of counseling treatment, and how those integrate with larger theories of human psychology and behavior. You will learn advanced evidence-based counseling practices, and study the ways in which that evidence is built and assessed. Extra time is spent on ethical and cultural aspects of counseling practice in modern, multicultural society.
  • Supervision – Many PhDs in counseling are actually titled “PhD in Counseling Education.” That’s because supervision is a huge part of the training of a professional counselor, and PhD programs are a key part of training the trainers. Courses here explore the roles and relationships involved in clinical supervision, oversight and personal skills you need to develop, and the administrative procedures and processes. Expect to spend a lot of time exploring the legal and ethical issues involved, preparing you to break them down to your supervisees.
  • Teaching – As an important part of the preparation for anyone looking to become an instructor in counseling, you will be taught pedagogy and instructional methods relevant to counseling. You’ll learn models of adult development and learning, and talk about the roles and responsibilities present in counselor education. Learning assessment and ethical and cultural considerations for the modern classroom are also taught here.
  • Research and Scholarship – Quantitative and qualitative research processes are taught along with the appropriate ways to design research for valid answers in those contexts. You’ll learn a bit about the models and methods of program evaluation, as well as cutting edge subjects in counseling research. You covered some of this in your master’s program, but at this level you’ll also dive into professional writing and editing for journals, and how to prepare professional conference presentations of your work. And you’ll go to the other side of the table, too, learning how to evaluate research proposals and standards for human experiment designs.
  • Leadership and Advocacy – Doctoral graduates are expected to be leaders in the field of counseling. It’s a learned ability, and you will study leadership roles and strategies, administration in counseling organizations, and how current topical and political issues are affecting the field. You’ll even learn about the accreditation standards and processes that lead to these studies!

To Cohort or Not to Cohort

A cohort was originally one of the ten divisions in a Roman legion, but today, it can refer to any group bonded by common purpose and and support. That makes it a strong model for intensive educational programs like PhD studies in counseling.

In the collegiate sense, cohort-driven programs are more than just those where you develop strong bonds with your fellow students. They are designed so that everyone in the group is admitted to the program at the same time and follows the same course progression through until graduation. It’s a way to keep everyone in lockstep, so your friends and fellows are always engaged in thinking about and working on the same things you are.

That drives real engagement and offers real support in a way that regular college classes don’t. But it does eat away at your flexibility, too. You have to follow the program. There’s no mixing it up with a different elective that interests you or delaying a class that doesn’t quite fit your schedule.

For anyone who thrives on working with a team and values the boost from fellow students, though, cohort models are a real find.

A PhD in Counseling Takes Field Experience To The Next Level

CACREP also dictates high standards in field experience for counseling PhD programs. You’ll go through special doctoral level internships and practicum placements.

  • Internships – A minimum of 600 clock hours in at least three of the five doctoral core areas listed above
  • Practicum – At least 100 hours, including 40 providing direct counseling services

Even though you’ve already undergone supervised field experience as part of your master’s program and on your path to licensure, this process will take your expertise to the next level. You already have all the basics down. In a doctoral field training placement, you’ll focus closely on high-level counseling work. Frequently, it will be aligned with your personal research interests and dissertation topic.

Dissertations Are The Big Difference in Doctoral Studies

It’s not just your field experience, either. Your entire doctoral program will revolve around your dissertation project. As a master’s student, you had to complete a thesis or capstone project in order to graduate. It probably seemed like a pretty big deal at the time, 40 to 80 pages of tightly-written, well-supported, explicitly-researched analysis and conclusions on a counseling topic of your choice. You probably felt pretty good about yourself when you successfully defended it in front of your thesis committee.

A dissertation project takes that basic format of research and writing to another level. In one way or another, almost your entire course of study as a doctoral student will revolve around formulating, researching, or writing your dissertation. When you’re done with it, you’ll have a publication-worthy piece of research and analysis that represents you own original thinking and interests in the field.

The dissertation is so important that at least part of your choice of school will probably revolve around finding a program where the right type of research is being conducted and the professors have the right kind of expertise to advise you in the project.

Counseling Psychology Degrees are Not The Same as PhDs in Counseling

As you are looking around at counseling PhD programs, your Google search is inevitably going to turn up a lot of results for programs in counseling psychology. It’s only one word difference. But it’s a very important word!

That’s because a PhD in counseling psychology is actually a psychology doctorate. It can take as much as two years longer to complete. And at the end of it, you’re not really studying the distinct, but related, field of counseling… you’re preparing yourself for a career in either clinical or academic psychology practice.

That’s not a particularly unusual course for counselors, however. Some people get their master’s in counseling and go into clinical counseling practice only to find that the mechanisms of the psychological issues they are seeing fascinates them. Counselors have a lane, and it revolves around practical, immediate intervention to get people’s lives back on track. That involves getting a handle on the issues that are causing the biggest problems today, and using standard therapeutic techniques to address them.

When run into deep-seated issues like schizophrenia, psychopathy, or psychosis, counselors have to refer patients out to psychologists. Counselor training, even at the PhD level, doesn’t equip you to get into that kind of deep analysis and therapy.

For some counselors, that’s not enough. They want to get in deeper, take the plumbing apart, see exactly what makes people tick and get to the root of the problem.

A counseling psychology degree takes you to the next level in clinical practice.

What Can You Do with a PhD in Counseling Psychology?

A PhD in counseling psychology sets you up to become a clinical psychologist, if you choose to go that route. In day-to-day terms, your practice may not even look all that different from what you performed as a counselor.

Psychologists follow a model of practice that is more medically-informed, incorporating a lot of the same diagnostic and clinical approaches you would find in medicine. They are more formally trained in research, and bring experimental design skills to their treatment practice. They’ll usually spend more time in assessment and work with more critical and complicated cases of mental illness than counselors.

Psychologists have all the same range of different specializations as counselors, but counseling psychology is usually considered its own concentration. You can still choose to work in different kinds of settings, from mental hospitals to private practice. You can also specialize in different types of trauma or patients, whether that means couples counseling or dealing in addiction treatment.

Although it’s definitely a longer and somewhat different course of study, it can be quite lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists earned a median salary of $82,180 in 2020. But a PhD in counseling psychology qualifies you to become a clinical psychologist, which BLS tracks in a sub-category. The median pay for that group is $105,780. Those in the top ten percent make more than $137,590 annually.

Should You Consider a Master’s and PhD Combined Program in Counseling Psychology?

Combined programs often don’t advertise as such, because many psychology PhDs are designed for students who are coming in fresh from their undergraduate degree program. In other words, you only need a bachelor’s degree to start in on a typical counseling psychology PhD.

That’s the typical path to becoming a clinical psychologist, and it’s one reason that counseling psychology PhD programs tend to be a couple years longer than a counseling doctorate.

So many counseling psychology PhD programs already include the coursework you need to earn a master’s, too. In some cases, they will just automatically grant you the master’s when you reach that level of the program.

There is another kind of combined master/doctoral program to be aware of in counseling psychology, however. Those are programs that offer the PhD in counseling psychology, but the master’s in a different field entirely.

This is useful for students who plan to keep a lot of plates spinning or want to specialize in a field of practice that benefits from additional master’s coursework from outside the field of psychology. For instance, a combined master of criminal justice/doctor of philosophy in psychology program gives you unparalleled expertise in dealing the the psychology of incarceration.

Different Types of Specialized Counseling PhDs To Pursue

Not all of these degrees will be found with exactly the title listed below. In most cases, colleges offering CACREP-accredited programs use the official title of Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision. Many of those programs, however, offer specializations in the subjects shown here, each of which can take your doctorate in a unique direction with highly specific skills in your area of interest.

PhD in Mental Health Counseling

This doctoral specialization really dives in to the practical clinical treatment skills that the community expects of a PhD-level counselor A mental health counseling focus will equip you with advanced therapeutic practice and research skills. Psychopharmocology and the implications of drug therapy for counseling are covered. You can expect to get cozy with the DSM 5 as you learn about advanced diagnostics and treatment modalities to cover every scenarios. You might also be able to find concentrations in areas like:

  • Grief counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Positive psychotherapy

PhD in School Counseling

It can be tough to tell when a PhD in counselor education is actually focused on school counseling. The specialization is sometimes listed, as with the others on this list, but more often the clue is that it is offered by the college’s School of Education. But these PhDs are among the most focused you can take at the doctoral level. They build up your core theoretical understanding of the complex relations between children, their families, and the education system. You will learn how to make effective interventions in this process with key practical skills. Special attention in human development in children and adolescents improves your empathy and understanding. You’ll also probably spend more time working in group counseling scenarios.

PhD in Guidance Counseling

Guidance counseling is closely related to school counseling as a PhD specialization, but usually is aimed more toward college-level work than the P-12 focus on school counseling. You will explore more appropriate levels of mental and psychosocial development, and also go into career and vocational counseling material. This kind of counseling also requires a high level of knowledge of academic processes and procedures, which is exactly what you will get in these programs.

PhD in Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse specializations, or addiction counseling as they are sometimes called, prepare you to help patients break the deadly cycle of addictions to both drugs and other harmful activities. That means you learn the same advanced clinical counseling and therapy techniques as any counseling PhD, but also specific training in addictive behaviors and intervention techniques that are needed in this field. Studies leading to a PhD in addiction counseling online are also popular.

PhD in Family Counseling

When looking for counseling doctoral degrees in family and couple specializations, you have to be careful… many of the degrees you will find in these area are not in counseling at all, but actually in marriage and family therapy, a related but separate discipline. Although the skillsets seem similar, the actual focus of counseling PhDs in family counseling continues to have a strong emphasis on research, education, and supervision as it related to treating family groups and couples. It’s a complex type of counseling practice that rewards the advanced training that a PhD program has to offer.

PhD in Trauma Counseling

Trauma and crisis counseling is a particularly difficult area for any counselor to specialize in, and it rewards the in-depth experience and research expertise that comes with a PhD. You will dive deep into the processes of grief and bereavement and study the latest techniques in bringing healing to survivors. This specialization can also extend into critical incident and crisis management, advising administrators and decision-makers on the best ways to handle disasters for long-term wellness. You may also find community counseling options here, learning how to craft public messaging for large groups that have experienced trauma.

PhD in Christian Counseling / Pastoral Counseling

Although the secular nature of modern scientific counseling doesn’t often reflect it, the profession of counseling owes a lot to the traditions of faith. Pastors and ministers were the go-to counselors for communities for thousands of years before scientific counseling showed up, finding practical and compassionate solutions to matters of both mind and soul. In these programs, you’ll learn what the modern conception of religious psychology look like and how to integrate scriptural approaches with evidence-based clinical treatments. You will sometimes also see these specializations listed as a PhD in biblical counseling.

PhD in Career Counseling

This specialty is related to guidance counseling, but is usually seen more in the context of rehabilitation counseling work. You’ll be lucky to find a PhD program that offers this as a specific course of study, but that’s the beauty of doctoral studies: if you find the right advisor and topics, you can take it in any direction you like. Extensive investigation and work in vocational education and counseling are the way to go here. You can explore new frontiers in injured worker rehabilitation work or find ways to offer insights to individuals in industries that are undergoing big changes through shifts in the global economy.

In any specialization, in any track of the many careers a professional counselor can take, there is room for the experience and expertise you can only get in a counseling PhD program. The field has a small but consistent need for people like you to step up and lead through this advanced education. You can build both your profession and your career with the skills you will get in these programs, and help both individuals and communities more than ever.


May 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job growth figures for Postsecondary Teachers, Psychologists, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, Rehabilitation Counselors, and School and Career Counselors and Advisors represents national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.

Tuition data provided by College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics, services of the U.S. Department of Education, using data collected for the 2019 school year. NCES loan and scholarship data comes from an April 2017 report published by the Department of Education.

Data Accessed July 2021.