If you want to help troubled individuals improve their lives, either counseling or psychology could be a great career path to pursue. While the work in these two fields may be similar in many ways, there are also a number of differences. When weighing their options, students should be aware of differences in the level of education you need to attain, the curricula of these programs, the focus of their career paths and their future salary potential.

Degree Level Needed

One of the biggest distinctions between counseling and psychology is the level of degree you need to practice in these fields. Some roles in behavioral disorder and substance abuse counseling are open to candidates with only an undergraduate degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, a master’s degree is necessary to become a licensed counselor in these fields or in the field of mental health counseling.

If you want to hold the title of psychologist, then you must earn your doctorate. Other roles, including licensed professional counselor, are available to graduates of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in psychology, but these professionals aren’t allowed to call themselves psychologists.

Students who earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology but don’t go to graduate school may work as a behavioral health technician or research assistant or may transition the versatile skills they learned in college into jobs in business, public affairs or education.

Curriculum Differences

One of the many ways to define counseling is as a process in which clients talk through their problems or feelings with an impartial listener who helps them gain insight into their behavior and emotions and identifies ways to cope with or address the situation. In a counseling degree program, the focus is typically on cultivating practical counseling skills rather than on conducting psychological research, mastering advanced concepts and theories or even learning about mental health assessment methods. Subjects of study might include human growth and development, cultural and multicultural issues, career guidance and contextual issues in counseling practices.

In psychology, doctoral students can choose between the Ph.D. in psychology degree or the Doctor of Psychology, or Psy.D., degree. The Ph.D. is traditionally a research-focused degree that requires students to write a lengthy dissertation based on their own original research. n the other hand, the Psy.D. degree is a clinical doctorate that focuses on developing practical skills instead of conducting psychological research, according to the BLS.

Both counseling and psychology degree programs emphasize supervised clinical experience gained through internships. While students learn important theories and practices in the classroom, they develop their most important qualities working with clients.

What Is the Difference Between a Counseling Degree and a Psychology Degree

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Career Focus

Counselors and psychologists both play a crucial part in providing mental health services, but they approach this objective from different viewpoints. Counselors tend to take a more holistic view of clients and their problems and treatment plans. They focus more on wellness, and on achieving mental and emotional wellbeing, as opposed to pathology.

For psychologists, the opposite is true. Psychologists have a background in studying thought processes and behavior. Clinical psychologists, especially, tend to focus more on the pathology of abnormal brain function and thought processes that lead to severe mental health disorders. Because science and research generally play a larger part in the study of psychology than they do in counseling programs, psychologists may focus more narrowly on mental health assessments and the symptoms of severe mental health disorders. Counseling psychologists bridge the gap between mental health counseling and clinical psychology somewhat, applying their understanding of thinking and behavior to the process of listening to and working with clients to find new ways to deal with mental health issues, trauma and stressful life events.

Counselors and psychologists may provide care to similar client populations. Generally, clients with severe mental health disorders, including psychosis, will see a clinical psychologist, while those with more “normal” problems are more likely to see a counselor. 

Earning Potential

When it comes to income potential, psychologists fare better than counselors. The median salary for psychologists is $79,010 per year, according to the BLS. Psychologists in other fields besides counseling, clinical, school and industrial-organizational command the highest wages, with a median salary of $100,770. For mental health and substance abuse counselors, the median wage is considerably lower, at $44,630 per year. The highest-paying industry for counselors, the government, pays a median salary of $51,690.

Psychologists earn more than counselors but have a less positive job outlook. The BLS expects jobs for counselors to increase 23 percent, or 60,300 new jobs. The 14 percent growth expected for psychologists will add just 23,000 jobs.

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