Doctorate in Counseling Online

Earning a doctorate in counseling online prepares graduates for a variety of promising and reputable professions, like psychologists, sociologists, and teachers; however the direction a career path takes often depends on the type of degree obtained. While some schools offer minor variations and different specializations that can impact a student's learning outcomes, the primary options for doctorates in counseling include a Ph.D. and Psy.D. in counseling.

The major difference between these degrees comes from the program's focus: either clinical or research. In a research-based Ph.D. program, students dedicate a substantial amount of time to research for a dissertation. Conversely, in Psy.D. programs, students focus more on clinical work. The following guide covers these degrees in more detail, outlining what programs may look like and what career opportunities students can look forward to.

Should I Earn an Online Doctorate in Counseling?

Pursuing a doctorate in counseling online provides students access to a variety of personal and professional benefits. While every learner pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling does so for their own reasons, the degree and profession offers some general positives.

Financial security represents one of the major reasons people earn a doctorate in counseling online. Many of the careers available to these graduates come with attractive salaries. For example, psychologists make an annual median salary of nearly $80,000. In the top 10% of the profession, psychologists make nearly $130,000 annually.

Earning a doctorate in counseling online prepares graduates for careers with strong projected growth. As mental health awareness increases and we place more emphasis and importance on psychological treatment, the outlook for psychologists, counselors, and related professions also stands to increase. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected growth for these professions is 14% between 2016 and 2026 -- double the average growth of all positions in the U.S.

For many professionals in counseling-related careers, the ability to help others represents one of the major driving forces. While many psychologists and counselors work directly with patients to treat a variety of disorders, those on the scientific research and academic sides of the field also make a difference. The more society understands mental health, the better and more effective treatments can become.

For most counseling doctoral graduates, career options and flexibility constitute major reasons for choosing the field. In the psychologist profession alone, students can pursue careers in clinical psychology, counseling, forensic psychology, school psychology, and rehabilitation psychology. An advanced degree also allows graduates to move into other disciplines or industries, increasing their opportunities even more.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Counseling?

Long before graduating with a doctorate in counseling online, students should start to plan their career. Many of the choices made at school impact a student's career options later on. While graduates can make adjustments and changes at any point, learners should consider what industry, career setting, and specific career type they find appealing.

Graduates can find employment in a variety of career settings. Many industries seek out these highly trained professionals, including the government, the education sector, and healthcare organizations. According to the BLS, 27% of psychologists work in elementary and secondary schools as school counselors. Meanwhile, 24% are self employed, 18% work in ambulatory services, 10% work in the government, and 7% work in hospitals.

Coursework and program focus both play a major role for students looking to become counselors or psychologists. Clinical psychologists, for example, often require knowledge of mental health and behavioral disorders, whereas forensic psychologists require an understanding of the legal system. Moreover, developmental and school psychologists and counselors should acquire some training working with children.

In the field of academia, graduates earning a doctorate in counseling online can pursue careers in teaching, research, or some combination of the two. Most students interested in this path choose to earn a Ph.D. in counseling rather than a Psy.D. A Ph.D. provides substantial research experience and allows students to gain teaching experience.

Though the above options constitute the most direct careers in the field, graduates with a counseling doctorate can also apply their skills to other industries and careers. In addition to positions that typically require less education than a doctorate, like career counselors, family therapists, and sociologists, graduates may explore analyst or consulting roles or use their skills in top executive positions.

Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologists evaluate, diagnose, and treat various psychological issues. These professionals typically work in clinics or hospitals, though the setting can vary depending on a professional's specialty. For employment in most states, psychologists require a doctorate in counseling or a related field, along with licensure.
Counseling Psychologist
Counseling psychologists help patients understand and manage behavioral, mental, and/or emotional health disorders. These professionals typically work in the healthcare industry, but they may collaborate with other professionals in various industries. While some counseling psychologists possess a bachelor's or master's degree, states may require candidates to earn a doctorate for licensure.
School Psychologist
School psychologists work within or for school systems, helping students and their families manage education or developmental disorders. A master's degree generally serves as the minimum requirement for state licensure; however, a doctorate may provide easier access to this career and other benefits.
Forensic Psychologist
Forensic psychologists work within the legal field. They often interview and evaluate patients for legal purposes. They may also provide expert opinions in cases or consult with legal experts. For employment in this field, most states require graduates with a doctorate in counseling or a related field, plus state licensure.
Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers provide instruction in colleges and universities in their area of expertise. Teachers may also design lesson plans and curricula. Additionally, these professionals often engage in research and publish scholarly work. To pursue a postsecondary teaching position, candidates typically require a doctorate.

Counseling Ph.D. Program Overview

Pursuing a counseling doctoral degree can seem daunting for aspiring students; however, once broken down, the process becomes more manageable. The following section outlines some of the different degrees available, along with the standard application process, sample courses, and possible outcomes.

Types of Doctoral Degrees in Counseling

When it comes to degree types, counseling offers two primary choices at the doctoral level: a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. A Ph.D. program typically focuses more on research, whereas a Psy.D. emphasizes clinical work. Depending on the school, program, and student, these two degrees may offer similar curricula and career prospects, but they usually feature significant differences. The following information serves to highlight those differences.

Each program features its own curriculum, but some standard differences typically exist. Ph.D. programs often require significant research and the completion of a dissertation. Though some Psy.D. programs also include a dissertation requirement, many substitute this with a research project. Psy.D. students dedicate the bulk of their time to clinical practice.

Many course requirements also differ between these degrees. In a Ph.D., students take more courses related to research and teaching, like methodologies and statistics, along with electives that complement a student's area of research. Conversely, in a Psy.D. program, students generally take more core courses, along with practice application courses. In total, Psy.D. programs typically take 4-6 years to complete, whereas Ph.D. programs take 5-7 years.

When choosing between these two degrees, students should consider their career goals. Since a Ph.D. emphasizes research, this degree typically leads to a career in research or academia. Conversely, the clinical emphasis of a Psy.D. often leads to a career in clinical work. As such, students in a Ph.D. program take more teaching assignments and Psy.D. students complete longer clinical internships.

Application Requirements and Admission Criteria

The application process varies considerably by school and program, but students should expect to encounter many of the following requirements. First, applicants typically must possess a master's degree and demonstrate a strong academic background, such as a 3.0 GPA or higher. While some schools accept students from various undergraduate disciplines, many programs request counseling degrees or prerequisites. Applicants may also need to submit GRE or GMAT scores.

Schools may also request letters of recommendation from an applicant's former teachers or employers, along with a personal essay. While letters of recommendation address a student's capabilities and potential in counseling, personal essays can be used to accomplish various things. Some schools ask that these letters address a student's experiences and qualifications for the program, while others want students to describe their interest in the program. Additionally, programs often request face-to-face interviews with candidates.


Program requirements depend on the school and degree offered. However, the standard Psy.D. curriculum includes the core program, clinical work, a research project, and electives. Alternatively, a Ph.D. breaks down into requirements related to the core, electives, and research/dissertation components.

In a Psy.D. program, students typically complete a minimum of 30 credits in the core. In addition to psychology and counseling courses, core coursework may cover clinical experience classes, which can top 1,000 clock hours. These programs also include about 15 credits of electives and 15 credits for research and the research project.

A Ph.D. program typically features fewer core credits but more electives. This allows students to craft a curriculum that benefits their research. To prepare for their dissertation, students may take courses like research methods, statistics, and data analysis.

The following list highlights some of the courses students can expect to take during their counseling doctoral program.

  • Child and Adolescent Development: This course provides students with an understanding of youth development. The class covers the different stages and elements of development and explores methodological approaches to fostering development.
  • Professional Ethics: In this course, students examine ethics in the counseling profession, learning how counselors and psychologists practice within the law. Participants also learn about industry standards.
  • Psychopharmacology: This course teaches students about the human body and brain. They learn how drugs affect people, along with the causes of drug abuse and dependence.
  • Biological Bases of Behavior: Students learn about behavioral neuroscience. This course teaches them how behavior connects to the nervous system, memories, and emotions.
  • Cognitive-behavioral Approaches to Intervention: This course provides training in designing cognitive-behavioral models for treating and managing emotional and behavioral disorders. Learners also explore methods for assessing cases and designing therapeutic approaches.
  • Teaching Methodologies: Taken by learners who plan on entering academia, this course helps students develop teaching methods and strategies. The course covers lesson and curriculum building, public speaking, and classroom management techniques.
  • Adult Psychopathology: In this course, learners explore various psychological disorders. They look at the symptoms and manifestations of disorders and how they can progress in different cultures, settings, and social classes.
  • Statistics: This course provides students with knowledge related to data analysis. Students learn to build and interpret statistical models and how to apply findings in a practical setting.

Program Outcomes

Earning a doctorate in counseling online provides students with many skills and competencies that make them highly employable. Their advanced understanding of mental health and psychological issues and disorders should keep them in high demand as the government, schools, and the healthcare system continue to adopt better mental health policies.

Once students complete their degree, they may immediately qualify to sit for their state's psychologist licensure exam. In addition to being necessary for many professions, this qualification also enables graduates to create and manage their own services. Throughout their doctoral programs, learners also acquire leadership and research skills, which can serve them in management positions and academia. These skills also translate over to self employment, which graduates can pursue as fully licensed professionals.

Accreditation for Online Counseling Doctoral Programs

Counseling students should ensure that both their school and program hold the appropriate accreditation. At the institutional level, individuals should look for schools that hold regional or national accreditation, which must be awarded by an approved accrediting agency. Regional accreditation is typically viewed as more prestigious.

For counseling programs, programmatic accreditation may come from four major national sources: the American Psychological Association, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System, and the National Association of School Psychologists. Specialized accreditation ensures a program satisfies important industry requirements. While graduating from a program accredited by one of these organizations does not guarantee employment, it assures students their education and degree will meet licensure and education requirements.