Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology Degree Differences

The field of psychology has long been divided into two camps: clinical psychology and counseling psychology. While the fields are very similar, this historic distinction can create confusion and indecision for individuals who wish to pursue careers in psychology. Getting into the wrong branch of psychology could derail a promising career.

For those considering careers in psychology, the first step after college will be a doctoral program to allow them to work in the field of psychology. Many budding psychologists will choose to pursue a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree in order to fast-track their careers, but without knowing the difference between clinical psychology and counseling psychology, degree-holders run the risk of finding themselves in jobs they don’t love.

While both counseling psychologists and clinical psychologists are branches of the same tree, the differences between those two branches are significant in some ways (and less so in others). So it’s a good idea to learn about how the two areas are similar and different and how to go about focusing on a particular discipline within psychology.

A History Lesson

Both clinical and counseling psychologists are trained to offer mental, emotional and behavioral healthcare focused on counseling and therapy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that both fields emerged around the same time and that their evolution often mirrored each other.

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century saw a change in the way that people related to the science of psychology, as more people recognized the need to apply the findings resulting from the study of psychology to the emotional and psychological crises individuals were experiencing in the real world. In other words, it was time to bring psychology out of the textbook and into people’s lives.

As the first “clinical psychology” facilities opened early in the 1900s, they provided services to assess and treat things like mental illness and learning disabilities. Soon after, those identifying as clinical psychologists started offering psychotherapy, which previously had been the sole purview of psychiatrists.

As clinical psychology clinics began to grow and clinical psychologists offered therapy to alleviate mental health problems, a broad economic shift from an agrarian society to an industrial one necessitated widespread changes in the jobs people were being trained for. This shift created the vocational guidance movement, which was focused on assessing individuals’ capacity and suitability for various types of jobs. The American Psychological Association in 1945 established a Division of Personnel and Guidance Psychologists.

SEE ALSO: 5+ Online PhD in Counseling Psychology Programs

Just as it upended the rest of society, the landscape for clinical and vocational psychologists transformed after World War II. With a mental health infrastructure woefully unprepared to handle the deluge of veterans returning from the war with serious mental health problems, the Veterans Administration began employing scores of both clinical and vocational psychologists.

Clinical psychologists were able to treat veterans’ psychiatric issues, and vocational psychologists were able to use the readjustment counseling they had always been offering to help veterans reintegrate into normal life. In 1951, the Division of Personnel Guidance Psychologists was renamed the Division of Counseling Psychology.

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Distinction Without a Difference?

While you can begin to understand the difference between the two disciplines by understanding the history (vocational/counseling psychologists used the vector of work to help patients, while clinical psychologists didn’t), it still can be difficult to truly pinpoint how these two areas differ beyond having different names.

EXPERT VOICE: A Clinical Psychologist is trained in diagnosis and treatment of severe mental disorders. A Counselling Psychologist is trained in dealing with milder problems. Both are trained in psychotherapy. Choose as per your area of interest. Dr Zarin Sethna, studied Clinical Psychology

Counseling psychology was borne out of a need to help individuals integrate into normal life; while its very beginnings focused on the workplace, it eventually evolved into a focus on wellness throughout a person’s life. It can be said that clinical psychology has a stronger tie to medicine, while counseling psychology has deeper roots in humanism.

In many cases, the difference will come down to individual employers and what kinds of jobs are available in the PsyD degree-holder’s region. But another way of thinking about the difference is that clinical psychologists will work with populations in crisis more often than a counseling psychologist will.

EXPERT VOICE: It may or may not matter very much. I know quite a few people who went the counselling route who did a hospital internship, et voila, presto change-o, “clinical psychologist.” –Brenton Crowhurst, PhD Clinical Psychology, University of Calgary (1998)

However, a clinical psychologist and a counseling psychologist, side-by-side, would still be able to have largely the same resume. They’d probably get the same degree and maybe even do the same internship during their doctoral program. But even if the desired job title does not contain either word, it’s still important to understand the difference so that you can ensure you find the best possible counseling job for you.

Choose Clinical Psychology If …

  • … You’ll be looking for jobs that list terms like “psychopathology assessment,” “clinical therapy” or “treatment.”
  • … You want to focus on a particular at-risk group, such as those with addiction or other major disorders
  • … You’re interested in working with children.
  • … You want to learn how to use specific treatment therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • … You’re interested in working within hospital or inpatient settings.

Choose Counseling Psychology If …

  • … Your ideal job description includes words like “normal development,” “lifespan” or “adjustment.”
  • … You are most interested in working with mostly healthy populations rather than those deep in crisis.
  • … You have a social justice mind-set and a desire to work with diverse communities.
  • … You are interested in helping individuals find the right career and set long-term life goals.
  • … Your ideal workplace is an elementary school or college counseling center.

SEE ALSO: 25 Best Things to Do With a Counseling Psychology Degree

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Psychology is a very rapidly growing and lucrative career field, with 14 percent growth projected through 2026 and a median annual salary of more than $77,000. In all states those who wish to work as psychologists must obtain licensure and certification, regardless of whether they identify as counseling psychologists or clinical psychologists.

SEE ALSO: Clinical Psychologist Salary by State

Students pursuing either a PsyD or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology will be able to get jobs in either branch of the psychology tree. And because the public is largely unaware of the differences between the history and practice of the two fields (and, indeed, the differences themselves are quite minor), what school of thought an individual claims is mostly a matter of personal taste.