What’s the Difference Between Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology?

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According to a survey from the National Science Foundation, there were 3.5 million people in the United States in 2017 who held a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Among those individuals, 14 percent pursued graduate degrees in the field.

That means approximately 499,000 people have been tasked with the judgment call of joining a clinical psychology or counseling psychology program. At a glance, the choice is a daunting one: it can both build and branch careers, setting the foundation for a productive life-long story of the practice of psychological services. 

In many cases, these mental health professionals often find themselves working in hospitals, universities, wellness centers, private practices, or even schools, caring for the well-being of others based on knowledge and skills acquired in pursuit of their degree. While they may work in similar settings, there are key differences between these two branches of psychology.  

In this article, we’ll conduct an examination of what you need to know about the difference between clinical and counseling psychology. 

Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology: What’s the Difference?

While clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists differ in their areas of focus, they do have a bit of overlap. To paint a key difference between clinical and counseling psychology, the clinical branch focuses on psychopathology — the study of mental disorders. On the flipside, counseling psychologists help patients or clients address emotional, social, and physical stressors in their lives. 

Ultimately, clinical and counseling psychologists share more in common than they differ.

Aspiring psychologists, whether immersed in clinical or counseling studies, share one key component in common: they want to help people. These are scholars who fundamentally crave an understanding of the minds that make up our world and strive to assist in addressing problematic behaviors. In terms of the soft-skills required for the profession, these are insightful people who can compose themselves in stressful situations, adapt well, and can predict behaviors based on scientific information and cases they have studied. 

Many students touch on these skills during their bachelor’s programs, but these qualities are refined and tested during a graduate program. For clinical psychology students, this typically means working with individuals challenged by serious mental illness. 

What is Clinical Psychology? 

The work of a clinical psychologist tends to overlap with psychiatrists. This began as a post-World War II effort to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returning troops and evolved the branch into a profession that broadly centers around mental illnesses that range from major depressive disorders to schizophrenia. Significantly, this time period saw the movement of psychologists from private practice to clinical settings.

Their work is rooted in the natural sciences of psychoanalysis, humanistic psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. They treat primarily by instilling resilience in the people they meet with; neither clinical psychologists nor counseling psychologists prescribe medication. In practice, they work in hospitals and clinics, or in private practice. Some will go on to work in clinical counseling settings in the field of social work.

What is Counseling Psychology?

Counseling psychologists often work with psychologically stable individuals seeking to alleviate stressors in their life: social anxieties, emotional duress, inability to sleep, and more. These might be related to their work life, family dynamics, chronic pain, compulsive disorders, romantic relationships, or substance abuse. The goal is to provide them with coping skills.

Counseling psychologists tend to be more holistic in how they practice. They are employed frequently in university counseling centers, mental health centers, and rehabilitation centers, but can also have a private practice. Because counseling psychology can target a range of people and problems, students typically find an area of specialty, such as marriage and family, or develop a cultural competency, such as with gender and sexuality.

Clinical Psychology vs. Counseling Psychology: How to Choose?

Choosing whether to be a clinical psychologist vs counseling psychologist is entirely a matter of preference: both involve the same licensing process. But certainly, those focusing on clinical psychology should feel equipped to manage interactions with more severe psychological disorders and prepare for a more “bedside” clinical position. Those who opt to focus on counseling psychology can expect to interact with a broad array of behavioral, social, and emotional problems among clients from diverse backgrounds. 

Because social service fields tend to be underfunded, salary ranges in psychology can start low when compared to other science disciplines, especially without a graduate degree. But this varies greatly depending on whether a position is in management, a hospital, private practice, or in a university setting. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for clinical psychologists in the US is $70,580. Counseling psychologists at the beginning of their careers can anticipate an annual median salary of $51,000, while those with between 5-20 years can expect around $65,000 annually. 

In terms of demand for those with these unique skill sets, mental health counselor positions are expected to increase at a rate of 20 percent through 2024. Counseling, clinical, and school psychologist positions are expected to increase at a rate of 19 percent. 

It is also true that, no matter which path you choose, there will be research opportunities. 

So, what is the difference between clinical and counseling psychology? Beyond the degree of illness of the patient being worked with, it’s really all about specialty. Students can — and are encouraged — to pave their own path and find an area of expertise based on what group of people they most want to help.

Professional Counseling at National University

National University is a regionally accredited institution with masters and doctoral programs in clinical psychology and counseling. The Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology (California) (MAC) program is specific for licensure in California. The MAC has focus areas for Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) and Professional Clinical Counselors (PCC) — including a program for both with additional hours for practicum training. Among other skills, the program teaches current professional ethics and laws, an in-depth look at the culturally diverse populations of California, therapeutic practices, and a well-rounded understanding of norms and principles.

National University’s Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (MS CMHC) teaches in-depth explorations of counseling theories, ethical and legal standards, and evidence-based approaches, diagnosis, and treatments. The MS CHMC program provides theoretical and practical knowledge needed to work with clients and groups from diverse backgrounds. Coursework is focused on addressing mental health needs in a variety of professional counseling settings.

To begin the application process, contact our admissions office today.










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