Everything You Need to Know About Counseling Psychology

Brittnei P., Class of 2020; Antwan S., Class of 2020 Military Veteran

Current events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted many of the mental health issues faced by a number of Americans, as well as a need for more qualified counselors and mental health professionals. A 2023 report from Mental Health America revealed that there is only one mental health provider per every 350 individuals who require care in the US. 

As this need is anticipated to grow, the field of mental health can offer a rewarding career path that provides a much-needed service for individuals across all walks of life. Learn all about counseling psychology, its roots, the future of this discipline, and how a career in this capacity can make a difference in the lives of others. 

What is Counseling Psychology?

In California, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCCs) are professionals who have completed Master’s degree programs in Counseling Psychology, as these licensing paths typically do not require doctoral-level education. Unlike psychologists, who often hold doctoral degrees, LMFTs and LPCCs are focused on providing therapeutic services to individuals and families.

LMFTs and LPCCs play a crucial role in addressing a wide spectrum of concerns within the field of counseling psychology, including developmental, emotional, social, job-related, health-related, and educational matters, as well as interpersonal relationships. Unlike psychologists, who may be members of the American Psychological Association (APA), LMFTs and LPCCs follow state-specific licensing processes overseen by the California state board, and their educational programs require approval from the state board rather than the APA.

Guided by a commitment to culturally-informed and culturally sensitive practices, LMFTs and LPCCs help individuals navigate life’s challenges. Their expertise equips them to assist clients in gaining self-awareness and providing them with valuable tools and coping strategies. Areas of focus for LMFTs and LPCCs encompass a wide array of life issues, including family and personal relationships, addressing social anxiety, and addressing systemic concerns such as prejudice and discrimination. They work diligently to enhance the well-being of individuals and families across California.

The Evolution of Counseling Psychology

Although counseling psychology as a science dates back to the early 1900s, the discipline became more prevalent following WWII during the 1940s and 1950s. At the time, it was referred to as “vocational psychology” and was viewed as a way to help returning veterans readjust to civilian life – including securing a job and dealing with emotional issues stemming from their time in the service. 

In the following decades, counseling psychology expanded to offer individuals help and constructive ways to deal with relationship, career, and personal issues and any emotions stemming from them. During the 1960s and 1970s, events such as the Vietnam War, Watergate, and fights for racial, gender, and social equality, prompted changing cultural attitudes. People turned inward in search of personal fulfillment, and counseling psychology evolved to help individuals evaluate their strengths and develop skills to better understand themselves and others in their sphere. 

By the 1980s and 1990s, counseling psychology expanded its focus to issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Counseling psychologists were encouraged to develop greater cultural awareness and support for diverse people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. In 2002, the APA Council of Representatives set forth guidelines around multicultural education and training for psychologists to better care for a diverse range of patients. 

woman smiling at man, outside

Education Requirements for a Counseling Psychologist

To pursue a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, prospective students have the option to choose between two distinct career paths, each requiring specific educational prerequisites. The degrees we offer are designed to prepare graduates for eligibility to seek licensure as either a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).

To embark on this journey, aspiring professionals must meet the following educational requirements:

  • Foundational Knowledge: A strong foundation in psychology is essential. This includes a comprehensive understanding of biological, cognitive, and social behaviors, as well as the various psychological theories that underpin counseling.
  • Ethics and Counseling Theories: In-depth coursework covers the ethical principles that guide the practice of counseling psychology. Students delve into a variety of counseling theories, gaining valuable insights into therapeutic approaches.
  • Psychological Assessment and Evaluation: A thorough grasp of psychological assessment and evaluation techniques is a crucial aspect of the curriculum. This equips students with the skills needed to evaluate and diagnose mental health conditions accurately.
  • Duration of Study: The journey to a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology typically spans three to six years. During this time, students engage in rigorous academic study and practical experiences to build their expertise.
  • Thesis Requirement: As part of the program, students may be expected to undertake the task of crafting a thesis. This scholarly endeavor allows them to explore a specific area of interest within counseling psychology in-depth.
  • Clinical Internship: Hands-on experience is a vital component of the educational journey. Students are provided with opportunities to work directly with individuals under the supervision of licensed counseling psychologists. This practical exposure hones their skills and prepares them for real-world practice.

Upon successful completion of the Master’s degree program, graduates will be well-prepared to pursue licensure as either an LMFT or an LPCC, depending on their chosen career path. This opens the door to fulfilling careers in the field of counseling psychology, where they can make a positive impact on the well-being of individuals and families.


In California, getting a Master’s degree in counseling psychology can provide eligibility to obtain a professional license to provide psychotherapy. The two Master’s level licenses that are most common are the License in Marriage and Family Therapy (LMFT) and the License in Professional Clinical Counseling (LPCC). 

LMFTs are the most common Master’s level therapists in California. Though they are specially trained to work with couples, family, and children, they are qualified to provide therapy to a wide range of individuals and groups. LPCCs are less common in California, though they are trained in career development issues and psychological testing, in addition to traditional training in psychotherapy. They, too, are qualified to provide therapy to a wide range of individuals, though they are less likely to work with couples, families, and children.

Though LMFTs are the majority of Master’s level therapists in the state, LPCCs represent a growing professional identification. Outside California, this situation is the opposite, with LMFTs mostly working with families, couples, and children while LPCCs are the “generalist” practitioners. Those who plan to leave the state in the near future or who want flexibility in their professional careers often choose to pursue an education that qualifies them for both licenses. To be eligible for either of these licenses, students must have graduated from a university program that has been approved by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

Board Certification

In California, to be licensed as an LMFT or an LPCC, the first thing you need is a qualifying degree. The Board of Behavioral Sciences (bbs.ca.gov) lists qualifying degree programs on its website. After you complete your degree, you are eligible to take the state’s Law and Ethics Examination. Also, after graduating, you will need to complete the second part of your pre-professional experience in psychotherapy, called an associateship. Once that is complete, you are eligible to take the relevant licensing exam for LMFT and/or LPCC. 

Pre-Professional Experience

For candidates pursuing an MFT or PCC license, one of the key components of a Master’s program involves completing a traineeship under the guidance of a licensed and qualified supervisor. Traineeships are completed during graduate work and are preparation for the next stage in pre-professional experience, the associateship. Between the traineeship and the associateship, applicants are expected to accrue 3000 hours of experience. LMFT applicants can count the 225-plus hours completed in their traineeship toward the 3000; LPCC applicants cannot count their 280-plus hours toward the total. The BBS provides detailed information about gaining hours of experience and how these are tracked at their website (bbs.ca.gov). 

Psychologist talking with patient in office

What Does a Counseling Psychologist Do?

A counseling psychologist uses a variety of therapy techniques to help their patients better understand and cope with a variety of personal and interpersonal challenges, ranging from social, emotional, and vocational matters. 

A counseling psychologist assesses their patients’ mental and emotional well-being, speaking with them or conducting an evaluation to determine their current mental state and to determine appropriate next steps. They work with patients to set goals for self-improvement, offer therapeutic strategies, help them develop skills for dealing with matters that impact their mental well-being, and build greater self-awareness. 

Roles and Responsibilities

A counseling psychologist can work with individuals on a one-on-one basis, as well as provide therapy sessions to groups, families, or couples. Counseling psychologists extend confidentiality to their patients, giving them a safe space to voice their concerns and discuss their issues. They work to help their patients learn more about themselves, as well as develop valuable skills and strategies to handle the challenges they face. 

Counseling psychologists also work within prescribed ethical boundaries, respecting their clients while still maintaining a sense of trust to foster greater improvements. Counseling psychologists also continue to learn and, in some cases, conduct studies, compile and analyze statistical data, and publish observations to contribute to furthering research within their field. 

Work Environments

California LMFTs and LPCCs have the flexibility to practice in diverse environments. A significant number of them work in public mental health or non-profit organizations.  Many others operate independently, running their own private practices. 

In addition to working independently, LMFTs and LPCCs can also work in a hospital setting or even alongside social workers. LPCCs may also work in a school setting, providing support and counseling to students, parents, and teachers. 

Salary and Job Growth

According to Salary.com, counseling psychologists in California earn a median annual salary of $78,519. Although the need for counseling psychologists is anticipated to grow 6% before 2031, many of the 14,100 openings are expected to materialize as professionals either retire or exit the profession to work in a different field. A 2023 report by the APA indicated that nearly half of all psychologists polled reported feeling burned out. Findings also noted that 46% of psychologists polled had difficulties meeting demands for increased caseloads. 

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, more attention has been paid to the increasing need for qualified mental health resources and counselors. A recent report from the APA noted that 37% of Americans “rated their mental health as only fair to poor,” citing a 6% increase from the previous year of those who self-evaluated. Moreover, 26% of those polled anticipated the coming year bringing more stress and anxiety, lacking feelings of optimism. 

Essential Skills

Counseling psychologists require a mixture of both hard and soft skills in order to excel in their profession. 

Hard skills required of counseling psychologists include:

  • Mental health techniques: Counseling psychologists should have a functional knowledge of mental health conditions and causes (ranging from biological to environmental or situational), alongside a demonstrated ability to work with a variety of techniques to help diagnose and treat patients. 
  • Crisis intervention: Another hard skill valued among counseling psychologists is the ability to swiftly identify instances where a patient may be poised for long-term harm as a result of an immediate crisis. A skilled counseling psychologist will leverage their knowledge and observational skills to help to mitigate damages and intervene. 
  • Behavioral health: Counseling psychologists should also have a working knowledge of behavioral health in cases where there are significant stressors at play in a patient’s life, including substance abuse disorders, an underlying mental health disorder, or interpersonal relationships impacting their well-being. 

Counseling psychologists should also hone soft skills to diagnose, treat, and counsel their patients effectively. 

  • Observation/listening: At the top of the list of soft skills, a counseling psychologist must be observant and a good listener. Counseling psychologists should be able to use their hard skills to identify specific behaviors in their patients and also recall information to connect the dots themselves, as well as prompt patients to arrive at conclusions to illuminate the causes of behaviors or emotional responses. 
  • Empathy: Empathy and trustworthiness go hand-in-hand as soft skills are required of a counseling psychologist. Winning the trust of patients by reassuring them that conversations are confidential can greatly contribute to a patient feeling heard and understood by their therapist. Counseling psychologists often need to operate from a place of objectivity while still giving patients space to convey their own unique perspectives and life stories without fear of judgment. 
  • Communication: Counseling psychologists are expected to be good communicators – adept at listening to their patients, conveying clear boundaries, as well as imparting helpful information regarding treatment or recommendations. They need to learn how to speak with people from all walks of life in a way that’s relatable yet authoritative and approachable without “talking down” to patients. 

The Role of Technology in Counseling Psychology

In recent years, technology has made therapy and counseling psychologists more accessible. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, apps such as BetterHelp and Headspace had started gaining popularity, offering talk therapy (via text or face-to-face video chats) to licensed therapists to app subscribers. These apps experienced a boom in the wake of the pandemic. A 2021 poll by the APA noted that 38% of Americans have used telehealth services to meet with a mental health professional. Moreover, 43% of respondents said they want to continue receiving online counseling.

The advent of online and video sessions via these services has made therapy more affordable and accessible for patients who may not be able to travel to meet with their therapist and receive counseling. Therapists often respond within less than 24 hours vs. longer wait times to schedule in-person appointments. 

Telehealth counseling also allows people to choose from a more comprehensive selection of counselors outside of those within a reasonable travel radius. As a result, patients can match with a counseling psychologist who may specialize in an area where they need help or who shares cultural values and can make them feel better heard and more easily understood. 

For counseling psychologists, this also offers more convenience and portability for them to offer their services. Video-based sessions via Zoom or in-app offerings also allow them to see patients’ mannerisms and speech patterns, which may also help them better get to know them and make more accurate diagnoses. 

woman smiling with graduation cap on

Launch Your Career in Counseling Psychology with National University

Counseling psychology offers a rewarding career path that can truly make a difference in the lives of others. It allows practitioners to stand with one foot firmly in the world of science and research, as well as engage with patients who can benefit greatly from their counsel and expertise. 

If you’re considering a career in counseling psychology in California, National University offers a Master of Arts Degree in Counseling Psychology. The program steeps students in the fundamentals of counseling, an understanding of mental health issues, and how various factors – such as cultural backgrounds, stages of life, and community mental health – may impact future patients. 

Students outside of California can explore the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (MS CMHC) program. The MS CHMC program provides theoretical and practical knowledge needed to work with in a variety of professional counseling settings. Curriculum is focused around social justice, advocacy, and the equity of treatment, as well as different ways to advance counseling professions.

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