PhD in Counseling
The PhD in counseling is the terminal degree for aspiring counseling researchers, clinical supervisors, and counseling educators. Pursuing a PhD in counseling provides students with the opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge of a particular area of counseling by completing independent study and research. Doctoral degrees in counseling also typically include clinical internships or field experiences. When applying to counseling PhD programs, applicants will likely already be licensed or practicing in one of the major counseling areas identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or substance abuse counseling.
Counseling PhDs prepare students for advanced counseling practice or counseling careers that require significant expertise and work experience. Most PhDs in counseling take four years to complete but they can also be taken part-time to accommodate the needs of working professionals or those with other responsibilities. Online and hybrid degree options are also available for additional flexibility.
Table of Contents
- Why Earn a PhD in Counseling?
- Choosing a PhD in Counseling Degree Program
- Licensure and Careers with a PhD in Counseling
- Types of PhD Degrees in Counseling
- PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy
- PhD in Mental Health Counseling
- PhD in Rehabilitation Counseling
- PhD in School Counseling
- PhD in Substance Abuse Counseling
- On-Campus Counseling PhD Degree Programs
- Online Counseling PhD Degree Programs
- Careers with a PhD in Counseling
- Frequently Asked Questions
Why Earn a PhD in Counseling?
In most states, a master’s or doctoral degree is required for counseling licensure, but the master’s degree is typically considered the terminal degree for counselor licensing. Licensed counselors may choose to pursue a PhD in counseling to develop advanced practice skills beyond what is possible in a two-to-three-year master’s degree program. Counseling PhD degrees offer the opportunity to develop a practice specialization or the chance to conduct scholarly research and contribute to the counseling knowledge base. Many PhD degrees in counseling can be completed part-time to accommodate the needs of working professionals who wish to remain active in practice while studying.
Counseling PhD students may also be interested in the clinical supervision, counselor education, or research-related job opportunities open to those with a doctoral degree. These positions typically require training and experience beyond a master’s degree in counseling and completing a PhD can be one way of meeting these requirements. Those with a PhD in counseling may also be eligible to work in a wider range of counseling-related fields, such as policy development and analysis, consulting and advising, and counseling services management. They may also command a higher salary due to their advanced knowledge and expertise.
Choosing a PhD in Counseling Degree Program
PhD degrees are available in the five major categories of counseling that are generally recognized from state to state: mental health counseling (also known as professional counseling or clinical counseling), marriage and family therapy, school counseling, substance abuse counseling, and rehabilitation counseling. Some doctoral degrees offer additional specialization opportunities within these major areas that include specific coursework and research opportunities. Applicants are typically required to have a master’s degree in the practice area of the PhD; the program may also require students to be licensed or eligible for licensure as some PhD programs do not meet state licensing requirements.
Aspiring counseling PhD students should also consider the importance of research, supervision, and teaching skills to their career goals as degree requirements can vary in each of these areas. Some PhDs may require an independent dissertation or a portfolio of academic publications while others may focus on clinical internships. Choosing the right PhD degree will enable students to develop the types of skills they desire for their future and make a contribution to their area of counseling practice.
Licensure and Careers with a PhD in Counseling
The career pathways available to graduates of doctoral degree programs in counseling will typically vary depending on the type of degree completed. Some PhD graduates may continue to work as licensed counselors while others may seek teaching, research, or supervision opportunities in their area of counseling specialization. Similarly to master’s degree graduates, the career options for PhD graduates relate to the main areas of counseling and the state licensure requirements: marriage and family therapy, school counseling, professional counseling, substance abuse counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or another area. Counseling licenses that may be available to those with doctoral degrees in counseling include:
- Licensed Clinical Supervisor (LCS)
- Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LDAC)
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
- Licensed Rehabilitation Counselor (LRC)
- Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC)
To find out more about counseling licensure, review our guide to counseling licensure by state or contact your state counseling licensing body.
Types of PhD Degrees in Counseling
There are many different types of counseling PhD programs to choose from and each will focus on a different area of counseling specialization. The Doctor of Philosophy degree name is often shortened to PhD with the area of specialization indicated afterward. Doctoral degrees in counseling may also focus on specific practitioner skills, such as advanced counseling techniques, supervision, teaching, or research. Students often indicate their area of interest or specialization when applying to the program and then are matched with a faculty mentor with similar interests. A PhD in counseling typically takes four years of full-time study to complete or more for part-time students. There are five main categories that encompass most counseling subspecialties: marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Continue reading to learn more about the PhD degrees available in each of these categories.
Marriage and Family Therapy
PhD degrees in marriage and family therapy (MFT) typically focus on helping students develop advanced therapeutic and clinical skills to use in practice or scholarly research skills for teaching and research careers. While all students in the program take similar coursework, students can choose a research topic in their area of interest. Examples of MFT specializations are systems theories, couples counseling, child and youth development, or family therapy. A master’s or doctoral degree in MFT is required for state licensure; applicants who are not already licensed should ensure the MFT program meets state requirements before applying. Those interested in licensure will likely need to complete a supervised practicum or internship as part of the PhD. Learn more about these degree programs on our MFT degree guide.
Mental Health Counseling
Mental health counselors may be interested in PhD degree programs in mental health counseling that offer advanced learning opportunities in supervision, teaching, and research. Most mental health counseling doctoral degrees are offered as PhDs in counseling or PhDs in counseling education and supervision and may include areas of specialization indicating advanced knowledge of the mental health counseling needs of specific populations or of specific practice topics, such as depression, anxiety, or severe mental health disorders. PhDs in mental health counseling may meet state requirements for counseling licensure, while PhDs in counseling education and supervision are often designed for applicants who are already licensed or eligible for licensure. Those who do not already have counseling licensure are responsible for ensuring the degree meets state licensing requirements. Other applicants should ensure the degree curriculum includes coursework and training that meets their future career goals. Find out more about counseling degrees in this field in our Mental Health Counseling Degree Guide.
Rehabilitation counseling refers to the field of counseling focused on helping clients improve their day-to-day functioning, set and achieve functional goals, and adapt to physical, development, or mental disabilities. A PhD degree in rehabilitation counseling may prepare graduates to work as rehabilitation counselors, educators, supervisors, and researchers in this area of specialization. Students in PhD programs can choose to specialize in a particular demographic, such as children with disabilities, or in a particular type of disability, such as acquired brain injury, by completing related coursework and choosing a relevant research topic. State regulations for licensure as a rehabilitation counselor vary and while a few states license rehabilitation counselors separately, most include rehabilitation counseling in the professional counseling practice area. Many states recognize the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) as a qualifying exam for mental health counseling licensure for those interested in specializing in this area. Prospective applicants are advised to check with the licensing body in the state of practice to ensure the PhD degree meets these requirements, if necessary. To learn more, read our guide to rehabilitation counseling degrees, which provides more information on degrees in this field.
The school counseling profession provides social, emotional, and academic support to children from pre-K through 12th grade through one-on-one guidance and school-wide support programs. The steps to becoming a school counselor vary widely by state and aspiring school counselors should check with their state licensing body before choosing a degree path. Some states require school counselors to be licensed educators with teaching experience while others accept graduate-level study in guidance and counseling. A doctoral degree in school counseling may be offered as a PhD in Counseling, which has a greater focus on counseling research, or as a Doctor of Education (EdD), which develops counseling skills and prepares students for applied school counseling settings. Typically, a master’s degree in school counseling is required for school counseling licensure, while a PhD or EdD is considered supplementary and aimed more at those interested in school or district administration. Our school counseling degree resource offers more information about the various types of school counseling degrees.
Substance Abuse Counseling
Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, work with people experiencing substance abuse, addiction, and recovery challenges. PhDs may be offered in addiction counseling, substance abuse studies, substance abuse counseling, and recovery studies. A PhD degree is not necessary to work as a substance abuse counselor but it may lead to more advanced career opportunities, particularly in substance abuse research, clinical supervision, or teaching. Some doctoral degrees in mental health counseling also offer the opportunity to specialize in substance abuse counseling as the co-occurrence of mental health disorders and substance abuse challenges is an area of counseling specialization. Take a look at our Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide for more information about degrees in this area of specialization.
On-Campus Counseling PhD Degree Programs
Columbia University offers a PhD in Counseling Psychology with a focus on multicultural and social justice approaches to counseling. Applicants are expected to have above-average verbal and quantitative skills as demonstrated by transcripts, references, and GRE scores as entry to the program is competitive. The program has a mentorship format that pairs students with faculty supervisors. Students indicate their preferred faculty supervisor in their application, although not all supervisors may accept new PhD students each year. While the degree focuses on practical counseling skills and a dissertation, students can also pursue additional research opportunities as part of the degree plan. Course topics include statistics, research design, human behavior, and professional ethics. Applications are accepted once per year for a fall term start. The degree is also available with a Bilingual Latinx Mental Health specialization that trains students to offer culturally-appropriate counseling services in Spanish to Latinx populations. Applicants must meet the Spanish language competency requirement for this specialization and complete an internship in a Spanish language agency.
At Pace University’s Westchester Campus in New York, students can earn a PhD in Mental Health Counseling with opportunities to specialize in grief counseling, substance abuse counseling, or positive psychotherapy and counseling. This CACREP-accredited program trains students to work in applied settings providing mental health counseling services, conducting scholarly research, or providing clinical supervision. A master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related field with a cumulative 3.6 GPA is required for admission; applicants must also be licensed or eligible for professional counseling licensure in New York. Students take 46 credits of research methods, statistics, and counselor education classes during the fall, spring, and summer terms in the first two years of study and have a maximum of six additional years to complete the dissertation requirements.
Those interested in rehabilitation counseling careers may want to consider the PhD in Rehabilitation Counselor Education offered at Michigan State University in East Lansing. This CACREP-accredited degree prepares graduates in five key areas: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy in the field of rehabilitation counseling. During the program, students can take advantage of exchange opportunities at partner universities in Ireland and across the United States. Applicants must have a master’s degree with at least a 3.3 GPA and submit transcripts with GRE scores and letters of recommendation as part of the application package. The university offers financial support through teaching and research assistantships, conference support, scholarships, and fellowships. Applications are due December 1 and new students are admitted to start the program in the fall semester.
The PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy at Virginia Tech is a CACREP-accredited degree that prepares students for advanced learning and applied careers in the marriage and family therapy field. The program includes coursework, mentorship from a supervisor, and clinical and research experiences. Courses focus on human development through the life course, human sexuality, and systems theories. Applicants must have a master’s degree in a mental health field with at least 36 credits in marriage and family therapy or related subjects. It is also expected that applicants will have extensive experience providing marriage and family therapy. Applications are due in January for a fall term start date. Virginia Tech also offers combined master’s and doctoral degree programs in counseling.
Online Counseling PhD Degree Programs
Adams State University, in Alamosa, Colorado, has a CACREP-accredited PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision with a hybrid format that requires students to attend four, week-long summer residencies during the program. The degree prepares graduates for careers as clinical supervisors, counseling researchers, or academic scholars. Students must take 66 credits with courses in qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, data analysis, and counselor education. At least 100 hours of practicum and 600 hours of internship in counseling must also be completed. Applicants must have a master’s degree that meets CACREP coursework requirements with at least a 3.0 GPA and either licensure in their state of residence or one year of counseling work experience. An in-person interview is also required for acceptance and enrollment. The program only admits new students in the fall term with applications due the preceding December.
Hampton University is a historically black institution based in Hampton, Virginia. The university offers a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision with optional specializations in School Counseling and Community Mental Health Counseling. Students complete 64 credits of research, clinical, and supervision training in courses such as Counseling Leadership and Advocacy, Theories and Practice of Counseling Supervision, and Research and Program Evaluation. The degree also includes a practicum, two internships, and a research dissertation. It takes approximately three-and-a-half years to complete the degree full-time or longer for part-time students. Applicants must submit transcripts, GRE scores from within the past five years, a writing sample, and a personal statement. Coursework in abnormal psychology and ethics are prerequisites for entry and must be clearly identifiable on student transcripts. Financial aid may be available for qualified applicants.
Regent University offers a fully-online PhD in Counseling & Psychology-Addictions Counseling with a Christian worldview. The program is suited for students who already have counseling licensure or do not wish to seek licensure as the curriculum is research-focused. Students complete 51 credit hours of coursework covering topics such as qualitative methods, statistics, psychometrics, and advanced counseling skills. The program follows a cohort model with new students admitted in the fall, spring, and summer terms. Applicants must have a master’s degree in a mental health field with a minimum 3.5 GPA, preferably with coursework in research methods, statistics, counseling, and ethics. Work experience in a counseling-related field is also highly desirable. Selected applicants will be invited to attend a mandatory online interview before they are officially accepted into the program. Regent University also offers numerous online master’s degrees in counseling, including addiction counseling and marriage and family therapy.
For those interested in a nonclinical, theoretical, or interdisciplinary PhD in counseling, the University of Louisiana at Monroe offers a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy with a concentration in Systemic Studies designed to help marriage and family therapy professionals extend their knowledge of family and systems theories. The program has a cohort structure that requires full-time study with courses during the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Students take 60 credits of coursework online in the first two years of the program and then complete a qualitative research dissertation during the following two years. Examples of required courses include Family Systems I and II, Qualitative and Ethnographic Research, and Couple and Marital Therapy. Applicants must send completed application packages to the university by the February deadline, including the application form, transcripts, GRE scores, and references.
Careers with a PhD in Counseling
Our counseling career guides provide more information about the degree requirements, licensure processes, average salaries, and job outlooks for licensed counselors including:
- Marriage and Family Therapists
- Mental Health Counselors
- Rehabilitation Counselors
- School Counselors
- Substance Abuse Counselors
Frequently Asked Questions
What is CACREP accreditation for doctoral degrees in counseling?
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the leading accreditation organization for counseling education standards in the country. CACREP sets standards for master’s and doctoral degrees based on areas of core competency. To earn accreditation, a doctoral degree must consist of at least 48 credits and meet coursework requirements, including a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship. The course content must cover five key areas: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy. A directory of accredited programs is available online.
What is the difference between a doctoral dissertation and a research project?
PhD degrees in counseling often require students to complete a dissertation or a research project as part of degree requirements. A traditional dissertation is an independent piece of research completed by the student under the supervision and mentorship of a faculty member. This requirement is more common in research-focused doctoral degree programs; in some instances, a portfolio of published academic articles may also be accepted in lieu of a dissertation. Clinical or applied doctoral degrees may require students to complete a research project instead of a dissertation. The research project may be smaller in scale compared to a dissertation or only consist of a portion of a research project, such as a literature review or secondary data analysis.
Do I need to complete a practicum or an internship to earn a PhD in counseling?
PhD programs will vary regarding practicum and internship requirements, but as counseling is an applied field, many programs will include a mandatory practicum or internship as part of degree requirements. Research-focused doctoral degrees in counseling-related fields may not have the same requirements. To earn CACREP accreditation, a degree must include at least 100 hours of practicum and at least 600 hours of counseling internship. If you are not already licensed as a counselor in your state, check state regulations to determine whether the practicum and internship components of the doctoral degree meet licensure requirements.
Can I complete a PhD in counseling online?
With the rise in online education, many institutions now offer online programs in counseling. Online programs may refer to fully-online programs or hybrid programs that combine online and on-campus elements. Fully-online courses allow students to take all required coursework online although some course elements, such as internships or practicum, may need to be completed in-person. Hybrid degree programs may require students to attend some on-campus events or courses. Online classes may be offered through synchronous methods that require students to attend classes online at specific times or through asynchronous methods that enable students to study independently.
How long will it take to complete my PhD in counseling education?
Doctoral degrees generally take four years of full-time study but can vary depending on the course, practicum, and research requirements. Working professionals or those looking for more flexible arrangements may choose to complete the program on a part-time basis, although many schools impose a maximum time frame to complete the program ranging from seven to 10 years.
What is required in the application package for a PhD in counseling?
Application packages for PhD degrees in counseling can be thorough due to the competitive nature of the programs. Each institution sets the admission requirements for its own doctorate in counseling, including minimum GPA and testing requirements. Most institutions require applicants to submit college transcripts, standardized test scores such as the GRE, letters of recommendation, and a resume. Applicants may also be required to prepare a statement of purpose or personal statement outlining their career goals upon completion of the degree.