PhD in Counseling Guide

A PhD in counseling is the terminal degree for aspiring counseling researchers, clinical supervisors, and counseling educators. Pursuing a PhD in counseling allows students to develop in-depth knowledge of a particular area of counseling through independent study and research. Doctoral degrees in counseling often 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.

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Why Earn a PhD in Counseling?

Counseling PhDs prepare students for advanced counseling practice or careers requiring significant expertise and work experience. Most PhDs in counseling take four years of full-time study to complete, but students with other obligations such as work or child care may complete a PhD part-time.

In most states, to qualify for a counseling license, you must have at least a master’s degree. However, licensed counselors may pursue a PhD in counseling to develop advanced practice skills beyond what is possible in a master’s degree program. Counseling PhD degree students can develop a practice specialization or 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.

Doctoral degrees also increase job opportunities in clinical supervision, counselor education, or research. 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. A PhD in counseling qualifies graduates for work in various counseling-related fields, such as policy development and analysis, consulting and advising, and counseling services management. PhD-degree-holders 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 specialization opportunities within these major areas including 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.

Choosing the right PhD degree will help students develop skills related to their career goals and contribute research to their area of counseling practice. Aspiring counseling PhD students can also consider the importance of research, supervision, and teaching skills to their career goals as some PhDs may require an independent dissertation or a portfolio of academic publications while others may focus on clinical internships.

Admission Requirements

Application packages for PhD degrees in counseling are 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. Programs may also require applicants to prepare a statement of purpose or personal statement outlining their career goals upon graduation.

Licensure With a PhD in Counseling

The career pathways available to graduates of doctoral degree programs in counseling can 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 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, with each focusing on a different counseling specialization. The degree title Doctor of Philosophy 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. When applying to the program, students often indicate their area of interest or specialization and 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. Fve main categories 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 in each category.

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. Alongside core MFT coursework, students can choose a research topic in their area of interest. MFT specializations include 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. These programs may include areas of specialization related tof specific populations or 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 have counseling licensure should ensure their degree meets state licensing requirements. Licensed applicants should ensure their degree curriculum covers coursework and training aligned with their future career goals. Find out more about counseling degrees in this field in our Mental Health Counseling Degree Guide.

Rehabilitation Counseling

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, developmental, 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 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.

School Counseling

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 by state so 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

Columbia University offers a PhD in Counseling Psychology with a focus on multicultural and social justice approaches to counseling. Entry to the program is competitive, so applicants are expected to have above-average verbal and quantitative skills as demonstrated by transcripts, references, and GRE scores. 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 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 concentration that trains students to offer culturally appropriate counseling services in Spanish to Latinx populations. Applicants must meet this specialization’s Spanish language competency requirement and complete an internship in a Spanish language agency.

Pace University

At Pace University’s Westchester Campus in New York, students can earn a PhD in Mental Health Counseling with specializations 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, clinical supervision, or conducting scholarly research. 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.

Michigan State University

Those interested in rehabilitation counseling careers can 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 and letters of recommendation as part of the application package. GRE scores can be submitted to demonstrate academic merit, but are no longer an admission requirement. 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.

Virginia Tech

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 lifespan, 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

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. Students must complete at least 100 hours of practicum and 600 hours of internship in counseling. 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

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 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 (unless waived), a writing sample, and a personal statement. Coursework in abnormal psychology and ethics are prerequisites for entry and must be identifiable on student transcripts. Financial aid may be available for qualified applicants.

Regent University

Regent University offers a fully-online PhD in Counseling & Psychological Studies – 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.

University of Louisiana at Monroe

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 must complete at least 69 credit hours, including a doctoral practicum, internship, and dissertation in addition to the core curriculum. Examples of required courses include Family Systems I and II, Qualitative and Ethnographic Research, and Couple and Marital Therapy. The majority of the coursework is completed during the first two years of study, while the third and fourth years comprise a continuation of the doctoral internship and dissertation. 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:

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 country’s leading accreditation organization for counseling education standards. 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 than a dissertation or consist of only 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 include a mandatory practicum or internship. Research-focused doctoral degrees in counseling-related fields may not have the same requirements. CACREP-accredited degrees must require 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 timelines 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.