What Are the Requirements for a Career in Counseling and Psychology

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Counselors and psychologists study how people relate to each other and to their environments. They do this by examining the cognitive processes and emotional factors that contribute to human behavior. They help improve patients’ well-being by conducting research, diagnosing common disorders, and offering effective treatment plans.

The job outlook for professionals in counseling and psychology remains encouraging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that occupations in psychology will increase by 14% between 2018 and 2028. The BLS projects jobs in mental health and substance abuse counseling to grow by 22% in this same time period. Both careers enjoy salary prospects well above the national median wage.

In order to qualify for these positions, learners must satisfy the proper counseling and psychology job requirements, such as earning a graduate degree in the field, obtaining state licensure, and pursuing a doctorate (in some cases).

This guide helps prospective degree-seekers make sense of this process. This page highlights counseling and psychology licensure, education requirements, and possible degree options. Readers can review common courses of study, differences between degrees, and possible coursework offerings.

Professional Licensure

All working professionals must obtain counseling and psychology licensure before they can practice. Professional licensure requires graduate training in the discipline.

Most candidates also need to accumulate a certain number of work hours and pass a standardized exam. This process typically takes place at the state level, although national options remain available for counselors. Specific requirements vary by location, and most states make a distinction between psychology and counseling credentials.

In California, for example, the Board of Psychology licenses psychologists, while the Board of Behavioral Sciences credentials counselors. In each case, candidates must satisfy initial requirements and maintain licensure renewal periodically as they work. Most states stipulate continuing education or professional development requirements for licensure renewal. Many states also keep reciprocity agreements for actively licensed professionals considering relocation.

Licensed professionals sometimes pursue additional counseling and psychology certifications. These optional credentials further validate areas of focus and expertise. For instance, those interested in education development may obtain certification in school counseling, while others focusing on mental health, addiction, or substance abuse pursue different credentials.

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High School Courses of Study

High school learners interested in psychology and counseling can start early by studying each discipline and enrolling in relevant college preparatory courses. A strong background in science and mathematics helps lay the groundwork for analytical problem-solving and focused research. Some high schools may offer advanced placement courses in psychology that can give aspiring professionals a good start and may even count for future college credit.

Other considerations at this level include solid preparation for undergraduate study, such as earning good grades, participating in relevant extracurricular activities, and preparing for potential entrance exams or standardized tests.

College Courses of Study

Counseling and psychology education requirements begin in college. A relevant bachelor’s degree is required for all advanced education opportunities. College forms the first major step in professional development, and while counseling and psychology job requirements generally welcome degrees in other fields, motivated individuals can use this time to lay a firm foundation.

Undergraduate learners should bear in mind that most four-year institutions do not offer programs in counseling, but they do administer degrees in psychology. Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field in the social sciences or liberal arts provides learners with a good background. This route also begins to develop core skills in analytical reasoning and scholarly research.

Most jobs and graduate programs do not list college classes required for counseling and psychology. However, learners interested in getting a head start can prioritize courses like those listed below.

  • Introduction to Psychology

    This course provides degree-seekers with an overview of the field, including its history, major figures and developments, and prominent methodologies. Learners also begin to develop skills in critical analysis and experimentation. The class lays important groundwork and is often a prerequisite for upper-level classes.
  • Statistics and Research Methods

    Learners in this course receive a solid introduction to the main research methods psychologists and social scientists use to organize and interpret information. Degree-seekers learn to apply statistical methods to research material and psychological experiments. They also gain a practical understanding of hypothesis testing, correlation, and standardization.
  • Theories of Personality

    Pertinent for learners interested in counseling, this course provides an introduction to the main theoretical approaches to understanding personality. Degree-seekers examine and evaluate key theorists and case studies, applying their findings to personal and social issues. Possible theories include psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology as well as biological and behaviorist approaches.
  • Abnormal Psychology

    This course surveys neurotic and psychotic behaviors, examining their origins, classification, and symptoms. Learners study methods of diagnosis and look at techniques for therapy and behavioral prevention. The course also weighs social, cultural, religious, and familial factors that often contribute to abnormal behaviors. Degree-seekers assess current research and work to generate new findings.
  • Psychology and Physiology

    Degree-seekers in this class examine relationships between psychology and physiology, focusing on how the two interact and affect mental health and behavior. The course develops working knowledge of the human nervous and sensory systems as well as the physiological seat of certain behaviors. Learners also study the development of learning and memory.

Graduate Degrees in Counseling and Psychology

Most learners at the graduate level begin by enrolling in a relevant master’s program with the aim of pursuing counseling and psychology licensure or earning a doctorate. These programs typically offer areas of concentration in subfields like mental health counseling, child psychology, substance abuse, and rehabilitation counseling.

Most programs expect applicants to provide recent GRE scores. The GRE is a standardized test that evaluates prospective learners’ aptitudes in verbal and quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking. Most admission committees require scores from tests taken within the last five years.

Some learners continue their graduate study by earning a doctorate. Many do this in order to satisfy certain professional requirements, while others enroll to further refine their skills and knowledge. Professional psychologists, for example, need either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. in order to practice. A Ph.D. prepares learners for academic pursuits such as teaching and research. A Psy.D. qualifies degree-seekers for work as clinicians and other leadership roles.

Counseling and psychology degree requirements at this level usually involve courses like those listed below.

Learners typically take this course in a master’s program, although many Ph.D. or Psy.D. options extend similar offerings. The course examines the psychological factors that contribute to human development across the lifespan, from fetal development and childhood, through young adulthood, middle age, and end of life.

This course prepares degree-seekers for work as clinicians. Students explore the tools and techniques used to diagnose, assess, and treat common behavioral issues exhibited by patients. Topics include descriptive and functional analysis, interviewing tactics, and data collection. Most Psy.D. programs offer some version of this course.

Commonly designed for Ph.D. learners in a research-based course of study, this class provides a high-level overview of the main procedures and analytical frameworks used by professional psychologists. Degree-seekers look at psychophysiology methods like impedance cardiography and skin conductance in a laboratory environment.

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