What is the Difference Between Psychology and Counseling Psychology?


At first glance, you might think that there can’t be that many differences between psychology and counseling psychology. After all, they both revolve around the study of human behavior.

Yet, while there are many similarities shared between psychology and counseling psychology – which we’ll discuss in a moment – there are plenty of differences as well.

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These differences are mostly practical and functional in nature, and many are very minor differences. Yet, when taken as a whole, the differences between these two fields results in very different pursuits for psychologists and counseling psychologists.

It might be best to think of psychology as the trunk of a tree and counseling psychology as one of the tree’s branches. They are part of the same entity, yet are distinct enough to draw comparisons between the two.

Definitions of Psychology and Counseling Psychology

Definitions of Psychology and Counseling PsychologyLet’s begin by quickly defining psychology and counseling psychology.

Very broadly, psychology is the study of human behavior. Psychologists study thoughts, feelings, and emotions, sensation and perception, development, personality, motivation, and much, much more.

Because psychology is such a broad and diverse field, it has many subfields that focus on a particular aspect of the study of human behavior. One such subfield is counseling psychology.

Counseling psychology is a type of psychological practice. Counseling psychologists work with individuals, couples, families, and groups of people to address mental, emotional, and even physical health issues. The goal of counseling psychology is to help the client improve their overall well-being.

Now, these definitions are very brief and gloss over the complexities of these fields. However, you can at least get a sense of what each field is about in broad terms.

Let’s explore psychology and counseling psychology in a little more detail so we can then compare their differences to a greater degree.

What is Psychology?

As noted earlier, psychology is a very broad field with many different specialty subfields. A psychologist might begin their education studying introductory topics, like history and systems of psychology, psychological statistics, and research psychology. But as the level of education increases, the specificity of psychological studies also increases.

So, if you’re a grad student, the chances are good that your studies are in a particular type of psychology, like counseling psychology, developmental psychology or educational psychology. You might even be studying a newer niche of psychology, like environmental psychology or human factors psychology.

While not all psychologists are human factors psychologists, all human factors psychologists are psychologists. Psychology is the umbrella term under which all other forms of psychology fall, counseling psychology included.

This means that when we talk about psychology, we often do so in very general terms. Whether you’re studying to be a clinical psychologist, a school counselor, or even a psychiatrist, your studies will be rooted in the same psychological theories. How you apply those theories might differ, though. 

Likewise, the term “psychology” can refer to either academic psychology or applied psychology. 

Academic psychology refers to psychological research. This might run the gamut from studying choice behavior in animal experiments to evaluating the efficacy of certain psychological treatments for PTSD. The realm of academic studies in psychology is incredibly wide and deep.

But psychology is also an applied science. For example, after you graduate with a master’s degree in school psychology, you will apply the knowledge and skills you learned about child development, psychometrics, intelligence testing, and the like, to evaluate school-aged children. So, you might administer a personality test or an intelligence test to an elementary-aged child who has exhibited cognitive delays.

To get to the point of conducting research or working with clients, you must first complete your education in psychology.

In many cases, a doctorate is required to work as a psychologist. For example, clinical psychologists that offer services to clients typically must have a doctorate. This means completing undergraduate and graduate studies, and then spending an additional 4-5 years getting a Ph.D. or PsyD.

These programs take a bit of a different approach – a Ph.D. is rooted more in psychological research whereas a PsyD tends to focus more on applying psychological principles in a therapeutic setting. Either way, you will spend years perfecting your knowledge and skills as it pertains to psychology.

University psychology programs tend to be heavily focused on research, though as mentioned above, PsyD programs are usually focused more on practical applications of psychology in mental health practice. Either way, you will spend a lot of time learning about:

  • Psychological theories
  • Therapeutic interventions
  • Psychological research techniques
  • Statistical methods
  • Assessments

In addition to a wealth of classroom time learning new skills, doctoral programs in psychology also include field experiences such as practicum experiences, internships, or work studies. These experiences are vital to help you as a student see how psychological principles are applied in real-world situations.

You’ll also likely complete a dissertation or a dissertation in practice, in which you conduct research or complete a capstone project that helps answer a critical psychological question.

To become a psychologist, you will likely take specialized classes that allow you to focus on a particular pursuit. So, as a doctoral student in clinical psychology, you might focus on treating people with chronic psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder. Likewise, you might concentrate on studying dementia and other issues that typically affect older adults. You might focus on child development, psychotherapeutic techniques, or health psychology, just to name a few.

Upon graduation, there are many different areas in which you might work as a psychologist. Many psychologists go into private practice while others work in community mental health. Psychologists are employed by K-12 schools, colleges and universities, laboratories and research facilities, and various government agencies as well.

This is one of the advantages of becoming a psychologist – it is a field that has many applications in many different work environments, which enables you to pursue a career that most interests you.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling Psychology As noted earlier, counseling psychologists focus their time on working directly with clients that have mental, emotional, or even physical ailments in an effort to help them improve their lives. Whereas psychology is that broad “tree trunk” field we discussed above, counseling psychology is much more focused on utilizing therapeutic interventions.

As such, counseling psychology educational programs focus on helping students develop the necessary skills to design appropriate therapeutic interventions to assist clients with a myriad of difficulties. While undergraduate studies will be very similar to what psychology students experience – lots of introductory courses – graduate programs and doctoral programs can look very, very different.

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For example, a master’s degree in psychology might afford you the opportunity to study various subfields, like coursework in research, statistics, psychological theory, and neuroscience, to name a few. By contrast, a master’s program in counseling psychology will be much more focused on developing those critical counseling skills. You might take courses related to:

  • Counseling and interview skills
  • Group theory
  • Individual assessments
  • Diagnosis and psychopathology
  • Couples and family counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling

So, you can see a theme here. You hone your counseling skills in the context of specific types of counseling situations. This way, upon graduation, you’re equipped to begin providing services to a host of different clients.

Speaking of graduation, in many cases, counseling psychologists can practice with a master’s degree. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, as practice is governed at the state level. But one of the advantages of counseling psychology is that you might not have to continue your studies all the way to a doctorate.

In fact, some counseling psychology programs are comparatively short. For example, many master’s programs in school counseling and career counseling might only require 45-48 credit hours. While this is more than a typical master’s degree (which is usually in the 30-36 credit hour range), it’s less than other types of counseling psychology (mental health counseling, for example, will often require in excess of 60 credit hours to graduate).

So, why the extra education?

As a counseling psychologist, you must have the knowledge and skills to work with diverse populations with diverse mental health issues. So it is a matter of spending more time in a graduate program to prepare for applying the counseling skills you learn in different situations. While you can certainly specialize in your professional duties – you might work exclusively with victims of domestic violence – your schooling will focus on many topics related to various adjustment problems, social issues, personality disorders, developmental disorders, and issues related cross-cultural psychology, among many others.

During school, counseling psychologists study statistics and psychometrics just like students in a psychology program, but they focus more on applied research and best counseling practices. In other words, where a psychology student might study statistics as it relates to conducting research and publishing their findings in a journal, a counseling psychology student would study statistics as a means of evaluating the efficacy of a treatment or studying the commonality of a specific mental health condition. So in the former situation, statistics are used to further research and in the latter, they are applied in a counseling situation.

Many mental health counseling degree programs will touch on psychopathology and assessments as well. There is less quantitative work when compared to a traditional psychology program and more qualitative work to help people improve the quality of their lives. Counseling psychologists do many similar things as clinical psychologists, for example, but they simply focus on real-world and adjustment problems.

Accredited counseling programs follow curriculum standards set by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This type of accreditation is important as it ensures that the education you get meets the standards set forth by industry experts.

Counseling psychologists are employed in private practice, academic settings, and government agencies, just like psychologists are. Counseling psychologists are often found in health care settings, mental health clinics, and non-profit counseling centers as well. 

Again, though counseling psychology is a more focused area of study and work than psychology, it has applications in a breadth of situations, which opens the door for pursuing jobs of all sorts.

Job Differences

In addition to the differences in the levels of education and focus of coursework discussed above, psychology and counseling psychology also differ in the world of work.

For example, a psychologist that specializes in clinical psychology might evaluate, identify and treat various psychological disorders. They would do this through interviews and diagnostic assessments, such as administering a wide range of tests to clients, such as IQ tests, personality tests, or neurological tests. In some situations, a clinical psychologist might render these services to their own clients, with whom they then pursue treatment. In other situations, they might provide their feedback to another psychologist that’s treating the individual. 

This is a difference between psychology and counseling psychology as some states limit what kind of psychometric tests counseling psychologists can perform. Sometimes they work under the supervision of a psychologist, who in most cases must have a doctorate. As noted earlier, many counseling psychologists practice with a master’s degree.

A counseling psychologist will spend most of their time working with short- and long-term clients to help them deal with various issues that are diminishing their quality of life. Rather than focusing on psychopathology, which would be what a clinical psychologist would do, a counseling psychologist would help patients identify and understand their personal problems, such as social anxiety or anger management issues.

Likewise, a counseling psychologist carefully follows counseling guidelines to help their client find appropriate solutions for their problems. This might involve treatments like play therapy, rational-emotive therapy, or group therapy. Counselors also tend to specialize in a distinct field, such as family therapy, substance abuse, or treating behavioral disorders.

In addition to the focus of their work, the populations with which psychologists and counseling psychologists work might also differ. As a psychologist, you might be more likely to work with research participants, if research is your focus, or severely mentally ill individuals, if your specialty is in the clinical realm.

By contrast, counseling psychologists typically work with people that do not have severe psychological issues. Instead, most counseling psychologists work with people that are simply trying to overcome normal problems like anxiety, emotional distress, family dynamics, or substance abuse.

Psychology and Counseling Psychology are More Alike Than They are Different

Ultimately, whether you become a psychologist or a counseling psychologist, the goal of your work will be to help better someone else’s life.

As a psychologist, you might conduct that work in a lab or in a clinical mental health setting. As a counseling psychologist, you would be more likely to do that work in an individual or group therapy session.

Regardless, these two professions require that you understand the human condition, have compassion and empathy for others, and have a desire to improve the world in which other people live.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated July 2021