Online Doctorate (PhD) in Counseling Programs

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Reviewed by: Megan Kelly, MA, LMHC

A doctorate in counseling is a terminal degree for the counseling subject field, meaning it is the highest level of education one can pursue. There are different types of programs at the doctoral level, such as a doctoral degree in counseling and PhDs in counseling. These programs can equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed as a counselor and advance in their careers.

There are numerous doctorate of counseling degrees in the U.S.. Doctoral students can pick from a PhD (more research based), a doctorate of counseling, or even a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), among others.

At the top of the educational tier, doctorate in counseling programs are prestigious, sought-after degree programs throughout the country. Read on to learn about the differences and commonalities of each Doctor of Counseling program option.

For individuals already on the counseling path, online doctorate degrees in counseling could be great options for satisfying careers, while allowing students to learn in the format and timing that works best for their busy lives.

Consider an online counseling program: Learn more.
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Doctorate in Counseling Overview

Embarking on a journey towards a doctorate in counseling marks a significant step in the educational and professional development of counselors. This advanced degree represents the pinnacle of academic achievement in the counseling field, designed for individuals aiming to deepen their expertise, contribute to the body of knowledge through research, and assume leadership roles within the discipline.

A doctorate in counseling serves as a comprehensive pathway for seasoned practitioners and scholars to explore the intricacies of psychological theories, counseling techniques, and empirical research. It differs from master's and bachelor's degrees by its intensity, scope, and the independent research component that culminates in a dissertation. Doctoral programs, particularly those offered online, are tailored to accommodate the complex lives of working professionals, providing flexibility without compromising the quality of education.

This degree prepares graduates for a multitude of roles beyond direct client counseling, including academic positions, research roles, and high-level administrative roles in mental health organizations and educational institutions. While a master's degree remains the minimum requirement for clinical practice in counseling, a doctorate equips professionals with advanced competencies for specialized clinical work, policy development, and the application of research findings to improve counseling practices and outcomes.

In the broader educational landscape, a doctorate in counseling distinguishes itself by blending rigorous academic study with practical, research-based applications. Programs may vary in focus—some emphasizing research (PhD) that contributes to scholarly knowledge and others (EdD, PsyD) focusing more on the application of research to practical counseling settings. Regardless of the specific path, the pursuit of a doctoral degree in counseling underscores a commitment to excellence, leadership, and a profound impact on the field of mental health.

This advanced academic endeavor not only enhances personal growth and professional stature but also addresses the evolving needs of society's mental health. By fostering a deep understanding of human behavior, psychological assessment, and effective therapeutic interventions, doctoral-level counselors are well-positioned to lead advancements in mental health care practices, policy formulation, and the overall enhancement of therapeutic outcomes across diverse populations.

As the field of counseling continues to grow and diversify, the need for highly educated professionals who can contribute to the science, practice, and teaching of counseling has never been more critical. A doctorate in counseling represents not just the apex of individual academic pursuit but a gateway to shaping the future of the counseling profession.

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Doctorate (PhD) in Counseling Degree Programs Online

Individuals interested in counseling can find a college that provides online doctorate degrees that allow them to make a difference in their own lives, as well as in the lives of others. There are multiple types of doctoral counseling degrees.

Why Consider Online Doctorate Counseling Programs?

Online doctoral counseling programs can provide the same quality of coursework that traditional in-person programs provide. Instructors are readily available through various channels of communication, such as video chat, email, and course message boards,, which makes online classrooms just as efficient and effective as traditional in-person programs. Thanks to these technologies, Online PhD Counseling Programs offer students the flexibility to study on their own schedule, without having to quit their job.

Below are some of the types of programs individuals can pursue online.

Some individuals need degree programs that fit in with their jobs, family, and other responsibilities. As online degree programs have gained respect over the years, more people are taking part in advancing their degrees while maintaining their previous commitments.
At the top of the educational tier, doctorate in counseling programs are prestigious, sought-after degree programs throughout the country. Read on to learn about the differences and commonalities of each Doctor of Counseling program option.

For individuals already on the counseling path, online doctorate degrees in counseling could be great options for satisfying careers, while allowing students to learn in the format and timing that works best for their busy lives.

What Qualifications Are Needed for an Online Doctorate in Counseling Degree?

Pursuing a doctorate in counseling represents a commitment to achieving the highest level of expertise in the field. Admission to these programs is competitive, requiring applicants to demonstrate strong academic backgrounds, relevant experience, and a deep understanding of both the theory and practice of counseling. Below are elaborated qualifications and recommendations for prospective doctoral students:

1. Educational Requirements

  • Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees: A foundational requirement for doctoral programs in counseling is the completion of undergraduate and graduate degrees in relevant fields. While a bachelor’s degree might be in psychology, social work, or a related human services field, a master’s degree specifically in counseling, clinical psychology, or a closely related discipline is typically required. These degrees lay the groundwork for advanced study and research in counseling.
  • Recommended Preparatory Courses: To strengthen your application, consider coursework in areas such as:
    • Abnormal Psychology
    • Developmental Psychology
    • Statistics and Research Methods
    • Counseling Theories and Techniques
    • Ethics in Psychological Practice

These courses provide a solid academic foundation and prepare you for the rigorous study and research required at the doctoral level.

2. Existing Counseling Experience

Professional Experience: Prior practical experience in counseling is highly valued. This can include roles such as a licensed professional counselor, clinical psychologist (if coming from a psychology background), school counselor, or marriage and family therapist. Experience in conducting research, providing direct client services, or engaging in supervision can significantly strengthen your application.

3. Understanding of Counseling and Psychology

Research Project or Thesis: Engaging in a research project or completing a thesis during your master’s program can demonstrate your ability to conduct scholarly research, an essential skill for doctoral study. This experience shows your readiness to undertake a doctoral dissertation, which is a cornerstone of the PhD or PsyD in counseling.

4. Ability to Take Online Classes and Fulfill In-Person Requirements

Preparation for Hybrid Learning: While online programs offer flexibility, the requirement for in-person practicums or residencies necessitates readiness to fulfill these components. Prospective students should be prepared to travel or relocate temporarily to complete these requirements, which are critical for hands-on learning and professional development.

Additional Advice and Steps

GRE Scores: While not all programs require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores, a strong performance on the GRE, particularly in the Analytical Writing and Verbal sections, can be advantageous for admission into competitive programs.

Professional Licensure: If you are already a licensed counselor or therapist, include this information in your application. Licensure demonstrates a recognized level of professional competency and commitment to the field.

Networking and Professional Associations: Engagement with professional associations in counseling can enhance your understanding of the field and current research trends. Participation in conferences, workshops, and webinars can also be beneficial.

Statement of Purpose: A well-crafted statement of purpose that outlines your research interests, professional goals, and reasons for pursuing a doctorate in counseling is crucial. This document should reflect a clear understanding of the field and how you intend to contribute to it.

Prospective doctoral students should thoroughly research the specific requirements of their programs of interest and reach out to admissions counselors for guidance. Preparing a strong application involves not only meeting the stated qualifications but also demonstrating a commitment to personal and professional growth within the counseling field.

Online Doctorate in Counseling Curriculum

Doctorate programs in counseling offer a robust curriculum that covers a wide range of topics, from advanced therapeutic techniques to research methodologies and specialized areas of practice. These programs, whether focused on research (PhD), education (EdD), or clinical practice (PsyD), share a commitment to developing a deep understanding of human behavior, psychological assessment, and effective interventions. Here are examples of specific classes typically found in these programs:

  • Advanced Counseling Theories and Models: This course delves into the theoretical underpinnings of counseling practices, exploring both historical perspectives and contemporary developments in counseling theories. Students critically analyze various models and their applications in diverse counseling settings.
  • Research Methods in Counseling: Focused on equipping students with the skills to design and conduct empirical research, this class covers qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research designs. Students learn about data collection techniques, ethical considerations, and the analysis and interpretation of research findings.
  • Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling: A critical examination of the ethical and legal standards governing the counseling profession. Topics include confidentiality, professional boundaries, and the counselor's legal responsibilities to their clients and the community.
  • Diversity and Inclusion in Counseling: This course addresses the cultural competencies required to effectively serve diverse populations. It explores the impact of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, and disability on the therapeutic process.
  • Psychopathology and Diagnostic Procedures: Students gain an understanding of various mental health disorders, their diagnostic criteria, and assessment techniques. The course also covers the use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and other diagnostic tools.
  • Advanced Clinical Skills and Interventions: Building on foundational clinical skills, this course introduces advanced therapeutic interventions and strategies for complex mental health issues. Emphasis is placed on evidence-based practices and tailoring interventions to individual client needs.
  • Leadership and Advocacy in Counseling: This class prepares students for leadership roles within the counseling profession and broader mental health field. Topics include policy development, advocacy strategies, and leading organizational change.
  • Dissertation Seminar: Typically spanning multiple terms, this series of courses guides students through the process of developing, conducting, and writing a dissertation. Students engage in original research that contributes to the field of counseling.
  • Specialized Electives: Depending on the student's area of interest, electives might include topics such as substance abuse counseling, trauma and crisis intervention, marriage and family therapy, or school counseling practices.

Most online doctorate in counseling programs can be completed within three to six years, with the duration depending on the student's prior academic achievements, including whether they enter with a completed master's degree. The curriculum is designed not only to enhance theoretical knowledge and research skills but also to develop practical, clinical competencies for those intending to practice. By completing this rigorous curriculum, graduates are well-prepared to contribute significantly to the mental health field, whether through direct patient care, research, education, or policy development.

There are multiple online Doctor of Counseling program options. Consider a featured online program.

What are the Benefits of Getting a Doctorate in Counseling?

Getting a doctorate degree in counseling can help increase a candidate’s job opportunities and professional growth. Below are some of the benefits of earning a doctorate in counseling.

Help Others

Counselors can give guidance and support to individuals with mental health disorders or who are dealing with challenging circumstances. They may find that this career provides benefits that go above and beyond financial security or professional status. 

A higher degree could allow the opportunity to work in important fields of research, as well as government agencies. These higher-level job opportunities could grant counselors the ability to help more individuals by taking on roles that have greater impact than traditional individual or group counseling such as roles in policy development or professional advocacy.

Expected Growth      

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth of 18% for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the projected average for all occupations. There is a projected growth of 5% for school and career counselors between 2022 and 20329, which is  faster than the projected average for all occupations. This could mean that there will be many more job opportunities opening up for counselors in the near future. 

What Online Doctorate in Counseling Degrees Are Available?

Below are some of the types of doctorate degrees students can pursue. 

PhD in Counseling         

Students can earn their PhD in Counseling to sharpen their supervision, assessment, counseling, and group counseling skills. These programs often dive into topics such as diversity training and advanced theory and practice. Certified counselors with advanced degrees can work in a wide variety of settings, such as hospitals, private practice, agencies, and government.

PhD in Counseling Psychology            

PhD in counseling psychology is a broader degree that expands upon the concepts learned in a masters of counseling (counseling, assessment, diagnosis, intervention, treatment, etc); PhD in school psychology is focused specifically on issues related to students & student mental health, usually within a k-12 environment.

EdD in Professional Counseling and Supervision

Professionals who have their master’s degree in school counseling often seek to earn their EdD in Professional Counseling and Supervision.

Organizations to Know for PhD Counseling Students

Professional counselors should keep up with current trends, best practices, and changes in the field. Organizations such as the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), American School Counselor Association (ASCA) can be a great resource for this and provide career support to professionals. The NBCC is a great resource for learning more about specific certification, examinations and licensure information. ASCA also offers scholarships and grants for students to take advantage of during their studies. 

Will I need to Obtain a Counseling Licensure?

Licensure is required for graduates who plan to work with the public after graduation. Most states require that applicants for licensure graduate from an accredited university, pass a state board exam in counseling, and take part in one to two years of supervised employment. However, requirements may vary by state, and the types of counseling often require different certifications.

What Careers Are Available for Doctorate in Counseling Graduates?

Having a doctorate in counseling is the highest of accomplishments for individuals in this field. After receiving a degree and becoming licensed, counselors can work in hospitals, private practices, and state agencies, or they can even start their own private practice.

Clinical Roles

  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor: Work in private practices, hospitals, or community health centers, providing direct counseling services to individuals, groups, and families. Median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors (as of May 2022): $49,710
  • Clinical Director: Oversee the clinical operations of mental health facilities, ensuring the quality and effectiveness of patient care. Median annual wage: Salaries can vary widely depending on the setting and location, but directors in healthcare settings can expect salaries well above the median wage for counselors.

Educational and Academic Roles

  • Professor of Counseling: Teach future counselors in universities and colleges, contributing to the development of the field through education and research. Median annual wage for postsecondary teachers (as of May 2022): $80,840
  • School Counselor: Provide guidance and support to students in K-12 educational settings, helping them navigate academic, personal, and social challenges. Median annual wage (as of May 2022): $60,140

Research Roles

  • Research Scientist: Conduct studies and experiments to explore the efficacy of counseling methods, psychological theories, and treatment interventions. Salaries can vary greatly based on the type of research institution and funding sources.

Administrative and Leadership Roles

  • Mental Health Program Director: Lead programs and initiatives within hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and state agencies, focusing on the development and implementation of mental health services. Salaries for these positions can vary widely based on the size and type of the organization.
  • Policy Analyst: Work for governmental agencies or think tanks, analyzing policies related to mental health care and advocating for changes to improve public health outcomes. Median annual wage for political scientists, which which can serve as a proxy for policy analysts in the mental health field  (as of May 2022): $128,020 

Specialized Counseling Roles

  • Marriage and Family Therapist: Specialize in helping couples and families navigate relationship issues, applying theories and techniques tailored to these dynamics. Median annual wage (as of May 2022): $56,570
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Focus on assisting individuals struggling with addiction, using a blend of counseling and therapeutic techniques to support recovery. Median annual wage (as of May 2022): $49,710

Each of these roles leverages the advanced clinical, research, and theoretical knowledge that a doctorate in counseling provides, offering a pathway to impactful and fulfilling careers. Graduates should consider their personal interests, professional goals, and the specific populations they wish to serve when choosing their career path. As the field of mental health continues to evolve, doctorate-level counselors will play an integral role in shaping the future of mental health care, policy, and education.

FAQ: Doctorate in Counseling

This FAQ section aims to clarify common questions and considerations for individuals contemplating a doctoral degree in counseling.

Is a Doctorate in Counseling the same as a PhD in Counseling?

No, a Doctorate in Counseling can refer to several types of doctoral degrees within the counseling field, including a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Counseling and a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). The PhD in Counseling is typically research-oriented, focusing on generating new knowledge and preparing graduates for careers in academia and research. In contrast, a Doctorate in Counseling can also include professional doctorates like the Psy.D., which are more practice-oriented and focus on preparing graduates for clinical work.

PhD in Counseling vs. Psy.D. – What’s the Difference?

The PhD in Counseling emphasizes research, theory, and teaching, making it ideal for those who wish to pursue careers in academic or research settings. It requires the completion of a dissertation based on original research. The Psy.D., on the other hand, focuses more on practical clinical training and preparation for clinical practice, often requiring a doctoral project or practicum in lieu of a traditional dissertation.

Is a PhD in Counseling Needed?

Whether a PhD in Counseling is needed depends on your career goals. If you aim to conduct research, teach at the university level, or hold high-level administrative positions in mental health organizations, a PhD may be necessary. However, for those primarily interested in clinical practice, a master’s degree in counseling or psychology may be sufficient to become a licensed counselor, though a Psy.D. could enhance clinical skills and opportunities.

How do I know if a Doctorate is right for me?

Consider a doctorate if you are passionate about advancing the field of counseling through research, wish to teach future counselors at the college or university level, or aspire to lead in clinical settings at a high level. Reflect on your career aspirations, commitment to extended study, and desire to contribute to the counseling profession’s body of knowledge.

Can I earn a PhD in Counseling entirely online?

Yes, many institutions offer PhD in Counseling programs entirely online, catering to working professionals seeking flexibility. However, these programs may include in-person requirements such as residencies, practicums, or internships to ensure hands-on, practical experience.

Do I need to be a licensed counselor to be accepted into a PhD program?

Not necessarily. While some PhD programs in counseling prefer or require applicants to be licensed counselors, others do not. Admission requirements vary by program, so it’s important to review the specific criteria of each program. However, having a background in counseling or related field and relevant work experience can strengthen your application.

Does a PhD in counseling make me a licensed counselor?

No, earning a PhD in Counseling does not automatically make you a licensed counselor. Licensure as a counselor typically requires completing a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related field, accumulating a certain number of supervised clinical hours, and passing a licensing examination. A PhD can enhance your qualifications but is part of a broader set of requirements for licensure.

Charting Your Path in Counseling

Embarking on the journey to a doctorate in counseling is a profound step towards excellence in the mental health field. Whether through a Ph.D. focusing on research and academia or a Psy.D. centered on clinical practice, this pinnacle achievement opens doors to influential roles in counseling, education, research, and beyond. Deciding to pursue a doctorate requires thoughtful consideration of your career aspirations, a commitment to advancing the profession, and a readiness to contribute to the well-being of individuals and communities.

As you ponder the path that best aligns with your goals, remember that a doctorate in counseling not only elevates your professional standing but also empowers you to make a lasting impact. Whether you’re aiming to innovate through research, inspire the next generation of counselors, or transform lives directly through advanced clinical practice, your advanced degree is a testament to your dedication and passion for the field of counseling.

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