Applicants to doctoral programs (PhD or PsyD) in counseling psychology often want to know what “the best” counseling psychology doctoral programs are. However, there is no good one-size-fits-all method to rank these programs accurately. What makes a program “the best” depends on that student’s career goals.
Therefore, instead of giving you a misleading list of “the best’ doctoral programs, I’m going to tell you about the program characteristics that I think define the best programs. Below is a clickable table of contents for this page.
Characteristics Important to Everyone
- Full Funding
- High APA-Accredited Internship Placement Rate
- Low Student Attrition
- High Job Placement Rate
- Low Student to Faculty Ratio
- Great Fit with Faculty Advisor
- Cultural Diversity of Students and Faculty
- Good Program Location
Characteristics Important to Future Clinicians
Characteristics Important to Future Faculty
- Faculty Publish
- Faculty Seek Extramural Research Grant Funding
- Students Can Teach
- Students Can Provide Clinical Supervision
Characteristics You Don’t Need to Worry About
A Warning About Internet Lists of “The Best” Programs
There are several online “best programs” lists published by for-profit companies that have no expertise in counseling psychology. I encourage you to take the information they provide with a truckload of salt because they are often more interested in making money from your website visit (e.g., by referring you to the websites of unaccredited online degree programs) than giving you valid information. For example, one popular website uses “percentage of recent program graduates who are licensed” to rank counseling psychology doctoral programs. Why is it a bad idea to rank programs based on this one characteristic? Because not all graduates from counseling psychology programs need to get licensed to do the type of job they want to do, such as becoming a counseling psychology professor who does research and teaches non-practicum classes, working in certain industries and administrative roles, etc. Thus, those programs that are great at training students who get these kinds of jobs may get unfairly ranked because some of their students won’t need to get licensed to pursue their chosen career path. (You only need to get licensed if you are going to provide clinical services or supervise those who are providing those services.) For example, some of the programs that have the strongest track record of producing future counseling psychology professors are poorly ranked on this list. It’s frustrating to me that applicants are led astray by flawed ranking lists like this.
Some Essential Background Info
Please note that I have picked these characteristics based on my professional judgment; I respect that some counseling psychology faculty may have different opinions than mine and thus encourage you to consult with multiple mentors.
Some of these characteristics (e.g., low student to faculty ratio) are going to favor PhD programs over PsyD programs. Therefore, it may be fairer to use these criteria to compare programs of the same type, i.e., compare PhD to PhD, PsyD to PsyD, but not PhD programs to PsyD programs.
These program characteristics are also relevant to identifying the best clinical psychology doctoral programs and some of these characteristics are relevant to identifying the best counseling psychology master’s programs. For example, the best counseling psychology master’s programs: have a significant percentage of students who get funding, matriculate into doctoral programs or obtain gainful employment soon after graduation, offer master’s students interested in applying to PhD programs the opportunity to get mentored research experience, and provide assistance in obtaining practicum placements.
Before learning about the program characteristics, you need to know about the typical structure of doctoral counseling psychology programs. Typically, you will complete two to four years of heavy coursework and you’ll have to complete one or more projects and/or comprehensive exams before you can start on your dissertation. All of this is done “in residence,” meaning that you are physically attending classes on that institution’s campus. Once you are done with most of the coursework and projects/exams, you’ll be able to propose a dissertation project to your advisory committee, which you then must complete and defend. Once your dissertation is proposed, you’ll be eligible to apply for predoctoral psychology internship in the fall. Applying for predoctoral internship means submitting applications to about 12 mental health agencies around the country in the fall, interviewing at some of those agencies in the winter, and then being matched to one of those agencies in early spring. You will then complete your 12 month predoctoral psychology internship at that agency, starting that summer through the following summer. Ideally, students will defend their dissertation before starting internship, though some students will defend their dissertation sometime during their year on internship. For example, at our program the typical plan of study is as follows:
- Year 1: Full course load, provide clinical services to clients as a supervised practicum student.
- Year 2: Full course load, complete a Research Portfolio, provide clinical services to clients as a supervised practicum student.
- Year 3: Course load starts to lighten, Qualifying Exams are completed, Dissertation project is proposed, provide clinical services to clients as a supervised practicum student.
- Year 4: Apply for predoctoral psychology internship, complete dissertation, optional opportunity to provide clinical services to clients as a supervised practicum student.
- Year 5: Work full-time as a predoctoral psychology intern at a mental health agency for 12 months. Once internship and dissertation are complete the student graduates with their PhD.
Most students enter a doctoral program after completing a two- or three-year master’s degree in counseling psychology, clinical psychology, counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, or a related mental health degree. These students may be able to count some of their master’s courses toward the requirements of the doctoral degree, especially if the courses were earned from a counseling psychology master’s program that also housed a counseling psychology doctoral program. Students with strong resumes may have the opportunity to enter a doctoral program immediately after completing their bachelor’s degree. We call these students “post-bac” students. Post-bac students will have to take the basic master’s-level coursework before they can start on the doctoral-level coursework, which tends to add about 3 semesters of additional coursework to the doctoral program of study, which means it will take one or two more years to earn their PhD. Often, these post-bac students earn a master’s in counseling psychology along the way to their PhD.
Before we jump to the characteristics, I have a final warning: this page is very detailed (can you tell I’m a perfectionist?) and has more information than you’ll be able to fully digest at this point in your professional development. Please don’t get bogged down in the tiny details. Just get a general sense of the key program characteristics you should be considering and use that to inform your upcoming application decisions.
Characteristics Important to Everyone
The following program characteristics can be used by all students to identify the best counseling psychology programs: APA-accredited, full funding, high APA-accredited internship placement rate, low student attrition, high job placement rate, low student to faculty ratio, great fit with faculty advisor, cultural diversity of students and faculty, and good program location.
Doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association are held accountable to providing high quality training to their students. It’s hard to get an APA-accredited internship if you don’t go to an APA-accredited doctoral program. It’s harder to get a job if you don’t go to an APA-accredited doctoral program and complete your internship at an APA-accredited internship agency. For these reasons, I recommend applying only to APA-accredited doctoral programs. There can be good programs that are not accredited, but you take a risk if you enter one. Here’s the Society of Counseling Psychology’s List of Accredited Counseling Psychology PhD and PsyD Programs, which has handy links to each program. You can also search the clunkier official list on APA’s website.
It is common for counseling psychology doctoral students who get PhD’s to be “fully funded” during their time in the program. Traditionally, fully funded means that the student:
- has their entire tuition waived so that they don’t pay any money to earn course credits.
- Please note that, even if tuition is waived, most programs will require that students pay the university/institution mandatory fees for graduate students. You can find out the fees for the first year of study (fall semester and spring semester combined) by looking at the program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” table called “Program Costs”. You can always find the link to a given program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” tables by going to their program’s main webpage and looking for the hyperlink that says “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” table.
- will receive a monthly stipend to help defray the cost of living expenses such as housing rental and food. The amount of this monthly stipend can vary depending on how the student is funded. A higher stipend is better, but more important is how far that stipend will go, given the cost of living in that town. For example, a $1000/mo stipend will pay the rent in Lexington, KY but not in Washington, DC.
- will not have to pay monthly premiums (or you’ll pay reduced premiums) for the health insurance offered to that university’s graduate students. This benefit varies from institution to institution though, so don’t assume that just because you are being offered funding that you will get free health insurance.
There are three main ways to be funded: assistantships, fellowships/scholarships, or a combination of the two.
Fellowships/scholarships typically mean that the student gets free money without having to do work, but this is not always the case. Fellowships can be merit-based, identity-based (e.g., funding for racial minority students), need-based, or a combination.
Assistantships typically mean that the student must do work in exchange for the tuition waiver and monthly stipend. This work can be as a graduate assistant (GA), a teaching assistant (TA), or a research assistant (RA). It’s best when your assistantships require you to use skills relevant to your future career (e.g., conducting mental health workshops, teaching psychology courses to undergraduates, doing program evaluation research). Fully funded students typically must do 20 hours of work a week to earn the funding, which can be called a “20/hr/wk assistantship” or a “.50 FTE assistantship” or a “half-time assistantship” depending on the institution.
However, it is also possible for students to be “partially funded” via an assistantship that requires them to do 10 hours of work a week to earn the partial funding, which can be called a “10/hr/wk assistantship” or a “.25 FTE assistantship” or a “quarter-time assistantship”. Traditionally, partially funded means that the student will have half of their tuition waived and will receive half of the monthly stipend. However, the tuition waiver aspect can vary across programs, such that a partially funded student may not get any tuition waived or may get all of their tuition waived, though these two variations are less common.
It can be confusing and anxiety-provoking to figure this stuff out. However, it is super important to know the funding situation at the programs you are considering. as this can have a huge impact on your quality of life and future financial well-being.
If you are going to get a PhD in counseling psychology (see last paragraph of this section for info about PsyD’s), ideally you will go to a program where you will be fully funded during those “in residence” years before you go off on predoctoral psychology internship. Full funding means less student loan debt. It is most important to be fully funded during the early years when you are taking the most course credits (i.e., when tuition would be highest). It is less important to be fully funded during the later years prior to predoctoral psychology internship when you are not taking many (or any) courses, but it’s still worthwhile because of the monthly stipend and insurance premium waiver. Most APA-accredited internships are paid internships, so you will not need funding from your program during that internship year.
Therefore, I recommend applying to PhD programs whose students have full funding during their “in residence” years. Ideally, that full funding will be “guaranteed up front” if and when you are made an offer to join the program. However, very few counseling psychology programs are able to guarantee funding up front because of how the financial structure works at most departments that house these counseling psychology programs.
Therefore, it is best to try to learn what percentage of “in residence” doctoral students who wanted full-time funding have gotten that full-time funding the last few years. A history of successful full funding of all “in residence” doctoral students is not a guarantee that you would be fully funded as a future doctoral student, but it is the best predictor of whether or not you would be fully funded. Please note that some programs make this percentage available on their website and some do not; some programs can provide this information if you tactfully inquire about it, some may only have an approximate percentage, and some may not have this information. If you can get this information, you should, as it will dictate how much student loan debt you’re likely to accrue over the course of your doctoral studies.
Most PsyD programs cannot fully fund their students. When considering a PsyD program, make sure you know what percentage of students are fully and partially funded, what that funding looks like (tuition, stipend, health insurance), and how much you’ll likely pay in tuition each year of the program. Make informed decisions based on this information. The Psychology Graduate School website has thoughtful information regarding the difference between PhD and PsyD programs as it relates to student loan debt, so I won’t repeat it here.
I should also mention “research funding” and “travel funding” while we’re at it. The best programs offer their students access to (often a small) amount of travel funding that they can use to defray the expense of attending professional conference such as the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention. Plane tickets to national conferences often costs $300 to $600 round trip, hotel is often $100 per person per night, conference registration can be $40 to $100, plus daily meal and local transportation costs. International conferences cost even more in airfare. Graduate students with limited financial means really benefit from having the department help out with the cost. So, try to find out how much travel funding is available from the program’s department (and sometimes the larger college, graduate school, or university) per year. For example, our program offers students up to $650 for domestic conferences and $1,050 for international conferences in travel funding. Likewise, some programs make a pool of research funds available that student can competitively apply for to help pay for research expenses such as participant incentives. Such research/travel funding is nice, but also not nearly as essential as fellowship/assistantship funding and the accompanying tuition remission.
Lastly, let’s talk about summer funding. Summer funding is nice. Most assistantships/fellowships only cover you for the 9 month academic year (fall and spring semesters), but not for the summer months. This means that, if you want a stream of income during the summer months (to pay for non-school expenses like rent and food), you need to think about how you’ll get that money. Are you going to take a summer job unaffiliated with the program? Will you just count on student loans to cover your summer expenses? Do the assistantships that students get allow you to work and get the stipend during the summer months? These questions take on particular urgency if you will be taking summer classes. Some programs require students to take courses during the summer, some offer optional summer courses, and some offer no summer courses. If you are going to attend a program where you’re likely to take summer courses, then it’s important to determine if summer funding is available so that you can get a waiver on that summer course tuition.
High APA-Accredited Internship Placement Rate
You must complete an internship if you want to graduate from an APA-accredited counseling psychology doctoral program, regardless of what career path you want to take after graduation. Most internships are one year full-time (12 full months) and a few are two year part-time (24 months). There are both APA-accredited internships and internships that are not accredited by APA. You will have fewer job options if you complete an internship that is not accredited, which is why all APA-accredited counseling psychology programs strongly encourage their students to only apply to APA-accredited internship sites.
Nationwide, there are more applicants than there are APA-accredited internship slots. This imbalance means that students are at risk for not getting an APA-accredited internship, which puts them in a bad situation that can delay their degree or send them to a non-accredited internship that may hamper their future career.
Therefore, it is best to go to a counseling psychology doctoral program that has an excellent track record of helping their students get matched to APA-accredited internships that are paid.
To discover each program’s track record, look at the program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” tables called “Internship Placement”. Examine the last few years (the far right columns) to see how well their students have been placing lately. There are at least 2 things you should examine.
In Table 1, look at the first row called “Students who obtained APA/CPA-accredited internships.” Ideally, 100% of their students during each year of application will have matched to an accredited internship. If less than 100% of their students have been matching to accredited internships in the last few years, then that means you may also have trouble matching to an accredited internship if you attend that program. Of course, every student has a unique circumstance and it is mostly up to the student, rather than the program, whether or not they will match to an accredited internship. However, programs differ in how much support and guidance they provide to students during this process, and that support can make a difference in how effectively students approach the internship application process. In other words, the best programs have a stronger track record (i.e., close to 100%) of placing students in accredited internships, but even the best programs may occasionally have a student (or a few, if we’re talking very large cohorts) that do not match to an accredited internship.
In Table 2, look at the second row called “Students who obtained paid internships.” Ideally, 100% of their students during each year of application will have obtained paid internships. Because you won’t be getting funding from your home institution while away on internship, you need to make sure you’ll be paid by the internship site so that you can cover cost of living expenses. Annual pay varies from site to site, with a typical dollar amount of 20k to 30k for the 12 months. Most APA-accredited internships are paid.
By the way, APAGS has helpful resources related to internship that you can peruse.
Low Student Attrition
Not everyone who starts a doctoral program finishes it. Dropping out (i.e., student attrition) after putting in a few years of time, effort, and money into pursuing a doctorate is inefficient and something to be avoided. There are many reasons that students drop out of a doctoral program. Some are purely personal (e.g., medical or family issues, desire to pursue different career path), some are purely about the program (e.g., a hostile interpersonal culture among students and faculty), and some are a mix (e.g., difficulty coping with the stress of overly-intensive doctoral program requirements). Like I said with internship placement rate in the previous section, just because some students drop out of a given doctoral program over the years does not necessarily mean that the program has problems, but when there is a clear pattern of attrition over the years this may suggest the program needs to be doing something different. When there is a pattern, this is more suggestive that the program itself has some problems; when there is no pattern, this is suggestive that the occasional student dropping out may or may not be more about those students’ personal situations. It’s a little more complicated than this, but I think this is reasonable general advice.
To discover each program’s rate of attrition, look at the program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” table called “Attrition”. Look at the row called “Students no longer enrolled for any reason other than conferral of doctoral degree” to see how many students from that cohort (i.e., that group of students who entered the program in that same year listed at the top of the column) have dropped out. Compare this number to the number of “Students whose doctoral degrees were conferred on their transcript” for those cohorts that entered long enough ago that they have had a chance to complete all program requirement and graduate (i.e., cohorts who entered the program about 6+ years ago). Cohorts from the last few years will not have any students who have graduated, so you’re mostly comparing the number of students who attritioned to the number of “Students still enrolled in the program”. Ideally, most students will either be still enrolled (the last 5 or 6 years worth of cohorts) or will have earned their doctoral degree, while a minimum number will have attritioned. Again, look for patterns that might raise questions. Perhaps during interviews you can tactfully ask the more advanced graduate students in that program about what may have led to those students who attritioned to drop out when they did. This may help you get a sense of the degree to which that attrition is due to program-specific factor versus personal factors. For example, in our program, we had some students attrition because they discovered that they were more interested in other professional degrees that better aligned with their career goals. However, just looking at the numbers in the Attrition table would not reveal that information; it would have to be gleaned through conversations with folks in the program.
To add some further nuance: it can be valuable to know the kinds of students who tend to attrition from the program to see if there is a pattern there. Each university, geographic community in which the university is situated, department, and program have their own interpersonal and cultural climate. For example, some environments are more hostile to members of minority groups (e.g., People of Color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and international students, those with worldviews other than Christianity) than other environments. Therefore, some programs may demonstrate a pattern where minority students tend to be the ones that attrition while privileged students do not. This is important information for minority applicants to doctoral programs. If people who share your cultural identities are more likely to attrition from a given program, you may want to think twice about applying or accepting an offer to that program. Of course, the names and personal identities of those who drop out of a given program is protected by FERPA law, so it can be hard to get a sense for the cultural identities of those students who have attritioned from the program in recent years. My advice is to have a tactful conversation with graduate students currently enrolled in that program that share your salient cultural identities to ask them what the climate has felt like to them. This may help shed light on whether that program’s attrition may or may not be related to cultural climate.
In summary, the best programs have low attrition. Look for patterns of attrition. When such patterns exist, use tactful inquiries with current graduate students (this is easier during interviews when you have some face-time and rapport built with the current graduate students) to gather additional context. If the program (or larger department, etc.) seems to be doing something to create a less supportive educational environment for students, or certain groups of students, take that into consideration.
High Job Placement Rate
APA-accredited programs are required to track their program alumni after graduation to see when and if they obtain gainful employment (i.e., getting a steady paying job in the occupation for which a program was designed). A strong job placement rate (close to 100%) is a marker of a high-quality program. However, this information is not often posted directly on the program’s website, so you may need to obtain this information via other tactful means. This information can also be obtained from APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology book, though the information for each program may not always been updated for that publication year.
One wrinkle you should know about: after graduation, some counseling psychology doctoral graduates will go on to complete a “post-doc” to help them accrue additional training that will make them competitive for entry-level positions in our field. For example, this is quite common when seeking university counseling center staff psychologist positions. Often, post-docs are to help people prepare for practice careers, but sometimes counseling psychologists will do a post-doc to become more competitive for academic/faculty careers.
Low Student to Faculty Ratio
Program faculty are busy people. The more students they are responsible for providing academic advising, research mentoring, classroom instruction, and/or clinical supervision, the less time and effort they can spend on each student. The less time and effort the faculty can spend on you, the slower your professional development will be.
Therefore, I recommend looking for programs with a lower student to faculty ratio. In other words, programs with 5 students per faculty member (5:1) afford more personalized attention per student than programs with 10 students per faculty member (10:1). You will be able to find out how many faculty there are in the program by looking at the program’s faculty page and you can find out how many students there are by looking at the program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” tables. Scroll down to the “Attrition” table and count the number of “Students still enrolled in the program” in the third row of the table across all columns. Then, go on the program website and count how many faculty (ideally, core faculty… see definition below) are associated with the program. Lastly, divide the number of students by the number of faculty to get the ratio. Some programs list their student:faculty ratio to their website.
It’s important for me to acknowledge at this point that PsyD programs tend to have larger cohorts while PhD programs tend to have small cohorts. Thus, as I noted above, it may be fairer to use this ratio to compare PhD programs to other PhD programs, and PsyD programs to other PSyD programs, rather than PhD programs to PsyD programs.
Great Fit with Faculty Advisor
Many counseling psychology doctoral programs use an apprenticeship model of mentorship. This means that doctoral students apply to work under a specific core faculty member in that program. When I say “core” I mean that the faculty member is responsible for providing primary research mentoring and academic advising to a group of students. Core faculty are different from “Clinical” or “Lecturer” or “Adjunct” faculty who may teaches classes or run a clinic but typically do not provide primary mentoring/advising to doctoral students.
For example, our program has 5 core faculty members, each with their own research team/lab that is composed of the doctoral students they advise, and sometimes interested master’s students and undergraduate students. When people apply to our doctoral program, they must articulate in their Statement of Purpose/Cover Letter how their research interests/experience is a good fit for the research focus of one (possibly two) faculty member. This helps the core faculty make a judgment about which of the many well-qualified applicants has the best alignment with their program of research. For example, I do help-seeking research (i.e., what helps/stops people from getting talk therapy when they need it) among other topics, so I only seriously consider those applicants to our program that provide convincing evidence in their application that they have a genuine interest in (and, ideally, experience with) help-seeking research. In short, we want to work with doctoral students who love to study what we love to study. We’re going to be spending 4+ years working side by side with this student on research, so we need to make sure we’ll be a good fit.
Therefore, when applying to programs that use the apprenticeship model, you’ll need to be ready to articulate how your research interests match up with one (maybe two) of the core faculty members at the program. This brings up a larger question: what are your research interests? You need to know what your research interests are in order to determine which apprenticeship-model-using programs are worth applying to… if your research interests don’t match up well with the core faculty a given program, you are not going to have a realistic chance of getting into that program, so it’s not even worth applying to it. Even if we could find a magic criteria to determine the #1 best counseling psychology program in the universe, this does not matter at all if your research interests don’t match up with any of the faculty at that program!
This is why fit with advisor is such a powerful factor when considering doctoral programs. However, because every applicant has different research interests, your “top 10 best counseling psychology doctoral programs” is going to look different than most other applicants. It’s tricky like that.
Here’s a big caveat: not all counseling psychology programs use an apprenticeship model of mentorship. Some programs do not require that applicants articulate a research interest fit with one faculty member in their program because they instead look to recruit a strong cohort of students who, once they have spent some time in the program, can pick one of the faculty members whose research and style they like the most to be their faculty advisor and research mentor. For programs like these, it’s less about fit with a single faculty member and more about how much you like the core faculty as a whole (and how much they like you).
At this point, I want to broaden the definition of “fit with advisor” beyond just fit with their research interests. Fit can also include things like mentoring style (e.g., flexible vs. structured, autonomous vs. close hand-holding), personality (business-like vs. warm and process oriented, type-A vs. relaxed), and performance expectations (e.g., moderate vs. intense). You may or may not be able to get a sense of a given faculty member’s style during the application stage (some may have a website where they talk about their work and style), but you certainly will be able to get a sense of their style if you attend an interview at the program and get to experience their style first hand.
Cultural Diversity of Students and Faculty
Ethical counseling psychologists possess the ability to work effectively with clients and colleagues from cultural backgrounds different than their own. Working effectively requires knowing about the historical and modern experiences of different cultural groups (e.g., racial/ethnic, LGBTQ, rurality) as well as how privilege, discrimination, and disenfranchisement operate in the United States and abroad. It requires becoming aware of the privileges you may hold, the marginalization you may experience, and the cultural biases you have internalized over time, due to certain facets of your cultural identity. It requires learning cognitive and behavioral techniques that will help you reduce the influence of these socialized biases on how you interact with people who are in the same or a different social location than you.
You can receive effective training in these things in any counseling psychology doctoral program, regardless of the cultural background of the students and faculty in that program. That being said, programs that have a culturally diverse body of students and faculty will be able to draw upon a rich array of personal and professional experience that can maximize the quality of the multicultural competence training that occurs in that program.
Furthermore, it is nice when you can be part of a program where you can find community with people who share your cultural worldview. Therefore, seek to determine if people from communities you identity with are represented among the students and faculty of that program. It can also help when the program is located in a city where people from your communities work and live, as it’s important to be able to connect with people outside of your program. The cultural makeup of the students and faculty can potentially have a strong influence on how safe and included you may feel if you go to that program.
Look at the program website to see if you can glean information about the demographic makeup of the student and faculty body.
Good Program Location
While you will spend much of your time focused on your professional work, you also need to have a life outside of your program. Work-life balance is essential to preventing burnout and your own potential attrition from the program. Thus, it is preferable when the program is located in an area where you would enjoy living. Think about what your needs are.
Do you need the amenities a big city offers? How do you feel about gridlock traffic? Would you be depressed if your town was surrounded by miles of cornfields? Do you want to live in a place where the cost of living is low and, therefore, you won’t have to go into as much student loan debt as you might otherwise? As noted above, are there people from my cultural communities that I’ll be able to connect with in this locale? Is there a sizable population of young educated professionals in this place? Do I plan to raise a family here and what would that be like? Are there enough craft breweries to satisfy my thirst for highbrow libations?
Write down your “musts” and your “prefers” and give each program a grade based on its geographic livability. Like the characteristics of “fit with advisor” and “cultural diversity”, when it comes to ranking programs based on “geographic livability”, your list of top counseling psychology doctoral programs is going to be different than other applicants.
Characteristics Important to Future Clinicians
If your goal is to become a licensed psychologist who primarily provides clinical services (e.g., treatment, assessment, consultation, clinical supervision, prevention) to clients (e.g., individuals, couples, families, groups, or organizations), then you will care most about those program characteristics that impact the quality of your clinical training.
Short Time to Degree
Time is money. The sooner you can graduate and get your desired job, the sooner you can get on with your life and start to make money. Therefore, a shorter time to degree is preferable for those who want to go into practice (i.e., spend most of their professional working hours providing clinical services).
Shorter time to degree is not listed in the “universally-important characteristics” section because students who want to get a faculty job at a high-research productivity university (e.g., University of Kentucky, University of Missouri, Virginia Commonwealth University) must publish a lot of peer-reviewed journal articles before they graduate if they want to be competitive for these kinds of research-heavy faculty positions. If you accelerate your program schedule and zip through graduate school, leaving yourself with less time to develop your program of research, you may come to regret that decision.
Time to degree can be determined by looking at the program’s “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data” table called “Time to Completion for all students entering the program.” Bear in mind that this table does not differentiate between time to degree for students entering with a completed master’s degree versus those who are coming in post-bac, so try to get a sense of the percentage of students in that program who are post-masters vs post-bac and interpret these Time to Completion table results with that context in mind.
Practicum Site Variety & Quality
After learning the basic therapy skills in class, doctoral counseling psychology students will start to do clinical practica. A clinical practicum involves providing clinical services to clients at an agency for typically 10 to 20 hours each week for a semester/year. You will receive weekly clinical supervision from a licensed mental health professional who works at that agency (typically) and, at least in the first few years of doctoral training, you will attend weekly program faculty-taught practicum classes with the other students in your cohort. Practica is the primary way students gain clinical experience; you learn to do therapy by doing therapy under careful supervision from experienced professionals.
The best programs will provide students the opportunity to do practica at a variety of practicum sites, including university counseling centers, community mental health agencies, in-house department clinics, Veteran Administration (VA) Medical Centers, Hospitals, Prisons, etc. Having a variety of practicum sites that you can apply to do practica is helpful for several reasons:
- it will help you maximize the breadth of your experience, which can be attractive to some predoctoral internship agencies and future employers
- it will give you exposure to a variety of treatment environments, training modalities, and client presenting concerns / mental illness, which will broaden your skill set and help you develop informed preferences regarding the kinds of treatment settings that you might like to work in after graduation
- it is a sign that the program has strong partnerships with agencies in the surrounding community, which can help programs adapt to sudden changes (e.g., certain practicum sites closing down will not put some students at risk for not getting a practicum site)
In addition to the benefits of practicum site variety, the quality of the sites matters a great deal. Unfortunately, this can be harder to determine prior to going on an interview, where you’ll get to ask current students their opinions about the sites they have been to. Quality indicators include:
- the opportunity to earn many direct face-to-face clinical hours. I think 80+ per semester is a reasonable minimum benchmark, with a few exceptions:
- some sites intentionally give practicum students few clients and then balance this by providing in-depth supervision around those few clients
- sites focused on assessment, rather than talk therapy, often involve fewer hours face to face with clients and more hours spend analyzing and writing up assessment results and integrated reports
- the opportunity to get reliable weekly supervision from an on-site supervisor who works at the agency and is licensed as a psychologist or other doctoral-level mental health professional. Being supervised by master’s-level clinicians is less valuable and APA-accreditation requires that a critical mass of students’ supervision be provided by doctoral level psychologists. Some sites are structured in such a way that students’ weekly supervision meetings often get cancelled or cut short, which may limit student’s ability to get quality one on one supervision time (a key factor that helps students grow clinically).
Characteristics Important to Future Faculty
The characteristics that are important to students who want to become future faculty members (i.e., “go into academia”) vary depending on the type of institution you want to work at. There are different ways to classify the types of programs that counseling psychologists may find jobs in, but for simplicity I’ll put programs in three categories: research-intensive programs , training-intensive programs, and teaching-intensive programs.
Research-intensive programs require their faculty to publish lots of peer-reviewed journal articles and seek grant funding for their research in order to get tenure. These programs are typically housed in “high research productivity” (often called “R1”) universities such as the University of Kentucky. The intensity of these requirements varies from institution to institution. For example, as of 2018, a common tenure benchmark includes:
- 2 first-author publications (plus a few supporting-author publications) per year in good peer-reviewed journals relevant to your field of study
- evidence of seeking external funding (e.g., applying for a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health) by the time you go up for tenure around the start of your sixth year on faculty
- evidence of good teaching, based on teaching evaluation scores and peer review of your teaching etc.
Thus, if you want to be a viable candidate for a faculty job at a research-intensive program, you need to publish a lot of peer-reviewed journal articles, get experience applying for research funding, and get teaching experience, all when you are still a graduate student. Doing this will be easier at some doctoral counseling psychology programs than others because the resources, opportunities, and mentoring will vary from program to program. Therefore, the “best” counseling psychology doctoral programs for people who want to find employment in research-intensive programs will have the following:
- A faculty member who shares your research interest (see “Fit with Advisor” section above), publishes a lot of papers themselves, and has current doctoral advisees who publish a lot of papers.
- Look at the faculty member’s CV to see if they are publishing at a sufficient rate in good journals. Productivity can ebb and flow depending on what stage of professional life the faculty member is in, so pay attention to their productivity from the last three years, as this will be a better predictor of their future productivity than what they were doing 5 or 10 years ago.
- Look at the faculty member’s CV and see if their students are publishing a lot of papers with them. Generally, students start off by being supporting authors on the faculty member’s papers, then, as they get more experienced over time, those students start to be first authors while the faculty member is a supporting author. Just because a given professor is productive does NOT mean their students are also productive. This can be for different reasons. On one hand, if a given professor’s students tend to be focused on pursuing practice careers, they may be less interested in publishing papers. On the other hand, the professor and/or program may not be providing the resources, incentives, or supports that help students publish. It is also possible that the professor’s students tend to be publish with other faculty members or students inside or outside of the department, so it’s even better if you can track down the CVs of that professor’s students. For example, half of my publications during graduate school were with a team of social scientists unaffiliated with my program and advisor, so looking at my advisor’s CV would make you think I was only half as productive as I actually was.
- How many publications should you have by the time you are applying for this kind of faculty job? The bar for “publishing enough” keeps getting higher every year. As of Fall of 2018, my informal conversations with faculty colleagues at counseling psychology programs across the country suggest that 12 publications (with 4+ of those being first author, majority in good journals published by recognized publishers with impact factors greater than 1.00) is a solid minimum that applicants should strive to meet by the time they apply. There are plenty of folks who get jobs with fewer publications, especially if those publications are high quality or in top tier journals. Given this, try to find the CV’s of graduating students who are seeking R1 faculty jobs who worked with the faculty member you are interested in– were they meeting this 12 pub threshold?
- A faculty advisor who has or is currently seeking extramural funding (i.e., money from outside the university) and whose students have been involved in that process.
- Look at the faculty member’s CV to see if they have applied for (and ideally received) funding. Often, professor will seek internal funding from their institution, which helps them collect initial pilot data that serves as the basis for seeking larger extramural funding. Evidence of seeking internal funding is good, but not as compelling as evidence of seeking external funding.
- Look at the CVs of that faculty member’s students (if available) to see if they have shown evidence of seeking funding for their own research. Because they are students, it is more likely their efforts have only involved seeking internal funding or small amounts of external funding. Sometimes this funding can come in the form of fellowships or training grants rather than traditional research grants. Professors are often very involved in helping their students get such fellowships, and it’s a good sign that you may be eligible to pursue such funding with their help if you enter that program.
- Look for evidence that students have been involved in that faculty member’s pursuit of grant funding. Students can often help the professor out with literature reviews or helping to draft certain portions of the funding proposal. This sort of exposure to the process of seeking funding is valuable experience that can help students later pursue their own funding.
- Opportunities to teach while a doctoral student
- Look at the program’s website, handbook, or current students’ CVs to see if there is evidence that students get the opportunity to teach. Teaching experience comes in many forms, with some forms being more valuable than others.
- It is most valuable when you can teach an official university credit-bearing course as the “instructor of record” (meaning that you are the person primarily responsible for the teaching of the course). Because faculty members in research-intensive programs often teach graduate counseling psychology courses and sometimes undergraduate psychology courses, it is ideal if you get the opportunity to teach graduate students and undergraduate students. However, it is common to only have the opportunity to teach undergraduate students (only some universities allow doctoral students to teach master’s students, for example), so don’t be too worried if this is the case. As the instructor of record, you are ideally responsible for creating the lesson plan, teaching the curriculum yourself, grading coursework, and responsible for the logistics (e.g., managing student behavior). By getting experiences with all of these aspects of the teaching role, you will be in a better position as a job applicant to make the case that you will be ready to handle your future teaching responsibilities. Also, by teaching an official course, you will get teaching evaluations from your students, which puts you in a position to offer empirical data to prospective employers about the quality of your teaching (as perceived by your students, at least).
- The second most valuable type of experience is being a Teaching Assistant (TA). As a TA, you may only have to do the grading, teach a lab section, and/or guest lecture a few times. The more of these tasks you can be responsible for the better (the closer the experience is to being an instructor of record), in terms of building your resume.
- Likewise, it can be valuable to teach or facilitate an unofficial course or didactic experience (e.g., teaching helping skills or cultural competence skills to a group of people). These sorts of “teaching-ish” experiences can help you learn many of the same skills as you would if you were an instructor of record or TA, even though they won’t necessarily sound as substantial to job search committee members reviewing your faculty job application.
- Lastly, some programs may allow certain doctoral students to guest lecture in faculty member’s graduate courses, especially when the topic for that week is an area of strength/expertise for the doctoral student. This is a great way to get some initial teaching experience and/or get some practice with teaching graduate students, which often requires a different style than teaching undergraduates.
Training-intensive programs are those that offer a counseling psychology PsyD degree or a counseling psychology/counseling master’s degree (but no PhD degree). Faculty in these programs may or may not teach undergraduate students, but they do teach and train graduate students how to become good clinicians. Training-intensive programs typically do not require their faculty to publish lots of peer-reviewed journal articles or seek grant funding for their research. These activities are appreciated but not strongly incentivized. Rather, faculty are expected to some light to moderate publishing/presenting of work (perhaps one supporting-author manuscript a year or a few first-author symposium presentations or poster presentation at a conference) but are primarily judged on the quality of their instruction. Excellent teaching and light to moderate publication/presentation will earn them tenure. Teaching may include instruction of traditional courses but also providing clinical supervision of graduate students.
Thus, if you want to be a viable candidate for a faculty job at a training-intensive program, you need to publish/present a light to moderate amount and gain substantial teaching/training/supervision experience while you are still a graduate student. Doing this will be easier at some doctoral counseling psychology programs than others because the resources, opportunities, and mentoring will vary from program to program. Therefore, the “best” counseling psychology doctoral programs for people who want to find employment in training-intensive programs will have the following:
- A faculty member who shares your research interest that publishes some, and has current doctoral advisees who publish/present some. More than just “some” is great, but not required, in this case. If the faculty member also has some experience with seeking/obtaining funding, that’s great to.
- Opportunities to teach while a doctoral student: see the description in the research-intensive programs section… it all applies equally here. If anything, because of the training-intensive programs’ focus on teaching and training graduate students, there can be an even stronger incentive for job applicants to have had some experience teaching graduate students, not just undergraduates.
- Opportunities to clinically supervise and train graduate student clinicians: because of training-intensive programs focus on training graduate students to become clinicians, it is ideal if you can gain experience training graduate student clinicians while still a graduate student yourself. This is most commonly achieved by advanced doctoral students providing clinical supervision to masters students. For example, in my doctoral program, I was able to provide weekly individual supervision to first year graduate students who were providing therapy to volunteer clients. I was also able to teach an undergraduate course that allowed me to teach, train, and supervise the students around basic counseling skills. I also provided clinical supervision to undergraduate paraprofessionals who were providing basic career counseling. These are just some of the many forms that “getting experience providing clinical supervision” can take. Bottom line is that you want to engage in activities, whether paid or not, where you get to coach people on therapy-related skills. The closer the clinical supervision experience you are getting is to bona fide clinical supervision of students with actual clients, the better.
Teaching-intensive programs are typically found at Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs). Faculty in these programs typically do not teach graduate students. Rather, they typically only teach undergraduate students, most often in that institution’s Psychology Department. Teaching-intensive programs typically do not require their faculty to publish lots of peer-reviewed journal articles or seek grant funding for their research. These activities are appreciated but not strongly incentivized. Rather, faculty are expected to some light to moderate publishing/presenting of work (perhaps one supporting-author manuscript a year or a few first-author symposium presentations or poster presentation at a conference) but are primarily judged on the quality of their instruction and mentoring of undergraduate students. Excellent teaching/mentoring and light to moderate publication/presentation will earn them tenure.
Counseling Psychologists who become faculty in such departments are typically the only counseling psychologist on faculty. There may be one other counseling psychologist and typically two to four clinical psychologists, plus a smattering of social/personality, cognitive, experimental, neuro, industrial/organizational, etc. psychologists. Together, these faculty from various specialities of psychology are responsible for teaching the core psychology courses (Psych 101, Research Methods, Research Lab) plus specialty courses tied to their area of expertise. Thus, as a counseling psychologist, you would like be responsible for teaching courses like abnormal psychology, multicultural psychology, theories of counseling, basic counseling techniques, introduction to psychological assessment and measurement, introduction to counseling psychology, and perhaps a course related to your research interests such as psychology of religion and spirituality or psychology of gender.
Thus, if you want to be a viable candidate for a faculty job at a teaching-intensive program, you need to publish/present a light to moderate amount and gain substantial undergraduate teaching experience while you are still a graduate student. Doing this will be easier at some doctoral counseling psychology programs than others because the resources, opportunities, and mentoring will vary from program to program. Therefore, the “best” counseling psychology doctoral programs for people who want to find employment in teaching-intensive programs will have the following:
- A faculty member who shares your research interest that publishes some, and has current doctoral advisees who publish/present some. More than just “some” is great, but not required, in this case. If the faculty member also has some experience with seeking/obtaining funding, that’s great to.
- Opportunities to teach undergraduate students while a doctoral student: see the description in the research-intensive programs section… it all applies equally here. If anything, because of the teaching-intensive programs’ focus on teaching and mentoring undergraduate students, it is most important to get experience teaching undergraduate students. It is also helpful if you can be in a faculty member’s research lab that hires undergraduate research assistants, so that you try to get experience managing the work of these undergraduate RA’s. In my doctoral program, I was a sort of lab manager for our team of undergraduate RA’s in the lab, and this experience was valuable in helping me learn how to guide undergraduates in the research process. Some SLAC programs will really appreciate faculty candidates who have had not only classroom teaching experience, but also research mentoring experience with undergraduates.
Characteristics You Don’t Need to Worry About
The quality of counseling psychology doctoral programs is not judged by the same criteria used to judge other kinds of graduate or undergraduate programs. However, many applicants don’t realize this. Heck, many organizations that create “best programs” lists don’t realize or don’t care about this either (see my soapbox rant at the top of this page). So, let’s set the record straight. Here are some characteristics that, in my reasonably-informed opinion, you do NOT need to worry about because they are not likely to substantially impact the quality of your educational experience or your job prospects after graduation. Like with many things, there may be some exceptions where some of these characteristics would end up being important, but those would be exceptions rather than the rule.
Ask counseling psychologists if they think institutional prestige is a key factor that students should use when selecting which doctoral programs to apply to. I think you will find that the overwhelming response is “No.” Counseling Psychology program are not MBAs or Medical Schools, where there is dominant and fairly well-accepted metric that can be used to rank programs. Instead of Prestige, we talk about more direct measures of quality such as those listed above.
Core Course Offerings
All APA-accredited programs are required to offer core courses in 10 “Discipline-Specific Knowledge” areas and 9 “Profession-Wide Competencies” that our profession has deemed essential for all health service psychologists to be competent in by the time they graduate with their doctorate. The courses that cover these 19 areas are quite similar across all counseling psychology doctoral programs, so this is not a useful characteristic by which to judge the quality of programs. Certainly the manner in which these courses are taught will vary program to program and faculty member to faculty member, but such differences will likely be hard to determine prior to submitting applications and even after interviews. It’s typically not something we focus a great deal on in our discussions with applicants, as programs tend to be more similar than different when it comes to these core course offering.
That being said, courses on topics beyond the 19 required areas may differ from program to program. Thus, if you are really interested in, for example, family therapy or substance abuse counseling or sex therapy or LBGTQ psychology or some other topic, then you can check to see if a given program offers coursework in those areas or not. Bear in mind that you are going to be up to your eyeballs in academic, clinical, and research work your entire time in graduate school, so you won’t have the luxury on loading up on a bunch of extra non-required courses… so don’t undue emphasis on this piece of the puzzle.
After reading this page, you’re probably feeling anxious. That’s a healthy emotional reaction to being presented with so much complex information. You came to this page wanting and expecting to see a list of the top counseling psychology programs and all you got was coaching on what characteristics define the best programs, some of which are dependent on one’s career aspirations. But this is how (I think) reality is when it comes to applying to counseling psychology doctoral programs. Reality is messy and nuanced and individually subjective. I do hope that you’ve learned some new things that you didn’t know before, and encourage you to share this page with other prospective applicants.
Be sure to check out my other Resources for Students using the menu above, such as Graduate School Advice, the How to Get into a Counseling Psychology PhD Program YouTube Video Series, and What the Ideal Graduate School Applicant Looks Like. I also recommend completing the Mental Health Professions Career Test, which will give you interest scores on 21 different mental health occupations, including counseling psychology and clinical psychology. If you’re wondering how these two psychology specialty areas are different from each other, check out my counseling psychology vs. clinical psychology page. Finally, if you have any suggestions for edits or additions to this page, contact me.