One of the most common questions I get is “What is the difference between counseling psychology and clinical psychology?”  The bottom line: these two psychology specialties are more similar than different (Norcross, Sayette, Martin-Wagar, 2021).  The differences tend to be slight and “on average.”  You will find greater differences from program to program (regardless of whether it is counseling or clinical) than you will find from counseling psychology programs as a whole to clinical psychology programs as a whole.

Many people apply to both counseling and clinical psychology programs at the same time.  If you are interested in getting a PhD, then your program selection process will be strongly influenced by what professors happen to be doing research on topics that interest you, regardless of whether those professors happen to be in counseling or clinical psychology programs.  For example, our counseling psychology faculty at the University of Kentucky do research on topics such as sex, social justice, leadership, help seeking, stigma, masculinity, multicultural measurement, LGBTQIA+ health and well-being, racial health disparities, academic persistence, wellness, sexual violence prevention, justice-system involved populations, substance abuse, and HIV.

Below is a summary of the significant similarities and “on average” difference between counseling psychology and clinical psychology programs.  References are included at the bottom of this page.

Be sure to check out my other Psych Grad School resources using the menu above, such as Graduate School Advice, Counseling Psychology Faculty Research Interests List, Best Doctoral Programs in Counseling Psychology, 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. Lastly, if you are an undergraduate student, consider applying for my Social Justice Advocacy Internship.




Brems, C., & Johnson, M. E. (1997). Comparison of recent graduates of clinical versus counseling psychology programs. The Journal of Psychology131(1), 91-99.

Karazsia, B. T., & Smith, L. (2016). Preparing for graduate-level training in professional psychology: Comparisons across clinical PhD, counseling PhD, and clinical PsyD Programs. Teaching of Psychology43(4), 305-313.

Morgan, R. D., & Cohen, L. M. (2008). Clinical and counseling psychology: Can differences be gleaned from printed recruiting materials?. Training and Education in Professional Psychology2(3), 156-164.

Neimeyer, G. J., Taylor, J. M., Wear, D. M., & Buyukgoze-Kavas, A. (2011). How special are the specialties? Workplace settings in counseling and clinical psychology in the United States. Counselling Psychology Quarterly24(1), 43-53.

Norcross, J. C. (2000). Clinical versus counseling psychology: What’s the diff. Eye on Psi Chi5(1), 20-22.

Norcross, J. C. , Sayette, M. A. & Martin-Wagar, C. A. (2021). Doctoral Training in Counseling Psychology. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 15 (3), 167-175. doi: 10.1037/tep0000306.

Norcross, J. C., Sayette, M. A., Stratigis, K. Y., & Zimmerman, B. E. (2014). Of course: Prerequisite courses for admission into APA-accredited clinical and counseling psychology programs. Teaching of Psychology41(4), 360-364.

Ogunfowora, B., & Drapeau, M. (2008). Comparing counseling and clinical psychology practitioners: Similarities and differences on theoretical orientations revisited. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling30(2), 93-103.

Taylor, M. J., & Neimeyer, G. J. (2009). Graduate school mentoring in clinical, counselling, and experimental academic training programs: An exploratory study. Counselling Psychology Quarterly22(2), 257-266.

Text-Only Versions of the Above Charts

Both Counseling Psychology and Clinical Psychology  
Legislative & LegalBoth types of psychologists are referred to as “psychologists” or “clinical psychologists” in the context of legislation and legal issues
Both have same ethical/legal rights and responsibilities in all 50 USA states
No state makes a legal distinction between the two specialties
Training processStrongly applied fields (i.e., do research and put that research into practice)
Train students to do psychological research, teach psychology, provide talk psychotherapy, conduct psychological diagnosis/assessment/testing, provide clinical supervision, and engage in consultation/outreach/advocacy
Students learn to provide clinical services to a variety of clients with various presenting concerns and demographic backgrounds
Doctoral Ph.D. Training Programs
DemographicsMostly female (70% in counseling and 75% in clinical)
Small percentage of international students (9% in counseling and 6% in clinical)
Acceptance RateVery competitive (8% counseling psych and 6% clinical psych)
Cohort Class SizeAn average of 7 new students enter a given program each year (6.65 in counseling and 7.89 in clinical psych)
GPA & GRE ScoresSimilar GPA (3.7 for both)
Similar GRE Verbal (158 counseling and 160 clinical) and Quantitative (150 counseling and 154 clinical) scores
FundingSimilar percent receiving full tuition waiver and assistantship (73% counseling and 78% clinical)
Post-Graduate Work
Internship sitesNo distinction made for pre-doctoral psychology internship sites
Professional benefitsInsurance makes no distinction for payment
Licensure process is the same
Both can practice independently, without supervisors
Theoretical orientationSignificant number of psychologists in both specialties use integrative or cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches to treatment
WorkplaceEmployed in a variety of work settings (e.g., academic university departments, university counseling centers, independent/private/group practices, Veterans Health Administration medical centers, correctional settings, hospitals)
Most psychologists in both specialties work in independent/private/group practice
Similar breakdown of time spent on psychotherapy/research/teaching/supervision
Program Type:Counseling Psychology Ph.D.Clinical Psychology Ph.D.
Number65+ APA-accredited programs178+ APA-accredited programs
Recruitment terminology“maladaptive”, “normal developmental issues/problems”, “life span”“psychopathology assessment”, “treatment”, “manualized therapy”
Applicant backgroundLarger proportion of students of color (37%)
More likely to enter with a Masters’ degree (60%) in counseling psych, clinical psych, counseling, or related field
Smaller proportion of students of color (21%)
More likely to enter with only a bachelors’ degree (79%) and perhaps some additional post-bachelor work experience
Academic locationTypically located in a department housed within the university’s College of EducationTypically found in a Psychology department housed within the university’s College of Arts & Sciences
Training ModelScientist-practitioner or scientist-practitioner-advocate are most common modelsScientist-practitioner (80%) or clinical scientists are most common models
Emphasis on practice skills versus research skillsTend to equally emphasize skill development in research and clinical practice (4.39 on 1-7pt scale where 1=practice focus, 4=equal balance, and 7=research focus)Tend to emphasize skill development in research a little more than skill development in clinical practice (5.01 on that 1-7pt scale)
Faculty57% male
More likely to endorse humanistic, family systems, systems, and psychodynamic orientations
Expect more multicultural/diversity experience in applicants
60% male
More likely to endorse behavioral and cognitive-behavioral theoretical orientations
Expect more scientific method training in applicants
TrainingLess likely to have practicum sites in 1) child settings 2) adult inpatient/hospital settings
Students perceive higher levels of socioemotional support from faculty (may be associated with lifespan/vocational model)
More likely to offer practicum sites in 1) child settings and 2) adult inpatient/hospital settings
Emphasis on psychopathology assessment and manualized treatment
Students typically publish more
Origin storyGrew out of “vocational psychology” division of APA
Industrialization/efficiency focus – scientific study of factors affecting job performance
Post-WWII: Job training/counseling for veterans, incorporating external forces affecting mental health
Outgrowth of medical field (e.g., Freud)
Came first; has traditionally studied mental health disturbance
American Psychological Association (APA) established 1892
PopulationsLess likely to work with children, specialized, or high-risk populations
More likely to work with overall healthy populations (e.g., college students, outpatient adults)
More likely to work with children, specialized, and high-risk populations
More likely to work with severe psychopathology (e.g., schizophrenia)
Theoretical orientationMore likely to use client-centered, humanistic, feminist, and multicultural approaches to treatmentMore likely to use cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and manualized treatments
PracticePersonal/interpersonal health and well-being across the lifespan
Vocational perspective – address life change and stressors associated with psychopathology
More career/vocational assessment
Assessment and treatment of moderate to severe mental illness
Healthcare perspective – diagnose and treat life changes and stressors in context of psychopathology
More psychopathology assessment
Workplace settingMore likely to work in college counseling centersMore likely to work in hospital/inpatient settings
Research topic focusMore likely to focus on multicultural and social justice issues or vocational/career issuesMore likely to focus on psychopathology or medical (e.g., neuropsychology, pain)