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.
Brems, C., & Johnson, M. E. (1997). Comparison of recent graduates of clinical versus counseling psychology programs. The Journal of Psychology, 131(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 Psychology, 43(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 Psychology, 2(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 Quarterly, 24(1), 43-53.
Norcross, J. C. (2000). Clinical versus counseling psychology: What’s the diff. Eye on Psi Chi, 5(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 Psychology, 41(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 Counselling, 30(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 Quarterly, 22(2), 257-266.
Text-Only Versions of the Above Charts
|Both Counseling Psychology and Clinical Psychology|
|Legislative & Legal||Both 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 process||Strongly 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|
|Demographics||Mostly female (70% in counseling and 75% in clinical)|
Small percentage of international students (9% in counseling and 6% in clinical)
|Acceptance Rate||Very competitive (8% counseling psych and 6% clinical psych)|
|Cohort Class Size||An average of 7 new students enter a given program each year (6.65 in counseling and 7.89 in clinical psych)|
|GPA & GRE Scores||Similar GPA (3.7 for both)|
Similar GRE Verbal (158 counseling and 160 clinical) and Quantitative (150 counseling and 154 clinical) scores
|Funding||Similar percent receiving full tuition waiver and assistantship (73% counseling and 78% clinical)|
|Internship sites||No distinction made for pre-doctoral psychology internship sites|
|Professional benefits||Insurance makes no distinction for payment|
Licensure process is the same
Both can practice independently, without supervisors
|Theoretical orientation||Significant number of psychologists in both specialties use integrative or cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches to treatment|
|Workplace||Employed 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.|
|Number||65+ APA-accredited programs||178+ APA-accredited programs|
|Recruitment terminology||“maladaptive”, “normal developmental issues/problems”, “life span”||“psychopathology assessment”, “treatment”, “manualized therapy”|
|Applicant background||Larger 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 location||Typically located in a department housed within the university’s College of Education||Typically found in a Psychology department housed within the university’s College of Arts & Sciences|
|Training Model||Scientist-practitioner or scientist-practitioner-advocate are most common models||Scientist-practitioner (80%) or clinical scientists are most common models|
|Emphasis on practice skills versus research skills||Tend 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)|
More likely to endorse humanistic, family systems, systems, and psychodynamic orientations
Expect more multicultural/diversity experience in applicants
More likely to endorse behavioral and cognitive-behavioral theoretical orientations
Expect more scientific method training in applicants
|Training||Less 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 story||Grew 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
|Populations||Less 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 orientation||More likely to use client-centered, humanistic, feminist, and multicultural approaches to treatment||More likely to use cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and manualized treatments|
|Practice||Personal/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 setting||More likely to work in college counseling centers||More likely to work in hospital/inpatient settings|
|Research topic focus||More likely to focus on multicultural and social justice issues or vocational/career issues||More likely to focus on psychopathology or medical (e.g., neuropsychology, pain)|