Master’s in Counseling vs. Clinical Psychology: How to Choose Which Is Right for You

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A counselor meets with a client.


Online counseling degree students and master’s in psychology students often have similar career and personal passions. Namely, they want to understand human minds, behaviors, and emotions more deeply, and apply their knowledge in the field, both to help others and to conduct valuable research.

However, though the two areas of study are linked — counseling is sometimes thought of as a branch of psychology — there are fundamental differences between the respective programs’ outcomes and curricula. A thorough understanding of these differences can help students who are considering a counseling vs. a clinical psychology degree to identify which fits best with their career goals. Considering these points when making a decision can help students identify the right program for them: either a master’s degree in counseling or a master’s in psychology.

Ensuring your personal goals, interests, and ambitions align with your chosen degree track is central to getting the most out of your education. Digging into program specifics, as well as high-level comparisons between clinical psychology and professional counseling, can help you arrive at the right master’s choice.

Clinical Psychology vs. Counseling

Psychology has a large scope, but it is generally regarded as the study of cognition and the sciences of behavior, feeling, and thought. Clinical psychology is a specialized branch that involves analyzing and treating a wide range of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, from short-term problems to chronic or severe issues. A Master of Science in psychology is a common degree sought by students to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to be a clinical psychologist — which also usually requires a doctorate. Using this profession as a benchmark helps us better understand how counseling can be differentiated, even though the field itself descends from psychology, and what a Master of Arts in Counseling offers prospective students.

The word “clinical” is taken from the Greek word “klinike,” meaning “bedside.” “Counselor” comes from the Latin “consulere,” which is related to the act of advising. Looking at the terms’ etymological roots, clinical psychology can be seen as delivering mental and behavioral health care, while counseling is more about giving guidance, helping clients process their own life situations, and empowering them with tools to manage their emotions. This is not to say these responsibilities are exclusive to each field. There is substantial overlap between the two. However, this foundational difference is large enough to keep the two paths separate, and it can help set the stage for a student’s decision to enroll in a counseling master’s degree program or one that grants a master’s in psychology.

Master’s in Clinical Psychology

Although basic mental functions and processes form the bonds between psychology and counseling, master’s programs in psychology usually go more deeply into subjects like psychopathology, psychopharmacology, and psychoanalytic therapy, as well as diagnostics and intervention therapies. While counselors may be trained in these same sciences to better understand their clients’ conditions, professional psychologists research or otherwise treat severe, long-term conditions such as personality disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychoses.

Psychologists are also educated on how to administer various tests like IQ tests, aptitude assessments, personality characterizations, and performance measurements that may be used in individual client examinations, in larger research trials, or as part of contracted services. Additionally, psychologists study different theoretical approaches to psychology, such as the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, and humanistic perspectives.

These core competencies and functions of clinical psychology point students toward what they can expect from a program that offers a Master of Science in psychology. For instance, coursework that psychology students may encounter includes:

  • Classes that focus on the underpinnings of cognition, perception, psychology of the self, and decision-making
  • Lessons focused on research, like those on statistics, qualitative and quantitative analyses, and how to recruit and vet participants for studies
  • Electives that focus on particular specialties, like forensic psychology, industrial psychology, developmental psychology, and school psychology

Psychology programs often have large time requirements for practicums or residencies, as clinical psychologists have to build up a number of hours to become licensed. Clinical psychologists must be licensed in their state of practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but they typically involve a specific level of education, supervised professional experience, and passing an examination. Many states require licensed psychologists to complete continuing education in order to retain their license.

Master’s in Counseling

Comparably, while students may find that the curriculum for an online graduate counseling degree broaches the same overarching topics as that of a master’s in psychology, a Master of Arts in Counseling program focuses on preparing students to become mental health counselors.

For example, counseling professionals are more likely to engage with clients who are children, families, or couples in a marriage, or who are addicted to substances, in abusive relationships, or otherwise in need of guidance. These situations are different from severe psychotic cases, yet they still require the same psychological understanding of the brain, as well as the advanced skills online counseling students can gain, like:

  • Expressing empathy
  • Addressing and defusing conflict
  • Providing life guidance for students
  • Helping clients express themselves
  • Teaching coping mechanisms or other strategies

Personal interactions and relationships are often at the heart of professional counseling work, and helping students build aptitude in these areas is a key objective of any graduate counseling program. To that end, common curricula of such programs include:

  • Counseling ethics and intervention strategies
  • Interpersonal behavior, crisis management, and family dynamics
  • Grief and loss, and human growth and development
  • Counseling diverse populations (such as veterans and addicts)

Once counselors earn their degree, they must be licensed within their state of practice. Like the requirements for a psychologist’s license, the exact requirements for a counselor’s license vary by state. They may also vary depending on whether a counselor works independently or as part of a private practice.

How Bradley University Can Help You Decide

Students interested in pursuing either a master’s in psychology or a master’s degree in counseling face a tough decision. However, taking into account your personal ambition and career goals can help point you in the direction of the right program.

Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling has two specialized graduate tracks that prepare students to become either a professional school counselor or a clinical mental health counselor. The program also features cutting-edge approaches to brain-based interventions (like the emerging field of neurocounseling) that expose students to advanced psychology subjects in the context of real-life counseling.

If you’re interested in more information about admissions and online program specifics, contact an enrollment adviser today.


Recommended Readings

Is There a Difference Between a Therapist and a Counselor?

Social Work vs. Counseling: Choosing a Career That Is Right for You

Why a Master of Arts in Counseling Degree Is Right for You



American Counseling Association, What Is Professional Counseling?

American Psychological Association, A Career in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, Mission, Values, and Vision

Bradley University, Online Counseling Programs

National Board for Certified Counselors, Board Certification

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

VeryWell Mind, “Clinical Psychology History, Approaches, and Careers”