Psychology or counseling master’s: How to choose your path

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Group meeting with concerned faces.

Students interested in obtaining an online counseling degree or master’s in psychology often share the same career and personal passions. Namely, they want to understand human minds, behaviors and emotions more intimately, and then apply their knowledge in the field, both to help others and conduct valuable research.

However, though the two areas of study are linked — counseling is sometimes thought of as a branch of the larger psychology tree — there are fundamental differences in degree outcomes and curricula between programs that prepare students to be clinical psychologists or professional counselors. 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.

What separates psychology and counseling?

Psychology has a large scope, but is generally regarded as the study of cognition and the sciences of behavior, feeling and thought. 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 kline, meaning “bed.” On the other hand, “counselor” comes from the Latin “consulere”, which is related to the act of advising. Looking at the etymological roots, clinical psychology can be seen as delivering mental and behavioral health care, while counseling is more about giving guidance to clients, helping them 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 — indeed there is much inherent overlap — but this foundational difference 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.

What to expect from a master of science in psychology program

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 psychoanalytics, as well as diagnostics and intervention therapies. While counselors may be trained in these same sciences to better understand a client’s context, professional psychologists research or otherwise treat severe, long-term conditions like 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, larger research trials or as part of contracted services.

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 and developmental 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.

What students can get from a Master of Arts in Counseling

Comparably, while students may find that the curriculum for an online graduate counseling degree broaches the same overarching topics as 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, couples in a marriage, or who are addicted to substances, in abusive relationships/families or otherwise in need of guidance. These situations are different from severe psychotic cases, 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

Professional counseling is often found at the heart of personal interactions and relationships, 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)

How Bradley University can help you decide

Students facing the choice of whether to pursue 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, one that might offer you the best of both worlds.

Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling can help do just that. We have two specialized graduate tracks that prepare students to either become 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 interested in more information about admissions and online program specifics, contact an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:

What is the difference between a master’s in counseling and master’s in social work?

Why a Master of Arts in Counseling degree is right for you


American Psychological Association

Bradley University