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Online Degrees in Counseling


Counselors play a vital role in helping individuals, families and communities confront and work through life challenges. Trained professionals with an online health degree in counseling can look forward to strong demand for their services; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 18 percent job growth in counseling between 2008 and 2018.

Counselors help children and adults overcome their physical or mental problems. Depending on their specialty, they may help patients overcome addictions, find a career, achieve their potential at school, cope with a physical disability or face down psychological trauma. Counseling specialties include:

  • School counseling
  • Career counseling
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Christian counseling

These issues frequently overlap, challenging counselors to recognize and support broader issues. For example, alcoholism is often linked with mental health and family problems as well as addiction.

Online degree programs in counseling may be found in departments of psychology, education or human services, depending on the specialty area. The standard minimum qualification for a career as a licensed counselor is in any specialty is a master's degree. The full list of available degrees in counseling includes:

  • Associate: The two-year undergraduate degree offers sufficient applied training for a counseling assistant job. The degree is relatively rare, and programs tend to focus on substance abuse or addiction counseling.
  • Bachelor's: The four-year Bachelor of Science degree in counseling is more common. Combining general education and electives in psychology, the bachelor's degree offers a foundation for the specialized training of the master's degree. Some bachelor-level counseling positions are available in social worker and substance abuse specialties.
  • Master's: The Master of Science or Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree in counseling features advanced coursework in a particular specialty area, an applied research project and in many cases, a counseling internship. These graduate degrees generally take two years to complete.
  • Doctoral: The Ph.D. in counseling or clinical psychology requires extensive original research. Graduates may practice as clinical counselors, contribute to counseling scholarship and/or teach counseling at the college level.

Finally, certificates offer several-week or several-month focused training courses for counselors who wish to develop their skills in a specific specialty such as addiction counseling. Almost all states maintain licensure requirements for counselors in specific specialties, such as school counseling, marriage and family counseling and substance abuse counseling. Licensure requirements vary. In addition, counselors may seek certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors, a voluntary national credential distinct from state licensure.

In addition to internships, which are a valuable component of both online and campus-based counseling programs, new technology is helping students in online counseling degree programs develop key interaction skills. For example, the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and improving online education, describes how web-based tools can be used for students to upload videos in which they role-play various counseling scenarios. Interactive technology allows peers and instructors to comment and give feedback on the videos to help students hone skills.

Counselors generally begin their careers as clinicians or assistants. They advance into counseling roles, and may eventually take on responsibility as supervisors or lead administrators. With an advanced degree, counselors can tap into teaching or research opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40 percent of counselors are school or vocational specialists. Another third are rehabilitation or mental health counselors.

Online degrees in counseling offer a first step into this compassionate career path, giving health professionals the training they need to see their clients through life's toughest moments.

Counseling at a glance:

  • Salaries: School counseling was the top-earning specialty as of 2010, with a mean annual wage of $55,970 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Job outlook: Career prospects are best for mental health and substance abuse counselors, who can expect job growth in the 21-to-24 percent range between 2008 and 2018.
  • Key locations: Southern states like Louisiana, South Carolina and Missouri have the highest concentration of jobs in educational counseling; Montana and Vermont lead the U.S. in opportunities for substance abuse workers.

Whether it's financial stress, depression or the loss of a loved one, counselors help individuals cope with both short-term life issues and chronic mental health problems. While it's possible to become a counselor with a master's degree, earning a doctorate in counseling opens doors to advanced positions in clinical practice, research and academia.

Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.: Which Program Is Right for You?

When choosing a doctoral degree program in counseling, it's important to understand your options. Below are two common types.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Counseling: Primarily focused on original research, scholarly publication and university-level teaching, this degree is designed for aspiring researchers and professors.
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.): Primarily a practitioner's degree, the Psy.D. can lead to licensure as a counseling psychologist or to a career as a clinical supervisor or educator.

The two degrees sometimes overlap. Ph.D. graduates can also work as practitioners, and Psy.D. graduates can become researchers or teachers. Admission to a doctorate program in counseling almost always requires a master's degree in counseling or a closely related field. Students accepted into these programs typically finish between four to seven years.

Online programs are available at a range of schools. While most schools allow you to complete coursework and assignments fully online, earning an online doctorate degree in counseling also requires students to complete a supervised practicum or internship at a local clinical setting. Most online doctorates require students to attend a series of short, campus-based residencies throughout the program.

Internship and licensure requirements for counselors vary by state, so students should confirm that any potential programs offer the necessary training for the state in which they plan to become licensed.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Counseling Entail?

Most counseling doctoral programs are composed of three phases:

  • Coursework: Students spend the first two to three years completing both core and elective curriculum. Elective courses are concentrated in a student's area of focus, which may be a counseling method, a client population or a research problem.
  • Qualifying exams: After completion of coursework, students must pass a comprehensive mid-program examination to assess competency in their area of specialization.
  • Dissertation or doctoral project: Students earning an online Ph.D. in counseling are required to complete a traditional academic dissertation. Students enrolled in a Psy.D. program typically complete an applied doctoral project, which could include community-based research, analysis of a specific clinical application or review of published work in the field.

Additionally, many counseling programs use role-playing as one way for students to develop clinical skills, and online counseling students should be prepared to interact with classmates and faculty in virtual role-playing exercises.

Online doctorate degree programs in counseling vary widely in the blend of research and clinical training, as well as the area of specialization and emphasis. Browse through the schools below to request additional information about the programs.

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