Who Gets One & What to Expect
Pursuing a Ph.D. in counseling online can lead to a rewarding career in the rapidly growing field of mental health. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 23% growth in mental health counseling jobs through 2026. While a master’s degree is sufficient for obtaining many counseling positions, those who seek more competitive jobs in advanced research, academia, or in private practice usually earn a Ph.D. in counseling. In addition to an increase in job prospects, an online Ph.D. in counseling allows professionals to further specialize and make more money.
Compassionate, inquisitive, persistent, and self-directed, the successful counseling Ph.D. student is adept at both intuitive and analytical approaches to human problems. These individuals take an interest in theory and other systematic approaches to understanding human behavior. They also remain sensitive to the individuality and dignity of each student or client they encounter. Counselors must have a growth mindset and view human thought and behavior as changeable rather than fixed.
Reasons to Pursue an Online Ph.D. in Counseling
Obtaining a terminal degree in the counseling field carries numerous emotional, social, intellectual, and professional benefits for inquisitive, compassionate, and ambitious professionals. Online counseling Ph.D. students typically pursue their degree for career security, advancement, or transition; salary advancement; personal growth; or a passion for research. See below for further discussion of these advantages.
CAREER SECURITY AND ADVANCEMENT
Earning a counseling Ph.D. can qualify professionals for more secure, higher-level positions in academia or in mental health facilities. This degree also renders mental health counselors more competitive candidates for supervisory, management, consulting, or research positions within their current or prospective contexts.
Those looking to transition from one field or work environment to another often benefit from the career advancement that Ph.D.-level specialization allows. Whether it’s a transition to academia, a research position, private practice, or a new counseling speciality, the counseling Ph.D. student can choose a program and dissertation topic that best prepares them to work with a new population.
Most mental health and educational institutions typically pay professionals based on a salary scale that accounts for one’s education credentials and work experience. A Ph.D. usually moves individuals up the pay scale automatically, while also qualifying them to pursue higher paying positions.
Although the academic rigor of a Ph.D. proves challenging at times, the opportunity to pursue deep questions about human beings can enrich a student’s understanding of self and others. The Ph.D. stimulates the meaning-making impulse and empowers the student to better trust their expertise and perspective. Meanwhile, doctorate-level coursework also provides an opportunity to learn from professors and peers at this level.
CONTRIBUTION TO COUNSELING RESEARCH
The intensive research involved in earning a Ph.D. suits those pursuing answers about human psychology and the therapeutic practices that best support it. This degree positions professionals as a potential scholar in the field — someone whose expertise qualifies them to produce knowledge that may shape mental health policy and practice.
What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Counseling?
Those seeking a terminal degree in counseling can choose either a doctor of psychology degree (Psy.D.) in counseling or a doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.). The former is considered preparation for mental health practitioners and supervisors, while the latter benefits aspiring academics and researchers. Both degrees involve 4-7 years of intensive study and include a dissertation; however, Psy.D programs focus more heavily on fieldwork, while Ph.D. programs involve extensive and diverse research.
While the titles of available jobs vary, Ph.D. graduates typically pursue academic research and teaching careers, professional counseling careers in a variety of contexts, mental health administration positions, or consulting careers.
Common Career Paths and Salaries
Some counseling Ph.D. graduates work as mental health counselors in schools, while others pursue careers as postsecondary teachers in colleges, universities, and other educational contexts. Still others take on administrative positions that supervise faculty, other counselors, and programs in schools, mental health facilities, and other organizations. Specific counseling careers and job titles vary, but the positions listed below reflect some of the primary career paths pursued by those with a Ph.D. in counseling.
Applied mental health counselors work directly with clients in schools, workplaces, mental health facilities, and community agencies. These professionals provide counseling and life planning help to those in need of mental and emotional support.
Average Annual Salary: $81,330
School counselors provide direct counseling services to student clients at K-12 schools and colleges. As they support students in achieving personal wellness, these counselors may consult with administrators, faculty, and parents as needed.
Average Annual Salary: $81,330
Mental Health Services Administrator
A Ph.D. in counseling can lead to director, manager, or other administrator roles at mental health facilities. These professionals manage programming and supervise other counselors, and ensures that the facility meets legal, ethical, and professional standards for mental health services.
Average Annual Salary: $99,730
Postsecondary Education Administrator
Employed by colleges and universities, these administrators oversee all aspects of daily operations in academic departments or school counseling centers. They may supervise psychology department faculty or other counselors.
Average Annual Salary: $94,350
Postsecondary Teacher in Psychology
Postsecondary teachers work in colleges, universities, or vocational schools. University professors in counseling typically work in psychology departments, hold a doctoral degree, and contribute to their university and the field at large by conducting and publishing original research.
Average Annual Salary: $88,490
Counseling Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes
Gaining admission to an online Ph.D. program in counseling usually requires several prerequisites, including an accredited bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in counseling or a related subject, a successful GPA above 3.0, and demonstrated counseling experience and/or knowledge. Although requirements vary by school, application submissions include official transcripts, a resume or curriculum vitae, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a professional writing sample, a purpose statement or research plan, and sometimes a faculty interview.
A Ph.D. in counseling typically requires about 60 post-master’s credits, which usually takes 3-5 years to complete for those with a master’s degree. A few accelerated, blended programs exist for those with a bachelor’s degree who wish to move rapidly toward the Ph.D. within one graduate program. These programs take longer than a post-master’s Ph.D. program and involve the completion of additional credits.
Although online counseling Ph.D. students usually can complete most of their coursework online, some programs require one weekly evening, one monthly weekend, or one or more summer residencies on campus. Most Ph.D. programs also require considerable in-person field experience — such as internships and practica — at a site near the student’s home.
All online Ph.D. programs in counseling introduce students to major areas of counseling research and practice. Although specific curricula varies by program, most programs cover counseling ethics and theory and how to navigate counseling dynamics in specific contexts, such as groups, diverse communities, or traumatized populations. The list below is a sample of courses a Ph.D. student can expect to take.
This course establishes a foundation in ethical principles of counseling rooted in a commitment to — and respect for — clients. Counseling principles include confidentiality, accessibility, and clarity about counselor-client relationship parameters which prevent exploitative or dual relationships. Counseling ethics courses typically survey and discuss the American Mental Health Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics. Counselors need a strong grasp of the field’s ethics to counsel or teach counseling in any setting.
In this course, counseling Ph.D. students familiarize themselves with past and current counseling theory. Students learn the histories and major theorists of the discipline. They also explore the strengths and weaknesses of counseling ideas and practices associated with constructivist, family, cultural, integrative, and family counseling theories. Exposure to these theories helps students determine their desired specialization and prepares them for teaching or counseling careers.
This course examines major group counseling theories, group dynamics and processes, and surveys counseling leadership styles. Students cultivate group counseling skills as they practice group counseling as participants and leaders. Most professional counselors conduct group counseling at some point in their careers, and aspiring mental health administrators or teachers can benefit considerably from understanding how to effectively facilitate and lead groups of people.
COUNSELING AND DIVERSITY
Students in this course learn about issues and strategies for counseling in diverse communities. The course covers counseling dynamics for individuals and groups characterized by race, culture, religion, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Students also learn to skillfully acknowledge, respect, and connect with clients across identity differences. These skills prepare professionals to practice across a variety of contexts.
CRISIS, DISASTER, AND TRAUMA
Students explore a variety of interventions commonly used to counsel people in crises like addiction, natural disaster, accidents, abuse, sexual assault, and other types of violence. Students learn about crisis theories, response models, and skill-sets. The course also informs students about available crisis resources, including crisis response units, hotlines, teams, emergency services, and how to interact effectively with these crisis resources.
In addition to required foundational and specialized counseling coursework online, many online programs in counseling expect their graduate students to complete qualifying exams, a dissertation project and defense, and supervised field experiences. Some programs also require brief residencies on campus, where students meet with their peers and professors in person.
Many counseling Ph.D. students must pass a comprehensive exam that demonstrates knowledge of counseling theory, research, and practice. Completing this milestone indicates a student’s retention of coursework materials, along with their readiness for the dissertation phase. To become licensed, students often pass additional state or other licensure exams after completing dissertation and fieldwork.
Ph.D. dissertations move through several stages, including preliminary research, proposal, proposal defense, additional research sometimes informed by the student’s fieldwork, writing, and defense. Most programs provide at least some dissertation preparation coursework, and all programs provide a faculty advisor and committee to help guide the student’s dissertation process.
SUPERVISED FIELD EXPERIENCE
To meet field experience requirements, an online Ph.D. in counseling usually includes a supervised practicum — during the first two years of coursework — and an internship during or after the coursework phase. These field experiences take place at approved sites near the student’s home.
Skills and Competencies
Counseling Ph.D. programs give students a deep understanding of counseling theories, principles, and practices. Students also cultivate their research, writing, leadership, counseling, and teaching skills as they complete their Ph.D. programs.
Extensive Counseling Knowledge
Graduate programs in counseling psychology cover considerable ground, and give students a sweeping view of the history, developments, theories, research, and practices that characterize the counseling field.
Specialized Counseling Knowledge
The dissertation process, along with the tracks or concentrations offered by many online counseling Ph.D. programs, enable students to become specialists in their subfield and research topic. This aspect of the Ph.D. qualifies students for specialized employment and knowledge-production through continued research and scholarship.
Research and Writing Skills
Qualitative and quantitative research methods courses — along with the dissertation process — prepares students to become scholars in their disciplines. Students learn how to evaluate and synthesize research, conduct their own research, and write scholarly papers that use the academic conventions of the field to summarize findings and identify the importance of that research.
Teaching and Clinical Skills
Some counseling Ph.D. programs allow students to teach or supervise undergraduate, master’s, and newer Ph.D. students, and all programs require a clinical research dimension in which students counsel clients. Counseling coursework prepares students with the knowledge and skills they need to assist a variety of individuals in attaining greater psychological well-being.
In addition to the leadership roles students learn to play as teachers or counselors, scholarly leadership often attends the Ph.D. process as the student becomes increasingly qualified to produce knowledge that can shape policy and practice in their field.
Counseling Professional Organizations
Many professional counselors and counseling students join professional organizations in order to connect with other professionals, find jobs, and stay current on counseling research and practice. Many of these organizations feature training programs, webinars, certifications, and other continuing education opportunities that allow professionals to learn new skills, obtain new specializations, and maintain or advance their licensure status. Some organizations also offer counseling program information, scholarships, grants, and awards to student members.
In addition to the many online resources provided, students and professionals can optimize their membership experience and career opportunities by attending conferences or serving on committees and boards. They can also pursue volunteering, mentorship, and collaboration opportunities that enrich counseling knowledge and establish professional connections with other members. Those looking for local employment and networking often seek out local chapters and regional organizations, while those interested in following nationwide opportunities and trends can join one or more of the major counseling organizations described below.
With over 118,000 members, the APA maintains a reputation as American psychology’s leading scientific and professional authority. In addition to running the major conference of the discipline, the APA funds and publishes a large percentage of existing psychology research. The organization also provides news and information about educational, networking, funding, and employment opportunities for psychology professionals and students.
The ASCA provides trainings, exams, publications, and other resources to support school counselors and enhance school counseling programs. The ASCA also provides a guide for school counseling design and practice called the ASCA National Model.
A non-profit educational and professional organization, the ACA provides a conference, a professional development center, a career center, governmental policy updates, several publications, blogs, awards, and a listserv. The ACA also educates the public about the profession of counseling.
CACREP connects students with college and university counseling programs and provides accreditation for these programs. CACREP also offers information about obtaining and maintaining professional counseling licensure.
The APS keeps its professional community current through its conventions, journals, a magazine, news, and employment and career resources, such as a job board. APS also offers mentorship and networking opportunities, grants, awards, and a student caucus which represents APS’s student members.