So you plan to earn your Ph.D. in psychology. What kind of psychologist do you want to be?
It’s a big question. As you explore psychology graduate programs, the question remains in the forefront of your mind, helping to determine what programs you’ll apply to. So when you see that a grad school offers a clinical psychology program or a counseling psychology program (or both), it’s easy to get tripped up and confused.
What’s the Difference?
Not as much as you’d think. According to the Society of Counseling Psychology, the difference between counseling and clinical psychology lies more in the past than in the present or future. In the beginning, counseling psychologists offered vocational guidance and advice, while clinical psychologists focused their efforts on treating and researching mental health disturbances. Their roles continued to morph – and sometimes intersect – as time went on, and eventually clinical psychologists began providing psychotherapy which, in days past, was primarily the turf of psychiatrists.
But perhaps it was World War II that threw the two practices in tandem. As veterans returned to the States, an increasing demand for both mental health and vocational guidance services prompted the Veterans Administration to hire, in droves, both clinical and counseling psychologists to help vets cope with the effects of war and re-assimilate into civilian society.
In the 1950s, the American Psychological Association’s Division of Personnel and Guidance Psychologists changed its name to the Division of Counseling Psychologists to reflect the change in the scope of their duties; they no longer only provided vocational advice, but emphasized well-being in all areas throughout an individual’s life.
Nowadays, clinical and counseling psychologists are more similar than different, leading some to question why they’re differentiated at all. In fact, some have called for the two to be merged. However, as Dr. John C. Norcross, psychology professor at the University of Scranton, found, some nuanced differences remain. These differences include:
Who They Treat
Both clinical and counseling psychologists are licensed in all 50 states as “licensed psychologists.” However, according to the Society of Counseling Psychology, “Counseling psychologists have frequently stressed the field’s historical focus on a normal client population; that is, the research conducted and published in the professional literature is oriented toward people without serious or persistent mental illnesses.”
Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, are more likely to treat those with persistent and/or serious mental health disturbances. These differences are reflected in the psychology graduate programs for each discipline, too: Clinical psychology programs have a stronger focus on psychopathology while counseling psychology programs emphasize “multicultural training and a more holistic education.”
Where They Work
Counseling and clinical psychologists work in similar settings – namely universities and private practices. But you’ll be more likely to find clinical psychologists in hospitals, medical schools, and private practice; while counseling psychologists frequently work in universities and human service settings.
What They Research
When it comes to research, clinical and counseling psychologists have more commonalities than differences. But Dr. Norcross’ study found that human diversity and professional issues were far more likely to be researched by counseling psychologists than clinical psychologists. Clinical psychologists were much more prone to studying psychopathological populations and topics related to medical and hospital settings (such as neuropsychology and psychophysiology).
Knowing what you know now about the similarities and differences between clinical and counseling psychology, you can research traditional or online doctoral programs in psychology with confidence rather than confusion.
 The Society of Counseling Psychology, “What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and a counseling psychologist?” http://www.div17.org/about/what-is-counseling-psychology/counseling-vs-clinical/ (Retrieved 25 Feb 2013).
 Eye on Psi Chi, “Clinical Versus Counseling Psychology: What’s The Diff?” http://www.csun.edu/~hcpsy002/Clinical%20Versus%20Counseling%20Psychology.pdf (2000).
 APA gradPSYCH Magazine, “Counseling vs. clinical programs: Similarities abound,” http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/03/similarities.aspx (Mar 2009).