Masters vs PhD in Counseling Psychology Salary

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Helping others is one of the primary reasons most people go into psychology. While the field also lends itself well to research and academics, working with patients to help them improve their lives, get closer as families, find more success at work or escape trauma is a major motivator for many.

If that describes you, it’s possible you’d make a good counseling psychologist. Whether you already have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or are just considering this career path, your options are wide open. Before you can work as a counseling psychologist, however, you typically need to earn either a master’s degree or a doctorate. Which one you go for will depend, at least partially, on the salary options.

Before discussing salary differences, we’ll take a look at exactly what a counseling psychologist is and does, and what specific degree programs may meet the requirements. Then we’ll discuss salaries, student loans for school and paying back debt. Time to get started.

What Is a Counseling Psychologist?

According to the American Psychological Association, counseling psychology “focuses on how people function both personally and in their relationships at all ages. Counseling psychology addresses the emotional, social, work, school and physical health concerns people may have at different stages in their lives, focusing on typical life stresses and more severe issues with which people may struggle as individuals and as a part of families, groups and organizations.”

Counseling psychologists may address physical, mental, social or emotional issues, or some combination of them. Working with patients is geared toward helping them improve their wellbeing, resolve issues and move on with a better life. This isn’t to say that counseling is a one-and-done process, however; some counselors will work with patients for months, years or life.

What Do Counseling Psychologists Do?

A counseling psychologist’s duties and daily undertakings will depend on their specific focus. For instance, they may work only with children, with the elderly, with families, with women or within corporations. However, there are a few general services counseling psychologists typically offer:

  • They work to bring out the healthy behaviors and strengths their patients inherently possess, and sharpen them.
  • Working with patient history and reports, they aim to identify situational and environmental triggers, and create healthier responses to them.
  • They help people work through issues of disability, diversity, poverty or other jeopardizing situations.
  • They assist people in developing careers and working toward goals.
  • They may work with families or couples to help resolve misunderstanding and heal relationships.

Of course, the above are just samples of what counseling psychologists do. If you want to know more, talk to your specific program director about what else is available. Let’s turn our attention to that next.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Counseling Psychologist?

If you want to be a counseling psychologist, you usually need to start by earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. Some students may be able to apply to master’s or doctoral programs without a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but will have to complete a wide range of prerequisites first. If given the choice, you should definitely opt for the bachelor’s degree in psychology.

After that, there are three basic routes to working as a counseling psychologist:

  • Obtain a Master of Psychology and begin working, with is acceptable in some states and institutions
  • Earn a Doctor of Psychology instead, which will qualify you for almost any job as a counseling psychologist
  • Earn a master’s and then a doctoral degree

The last route is best for people who earned a master’s before they decided they wanted to work as a counseling psychologist, and now must obtain extra schooling in order to get the job they want; ideally, though, you only have to earn one. Many universities offer both master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology, so before deciding which route is best for you, talk to the university you’d like to attend.

Note that many counseling psychology jobs do require a PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology Degree, but you can find out more about this by asking institutions for whom you would like to work what they require.

Average Salary for Psychologists

Hard numbers for counseling psychologists with doctorates versus master’s degrees are hard to get, notably because most counseling psychologists need doctorates to work, and therefore there aren’t that many people working as counseling psychologists who only possess master’s (which is not to say it can’t be done). Plus, the job requirements and attendant salaries vary greatly according to institution, location and specialty.

That said, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists made an average of $72,580 per year. The breakdown of salary for actual jobs is a little different, according to Payscale: people with doctoral degrees working as psychologists made an average of $125,000, while those working in academic institutions made $62,500. If we average these numbers, psychologists with a doctorate make on average about $93,750.

Considering the BLS statistics incorporate average salaries for those holding bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, we can assume it’s a rough average of what someone holding a master’s might make. Therefore, those holding doctorates would make significantly more than those holding master’s degrees. Note, however, that these are averages, which means it isn’t likely you would hit these figures at the beginning of your career, but instead numbers you would hit after practicing for years or decades.

Student Loans for Psychologists

Before you can make that big salary, though, you need to first make it through school. If you’re looking for student loans, here’s the basic progression of where to find them:

  • Through the government, by filling out a FAFSA
  • Through your university, by checking their website and specific program departments (scholarships as well as loans)
  • Through private institutions

As soon as you’ve been accepted to school, make sure you find out more about which loans you’re eligible for, and apply.

Paying Back Debt

Attending school is expensive for everyone, and the costs can really add up when you attend for a master’s degree and then a doctorate. In fact, considering that master’s degree programs are typically 1-2 years and most Doctorate in Psychology programs require an additional 4-5 years of study, students can leave school with soaring levels of debt: close to $89,000 for those holding graduate degrees and a whopping $160,000 for those with doctorates, according to Nathaniel Mills.

Making a good plan to pay back debt is crucial, especially if you compare the average salaries you can expect to make with the amount of debt you’ll likely leave school with. Use the 6-month grace period that follows graduation to set money aside, where possible, and establish a standard of living that meshes with the amounts of debt you’ll have and the job you land. Getting out in front of your debt will help ensure it doesn’t catch you by surprise, for which you will be very grateful later.

At the end of the day, most people find working as a counseling psychologist rewarding and satisfying. While the job does bring its difficulties – among them having to see people in tough situations, paperwork, and working long hours, evenings or weekends – it lends a sense of satisfaction to your everyday to see the good you do. If you’re interested in this profession, consider embarking on either a master’s or doctoral program today.