Economic and Opportunity Advantages to an MA in Counseling, vs. a Ph.D. in Psychology by Jim Nolan, Former President of Southwestern College, Santa Fe
People really need to get this. The difference is huge.
If you are in a hurry, here is the summary:
If your goal is to be a psychotherapist/counselor/therapist, then a MA in Counseling is the fastest and most economic way to get there.
First, did you know that the fields of Counseling and Counseling Psychology are really not related? Well, listen up—most people do not know this stuff, and the web is FULL of sites that get the information completely wrong. Seriously.
The “Counseling” field is overseen by the American Counseling Association, and the “Counseling Psychology” field is overseen by the American Psychological Association. In the former, you eventually get licensed as a LPCC, or something like that, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (differs slightly by state.) In the latter, you eventually get licensed as a Psychologist—a completely different title and professional track.
I am Licensed Psychologist, and my Ph.D. is in Counseling Psychology. There are also those who specialize in Clinical Psychology. We are all licensed as Psychologists. So when people say I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, that is not quite exactly correct, in my mind. Nobody’s license says “Licensed Clinical Psychologist.” They just don’t.
A Master’s degree in a true Psychology program is not worth a whole lot—you cannot get licensed as a Psychologist with a master’s degree. (You will find a few old stragglers who were grandfathered, but it’s not happening anymore.) If you are in a true Psychology path, you pretty much HAVE to get the Ph.D.
A Master’s degree in true COUNSELING on the other hand, allows you to sit for licensure as an LPCC (in New Mexico.) Again, the Master’s in Psychology does NOT allow you to sit for ANY licensure. That is profoundly important to know and remember.
Some schools (Naropa is one, there are others) call their MA program “Counseling Psychology”, which I think is a misnomer, and misleading. It does NOT lead to licensure as a Psychologist—it leads to a License in COUNSELING. That is a perfectly fine license, but the program should be called (in my mind) a Counseling program, since that is the discipline, license, and career it points you toward—NOT a Psychology career.
Master’s degrees in Counseling take about 2 years full-time, 3 if you spread it out a bit.
Doctorates in Psychology take more like 5-7 years (5 is very unusual, but not totally impossible.) That is a LOT more years, expense, time when you are not earning much money, time when your life is significantly on hold. (I basically MISSED the 1980’s—I was in grad school…)
If your goal is to be a psychotherapist/counselor/therapist, then a MA in Counseling is the fastest way to get there. You can do it in 2-3 years, get a limited license, practice until you get an additional 2,000 hours of contact time, and then get your full independent license as a Counselor, all of this well before the average doctoral level Psychology student has even started their much longer internship (2,000 to the Counselor’s 600 or so.)
Some things to consider:
- If you want to become a therapist, especially the older you are, the MA in Counseling is the fastest and least expensive way to go
- Why is age relevant? Because it is a different thing altogether to go to grad school when you are 25 years old, taking out student loans, knowing you have literally decades of earning time to pay them off and get back in the black. If you are 50 years old, and decide to embark on a Ph.D. in Psych path, and run up way more loans than you would for an MA in Counseling, and you are going to graduate at age 57, you have fewer years to pay off the loans, and get your life back in the black, financially. I usually recommend that if a person is over 40 or so, and wants to be a therapist, that they DEFINITELY look strongly at the MA in Counseling. It’s just economically more feasible and sensible. If you’re 30-40, it is kind of a judgment call. There is not a RIGHT answer, but you HAVE to think this one through.
- If you want to have your own private practice, the MA is still the best way to go—you can obtain an independent license, get paneled by insurance companies, and take third party payments. Some insurances pay Psychologists a few bucks more an hour (which I get as a Psychologist), but economically, it is definitely not enough extra money for that to be a factor in your decision.
- You always have to consider “Opportunity Costs”—if you are going full time, or even close, you are probably NOT working full-time, or making the kind of money you COULD be making if you were not in grad school. That is earning opportunity lost. The Doctorate in Psychology takes 5-7 years, and that is a lot of time to NOT be earning full time money. Just consider that.
A Ph.D. in Psychology allows you to do things an MA will not. Want to teach in a doctoral psych program? You need a Ph.D., or PsyD. You get to call yourself Doctor, if that’s a big deal to you. The Dr. title opens some doors. It really does. But you have to ask whether being a Licensed Professional Counselor might open those same doors. It very well might.
I hope you found this helpful. Graduate School is SUCH an important decision, and everybody needs help thinking it through, and very few people seem to understand all the variables involved.
Thanks for reading…
Former President of Southwestern College, Santa Fe