Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology: What’s the Difference?

Are you interested in working in psychology but unsure whether you want to work in a clinical or counseling capacity? 

While both sides of the industry offer rewarding career paths, including high salaries, job stability, and the opportunity to make a difference in patients’ lives, there are important differences you should be aware of. Below, we define both counseling and clinical psychology and discuss the key similarities and differences to help you make the right decision for you.

What is counseling psychology?

Counseling psychology is a general practice within the broader field of psychology that focuses on how patients function, both individually and in their relationships with family, friends, work, and the broader community. 

Mental health counselors and counseling psychologists help their patients understand and address their concerns regarding their emotional, physical, and social health throughout their lives. Counseling psychology often focuses on typical life stresses and more serious issues that may arise from family, work, educational, or social situations, with an end goal of resolving crises, alleviating distress, and improving a patient’s general mental wellbeing.

What is clinical psychology?

Clinical psychology is a specialty within the field of psychology that is geared more toward populations with diagnosable mental disorders and serious psychopathologies. This includes, but is not limited to: 

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Personality disorder
  • And more

Clinical psychologists leverage their understanding of these psychopathologies and psychological theory to assess and diagnose patients, craft treatment plans, and carry out said treatment as necessary. They may also work to intervene during episodes of serious mental distress.

In addition to diagnosing and treating patients, clinical psychologists will also often engage in research-based practice and offer consultation services to community organizations and government agencies.

Similarities and Differences Between Clinical and Counseling Psychology

While the definitions above offer a broad comparison between the two fields, below is more detail about how counseling and clinical psychology are similar and different.

1. Careers and Job Titles

Individuals who work in the field of counseling psychology will often hold job titles such as:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Rehabilitation Counselor
  • Mental Health Specialist
  • Crisis Counselor
  • School Counselor
  • Counseling Therapist
  • Family Therapist
  • Rehabilitation Psychology Therapist

Job titles commonly held by those who work in clinical psychology include:

  • Mental Health Social Worker
  • Learning Disabilities Specialist
  • Clinical Counselor
  • Clinical Case Manager
  • Licensed Clinical Psychologist
  • Research Psychologist
  • Forensic Psychologist
  • Rehabilitation Psychologist
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Clinical Director

There are, of course, many additional job titles and significant overlap between the two specialties. 

2. Populations Served

For the most part, the populations served are similar whether you choose to pursue a career in clinical or counseling psychology. Professionals in both fields provide service and treatment to patients from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and throughout all stages of their lives, unless they choose to specialize in a certain population as a part of their practice.

The primary difference is that, as mentioned above, those who work in clinical psychology tend to work with patients who have more diagnosable mental conditions compared to those who work in counseling psychology. 

3. Place of Employment

As with patient populations, there is also significant overlap in where individuals with clinical versus counseling backgrounds work. Schools, universities, drug rehabilitation facilities, jails, juvenile detention facilities, medical and mental health clinics, community centers, and government agencies all employ professionals from both backgrounds, as might private corporations. Similarly, professionals from both backgrounds might choose to pursue private practice.

One key difference is that law firms, government agencies, and research facilities are more likely to hire those with a clinical background. This is especially true for consultation-focused positions.

Your Path Into a Successful Psychology Career

Regardless of whether you decide to work in a counseling or clinical capacity, it’s likely that you will need to complete some level of graduate education such as a master’s degree or PhD. When selecting a program—in addition to evaluating the program based on its academic and other merits—it’s also important to understand whether a degree has a clinical or counseling focus so you can choose one that matches your career goals. 

For example, the Department of Applied Psychology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University specifically offers programs geared toward individuals interested in a career in counseling psychology: a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology and a PhD in Counseling Psychology. Both programs emphasize the ecological model, which encourages students to conceptualize relationships and research across biological, cultural, and relational systems. Both programs also place a strong emphasis on experiential learning so students walk away with real, hands-on experience that they can leverage throughout their careers.

Interested in learning more about counseling psychology at Northeastern? Explore the Master of Science in Counseling Psychology and the PhD in Counseling Psychology program pages today. 

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Everything You Need to Know About Working in the Field of Counseling Psychology

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