A Matter of Degrees

Defining psychologists and degrees for majors and would-be majors.

Posted Jan 14, 2018

I recently wrote a proposal for hiring a new colleague. In the document, I took the time to explain the difference between clinical and counseling psychologists because I assumed that my colleague readers—fellow professors from disciplines other than psychology—might not know the distinctions. I also assume that many, if not most, college-bound, would-be psychology majors and quite a few declared psychology majors do not know the difference, either (nor do most high school students or many educated adults).

Here, in brief, is the difference:

Clinical psychologists work in a variety of places, including mental-health care, medical, educational, and research settings. Individuals who pursue a PhD degree in clinical psychology are trained as research psychologists that study and treat various emotional or behavioral disorders. These professionals also conduct psychological tests (e.g., intelligence tests, personality assessments, measures of cognitive and behavioral disorders) and develop therapy programs for individuals, families, or even groups. Clinical psychologists receive rigorous training and typically complete empirically-based dissertations, spend a year of their graduate education in some competitive clinical internship prior to receiving their degrees.

Counseling psychologists focus on problems of everyday adjustment (e.g., marriage, divorce, family dynamics, work stress) and are employed by schools, hospitals, higher education settings, and even businesses. They usually work with clients whose psychological problems are less severe and not as disruptive as those clients with whom clinical psychologists do their work. Counseling psychologists also undergo rigorous training, learn therapy techniques, and can have internships—the issues they tend to deal with are not issues usually associated with abnormal behavior.

Here’s the problem: Popular media and culture usually portray psychologists as mental health care providers who do some form of talk-and-listen therapy. Most people think that’s what psychologists and psychology professors do. What they don’t realize is that clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists and a few other types of psychologists sometimes do some form of therapy, but many don’t—and virtually all other psychologists do many other interesting but completely non-clinically related things. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) currently has over 50 different subfields in psychology—of which one is for clinical psychologists and another is for counseling psychologists. And within any given division, such as Adult Development and Aging, there are many special interest areas where individual psychologists with particular expertise are drawn (even the review of discrete topical areas in introductory psychology cannot begin to cover the variety of psychologists and the behavioral issues they explore).

What about degrees? Well, undergraduate majors graduate with either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Students who attend two-year or community colleges earn an Associates degree. None of these degrees entail any clinical, counseling, or therapeutic training. Graduates who want to go on have the choice of pursuing a Master’s degree (which can be a Master of Arts [MA] or Science [MS] or any number of more specialized or named degrees). Some individuals who pursue a Master’s degree can do therapy, thought it is often supervised by someone who has a higher (terminal) degree in the field of psychology. Such terminal degrees include the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which, as already noted, is a research degree within some subfield of the discipline, and the Doctor of Psychology or Psy.D. degree. The Psy.D. is oriented towards clinical practice—that is, assessing and treating patients—rather than a research degree. Another degree that some psychologists earn is a Doctor of Education or Ed.D. degree. Some people with Ed.D. degrees do counseling, while others study human development or school psychology.

The upshot of all this is to arm you with the simple knowledge that not all psychologists are clinicians or counselors. There are many other types of psychologists and psychology careers, as well as a variety of degrees to consider. Whether you are a psychology major or a would-be major, I suggest that you read up on these various options as you plan your post-graduate life. A good place to being is the American Psychological Association's web site. Good luck.


Dunn, D. S., & Halonen, J. S. (2017). The psychology major's companion: Everything you need to know to get where you want to go. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.