Master’s in Counseling vs. Master’s in Psychology: What’s the Difference?
While counseling and psychology are both rewarding mental health fields, they each have a unique scope. As such, a master’s degree in counseling and a master’s degree in psychology each include distinct types of coursework and lead to different potential career paths.
Psychology is a scientific discipline focused on researching human behavior and wielding that research in applications such as clinical analysis. While there are careers that are open to individuals with a master’s degree in psychology, many of the most lucrative and sought-after positions require a doctorate degree. As such, many pursue a Master of Science in Psychology degree because it is a prerequisite to entering a doctoral psychology program.
Counseling, on the other hand, draws upon research – much of which is psychological in nature - to diagnose, assess, treat, and support patients’ mental health. While there is such a thing as a Doctorate in Counseling, a Master of Arts or Science in Counseling is usually considered a terminal degree, as it opens up the majority of the possible career options in the field.
Of course, there are numerous other differences between a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling. Ultimately, making the decision between the two comes down to your personal and professional goals.
Master’s in Psychology vs. Master’s in Counseling: At a Glance
Both psychology and counseling master’s degrees are offered as Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) degrees. In many career paths, the M.A. and M.S. degrees are accepted interchangeably. Similarly, there are several careers that are open to those either holding a Master’s in Psychology or Counseling.
That said, for those with a particular career track in mind, it usually makes the most sense to choose the degree type that best matches the style of work you anticipate performing in the field. Likewise, if you are planning on continuing your education with further certifications and/or doctoral degrees, the master’s degree you choose matters even more.
Master of Arts (M.A.) in Psychology
an interdisciplinary approach to psychology focused on theories and conceptual application of scientific research
Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology
a research and analytical approach to the discipline of psychology
typically the prerequisite degree for a Doctoral Degree in Psychology
Master of Arts (M.A.) in Counseling
an interdisciplinary approach to counseling focused on a combination of philosophy, ethics, psychology, and the humanities
Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling
a research and analytical approach to understanding and counseling patients
Average Time to Complete
2-4 years depending upon specialization and program
18 months – 3 years depending upon specialization and program
Students have the option of pursuing either a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Psychology or a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology. The M.A. path is commonly regarded as a terminal degree while the M.S. path is usually considered as a preparatory degree for a doctoral degree program.
Master’s in Psychology programs vary by both institution and concentration. The number of required credits can range from 30-90, which translates to 2-4 years of full-time coursework. Most programs require fieldwork experiences as well as some type of culminating experience or project – both of which are typically included as part of a program’s credit count.
The types of courses in a Master’s in Psychology degree program will vary depending upon the specific degree type and chosen concentration. M.A. programs will include more courses with a liberal arts focus while M.S. programs include courses primarily focused on science and conducting psychological research. However, some courses will tend to overlap; for example, most degrees include at least one course on ethics.
Master of Arts in Psychology programs tend to include generalized courses like:
psychological systems and theories
Master of Science in Psychology programs tend to include generalized courses like:
research methodology in psychology
applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
life span development
What is a Master’s in Counseling?
Students have the option of pursuing either a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Counseling or a Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling. The M.A. path is commonly regarded as a terminal degree while the M.S. path is usually considered as a preparatory degree for a doctoral degree program.
Regardless of which type of master’s degree in counseling you pursue, you can expect to complete coursework, clinical fieldwork, and some type of final research project or performance assessment.
Master of Arts in Counseling programs tend to include courses like:
foundations of counseling
ethical counseling practice
These courses may have more specific or generalized content depending on whether or not they are tied with a specific counseling specialization.
Master of Science in Counseling programs tend to include more scientifically rigorous courses like:
ethics of psychological research
issues in psychological research
As with an M.A. in Counseling, the content of these courses will likely vary depending upon whether they are core degree courses or part of a specialty track.
Master’s in Psychology Specialties
Pursuing a master’s degree in psychology requires students to select a specialty focus. Once core coursework is complete, the majority of the remaining credit hours are earned in courses tailored to these specializations. Some of the most common specializations include:
industrial organizational (I/O) psychology
learning, cognition, and child psychology
It is worth noting that not all of these specializations lead directly to career paths. Instead, many who pursue a Master’s in Psychology select specialty focus areas based upon their intended eventual goals in a doctoral psychology program.
Master’s in Counseling Specialties
Just like with a graduate-level psychology degree, a Master of Arts or Science in Counseling degree is often paired with a specific specialization. Some of the most common specializations include:
Some of these specializations are more naturally paired with an M.A. degree than an M.S. degree (or vice versa), but the majority of counseling specializations are available with either option. Furthermore, unlike with a master’s degree in psychology, most of the specialty areas in a graduate counseling degree pair directly with employment prospects without the need for a doctoral degree.
Simply put, selecting a counseling specialty (and even choosing between an M.A. and an M.S.) is all about finding the school that offers the best possible match for your interests and career goals.
Counselor Salary and Careers
A graduate degree in counseling lays the groundwork for a number of different counseling career paths. Some of the most popular include:
While none of the occupations listed above require doctoral degrees, most do require specific certifications and the passage of certain exams in order to obtain a license to practice. These requirements vary by state.
Generally speaking, counseling careers vary in both demand and salary. Many counseling careers are well above average for hiring demand, but this fluctuates depending upon location, industry, and specialty.
Salary ranges are also quite diverse. The median salary for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors was $44,630 per year, according to the BLS - but there is a wide range of salary possibilities within the overarching umbrella of counseling.
Psychologist Salary and Careers
Advanced degrees in psychology are the educational backbone for a number of diverse and interesting fields such as:
Again, there are a limited number of psychology fields where a master’s degree is sufficient. The majority of psychologist positions typically require candidates to hold specific certificates or degree specialties. However, advancing to the doctoral level opens many more doors to the most lucrative and in-demand career paths.