Counseling psychologist vs clinical psychologist salary

Deborah C. Escalante

According to a survey from the National Science Foundation, there were 3.5 million people in the United States in 2017 who held a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Among those individuals, 14 percent pursued graduate degrees in the field.

That means approximately 499,000 people have been tasked with the judgment call of joining a clinical psychology or counseling psychology program. At a glance, the choice is a daunting one: it can both build and branch careers, setting the foundation for a productive life-long story of the practice of psychological services. 

In many cases, these mental health professionals often find themselves working in hospitals, universities, wellness centers, private practices, or even schools, caring for the well-being of others based on knowledge and skills acquired in pursuit of their degree. While they may work in similar settings, there are key differences between these two branches of psychology.  

In this article, we’ll conduct an examination of what you need to know about the difference between clinical and counseling psychology. 

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

While clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists differ in their areas of focus, they do have a bit of overlap. To paint a key difference between clinical and counseling psychology, the clinical branch focuses on psychopathology — the study of mental disorders. On the flipside, counseling psychologists help patients or clients address emotional, social, and physical stressors in their lives. 

Ultimately, clinical and counseling psychologists share more in common than they differ.

Aspiring psychologists, whether immersed in clinical or counseling studies, share one key component in common: they want to help people. These are scholars who fundamentally crave an understanding of the minds that make up our world and strive to assist in addressing problematic behaviors. In terms of the soft-skills required for the profession, these are insightful people who can compose themselves in stressful situations, adapt well, and can predict behaviors based on scientific information and cases they have studied. 

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Many students touch on these skills during their bachelor’s programs, but these qualities are refined and tested during a graduate program. For clinical psychology students, this typically means working with individuals challenged by serious mental illness. 

What is Clinical Psychology? 

The work of a clinical psychologist tends to overlap with psychiatrists. This began as a post-World War II effort to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returning troops and evolved the branch into a profession that broadly centers around mental illnesses that range from major depressive disorders to schizophrenia. Significantly, this time period saw the movement of psychologists from private practice to clinical settings.

Their work is rooted in the natural sciences of psychoanalysis, humanistic psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. They treat primarily by instilling resilience in the people they meet with; neither clinical psychologists nor counseling psychologists prescribe medication. In practice, they work in hospitals and clinics, or in private practice. Some will go on to work in clinical counseling settings in the field of social work.

What is Counseling Psychology?

Counseling psychologists often work with psychologically stable individuals seeking to alleviate stressors in their life: social anxieties, emotional duress, inability to sleep, and more. These might be related to their work life, family dynamics, chronic pain, compulsive disorders, romantic relationships, or substance abuse. The goal is to provide them with coping skills.

Counseling psychologists tend to be more holistic in how they practice. They are employed frequently in university counseling centers, mental health centers, and rehabilitation centers, but can also have a private practice. Because counseling psychology can target a range of people and problems, students typically find an area of specialty, such as marriage and family, or develop a cultural competency, such as with gender and sexuality.

Clinical Psychology vs. Counseling Psychology: How to Choose?

Choosing whether to be a clinical psychologist vs counseling psychologist is entirely a matter of preference: both involve the same licensing process. But certainly, those focusing on clinical psychology should feel equipped to manage interactions with more severe psychological disorders and prepare for a more “bedside” clinical position. Those who opt to focus on counseling psychology can expect to interact with a broad array of behavioral, social, and emotional problems among clients from diverse backgrounds. 

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Because social service fields tend to be underfunded, salary ranges in psychology can start low when compared to other science disciplines, especially without a graduate degree. But this varies greatly depending on whether a position is in management, a hospital, private practice, or in a university setting. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for clinical psychologists in the US is $70,580. Counseling psychologists at the beginning of their careers can anticipate an annual median salary of $51,000, while those with between 5-20 years can expect around $65,000 annually. 

In terms of demand for those with these unique skill sets, mental health counselor positions are expected to increase at a rate of 20 percent through 2024. Counseling, clinical, and school psychologist positions are expected to increase at a rate of 19 percent. 

It is also true that, no matter which path you choose, there will be research opportunities. 

So, what is the difference between clinical and counseling psychology? Beyond the degree of illness of the patient being worked with, it’s really all about specialty. Students can — and are encouraged — to pave their own path and find an area of expertise based on what group of people they most want to help.

Professional Counseling at National University

National University is a regionally accredited institution with a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology (California). This program is specific for licensure in California and has focus areas for Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) and Professional Clinical Counselors (PCC) — including a program for both with additional hours for practicum training. Among other skills, the program teaches current professional ethics and laws, an in-depth look at the culturally diverse populations of California, therapeutic practices, and a well-rounded understanding of norms and principles. To begin the application process, contact our admissions office today.


The highest paying psychology careers

 Verywell / JR Bee 

Psychology can be a high-paying job, but it is important to recognize that there is tremendous diversity among psychology professions, and salaries and yearly earnings are just as varied. In a struggling economy, many students have turned their interest toward some of the highest-paying careers in psychology. The highest paying psychologist career salaries average around $167,000.

While many psychology careers have a higher than average yearly salary, it is important to remember that actual income depends upon various factors, including geographic location, employment sector, educational background, and years of experience.

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Learn more about some of the highest-paying psychology careers, the typical salaries for such professions, and the educational requirements for entering these fields. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Interested in becoming a counselor? Learn about typical mental health counselor salary ranges, states where salaries are highest, and how to increase your salary.

Clinical and counseling psychologists work with clients to diagnose and address mental health issues. If you enjoy helping people improve their mental wellbeing, this career can be very rewarding.

Keep reading to learn more about mental health counselor salaries, where they earn the most, and how to increase your salary.

Salary Summary Median Annual Salary (BLS) Average Base Salary for Clinical Psychologists (Payscale) Average Base Salary for Counseling Psychologists (Payscale) $82,510 $83,100 $54,170

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Payscale April 2022

Top 3 States for Mental Health Counselor Salaries

  1. Utah – $66,190 average annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors
  2. Alaska – $65,090 average annual salary
  3. District of Columbia – $64,920 average annual salary

Top 3 Cities for Mental Health Counselor Salaries

  1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – $74,560 average annual salary
  2. Carson City, NV – $73,200 average annual salary
  3. Reno, NV – $71,690 average annual salary

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a job in mental health counseling look like?

Mental health counseling psychologists work with clients experiencing mental health issues. They advise clients on ways to adjust how they think about and approach challenges in their lives.

What’s the difference between a mental health counselor and a clinical psychologist?

Clinical psychologists must have a doctoral degree to practice, while counseling licensure requirements vary by state. Most states require a master’s degree for counselors. Clinical psychologists focus on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, while counselors usually help people address particular issues or concerns.

Can you make a lot of money as a mental health counselor?

The top 10% of substance abuse, behavioral, or mental health counselor salaries earn $77,980, according to the BLS. The top 10% of psychologists make $133,890 or more.

What is the demand for mental health counselors?

Because of the opioid crisis, COVID-19, and other ongoing stressors, demand for mental health counselors is high. The BLS projects 24% job growth between 2020 and 2030 for substance abuse, behavioral, and mental health counselors.

Skills and Experience to Increase Salary as a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors can increase their earnings by becoming licensed psychologists. This requires earning a doctoral degree and working under a licensed psychologist’s supervision until prior to practicing independently.

You can also increase your mental health counselor salary by taking on leadership roles in your organization, creating training programs, and developing in-demand specialties, such as eating disorder counseling or pain management counseling.

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