Do I Need a PhD in Counseling?

Created by careersinpsychology

Mature student studying in libraryThe answer to this question most often hinges on your answer to another:

What Are Your Employment Goals?

Hard as it is to believe, even the American Psychological Association (APA) has addressed the reality that many students decide to pursue a Doctorate in Counseling without having a clear and concise career plan in place. According to experts in the field, there are those who choose to obtain a Doctorate in Counseling for the prestige, the perceived credibility and the idea that entering the work force with a doctorate will be a lucrative endeavor. Dr. Alice G. Walton, an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now, warns against enrolling in a doctoral program for the wrong reasons. Referring to a study done by Suzanne Roff, PhD, she says;

Alice Walton
“The promise of money, prestige, fame or to call yourself ‘doc’ may be the worst reasons for going to psychology grad school.”

In an article written for the APA, Dr. Walton asserts that the following reasons are not adequate in justifying the time, money as well as the career outlook seminal to obtaining and having a Ph.D. in Counseling:

You just want to help people: Dr. Walton points out that there are many ways to help people besides getting a Doctorate in Counseling. Basically, she warns against career-based tunnel vision.

You Can’t Find a job: A challenging economy is not a reason to enter a doctoral program, Dr. Walton says. She encourages prospective graduate students to apply themselves rather than hide out in the protective bubble graduate studies afford.

It’s the Next Logical Step: There is nothing logical about choosing a profession you know nothing about. Due diligence with regards to obtaining real-life facts about the day to day living experience of those currently holding the position is the only way pursuing a Doctorate in Counseling makes sense.

You Want to Understand Yourself:  Walton mentions one organizational psychologist who was formerly president of the New York State Psychological Association; Richard Wexler, PhD. He had this to say about those seeking a doctorate as a means of self-improvement:

“If you want to work through your issues, get a therapist, not a PhD. You do not emerge from psychology graduate courses with all of your issues washed away. In fact, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing … especially if you think you now have all the answers to straighten out everyone in your own personal world. Since the motivation is not always a conscious one, spend some time thinking about whether you have any ‘unfinished business’ of your own: Do you have long-standing issues with a family member? Did you start crying in abnormal psych class? You can always go to grad school after getting a handle on your own mental health concerns.”

 Are You Prepared? Allocating Time, Money & Commitment

Doctorate's in Counseling can take anywhere from four to eight years to complete. If you have demands on your time from commitments in which you are already involved, this would definitely be a pertinent factor to consider. Alternatively, if you have commitments planned for the future (marriage, children) you may want to assess how stressful it will be doing both.

In terms of finances, according to Dr. Buffardi,

“For the majority of PhD students, tuition is waived. Earning a PhD is still expensive because it often involves being a full-time student for up to 8 years. During these years, you could be earning a full salary, rather than a meager graduate assistant's stipend.”

In other words, while you probably will not incur the dollar cost by way of tuition (as one most certainly does as a Master’s Degree candidate) you pay the price in opportunity costs. You are making very little money for an extended period of time. While business-minded whipper-snappers cannot wait to jump into their acquired area of expertise; scholars who are passionate about academia can be a bit like artists for whom starving in pursuit of their art is part of the career package—they don’t mind. If you consider yourself in this category, the monetary opportunity costs probably do not matter. If instead you are anxious to get about the business of making a living, the Doctoral marathon probably isn’t the wisest of races to run.

Test the Waters

An interesting phenomenon is the difference between how non-academics choose their vocations versus that of potential scholars. Before a high school graduate becomes a career-mechanic, typically they have worked on vehicles either as part of the curriculum at school, as a part-time job, or at their homes. Everyone knows at least one hairdresser; odds are every person has visited at least one in their lifetime. For those attending beauty college there most certainly have been times when the potential student has experienced being in the midst of a salon and witnessed much of what the job entails. They walk through the college’s doors with a first-hand idea of the career. The list can go on and on. Interestingly enough, this is not true for academics. Jobs that require extensive educational commitments are not jobs which the lay person always “experiences” first hand. Some careers are basically a mystery; we acquire knowledge about them from articles, television and speculation which is not always accurate.

In order to be a wise decision maker, common sense dictates that part of considering a Doctoral program would be to find someone who has the exact job of which you dream and spend some time with them. Find out what a typical week entails for them in their life. Look at their life holistically and assess whether or not they appear happy. Ask questions. Dig as deep as they will let you. Find another person who embodies your academic aspirations and go through the process one more time. If you still don’t have a grasp on the “after-life” of the doctoral process, keep going until you do.

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Find an Expert

When it comes to accurately assessing our talents and potential, our skills and personality traits, sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Dr. Susan Nolan is a Career Counselor who has focused her practice on working with the “vocationally lost.” She passionately embraces her role as career facilitator, and believes that the keys to health, prosperity and a sense of well-being are found by being in the right field, at the right job.

“No one should labor at that which they do not possess a passion. Life is about living and living it with a sense of purpose. Those who work at jobs because they get ‘stuck’ somewhere because of their prospective degrees are not likely to feel fulfilled on any level. The majority of a person’s life is spent on the job; if they are not happy there, they are not happy. I help people uncover who they are in a professional employment sense. It doesn’t really matter what job someone does; for self-esteem purposes it matters that they enjoy doing it and that their skillset matches.”  Dr. Susan Nolan, Ph.D.

Ask ExpertTaking a few dollars and the time to speak with a professional is something you will never regret. Quite possibly you have areas in which you discount your true nature, your true self. A Career Counselor can uncover these deeply ingrained mental habits and set you free from limitations you are unnecessarily placing upon your concept of future. They can assist you in learning to focus on that which brings out your best qualities, instead of settling for employment for which you are not well-suited.

Your Career is a Major Purchase

It is wise to treat the doctoral question as you would any other major purchase. If you had been approved to buy a $150,000 car, you would most certainly take certain steps.

A Test Drive: You would test drive various makes and models in search of the one that would best fit your driving needs, lifestyle and physicality.

In your examination of whether or not a Doctoral program is the way to go, “test drive” the career. Determine with specificity exactly the job you want to do and find at least one person with that job. Explain your quest and invite them out for coffee. If possible, spend a day with them. You can’t get a feel for the road unless you get behind the wheel.

Finances: Part of the purchase process is meeting with a finance manager at the dealership. This is the time to implement monthly payments, etc.

In terms of a Doctoral program, become well-acquainted with at least one person in the university’s financial aid or planning department so that you can discuss the realities of a doctoral program from a monetary standpoint.

Insurance: Insurance for a vehicle is a mandated given.

Strive to protect yourself from a career pile-up by pro-actively “ensuring” yourself that you will be doing what you love for an amount of income with which you will be satisfied. Together with the financial aid expert, get down to the nitty-gritty of what your financial forecast will be for the duration of your studies, and what you will be responsible for after graduation.

Along those lines, nail down the range of income for someone with a Doctorate in Counseling. Utilize your creativity by calling Human Resource departments, employment agencies, etc. Assess whether or not the potential income will be satisfactory for you. 

Registration: Just as you need registration to lawfully cruise the highways, find out exactly what is entailed in terms of any licenses or certifications you will need to utilize your education the way you are anticipating. Find out in detail what the process is, how long it takes and what it costs.

Reality of the Road Ahead: Make Sure Your Map Includes This

Additionally, the only way a graduate can satisfactorily use their doctorate is if they have completed an internship program. In case you haven’t heard, the current system for securing internships is undergoing a desperately needed overhaul.

The mechanism through which internships have historically been accessible is a process called “the Match.” The Match is a computerized means through which graduates are “matched” with institutions for internships. In the early and mid 2010s, as many as 1,000 applicants went unmatched each year. In 2021, the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) reported less than 500 unmatched applicants. The next year, they reported more accredited internship opportunities than ever. However, the number of applicants still outnumbered available accredited internships.

So while the APA, APPIC, and other organizations are working hard to improve the situation, it’s one to keep in mind as you plan your psychology career and education. Now is definitely the time to closely examine whether a Doctorate is really what the doctor ordered.

An Unusual Question: What Does the University Want From You?

Dr. Laura Buffardi, Ph.D., a Graduate School Admissions Consultant, makes clear to prospective students three surprisingly candid facts to consider regarding the role doctoral candidates play for the university.

“Universities acquire PhD students to serve three purposes: (1) Teach undergraduates students cheaply, (2) Do a lot of research and (3) Make faculty members happy. Research faculty members generally love having bright, hard-working, energetic PhD students because, with their help, they can collect a lot more data and write a lot more research articles. Universities also hope PhD students will reflect a positive image of the University post-graduation, but, in my opinion, they are more focused on what PhD students can do for them while they are students than after graduation.”

While it may not be something you expected to hear, it is valuable insight to have before signing on for a doctoral program; there is nothing worse than feeling academically blind sighted.

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Just Remember…

Something else to consider; the university is not focused on what happens when a doctoral student graduates. This is an important concept to highlight because all too many hard-working scholars wait until graduation to digest the concept of what happens when finally, after almost a decade of nothing but study, they are out in the real world. Realizing the process now, before enrolling is imperative to being truly responsible with your time, money, and commitments; hence your ultimate quality of life experience.

Interested in taking the next step towards a PhD? Find out more about the below counseling options: