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What Does a Counseling Psychologist Do?

By Pamela Pleasant
Updated May 17, 2024
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Counseling psychology can be a somewhat broad and diverse field, but in general practitioners are focused on helping individuals identify their strengths and tap into them in daily life, and in so doing overcome obstacles and maintain a positive self-image. Counselors typically specialize in areas like improving communication skills, training for career advancement, and continuing education. Some also focus on specific issues such as addiction, or work with families facing divorce, major illness, or other setbacks. In some places they’re also hired by companies to provide group sessions to employees and team members. Most of the time these professionals are trained in psychology broadly, and as such can often handle almost any issue as it arises, at least at first. Their primary job is usually to coach people though ordinary life events, though, and patients facing exceptional circumstances or in need of highly specialized counseling are usually referred to more nuanced experts.

Career Overview

This job is usually focused on improving patients’ well-being on a general level. These professionals often meet with people on a one-on-one basis and encourage verbal exploration of struggles in interpersonal relationships, career trajectory, and family situation — three of the biggest triggers for stress in people who are otherwise healthy and aren’t suffering from any known mental illnesses. It’s often thought that regular talk therapy and meetings with trained psychologists can help people improve their lives without medication, and may be able to avoid problems like environmental depression, at least in some patients.

Though most counseling psychologists hold doctorate degrees, most are not medical doctors. As such, their techniques do not involve pharmaceutical drugs or other medical interventions, and are based almost entirely on conversation and self-reflection.

Focus on Therapeutic Techniques

Most psychologists in the counseling discipline focus their sessions around therapeutic techniques of conversation and open sharing. This is done to make sure the patient feels comfortable around the counselor. By forming an attachment, the patient can confide in the therapist and openly discuss ideas, fears, and experiences. Patients can also discuss any uncertainty they may be having about moving forward with a problem. Being able to convey thoughts and feelings can be helpful when addressing a difficulty, no matter its complexity.

Choosing Between Specialization Areas

In part because there are so many different areas where counselors work, most professionals choose a single specialization area in which they do most of their work. Some work primarily with adolescents, for instance, whereas others are focused almost entirely family issues. Others focus more on issues like gender identity, racial integration and sensitivity, and cultural displacement.

A counseling psychologist can be used in the workplace. In corporate settings they can help employees to be more successful. For example, by discussing goals or career paths, an employee can find a more satisfying track in his company, or can more fully embrace different aspects of his day to day life. Working to overcome work-related problems or recognizing strong points can also improve performance. In a similar vein, this type of psychologist may also work in community centers or job placement agencies, working with clients to help identify ways clients may be able to reach work-related goals.

Tips for Getting Started

Education is usually the most important consideration for people hoping for a career in counseling psychology. Most of the time, a bachelor’s degree in psychology or sociology is required, followed by graduate work in counseling. Most practitioners hold a master’s degree and commonly also a doctorate in counseling. Depending on the school, coursework is usually paired with practical experience, particularly in later years of study, and as such most candidates graduate with many hours of actual patient experience. Certain locations require new graduates to pass licensing exams, and professional credentials often need to be renewed, usually with continuing education courses, every few years.

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