Best Online Ph.D. in Counseling Programs for 2021

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Erin Gobler
Updated June 28, 2021 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.

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Counselors help children gain valuable academic and social skills, work with couples to strengthen their communication, and counsel patients struggling with mental health issues. With a doctorate, counselors can pursue the highest roles in their field. During a doctoral program, counseling students study counseling methods, specialize their training, and gain hands-on experience through a practicum.

Most counseling career paths require at least a master's degree. For example, mental health counselors and professional counselors generally need a master's degree to apply for a state-issued license. Counselors with a doctorate qualify for advanced roles like counseling psychologist, research counselor, and counseling professor. A doctorate also helps practicing counselors improve their long-term career opportunities.

This article ranks the best online Ph.D. in counseling programs. It also introduces the career and salary outlook for counseling career paths, the job duties for counselors, and scholarship opportunities for counseling doctoral students. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics clinical counselor's average annual wage can vary per state.

Explore these promoted online degree programs.

These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online graduate degree programs. Figuring out where to apply? Consider one of these online Master’s or PhD programs.

Best Online Ph.D in Counseling Programs for 2021

  • Adams State University

    Alamosa, CO



    Founded in 1921, ASU offers an online Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision to prepare counselor educators, researchers, and other practitioners for roles in academic and clinical settings. Accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Ph.D. requires four one-week summer residencies on campus in Alamosa, Colorado. The 66-credit program covers topics such as data analysis, supervision and consultation, and counselor education.

    Coursework also develops participants' proficiency in qualitative and quantitative research methodology. Graduates learn how to conduct research, present research results at conferences, and evaluate counselor education programs. Internships totaling 600 hours give attendees comprehensive work experience as both supervisor and professional counselor educator.

    Applicants without a CACREP-accredited master's degree may need to complete additional courses. Students pay the same tuition rate regardless of residency. Admission requirements include GRE scores, a minimum 3.0 GPA in the master's, and eligibility for state licensure as a counselor.

    • Average tuition cost: $36,754
    • Graduation rate: 39%
    • Estimated years of completion: 4 years
    • Admissions requirements: Master’s degree in counseling, one year of full-time post master’s degree counseling experience, graduate coursework curriculum requirements, master’s GPA of 3.0
    • Program website:
  • Amridge University

    Montgomery, AL



    Located in Montgomery, Alabama, Amridge is a Christian distance-learning university that serves working students. The hybrid Ph.D. in professional counseling offers a research-oriented program for licensed counselors or those eligible for licensure. Students complete at least 60 semester credits depending on their master's credits. Participants seeking professional licensure may need to complete extra coursework.

    The curriculum focuses on scholarship and clinical expertise, covering topics such as counseling and psychotherapy theories, relational sexual therapy, substance abuse interventions, and medical family therapy. A series of courses focus on qualitative and quantitative research methodology. Enrollees planning to teach counseling complete a practicum. Those aiming for clinical practice complete coursework that explores quality practice and fiscal systems.

    Learners culminate the Ph.D. in counseling with a comprehensive examination and dissertation. Full-time students complete the degree in four years. Admission requires a master's in counseling.

  • Liberty University

    Lynchburg, VA



    One of the nation's top Christian colleges, Liberty offers an online Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision with required intensives. The 60-credit degree deepens counselors' clinical skills and prepares them for academic roles to nurture the next generation of counselors. Accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, the degree focuses on advanced counseling techniques, counselor education and supervision, and leadership and advocacy.

    Counselors also develop their skills as researchers with coursework that examines advanced research design and multivariate statistics and quantitative research. Internships provide hands-on experience in teaching and supervising counselors. All students must pass a qualifying exam before they can work on the dissertation.

    Degree-seekers receive mentoring from experts in counseling and counselor education. On average, students complete the degree in four years. Counselors may transfer up to 30 credits. Current and former service members receive a tuition discount. Admission requires an accredited master's in counseling with a minimum 3.25 GPA.

  • Mississippi College

    Clinton, MS



    MC is a private Christian college and the state's oldest higher learning institution. The doctor of professional counseling (DPC) enrolls professional counselors who want to advance their practice and prepare for leadership roles. The online program allows counselors to choose an area of clinical specialization. Enrollees complete a 72-credit curriculum that explores both theory and practice through topics such as theories and models of counseling, psychotherapy integration, advanced case conceptualization, and clinical supervision.

    Counselors also learn how to apply advanced research concepts in evidence-based practice. Practitioners culminate the degree by developing a clinical case study. Learners complete the DPC, one of the nation's best counseling doctoral programs, in six or more terms. Enrollees pay the same tuition regardless of residency. Admission requires licensure as a licensed professional counselor, or eligibility, and at least two years of experience as a professional counselor.

  • University of the Cumberlands

    Williamsburg, KY



    UC is a private college located in Williamsburg, Kentucky. The school's online Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision prepares counselors for teaching roles and administrative positions within behavioral health agencies. Accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the program offers specializations in addiction, leadership, and advanced counseling. The 66-credit degree requires a leadership core that explores topics such as online counseling and supervision, advanced counseling theories and skills, and andragogy in counselor education and supervision.

    The Ph.D. in counseling includes several courses that develop advanced research competencies. Each specialization requires 12 credits. All students complete a 100-hour supervised clinical placement that includes 40 hours in direct service with clients. Counselors deepen their clinical expertise with two internships. Participants must pass a comprehensive examination and produce a dissertation to culminate the Ph.D.

    Counselors typically complete the degree in three years. Admission requires a CACREP-accredited master's in counseling and professional clinical licensure or certification as a counselor.

Is it worth getting a Ph.D. in counseling?

Enrolling in one of the top counseling psychology Ph.D. programs requires a significant financial and time investment, but it can be worth the cost and the time you put into it in many cases. This degree may be worth it if it makes you a more competitive candidate for jobs in your field, therefore allowing you to earn more, or if it makes you eligible for jobs you may not be able to pursue with just a master’s degree.

How long does it take to earn a Ph.D. in counseling?

Earning a Ph.D. in counseling generally takes around five years, depending on the concentration area and program. Some programs offer a faster route to a doctorate.

Can I earn a Ph.D. in counseling online?

Yes, many universities offer online doctoral programs in counseling. During an online Ph.D. program, counseling students complete coursework through a learning management system while meeting practicum requirements in their home area.

What is the difference between counseling and therapy?

Counseling and therapy both help patients overcome challenges in their daily life. Counselors may provide short-term support, while some therapists offer longer-term support. However, the fields largely overlap.

What can you do with a Ph.D. in counseling?

Graduates of a counseling doctoral program can go on to work in a variety of jobs. Potential job opportunities for Ph.D. in counseling graduates include marriage and family therapist, substance abuse counselor, psychologist, and school counselor.gra

An online Ph.D. program in counseling can be an effective and flexible way to take your career in counseling to the next level. These programs typically require that you have a master’s degree in counseling, and often require certification and work experience in the counseling field.

Programs like these typically offer students advanced training on topics such as counseling techniques, counselor education, leadership, research, and other related courses. Completion of your degree will also typically require clinical hours. Online Ph.D. in counseling programs generally take about four years to complete, but some can be completed in about three years.

What Do Counselors Do?

Counselors help people manage mental and physical problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and behavioral disorders. They work with clients to understand their issues and create a treatment plan. Counselors then meet regularly with clients either individually or in groups to help clients reach their goals.

Licensed counselors specialize in several areas. School counselors help young learners reach their academic potential and build valuable social skills. Career counselors conduct assessments to help people make decisions about their career path. Counselors who specialize in marriage and family therapy work with couples and families to strengthen their relationships. And mental health counselors help patients overcome mental health problems.

Many of these counselors work with specific groups, such as children, the elderly, or people with substance abuse disorders.

Successful counselors bring several skills to their role, including strong listening and interpersonal skills. Counselors rely on these abilities to connect with clients and build a relationship based on trust. The career also requires compassion and empathy for people in stressful situations. Finally, analytical and observational skills help counselors assess clients and create treatment plans.

Most counselors work in outpatient mental health centers, individual and family services, hospitals, residential facilities, or physician offices. Counselors also work in private practice.

Counseling vs. Therapy

What’s the difference between counseling and therapy? Counseling and therapy overlap in many ways — in fact, counseling is a type of therapy. However, there are some important differences between counseling and therapy.

Counseling emphasizes solving and managing specific issues. For example, substance abuse counselors help clients manage addiction and complete the recovery process. Marriage counselors help couples build communication and problem-solving skills. School counselors specialize in assisting students struggling with academic or social problems.

Therapy covers multiple approaches, including behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, and psychotherapy. Behavioral therapy emphasizes breaking unhealthy patterns and changing behaviors. Cognitive therapy looks at a patient’s thoughts to identify dysfunctional thinking. Psychotherapy addresses long-term patterns of thinking and behaving. Psychotherapists help patients manage stress or issues related to a mental illness.

However, in practice, counseling and therapy are often used interchangeably. A doctorate in counseling meets the qualifications to become a licensed therapist, for example.

Admissions Requirements

In order to be admitted to a Ph.D. in counseling program, you’ll likely be required to have a master’s degree in counseling or a related field and meet certain GPA requirements related to your graduate work. Some programs also require that you currently hold a counseling certification and have work experience in the field.

When you apply for admissions into your program, you’ll generally be required to provide your undergraduate and graduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement about why you’re seeking a Ph.D. in counseling.

Career and Salary Outlook for Counselors

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics clinical counselor's average annual wage can vary per state.

Professionals with a Ph.D. in counseling work in a variety of fields, including marriage and family therapy, school counseling, and mental health counseling. A doctorate in counseling psychology also meets the requirements for a psychologist license. Many of these career paths report strong job growth or above-average salaries.

In addition to the following careers, a Ph.D. qualifies graduates for research and academic positions, consulting roles, and leadership positions in healthcare organizations.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists help couples and families address problems in their relationships. During therapy sessions, they guide clients through difficult changes and work with clients to develop coping strategies. Marriage and family therapists also refer clients to support groups, treatment facilities, or other community resources.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Substance abuse counselors support people managing substance use disorders, while behavioral disorder counselors specialize in identifying and modifying problem behaviors. Mental health counselors advise patients on mental health issues and mental problems. They develop treatment plans for clients, offer counseling to reach treatment goals, and help clients connect with resources and services.


Psychologists study how the mind works. Counseling psychologists apply the science of psychology to help patients overcome problems and manage challenges in their lives. They provide counseling services to individuals and groups, assess a patient’s issues, and offer tools for dealing with mental health issues or other problems.

School and Career Counselors

School counselors help students strengthen their academic and social skills, while career counselors connect people with career information, educational programs, and skill-building tools. These counselors conduct an assessment, which may include aptitude tests and interviews, and identify problems holding people back. School and career counselors then counsel individuals and groups on how to reach their goals.

Marriage and Family Therapists $49,610 22%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $46,240 25%
Psychologists $80,370 3%
School and Career Counselors $57,040 8%

Source: BLS

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a clinical counselor’s average annual wage can vary per state.

Accreditation for Counseling Degrees

Prospective students should always check the accreditation status for the school and program before submitting an application. Universities that offer doctoral programs in counseling typically hold accreditation from a regional accrediting agency. These independent, nonprofit agencies evaluate schools to make sure they meet high standards for educating students and granting degrees.

Accreditation benefits students in several ways. Only accredited schools qualify for distributing federal financial aid, and credits earned from an accredited school will likely transfer.

Counseling programs may also hold accreditation from a specialized agency such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. These agencies review the curriculum, student learning outcomes, and faculty qualifications for counseling programs. An accredited counseling degree meets the requirements for more professional licenses and certifications.
When researching accreditation, prospective applicants should check each program’s status through the accrediting agency or the U.S. Department of Education database.

Licensing for Counselors

In every state, counselors need to apply for a license from the state regulatory board. The name of the license depends on the state and practice area. Counselors work as licensed professional counselors, licensed mental health counselors, and licensed clinical professional counselors.

The requirements for a counseling license vary by state and the counselor’s specialization area. In every state, though, counselors need at least a master’s degree and a minimum number of hours of supervised clinical experience. Candidates must also pass a national examination to receive a license.

In New York, for example, licensed mental health counselors must complete a CACREP-accredited clinical mental health counseling program with at least 60 credits. The state also requires at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience and passing scores on the national clinical mental health counselor examination. For other licenses, such as the licensed professional counselor title, the national counselor examination may serve as the counseling exam.

Prospective counselors can look up information in their state through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Courses in a Counseling Ph.D. Program

During a Ph.D. in counseling, students develop their professional identity, study counseling theories, and apply their training through a practicum. Counseling courses strengthen research and analytical skills. Most programs incorporate multiple classes on research methods to prepare students for the doctoral dissertation.

Doctoral students also take courses in their specialization. For example, school counselors take courses in human development, individual and group counseling with children, and education psychology.

The sample curriculum below introduces common courses in counseling doctoral programs. The exact classes will vary depending on the program and concentration area in counseling.

Counseling Development

Doctoral students begin building a professional identity in counseling development classes. The coursework covers the characteristics of counselors, professional orientation, and ethical issues in counseling. Assignments help learners explore the responsibilities of counselors and develop their professional identity. At the conclusion of the class, students may create a professional development plan for their program and career.

Advanced Counseling Theories

Advanced counseling theories courses examine major theories in the counseling profession, including approaches like psychoanalysis, rational emotive behavioral therapy, and solution-focused counseling. Students learn to apply these theories in different settings or with diverse clients. The course helps future counselors develop their theoretical orientation and consider the role of their own identity as a professional.

Qualitative Research Methods

Counseling doctoral programs strengthen research skills through classes on qualitative research methods. Students examine topics like data collection, evaluating qualitative studies, data analysis, and qualitative methods. By studying qualitative research methods, doctoral candidates build the skills necessary to conduct an original research project for the doctoral dissertation.

Crisis Management

Counselors respond to personal, family, and community crises. This course teaches future counselors how to respond to disasters and act as crisis leaders. Coursework introduces students to crisis trauma, trauma response, and practical skills for managing a crisis. The course prepares counselors to design and implement crisis management plans.

Program Evaluation

Courses on program evaluation examine the role of program evaluators in mental health settings, schools, and community agencies. The coursework explores leadership theory, the consultation process, and methods for conducting program evaluations. Learners may complete case studies to apply knowledge from the course.

Financial Aid

Graduate students qualify for many forms of financial aid to pay for their counseling degree, including federal loans, fellowships, and scholarships.

For many, applying for federal financial aid represents the first step in paying for graduate school. By filling out the FAFSA every year, applicants can receive federal loans that offer low interest rates and several repayment options. While the FAFSA form requires financial information, graduate students do not need to provide parental financial information.

Prospective counselors can also lower their costs by choosing a more affordable program. Online counseling programs often cost less than on-campus programs, since distance learners qualify for tuition discounts and save on costs like housing, commuting, and transportation.

Many counselors also work while pursuing a doctoral degree, which can help cover tuition and expenses. An online format provides flexibility for working counselors interested in a Ph.D.

Scholarships help prospective counselors pay for a doctoral program. Professional organizations, private foundations, and private donors offer scholarships for counseling programs that also cover accredited online programs. In addition to the following opportunities, prospective students can research scholarships based on their specialty or school.

Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The scholarship supports doctoral-level, scholarly projects that address the stigma associated with mental illness. Applicants provide a proposal and evidence of their scholarship along with commitment to stigma issues.
Amount: $5,000

Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The scholarship supports graduate students pursuing a degree in counseling, psychology, or marriage and family therapy. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.2 GPA and submit an essay on their career goals in behavioral healthcare.
Amount: $5,000

NAJA Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The National Association of Junior Auxiliaries offers a scholarship for graduate students who plan to work directly with children in fields like counseling, psychology, and mental health. Applicants must be residents of a state with a Junior Auxiliary chapter.
Amount: varies

David H. and Beverly A. Barlow Grant

Who Can Apply: The grant supports doctoral students working on anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. Applicants must demonstrate knowledge of anxiety research and submit a proposal detailing the project.
Amount: up to $8,500

Tomorrow’s Counselors Awards

Who Can Apply: The American Counseling Association offers the award to recognise graduate-level counseling students, including those earning an online Ph.D. in counseling from an accredited program. Applicants must be ACA members.
Amount: $1,000

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Erin Gobler picture

Erin Gobler


Erin Gobler is a contributing writer who covers higher education, online graduate programs, college planning, and more for Grad School Hub. Her writing has also appeared in The Simple Dollar, Robinhood, and The Balance.

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