What graduate programs should I pursue if I want to practice in the mental health field?

If you want to practice in the mental health field (as a psychotherapist or counselor, for example) you can choose from several different types of graduate programs.

Doctoral degrees

Mental health doctoral degrees include Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D. in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or school psychology. Typically these degrees will take 5 years (or more) to finish, and require a year-long full-time internship as well as a doctoral dissertation on research that you conduct. Students are often awarded a masters degree along the way, after about 2-3 years. All of these degrees will prepare you for a license to practice as a psychologist. However there are differences between them.

  • A clinical psychology Ph.D. is a highly research-oriented degree. If your goal is to be a researcher and/or professor of clinical psychology, this is the degree you’d pursue.
  • The other doctoral degrees mentioned above also focus on research, but a bit less; these degrees could be good options for you if your goal is to be a practicing psychologist with a high level of scientifically-grounded expertise. Note that Psy.D. and Ed.D. programs typically accept a larger percentage of applicants than do Ph.D. programs, but are also less likely to offer financial support (scholarships or teaching/research assistantships) to the students they accept.

Masters degrees

Masters degrees can prepare you for a license to practice as a counselor/therapist in approximately 2-3 years. For example, you can become a licensed clinical social worker (LCWS) with an MSW degree, or you can become a licensed mental health counselor or a licensed marriage and family therapist  (LMHC/LMFT) with an MA/MS degree.  You can also become credentialed to practice as an educational specialist in school psychology with an MA/MS degree in school psychology.

Related degrees in the health sciences

An MD or DO degree can prepare you to practice as a psychiatrist and to prescribe/provide biological treatments for mental health conditions. There are nursing degrees that will enable you to specialize in psychiatric nursing and/or prescribe psychiatric medications as a nurse practitioner.  Occupational therapy degrees will enable you to provide evaluations and treatments to help people with various illness, injuries, and disabilities to be better able to participate in their daily life activities. Note that although these degrees involve training/experience with psychotherapy/counseling, their main focus is very strong preparation in health sciences, starting with a lot of undergraduate course requirements. See the Pre-Health Professions website for more information about applying to graduate programs in medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, and related fields.

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