I feel passionately about helping others to make career decisions based on information and not fear. Given the wide array of options one can pursue in order to become a mental health provider or academic in a mental health discipline, it can be hard to make an informed choice. Therefore, this post was written to provide education as well as to provide a personal narrative on the decision-making process. It serves an indirect, tertiary purpose of informing those who may seek a therapist about some of the distinctions that may be helpful to know.
Suffice it to say, there are typically distinct reasons why one should obtain therapy from a professional counselor, psychologist, clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, or psychiatrist. It is possible for one to seek out help, and land on the couch of the "wrong" type of professional for a given concern. I love the idea of contributing, even if only in a microscopic way, to a client landing on the "right" sofa, the first time. It should also be known that discipline affiliation is not the only factor associated with fit. Ok, enough of that, let's dive into the meat of this topic.
Who are Counselor Educators?
A counselor educator is a doctoral level therapist, clinical supervisor, social scientist, teacher, gatekeeper, and leader/advocate; whose professional activities surround the training, personal growth, and development of culturally-competent professional counselors. An interesting phenomenon occurs with the use of this term, as both counselor educators (CE) and counseling psychologists (CP) can use the term, particularly when CP primarily affiliate with professional counseling, and teaching in a CE department. As such, there is and has been an interconnected and sometimes tenuous history between those who professionally identify as CE, and those who identify as CP.
The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 and the Community Health Centers Act (CHCA) of 1963 served as key pieces of legislation that lead to the development of doctoral program in counselor education (Adkison-Bradley, 2013). Whereas NDEA provided funding opportunities for graduate-level education, CHCA offered funding for the creation of clinical opportunities that had previously been beholden to psychologists only. To be more specific, the scope of practice for professional counselors has expanded from early years primarily offering career services, then school counseling, then family therapy, addictions work, and community mental health.
The rich history of research productivity in CP critically informs a professional identity more intertwined with a high value for scholarship, theory, and measurement in psychological research. This is reflected in the origins of both fields. At the true beginning of counseling, Frank Parsons developed a clinical model of career decision-making designed to help those transitioning during the societal shift from agrarian to industrial following reformation and the industrial revolution. In contrast, Wilhelm Wundt founded psychological science by studying the unconscious in a laboratory setting.
This is what I perceive to be the key difference between CP and CE. It is not to say CE do not engage in research or are not exceptionally proficient in doing so - quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, it seems that CE, in general, place a higher level of value on teaching, supervision, clinical practice, and service. In practice, both CP and CE assess, diagnose, treat/counsel, teach, consult, research, and supervise.
Historically, NDEA created an opportunity for a key distinction between CP and CE. Central to this distinction is the philosophical debate between the training of clinicians at the masters level and the doctoral level. Many psychologists believe a doctoral degree is necessary for practice, whereas CE believe a masters is sufficient consistent with the following. If you distill the coursework for a doctorate in each of the aforementioned areas, you would remove coursework in research, supervision, leadership, policy, and pedagogy. What you would be left with is a selection of courses focused on clinical practice, making CE the one field with a degree (at the masters level) whose sole purpose is to provide culturally-competent, multimodal psychotherapy.
This is part of the reason why it is empirically supported to say that clients benefit approximately equally from psychotherapy rendered by professional counselors and psychologists. Another interesting perspective to ponder is the idea that before NDEA and the development of doctoral programs in CE, CP provided the training of counselors and psychologists. If this professional group was largely responsible for establishing models of training, etc., there is something illogical about perceiving these as two, distinct, rank-ordered specialties, rather than siblings.
When I entered graduate school, I did so with the intention of obtaining a master's degree in counseling in order to find a position as a community college counselor. Having attended community college after high school, and becoming a member of Phi Theta Kappa, I encountered my first community college counselor, the honor society's chapter advisor. Through my multifaceted interactions with this person, I came to rather love the idea of being a counselor myself. Interestingly, since childhood, I had aspirations of becoming an attorney. Learning about counseling represented the most difficult point in my career decision-making process, as I grappled with the perceived loss of status and income associated with a career in law. I am grateful beyond words I followed by intuition, but the process was a challenge.
Once I had begun my counselor training, I was immediately made aware of post-master's options, namely counselor education and counseling psychology - which represented the degrees of faculty in this program. I distinctly recall asking during first year orientation, "what is the difference between these two areas?" I never did get an answer. On some level, I attribute this to my perception of CE and CP as being like twins, Tia and Tamera. Despite shared origins, very similar appearances, shared careers, and an inexorable link, there are differences. Those differences mostly constitute unique personalities. There you have it, twins with unique personalities, attributable to non-shared experiences, such as being accredited by two different bodies. To provide one example based on my interactions with those trained in departments where both disciplines were housed, an approximate 80% of coursework was taken together. This can be confirmed through a simple comparison of CE and CP curricula across a representative sample of institutions.
I ultimately made my decision based on three factors: proximity, faculty composition of the program I selected, and CACREP. Proximity was the easiest factor, as I was trained in the doctoral program housed in the same department as the masters program I attended. This made things easier with regard to transitioning, and increased my feelings of safety, as I did not have to get to know an all new group of people. The composition of the faculty in the department played a key role in my decision as well, as approximately half were trained in CP and half in CE. Additionally, while the program coordinators for clinical mental health and school counseling at the master's level were CE, the doctoral program coordinator (both past and present) were CP. This helped me to realize the ONLY thing that gave me pause about my choice of a PhD in counselor education was the fact that most people are more familiar with the term "psychologist."
By selecting this program, I knew that whatever differences I perceived between the fields would be balanced by the faculty composition. For example, through no intention of the program design, I received all of my research training from psychologists, all of my direct practice and educator training from CE, and my supervision training was evenly split. Last but not least is CACREP, our accrediting body in counselor education. At the time I was preparing to apply to doctoral programs, CACREP released a statement whose message communicated it would be in the best interest of those pursuing doctoral education to get their degrees from CE programs with full CACREP accreditation at the time of admission.
I am very happy with my decision. To anyone making such a hard choice - I hope this helps you on your journey.