Earning a Ph.D. in Counseling Online

Pursuing a Ph.D. in counseling online establishes a secure career pathway for those interested in mental health. By obtaining the highest degree in their field, counseling doctorate holders gain a competitive edge over master's degree holders working in mental health.

Online counseling Ph.D. programs improve students' counseling, assessment, and supervision skills; qualify students for careers in academia; and provide the credentials necessary for many high-paying, specialized positions. This guide provides an overview of online Ph.D. in counseling programs, including financial aid opportunities, education requirements, and salary and career potential for graduates.

Why Get an Online Ph.D. in Counseling?

Pursue Deeper Knowledge and Specialization

An online Ph.D. in counseling provides the expertise necessary to become a leader in the field. Some graduates become scholarly researchers and writers whose research shapes the direction of counseling theory, policy, and practice.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A terminal degree results in job promotions and salary increases. An online Ph.D. in counseling qualifies graduates to train or supervise students and professionals, perform consulting work, and open or join a private practice.

Online Learning Technology

A Ph.D. in counseling online familiarizes students with educational and therapeutic technologies that they can use when supervising, teaching, and counseling in various contexts.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. in Counseling and a Doctor of Psychology in Counseling (Psy.D.)?

Doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) and doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees in counseling both usually entail a dissertation and practicum and take 4-7 years to complete. However, dissertations and coursework for these degrees often differ.

Ph.D. dissertations typically focus more on research and theoretical arguments, while Psy.D. dissertations often center around a student's clinical work during internship and practicum experiences. Psy.D. programs also emphasize more clinical practice than Ph.D. programs. Psy.D. students gain practical experience with treatment modalities and psychological testing, while Ph.D. students focus more on conducting research.

Although graduates of Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs may both end up in careers as licensed psychologists, many Ph.D.s instead become postsecondary teachers and researchers, conducting original research and contributing to the existing body of knowledge in counseling.

Prerequisites for Online Ph.D. in Counseling Programs

Prerequisites for online Ph.D. in counseling programs vary by school, but students can expect some common requirements across most programs. Applicants typically need to submit a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and official transcripts. Additional requirements may include GRE scores, a resume, a writing sample, and a successful faculty interview. The following list covers common requirements in more detail.

  • Bachelor's or Master's Degree in Counseling or a Related Field From an Accredited College Most applicants to doctorate programs hold a mental health-related degree, and many doctoral programs require a master's degree in counseling. Bachelor's degree students who plan to earn a Ph.D. in counseling online may pursue accelerated programs that allow them to gain master's and doctoral degrees simultaneously.
  • Official Transcripts Verifying Minimum GPA Applicants typically need to submit official transcripts from previous schools attended, and schools often require a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants must contact their former schools to obtain official transcripts.
  • Existing Counseling Experience or Knowledge To keep up with the advanced discourse, research, and practice expected in a doctoral program, applicants typically need a counseling background. During the program, students learn to conduct research and produce a dissertation, which requires extensive counseling knowledge.
  • Statement of Purpose and Writing Sample Most schools require applicants to submit an essay, and some require a professional writing sample. In the essay, applicants outline relevant interests and experiences, sometimes through a formal research statement that outlines the student's project ideas or goals. For a professional writing sample, applicants often submit published articles, master's papers, or chapters from their master's thesis.
  • Availability for In-Person Residencies, Practicums, and Internships Online doctoral programs allow students to complete most coursework online, but some programs require one or more week-long residencies on campus in addition to in-person practicums and internships. Although most online students may complete fieldwork at a site close to home, they should research the program's descriptions to make sure that they can fulfill its in-person requirements.

How Much Can I Make With an Online Ph.D. in Counseling Degree?

Online counseling Ph.D. graduates may work as academics or psychologists. In academia, they often conduct research and teach counseling at postsecondary institutions. Psychologists provide counseling in settings such as mental health centers, hospitals, treatment facilities, and private practices. Graduates of Ph.D. in counseling online programs may also work as consultants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 14% increase in psychologist jobs between 2016-2026 and a 15% increase in postsecondary teaching jobs in that timeframe.

Potential Careers

Careers Stats Description

Postsecondary Teachers

Median Annual Salary: $78,470

Postsecondary teachers instruct students and conduct research at colleges, universities, and professional schools. Tenure-track professors need a doctoral degree in their field.

Applied Counselor

Median Annual Salary: $81,330

Through supportive counseling and life planning, applied counselors guide mentally ill or emotionally distressed patients toward greater wellness. Applied counselors work in many settings, including schools, mental health facilities, and community agencies.

School Counselor

Median Annual Salary: $81,330

School counselors work with students in K-12 public and private schools, colleges, universities, and vocational schools. Often collaborating with social workers, families, teachers, and school administrators, school counselors use a variety of counseling techniques to support students with mental health challenges.

Paying for an Online Ph.D. in Counseling Program

Online Ph.D. programs typically cost less than on-campus degrees; however, tuition rates vary by program. Applicants should consider the school's financial aid offerings when calculating the cost of their degrees. Applicants must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to learn whether they qualify for federal loans, grants, or work-study programs.

Whenever possible, students should choose low-interest federal loans rather than high-interest private loans. Graduates working in public service may qualify for federal loan forgiveness, and working professionals may qualify for tuition discounts or reimbursements. In addition, financial need, academic achievement, or other attributes may qualify students for scholarships like those described below.


Students enjoy scholarship opportunities based on factors like academic merit, financial need, community service, and identity. These financial awards often come from private organizations and professional associations.

What to Expect From an Online Ph.D. in Counseling Program

Ph.D. in counseling online programs typically take 3-5 years to complete. To graduate, students must successfully complete online coursework, in-person residencies, fieldwork, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. While some programs offer 100% online coursework, others use a hybrid approach that involves weekly on-campus sessions or on-campus residencies. Almost all programs include in-person internships and practicums.

Major Milestones

Online Ph.D. in counseling programs include several milestones. The following list outlines major milestones that students can expect to reach on the way to earning a Ph.D.

  1. Completion of Coursework

    During their first 2-3 years, students in an online Ph.D. in counseling program take core coursework on foundational counseling topics and research methods as well as electives in areas of interest.

  2. Qualifying Exam

    Many online counseling Ph.D. students must pass a qualifying exam after completing coursework. The exam allows students to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of coursework topics and preparedness for dissertation research and writing.

  3. Counseling Practicum

    As counseling Ph.D. students complete coursework and begin their dissertations, they also complete a 1-2-year practicum. During their practicum, students work directly with clients and receive supervision and feedback from experienced counselors.

  4. Dissertation Completion and Defense

    After finishing coursework, students research and write a dissertation. This process usually takes 1-4 years. After completing the dissertation, students must successfully defend it before a faculty committee.

  5. Counseling Internship

    Counseling Ph.D. students typically intern for a year or more before receiving licensure. This internship often begins during or after the dissertation.

  6. Counseling Licensure

    Upon completing their degree requirements, graduates may obtain state licensure by passing a state board counseling exam and completing 1-2 years of supervised clinical experience.


Although curricula vary by program and school, common Ph.D. in counseling online degree courses cover topics like social psychology, personality assessment, and research methods. The following list outlines common core courses found in these programs.

Counseling Theories and Techniques

This course introduces current counseling practices grounded in research and contemporary social demographics and dynamics. Students also study family, integrative, alternative, multicultural, and constructivist counseling theories.

Counseling Diverse Communities

Students study social justice-oriented counseling practices. They explore how identity factors — like class, race and ethnicity, and gender — influence psychology and treatment dynamics.

Counseling Ethics

This course familiarizes students with ethical counseling principles, as well as legal issues that may arise during a counseling career.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Ph.D. students and graduates benefit from joining professional organizations. These organizations often provide professional development, career, and networking opportunities. In addition, some organizations connect mental health professionals with psychology-related journals and other publications.

  • American Psychological Association: As the leading organization for psychologists, APA offers nine membership options. Members gain access to professional development resources, networking opportunities, and current psychology research.
  • American School Counselor Association: ASCA offers members professional development and online networking opportunities as well as a job search tool. In addition, ASCA publishes the ASCA School Counselor Magazine and Professional School Counseling Journal.
  • American Counseling Association: ACA raises awareness about the counseling profession, offers continuing education opportunities, and provides a variety of career development resources on its website.
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs: This council accredits postsecondary counseling programs, assists prospective students in finding accredited counseling programs, and provides counseling licensure information.
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: This association provides marriage and family therapists with professional resources, including online webinars, national and regional events, a job board, and a scholarly journal.