Careers in Psychology: To Counsel or Not?

Careers in PsychologyOn the heels of my recent job change, I’ve been thinking a lot about career paths and how small choices can have a lifelong influence. For me, two big forks in the professional road were choosing to study psychology in college, and then choosing not to become a clinician or counselor, which is perhaps the most obvious career for a psychology major to pursue. The funny thing is, the reasons why I chose not to go into a counseling role are also some of the reasons why I admire counselors so much.

I became a psych major sort of by accident. When I started college, I fully intended to study English. As a lifelong reader and lover of the written word, I believed it made perfect sense for my academic studies and my hobbies to overlap as completely as possible. I learned within one semester how very, very wrong I was: Making my beloved hobby into my work drained the pleasure from books, and turned my outlet into a burden. I needed to declare a different major, fast.

My college roommate helpfully suggested I try psychology, as her older sister dual-majored in English and psychology and since I liked English maybe I would like psychology. Based on this horribly non-scientific and logically-flawed reasoning, I declared myself a psychology major.

Fortunately, my second major worked out a bit better than my first.

But decision-making wasn’t over. One thing I had not realized about psychology before studying it in college is how many different types of psychologists there are. I’ve since realized that not many people do know the different types of psychologists, and usually assume I am a clinician when I identify myself as a psychologist. (In case you missed it elsewhere on my site, I’m an organizational psychologist working in the health technology field.)

My original intention as a psychology major was to study clinical, which I thought was the only type of psychology. My intro course quickly opened my eyes to the variety of sub-specialties in psychology, and I almost instantly gravitated toward developmental and social psychology (eventually completing my undergraduate studies in the latter). Since then, I’ve maintained an interest in clinical psychology and the counseling professions (and often borrow from their approaches in helping people change behavior), but have never regretted avoiding them for my own career.

Types of Psychologists
Psychology includes a diverse range of subspecialties. Psychologists might work on any issue involving behavior and well-being (usually, but not always, focusing on humans!).

How are counselors different?

Aside from the type of work they do every day, I think one of the biggest differences between a clinical and a non-clinical psychology professional has to do with their educational commitments.  Most counselors are required to get some kind of licensure requiring a combination of training, education, and experience, particularly if they hope to get reimbursed by health insurance plans for their services. Non-counseling psychologists like myself do not need any kind of license. Counselors also have to participate in continuing education in order to maintain good standing with their licenses; although continuing education is a good idea for other types of psychologists too, it’s not required.

The day-to-day work also required a different skill set. People who work in the counseling professions have a very difficult job, in my opinion. They often work with clients in emotional pain, and in doing so, take on some of that pain themselves. As professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors are also required to play a certain role in their interaction with clients, one that takes energy and effort to sustain. Counselors have a responsibility that I felt very deeply and did not want for myself. I admire the people who do it, and especially the people who are good at it. You’re amazing.


For an interactive timeline on the history of counseling (including several of the sub-disciplines that provide counseling services), check out Northwestern University’s Counseling@Northwestern careers blog.

Learn about the differences between psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers here.

Learn about different types of counselors here.