A Career in Counselling Psychology

Author:  Jennifer Charlicki


World renowned psychologist, Carl Rogers, once said “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

Within this quote lies the goal of counselling psychology. It aims to promote personal well-being and growth through a therapeutic alliance. This alliance consists of a trusting and non-judgmental bond between the counselor and the client. The hope is that through this bond, clients can get in touch with their personal strengths, and learn emotional acceptance in order to live a happier and more well-adjusted life.

Creating this sort of beneficial bond is not an easy task, and consequently, counselors have quite involved roles that largely focus on providing support for their clients. Thus, although there is a common misconception that counselors’ roles are only limited to giving advice, that is actually far from true. Counselors do talk through situations with their clients, but they mostly provide supportive listening. Overall, a counselor is tasked with providing guidance as their clients work to understand and ultimately solve their issues.

It is also important to differentiate counselling psychology from clinical psychology. These two fields do share many similar characteristics, however, the roles of professionals in each field is very distinct. Psychologists in both fields can be licensed, receive extensive training in psychotherapy, and work in similar settings such as universities, hospitals, and mental health clinics, but they are trained to handle very different types of issues.

Counselling psychology deals with issues such as relationship difficulties, stress and coping, adjusting to transitions (e.g. retirement), and mental disorders, to name a few. Clinical psychology deals with these same kinds of issues, but on a more severe level. For example, a counselling psychologist may be dealing with an individual who has trouble socializing with others, but a clinical psychologist is more likely to be dealing with social anxiety disorder. Clinicians generally receive patients with issues that are more deeply ingrained, and issues that have become psychopathological.

Because the issues that a counselor will deal with vary greatly, professionals must keep in mind that what works for one client may be detrimental for another. Thus, there are many different approaches that a counselor can use to cater to different individuals and different psychological issues.

One of these approaches is called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a newer approach in the field; it works to merge cognition and behaviour by making individuals aware of their maladaptive cognitions (e.g. overgeneralizing), and encouraging them to develop positive behavioral coping mechanisms. CBT is used for a variety of issues such as eating disorders, anxiety, and anger management. 

Counselors can also use a person-centered approach, which focuses on being humanistic. It helps make clients aware of their experiences in the here-and-now and ultimately assists them in realizing their full potential. An important aspect of person-centered counselling is that it encourages clients to accept all their feelings, including the negative ones. This approach has been used to aid self-esteem.

An approach that has been gaining popularity recently is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which is often used with clients experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The idea of this approach is that traumatic events negatively impact our coping mechanisms, and this is counteracted by having the client relive the event while implementing new coping strategies that are more effective.

Counselling psychologists can have their own practice, or they can work in academic settings as a researcher. As a private counselor, you are more involved in a one-on-one basis with your clients by setting up appointments, seeing them as often as needed, and helping them work through their situations. Researchers explore various questions regarding individuals and topics such as self-esteem, coping, and development. They can also serve as professors. Academic requirements are generally the same, though researchers will typically register in a thesis-based route in university, whereas private counselors who don’t ever plan on doing research (which is unlikely if you are earning a PhD), can register in the course-based route where most of the work is done in class, as opposed to being based on research.

Dr. Jessica Van Vliet is a registered counselling psychologist who has a private practice, but is also a researcher and professor at the University of Alberta. Dr. Van Vliet stated that the most rewarding part of being a counselling psychologist is that it allows her to implement various aspects of her knowledge, such as being curious, caring, and doing so in a way “that can make a positive difference in people’s lives.” She also noted that she gets to form relationships with more than just her clients, but also the graduate and undergraduate students that she works with. Dr. Van Vliet mentions that her job does not come without its challenges: “Being a counselling psychology professor requires juggling many roles and responsibilities, for example: researcher, research supervisor, mentor, instructor, committee member, and registered psychologist in a small private practice.” She noted that although it can be quite difficult to manage these various demanding roles, they also prevent her from becoming bored.

Becoming a counselling psychologist requires extensive time and dedication. The regular route that prospective counselors take is earning a 4-year undergraduate degree in psychology, or a related field, such as social work. Education degrees are sometimes accepted as well if the student plans on attending grad school for educational psychology. From there, you earn a Master’s degree (MA, MSc, or MEd), which, in some jurisdictions, is sufficient to be registered as a psychologist (e.g. Edmonton, Alberta CA), though most places require a doctorate (PhD). During that academic work, students learn various skills that contribute to being an effective counselor, such as: empathy, creating a therapeutic alliance, how to empower clients, and ethical boundaries. Students also work one-on-one in practicum placements.

In addition to specific educational requirements, counseling psychologists must also possess certain key personality traits. Firstly, because the job comes with emotional stressors, people pursuing the career must be generally flexible and energetic to avoid burnout while dealing with clients. Additionally, they must be open-minded and comfortable with a close and trusting relationship. Counselling psychologists must also be self-aware in order to identify possible biases, such as blaming the client for their circumstances due to their gender, race, or physical appearance. At the same time, the opposite may happen where a counselor favors a client, and is more willing to help them due to external factors such as their appearance. Another important quality, is being a good listener. As Carl Rogers stated, it’s about listening with the intention of truly understanding what the client is feeling, and letting them know that they have a non-judgemental place to turn to. Finally, the most important trait a counselor needs is empathy.

Empathy requires that an individual be capable of putting themselves in another person’s shoes and trying to understand a situation from their point of view. Though it’s impossible for the counsellor to know exactly what the client is feeling, what matters is that there is a non-judgemental effort to understand and support the client.

Even with all this knowledge about the education and personality requirements, how exactly do you know if counselling psychology is for you? An easy way to test the waters is to get involved in volunteering. People searching for volunteer opportunities in the field would most benefit from reaching out and finding crisis lines to work at. These are usually non-profit organizations where volunteers undergo many hours of training. The volunteers receive anonymous calls from people dealing with many different situations, such as contemplating suicide, dealing with a loss, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Counselling is not an easy job; it can be quite draining and difficult to manage alongside other demands. However, if you long to have a positive impact on others’ lives, and work in a fast-paced and rewarding field, it might just be the career for you. As a counselor, you see people from all realms of life, struggling with various situations, and trying to make a change for themselves. In this career, you serve as a support system for someone, you become a symbol of hope and a rock for them to gain their own strength. Most importantly, you are teaching others that they are strong, capable, and have the power to better themselves. 


[photo] Retrieved from https://psychohawks.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/guest-post-the-counselling-relationship/
Interview with Dr. Van Vliet