Online Doctoral Degrees (PhD Programs) in Mental Health Counseling

Most people know the terms counselor, therapist, and psychologist. You may wonder: what are the differences between these professions?

Counselors, also known as mental health therapists, are trained to work with patients and have master’s or doctoral degrees in fields such as psychology, marriage and family therapy, and counseling. Psychologists, on the other hand, often require a doctoral degree in psychology for clinical research work, but a master’s degree can be sufficient for some client-based practices. Doctoral degree holders in counseling have people-oriented skill sets that qualify them to work with patients and teach and advise students in higher education.

So what does it take to earn a PhD in mental health counseling? After earning a master’s degree, most graduates choose to begin work in a clinical setting or apply for a PhD program. Accredited online doctoral degrees are available in the field of counselor education and supervision and typically require three to four years of coursework and a clinical internship.

Earning a PhD in counselor education and supervision gives professionals options to continue to see patients in a clinical setting or pivot their skills into teaching and mentoring roles in higher education to prepare the next generation of mental health counselors.

A commonly asked question is: why pursue a PhD? For starters, careers in psychology and postsecondary education are growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that between the years 2018 and 2028, job openings in psychology are projected to grow by 14 percent, while postsecondary teaching jobs will increase by 11 percent—both of which are much faster than the national average for all occupations at 5 percent (BLS 2020). Doctoral degree holders also can expect to earn higher salaries compared to people with master’s degrees.

Another benefit of pursuing an online PhD program is that it enables working professionals to continue working while staying current on the latest research and best practices, positioning themselves for expanded career opportunities in teaching and administration in mental health counseling.

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Typical Admissions Requirements for Mental Health Counseling PhD Programs

Every educational program has unique admissions requirements, and most online PhD programs in mental health counseling require the following for admission:

  • A master’s degree from a CACREP-accredited counseling program
  • Criminal background check
  • Current counseling license or be eligible to apply for licensure in the state of residence
  • GPA of 3.0 or higher from a master’s degree program
  • GRE scores
  • Interview with an admissions committee
  • Official transcripts for undergraduate and graduate coursework
  • One year of full-time post-master’s degree counseling experience
  • Statement of career or research goals
  • Three letters of reference

Courses in Mental Health Counseling PhD Programs

  • Capstone in counseling
  • Clinical supervision
  • Diversity and social justice in counselor education
  • Ethical and legal issues in counselor education and supervision
  • Internship
  • Neuroanatomy & behavioral medicine
  • Online teaching and learning
  • PhD residency
  • Program evaluation & grant writing
  • Quantitative and qualitative research methods
  • Statistics
  • Supervision & consultation

Supervised Clinical Hour Requirements & Internships – Mental Health Counseling

In CACREP-accredited programs, students are required to complete their skill development preparation in order to be eligible for a minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical experience.

Clinical hours are divided into two categories: practicum and internship. A minimum of 100 practicum hours are required, with a minimum of 40 hours spent in direct service with clients. A minimum of 600 internship hours are also required, with a minimum of 240 hours spent in direct service with clients. Direct service hours include time spent with actual clients and activities such as assessment, counseling, psycho-educational activities, and consultation.

In general, observation and administrative tasks do not count towards the direct service supervised clinical hours requirements.

Program Accreditation for Mental Health Counseling – CACREP

As previously mentioned, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the leading accrediting organization for master’s and doctoral counseling degree programs.

As of 2020, more than 870 programs hold CACREP accreditation status, which is earned through a two-part process: a self-assessment and a peer-assessment. Programs are evaluated and must demonstrate that their mission, curriculum, and teaching standards meet the high standards of excellence.

Notably, CACREP is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Eight of the 82 CACREP-accredited PhD programs in counseling are offered online, and six of them are featured below.

Featured CACREP-Accredited Online PhD & EdD Programs in Mental Health Counseling

Here are six featured CACREP-accredited online PhD programs in counseling.

Adams State University

The PhD in counselor education and supervision program at Adams State University is designed to prepare counseling professionals for future positions in leadership. Through academic and clinical coursework, graduates are prepared for future clinical, research, or leadership careers in counseling.

Students in this fully-online program begin their program in a cohort and are required to complete four one-week summer residencies.

  • Location: Alamosa, CO
  • Duration: 66 semester hours; approximately four years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $397 per credit

Oregon State University (Hybrid)

Located in the heart of the Willamette Valley, Oregon State University offers a PhD program in counseling that prepares graduates to work as advanced practitioners, clinical supervisors, and counselor educators.

Applicants to this program must have a master’s in counseling or a closely-related discipline to complete their PhD coursework. Taught in a cohort model, this hybrid program requires online coursework and face-to-face classes twice each quarter, which meet on weekends. Graduates from this program go on to work in clinical and academic settings.

  • Location: Corvallis, OR
  • Duration: Three to five years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $590 per credit

Regent University

Regent University offers a fully-online PhD program in counselor education and supervision with the mission of teaching students to explore, research, and innovate to transform mental health. This Christian program features three instructional residencies and real-world experience to help graduates apply faith-based interventions as educators, scholars, and clinical practitioners.

Residency requirements are two-weeks in length and provide in-person networking and mentoring opportunities for students and faculty.

  • Location: Virginia Beach, VA
  • Duration: 66 semester hours; approximately three years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $17,762 per academic year

Shippensburg University (EdD, Hybrid)

Offering a part-time 60-credit program, Shippensburg University offers an EdD in counselor education and supervision. This hybrid program features online classes and on-campus courses on Saturdays—a format that allows current clinical practitioners with master’s degrees to maintain part-time or full-time employment while pursuing a doctoral degree.

Students in this program take courses together in a cohort model for three years and additional semesters may be required to complete dissertation defense requirements.

  • Location: Shippensburg, PA
  • Duration: 60 credit hours; approximately three years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $699 per credit (in-state); $1,046 per credit (non-resident)

University of the Cumberlands

Focused on preparing graduates for careers in research and higher education, the University of the Cumberlands offers a PhD program in counselor education and supervision. Students in this program have the option of specializing in addiction counseling, advanced counseling, or leadership.

The curriculum consists of three essential components: leadership, professional research and clinical, and specialty area content courses. Graduates from this program go on to pursue careers as research and counseling psychologists, compliance officers, and post-secondary instructors in higher education.

  • Location: Williamsburg, KY
  • Duration: 66 credit hours; approximately three years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $400 per credit

Walden University

Since 1970, Walden University has offered distance learning opportunities, so it is no surprise they are one of the eight accredited universities offering an online PhD in counselor education and supervision. This program is designed for CACREP-accredited master’s degree holders in counseling who want to pursue roles in administration, teaching, private practice, or research.

To help students meet their professional goals, Walden University offers seven areas of specialization: general program, advanced methods, consultation, counseling and social change, forensic mental health counseling, leadership and program evaluation, and trauma and crisis.

  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Duration: Three to five years
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $560 per credit

Professors to Know in Mental Health Counseling

Dr. Laura Bruneau

Dr. Laura Bruneau

Adams State University

Trained in both clinical mental health and school counseling, Dr. Laura Bruneau has a BA in psychology from Miami University, an MEd in community counseling, and a PhD in counselor education and supervision from Kent State University. She is licensed as an LPC in the state of Colorado.

As a professor at Adams State University, Dr. Bruneau is passionate about training the next generation of counselors to be ethical, reflective, and engaged practitioners. Her specialty areas of interest include creativity in counseling, bibliotherapy, and animal-assisted interventions. Dr. Bruneau has held state, regional, and national leadership positions, including serving as secretary for the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. 

Dr. Alicia Freeman

Dr. Alicia Freeman

University of the Cumberlands

Dr. Alicia Freeman has spent her career promoting the mental health and academic advancement of underserved populations. She has a BS in clinical laboratory science from Eastern Michigan University, an MA in counseling, and a PhD in education counseling from Oakland University. She holds credentials as a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Michigan and a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC).

Dr. Freeman has held several leadership positions for Counselor Education professional organizations such as the American Counseling Association (ACA), the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).

Dr. Kok-Mun Ng

Dr. Kok-Mun Ng

Oregon State University

Specializing in mental health counseling and couples and family counseling, Dr. Kok-Mun Ng is a professor and core faculty member of the College of Education at Oregon State University. He holds a BS in applied geology from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, multiple master’s degrees (including an MEd in community counseling from the University of North Texas), and a PhD in counselor education and supervision from Texas A&M University-Commerce.

In addition to his credentials, his area of research and teaching emphasis include training, supervision, and professional identity in the development of counselors, theories and practices of multicultural and social justice advocacy in counseling, as well as the internationalization of counseling.

What Can I Do With a PhD in Mental Health Counseling?

As previously mentioned, those with a PhD degree in counseling can look forward to a variety of career paths in teaching, administration, and clinical counseling. Here are three jobs for graduates of counselor education and supervision programs.

Assistant/Associate Professor of Counseling Education and Supervision: Colleges of arts and science and education hire PhD degree-holders to teach courses for their counselor education and supervision programs. Assistant professors are responsible for teaching, research, and professional development. Some tenure-track positions may lead to permanent associate professor positions. Visiting assistant professor positions are also available for those who want to explore teaching options at different universities.

Depending on job requirements, applicants may need to show proof of licensure as well as previous teaching and research experience. The BLS (2019) shows that opportunities for postsecondary teachers nationally are growing at a rate of 11 percent (2018 to 2028), which is much faster than the national average.

Compliance Officer: A career that spans several sectors and disciplines, compliance officers are responsible for examining, evaluating, and investigating eligibility for laws and regulations in matters dealing with contracts, licenses, inspection, and permits. Degree holders in counseling education and supervision may be qualified to work in public schools or healthcare facilities to ensure that educational and mental health services are being administered fairly and within the prescribed scope of practice at the state and federal level.

Depending on the employer, certification may be required for these positions. The BLS (2019) shows that the majority of compliance officers work the federal executive branch of the government and earn average annual salaries of $72,850.

Psychologist: a career that can include clinical and research components, psychologists work one-on-one with individuals or families in private practice or mental health facilities or research facilities. Depending on qualifications, a clinical psychologist may provide general behavioral health support or specialized services through educational counseling, couples counseling, addiction issues, grief and loss, or eating disorders. Research psychologists may evaluate patients individually for cognitive assessments for patient or research purposes.

Psychologists may have state licensing requirements to fulfill before applying for certain jobs. The BLS (2019) shows job openings in psychology are growing faster than the national average, at a rate of 14 percent between 2018 and 2018.

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond


Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).