Earning an Online Doctorate in School Counseling

Earning an online Ph.D. in school counseling prepares graduates to enter a competitive job market with above-average growth. Most institutions require counselors to have a master's degree but prefer and offer higher pay for a Ph.D. Scholarships can offset the cost of an online doctoral program, which further minimizes its cost compared to traditional programs. The potential for personal, professional, and financial growth during an online doctorate in school counseling program is substantial.

Why Get a Doctorate in School Counseling?

Pursuing Specialization

Typical specializations for an online Ph.D. in school counseling program include counseling education and supervision, advanced research, trauma and crisis, counseling and social change, and advanced research. These specializations enable students to focus their dissertations, gain specific expertise, and teach within their interests.

Career Advancement Opportunities

When institutions of higher learning hire for administrative and leadership roles that offer more responsibility and offer higher pay, they prefer candidates who hold doctorates. A doctoral degree signals to employers that you're committed, experienced, and highly prepared for a competitive job market.

Online Learning Technology

Students who earn an online Ph.D. in school counseling gain practical experience working with the latest information and education technology. These skills come in handy when graduates teach courses using the same learning management systems they mastered while earning their doctorates.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. and an Ed.D. in School Counseling?

The main difference between a Ph.D. and an Ed.D. in school counseling is that a Ph.D. focuses on research and teaching while an Ed.D. focuses on administration and leadership. Ph.D. programs offer teaching assistantships that provide classroom experience, making them ideal for graduates seeking a teaching career.

Meanwhile, earning an online Ed.D. in school counseling is more commonly associated with administrative and leadership roles at both collegiate and district levels. Ed.D. degrees often require fewer credits than a Ph.D., and the curriculum typically covers advocacy, political considerations in decision-making, supervision, and leadership.

Both doctorate types require internships, residencies, and dissertations, and they share core courses like grant and professional writing, counseling theories, and ethics.

Prerequisites for Online Doctorate in School Counseling Programs

To apply to an online Ph.D. in school counseling program, you need a master's degree in education from a school accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and a valid counseling license. Below are a few other common requirements.

  • Work Experience: Many programs require at least a year of work experience, though more is better. This experience must be in counseling, preferably at a school or with a student population.
  • Exams and Test Scores: The GRE and MAT are the most common standardized tests for graduate schools. GRE scores stay valid for 5 years, and the MAT is limited to one attempt per calendar year, so plan accordingly.
  • Coursework: Most Ph.D. programs mandate specific prerequisite coursework from a master's program, like classes in abnormal psychology or ethics. Programs may also require a minimum graduate GPA.
  • Recommendations: Most programs require 2-3 letters of recommendation. These letters should come from professors and supervisors, and they should outline a candidate's work ethic, values, and ability.
  • Essays: Online doctoral programs require an essay or statement of purpose that explores academic interests and accomplishments and outlines relevant experience. Essays also demonstrate the candidate's writing abilities.
  • Interviews: Interviews are standard practice for Ph.D. programs because they give schools a better sense for the candidate's abilities and personality. They can often be conducted online through a video program like Skype.
  • English Tests: For international students, a minimum score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a standard requirement.

How Much Can I Make With a Doctorate in School Counseling?

According to the BLS, the median annual pay for school counselors is $56,000. The lowest 10% earn $33,000, while the highest 10% earn $90,000. Earning an online Ph.D. in school counseling attracts more attention from employers who hire in this area, and it means an average salary of $63,000 according to PayScale -- $14,000 more than the average salary for a master of education in school counseling. Below are a few other career options for school counseling graduates.

Traditional Careers for School Counseling

Careers Stats Description

Rehabilitation Counselor

Median Pay: $35,630

Job Growth: 13%

Rehabilitation counselors assist people challenged with mental, emotional, and developmental disabilities, enabling them to live more independent lives. Work settings for rehabilitation counselors include senior citizen centers and community rehabilitation centers. Ideal candidates are ethical, patient, and compassionate.

School and Career Counselor

Median Pay: $56,310

Job Growth: 13%

School counselors work in both public and private schools, assisting students in improving social and academic skills. Career counselors assist students in setting professional aspirations. They usually work in career centers, colleges, and private practices. Becoming a counselor requires well-developed social skills.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Median Pay: $50,090

Job Growth: 23%

Marriage and family therapists typically work full time in mental health centers or private practice, helping their clients cope with family and relationship challenges. This is a rapidly growing area of therapy.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor

Median Pay: $44,630

Job Growth: 23%

This type of counselor works with people suffering from substance abuse, addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral issues related to mental health. These counselors typically work full time to help clients pursue recovery, utilizing effective and ethical treatments.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $78,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers provide instruction to college students. Their flexible schedules include time for research, advising, administrative responsibilities, and writing for publication. Counseling professors instruct the next generation of mental health counselors, making this position ideal for academically inclined individuals who want to help others.

Source: PayScale/BLS

Paying for a Doctorate in School Counseling Online

With tuition ranging from $375-$850 per credit in programs that require 60-85 credits, paying for an online Ph.D. in school counseling can be daunting. Students typically pay for their degree through a combination of their current salaries, savings, loans, scholarships, and grants. As is the case with all major financial decisions, doctorate seekers should explore all of their options. Below are just a few places where doctorate students can seek funding assistance.

Scholarships for Online School Counseling Students

Fellowships, grants, and scholarships can greatly offset the cost of earning an online Ph.D. in school counseling. While some awards are conservative, others can be substantial, offering thousands of dollars. Researching scholarship opportunities is worth the extra effort. Below are a few examples to help get you started.

What to Expect From an Online School Counseling Program

Earning an online Ph.D. in school counseling takes 4-5 years and can require as many as 90 credits, though 60-72 is more typical. Programs begin with a competitive admissions process followed by coursework, internships, dissertation development and defense, and final exams, culminating in graduation. Working in a virtual classroom provides practical technological experience for school counselors, which prepares them for the increasingly digital teaching landscape. Below are a few major milestones encountered in an online doctoral program.

Major Milestones

  1. Admissions

    Applicants submit transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, a letter of intent, and a resume or curriculum vitae for admission. Orientation may occur 2-3 months before the semester begins.

  2. Coursework

    Doctoral candidates dedicate two years to classes, including core and specialization courses, in preparation for an eventual dissertation composition and defense.

  3. Internship

    The internship offers a supervised experience related to a core study area, which can include a TA position or a semester spent teaching master's students.

  4. Dissertation Proposal

    Ph.D. candidates conduct research and review literature to identify and develop a dissertation proposal.

  5. Comprehensive Exams

    Final written and oral exams mark the end of the coursework phase, enabling candidates to focus on writing their dissertations full time.

  6. Dissertation Defense

    Once dissertations are completed, Ph.D. candidates must defend them before a dissertation or project committee.

  7. Graduation

    The last step is submitting a form evidencing an intent to graduate. This is mostly a formality, intended as a final check to make sure all requirements for the degree have been met.


Specializations and course offerings vary in online Ph.D. programs, but students can expect some common core courses like those listed below. Actual program details vary by school, so be sure to research your program in advance to make sure it offers the courses that interest you.

Advanced Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Students in this class learn about the clinical applications of present-day counseling and psychotherapy theories, including practical developments in various treatments.

Career Development and Vocational Counseling:

This course presents common approaches to career and vocational counseling for students, focusing in particular on strategies for identifying student interests and abilities and encouraging professional development.

Advanced Group Counseling

The skill set required to lead group counseling is very different from that of one-on-one therapy. This course explores strategies and best practices for group therapy from a practical viewpoint, highlighting ways students can facilitate connection and support between group members.

Theory and Process of Counselor Supervision

Students explore counselor development theories, supervision ethics, and the relationship between counselors and their supervisors. Students learn how to make the most of their own supervision and how to best supervise and assist others.

Counseling Program Evaluation

This course focuses on research methods and analysis, especially regarding how to measure and interpret statistics around the effectiveness of counseling programs. This practical skill set also comes in handing when developing course curriculums.

Degree Timelines

The timeline for an online Ph.D. in school counseling is heavily influenced by the number of credits a student takes per year. Typically, there are 4 quarters and 3 semesters, including the summer. Someone studying full time, year-round may graduate in as little as 3.5 years. However, most Ph.D. students also work and don't take courses in the summer, so it is more typical for a doctoral program to take 6-8 years.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description


7-8 years

For students with family and work obligations, a part-time plan may be the best option. The added time can inflate the total expense, but it means a lesser annual burden. One disadvantage is that it may be challenging to retain knowledge and build skills in a slower program than it is in a full-time or accelerated program. It may also be difficult to find time to complete an internship while juggling work and family obligations with school.


4-5 years

A full-time online doctoral degree program is the most common option, complete with an articulated degree plan and recommended course schedule. A full-time program is ideal for students who don't have outside job commitments and are seeking specialized professional skills.


3.5-4 years

An accelerated doctoral degree program typically requires three additional credits per semester, allowing students to reach the dissertation phase sooner. This more intense schedule requires full-time attention, and it's best to enroll online because course availability is less of an issue. However, internships and the actual dissertation writing process cannot be accelerated. Accelerated programs work best for students who have the time, experience, and skills to take on the additional coursework.

Licenses and Certifications

Counseling licensure requires at least a master's degree in counseling, and other certification requirements vary by state. All states conduct background checks and require teaching experience and internships before granting licensure. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) is a valuable resource for determining what individual states require for their licensure tests.

The nonprofit National Board for Certified Counselors is the top organization for counselor credentialing, offering a variety of resources that include licensure exam preparation. Below are two of the major tests used for counseling licensure in addition to a common certification.

  • National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification Used as the official licensing exam in several states and in some branches of the military, the NCE consists of 200 multiple-choice questions assessing vital knowledge and abilities. Unsuccessful test-takers must wait three months between attempts.
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination The NCMHCE features 10 clinical simulations intended to determine competency levels. The NCMHCE is required for licensure in several states and for the certified clinical mental health counselor certification. This exam also requires a three-month waiting period between attempts.
  • National Certified Counselor In addition to prestige, NCC-certified counselors enjoy access to low-cost liability insurance and can participate in national advocacy efforts for counseling as a profession. Application requires at least a master's degree in counseling, and applicants must also meet minimum supervision and work experience requirements. The exam is offered twice a year, and those who obtain licensure must fulfill ongoing education and ethics requirements.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Providing networking opportunities and access to resources, membership in professional counseling organizations is essential early in a career. Recent graduates can use their membership in these organizations to enhance their curriculum vitae, invest in their careers through ongoing education, and keep up with current trends and evolving technologies in the school counseling field. Below are a few professional organizations to consider.

  • American School Counselor Association ASCA provides professional development and networking opportunities, standards for best practices, and resources for its global membership. The association's mission is to enhance skills, maintain professional ethics, provide initiatives, and develop stakeholder partnerships for the benefit of school counselors and the students they serve.
  • American Counseling Association ACA members benefit from the association's advocacy and professional development opportunities. The organization's strategic plan articulates core values that include equity, inclusion, and social justice. ACA offers an online career center, opportunities for continuing education, and an annual conference.
  • National Education Association Since its establishment in 1857, NEA has developed a vast network of education professionals and affiliates in 14,000 communities, where it advocates for high-quality public education as an individual right. NEA members stay up to date with issues in the field through its print and online publications, and they enjoy members-only content and resources.
  • Association for Counselor Education and Supervision ACES members include graduate students, educators, counselors, and supervisors. The association encourages members to seek leadership roles and actively work within ACES to improve standards and support for school counselors on a national scale. To that end, ACES offers educational resources, including an ongoing webinar series and a community forum.
  • National Association for College Admission Counseling For those seeking administrative jobs in school counseling, admissions counseling is a great speciality. NACAC provides a variety of resources for admissions counselors, including job listings, an annual conference, professional development opportunities, and news publications.
  • Scope Scope is an independent, free online resource focused on current technological tools and trends for school counselors. The site offers topical monthly Twitter chats, complete with a dedicated hashtag, where school counselors can discuss major issues in the field.
  • Teachers Pay Teachers TpT a teacher-oriented social platform where educational professionals can find information on best practices and resources for use in K-12 classrooms. The site also hosts a blog where teachers can learn from one another.
  • ACA Knowledge Center ACA's Knowledge Center provides a variety of professional resources for counselors, but ethics are its core. The association has its own published code of ethics that articulates professional standards and encourages others to adopt these standards in their practices.
  • University Counseling Jobs Developed in 1999, UCJ is a searchable online database of college and university counseling job openings. Users can sign up for alerts for new postings and can filter listings for administrative, teaching, fellowship, clinical, and traditional counseling positions.
  • Chi Sigma Iota Founded in 1985 at Ohio University, CSI is an honor society with counselor, educator, and student members whose mission is to achieve excellence in the counseling profession. CSI now operates globally, with 125,000 members enrolled through 400 chapters.