Counseling psychology programs prepare people to guide others who are in distress. Students learn the theory and practice of counseling. They learn to work with groups, families, and individual people.
Almost every college has a counseling center where students can go to get help with personal problems. Some students feel torn between their parents' wishes for their career and their own preferences. Some are involved with drugs or alcohol and need help getting clean and sober again. Some are coping with a sudden crisis, such as a death in the family. Some are facing decisions about sex. Most of these students seeking help have no fundamental mental health problem, but they are facing problems that are bigger than they feel capable of handling alone.
These are the kinds of people who are helped by counseling psychologists. Children and adults may also seek such help when they are in similar situations. So counseling psychologists do not work only in colleges. Some of them work in hospitals, and others in individual or group practices.
You can do some counseling work with a master's degree in counseling psychology. This normally takes two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree (which itself usually takes four years beyond high school). Over 170 graduate schools and psychological institutes offer this degree. In a master's program, you learn how to counsel people in individual and group sessions. You learn how to diagnose them by interviewing them and giving them psychological tests. You study strategies for clients from various ages and backgrounds. You also learn about career counseling.
With a master's you can do counseling under the supervision of someone with a doctorate. You can also do college teaching and assist with research. But to work independently and be called a psychologist, you need to have a doctoral degree and be licensed. The doctoral program usually takes an additional three years beyond the master's. Over 50 universities and psychological institutes offer this degree. You study more about theories of behavior and learn about the professional and ethical issues associated with counseling.
An important purpose of the doctoral program is to teach you how to do research. So you add to your knowledge of statistics and research design (which you should have studied as an undergraduate). And you do an original research project that results in a dissertation.
The other important purpose of the doctoral program is to give you experience doing counseling. There are some professional issues that you become aware of only when you encounter them in real counseling situations. So the program ends with a year of supervised practice.