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Master's in Counseling Program Details

Program Overview

The MA in Counseling program prepares students to pursue licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist, Professional Clinical Counselor, or both, depending upon their area of emphasis and their home state. The program is designed for professionals to retool their career paths or for recent graduates to expand their career options.

  • The Marriage, Family and Child emphasis fulfills State of California requirements for Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or dual MFT/LPCC licensure. This is the ideal option for students who are planning to practice as an MFT in the State of California. Through the online format, students anywhere can complete all coursework while doing practicum/internship placements in their local community. Students in the distance learning program are required to attend two residential training experiences on-campus.
  • The Clinical Mental Health emphasis is designed to fulfill the requirements for Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) licensure in most U.S. states and territories. Through the online format, students anywhere can complete all coursework while doing practicum/internship placements in their local community. Students in distance learning program are required to attend two residential training experiences on-campus.

Focus on Culture, Social Justice and Families

The mission of Palo Alto University is to reduce suffering and improve lives through education and research anchored in psychology, clinical training and practice in a diversity of cultures. In support of this mission, PAU offers a unique multicultural focus with an emphasis on culture, social justice and families. Instructors equip students to serve individuals, families and communities of different backgrounds with widely different needs.

The MA in Counseling program develops proficiencies in multiple dimensions that align with Palo Alto University's core values:

  • Academic Rigor: Acquire, refine, and demonstrate appropriate Master's level knowledge and skill as a counselor in a variety of settings.
  • Professional Identity: Develop a professional identity as a counselor as well as the personal qualities related to effective practice, including integrity, sensitivity, flexibility, insight, compassion, and personal presence.
  • Leadership: Become an organizational leader, a group process expert, and a positive force in achieving high levels of participation, cooperation and cohesion.
  • Social Justice: Develop an understanding of various cultures and the implications of diversity for social justice. Gain insight into the social and psychological implications of socioeconomic position and how poverty and social stress can affect an individual's mental health and recovery.
  • Recovery Orientation: Incorporate the principles of mental health recovery-oriented care and methods of service delivery in recovery-oriented practice environments.
  • Compliance and Risk Management: Learn to manage the risks of a professional counseling practice, ensure personal and client safety, and remain compliant with all laws and regulations and moral and ethical guidelines.
  • Professional Practice: Integrate the principles and practices of marriage and family counseling throughout the professional practice of counseling and mental health.
  • Licensure: Become a licensed Professional Clinical Counselor or Marriage and/or Family Counselor in California or achieve a similar license in the other states and territories of the United States, Canada and other international partners.

Commitment to Diversity

Palo Alto University is committed to providing an educational environment that respects cultural and individual differences.

The MA in Counseling program works to foster a diverse student body and support the aspirations of all students. Faculty and staff recognize that critical debate about important ideas in an atmosphere of respect and cooperation is central to the academic enterprise. This commitment to diversity requires a commitment on the part of all members of the academic community to acknowledge the range of human variability and to respect differences.

As counselors or therapists, an understanding and appreciation for human diversity is especially critical. Whenever relevant, courses are designed to address explicitly the implications of ethnic and cultural diversity factors on the assessment and treatment of patients. Students are encouraged to appreciate and experience the diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and their home community, as well as the diversity within the student body.

Palo Alto University sponsors student organizations committed to cultural awareness and diversity, including Students for Ethnic and Cultural Awareness (SECA) and the Student Association for Sexual Orientation (SASO). These and other Palo Alto University organizations are designed to build community, provide education and outreach, and further the goal of building awareness and appreciation of diversity. See the directory of student organizations.

Program Formats

The online or on campus program formats accommodate the needs of working people who must juggle the demands of jobs, families and other responsibilities while taking classes and fulfilling practicum and training requirements. All classes are held in the evening. The hybrid-residential program requires one course a week on-campus. All practicum and internship classes are offered online only on Tuesday evenings. 

Most students are able to continue working for at least the first year of the program.

Palo Alto University uses an online learning platform that supports all aspects of the learning experience, including lectures, discussion boards, real-time dialog and interactive exercises. Students interact with a global student body and learn clinical skills through real-time interaction with instructors.

Computer Requirements

A computer with internet connection is the virtual campus for this program. Students will need access to a reliable computer with an internet connection to participate. A powerful computer with a DSL or cable modem connection is recommended to participate in online classes and download course materials. Students also need a headset with a microphone to join video and phone discussions.

Program Length

The MA in Counseling program requires nine or eleven quarters of coursework, completed in no less than two years and three months of study.

Work and School Scheduling

During the first year of the program most students can maintain full-time employment during the day, and study in the evenings and on weekends. During the second year students should be aware that evening and weekend practicum placements are extremely hard to find. Most students will need to adjust their schedules in order to spend two days during the normal workweek to complete their practicum experience. Students should plan to be in class Tuesday evenings for the duration of the program.

Teaching Methods

Students learn through lecture, discussion, and research, and apply new knowledge in an internship, all guided by their professors.

The professors draw on their academic research and professional experience to the provide students with the background they need to be successful practitioners.

Instructors of online courses are trained in distance learning teaching methods, and advisors serve as coaches to help students address the challenges unique to online learning.

Academic Advising

Students are assigned a faculty academic advisor upon entering the program. The advisor's primary role is to discuss professional development issues (e.g., practicum decisions, internship preparation, etc.) and academic/coursework needs throughout the program. Students are also strongly encouraged to be proactive and contact their advisor earlier rather than later should any difficulties arise.

Academic Requirements


Entering students (individuals or cohorts) are assigned an academic plan based on quarter in which they enroll and their area of emphasis. Within each emphasis, students receive the same curriculum regardless of previous education or experience. There are no electives. Students are encouraged to explore areas of personal interest by tailoring their counseling, practicum placements and research experiences.

Transferring Units In

Students can request to transfer up to 15 units of prior graduate work. Prior coursework cannot be more than 5 years old. Transfer coursework is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Students must submit a course description and supporting documentation (e.g. a comprehensive syllabus) for each transfer course. A Palo Alto University faculty member then reviews the documentation, and either accepts or rejects the course for transfer credit.

Practicum Requirement and Training

As the program progresses, students gain experience by spending increasing amounts of time in supervised counseling work. The practicum is a 9-12 month supervised clinical placement that comprises a major training component of the program. The practicum typically begins in the fall after one to two years of coursework. Students must accrue a minimum total of 700 hours during their fieldwork, a minimum of 280 of which are direct counseling hours in which the student is in the role of therapist/counselor trainee. 

Palo Alto University assists students in finding suitable placements in their communities and provides ongoing support through the practicum and internship process. Ultimately, the student is responsible for securing their fieldwork site. All practicum sites must be formally approved by the advisor and the clinical training director.

Supervision occurs at the student's practicum site and with PAU faculty. During the internship year, students maintain a clinical portfolio of their experiences, which eventually becomes a capstone project.

Practicum Panel Webinar Recording


Competency Assessment, Assignments, and Exams

Performance in class is assessed in a number of ways. Instructors typically use a combination of papers, class exercises, discussion quality, or other course-specific assignments to assess performance in a comprehensive manner. Students are required to pass a Clinical Advancement project before their practicum can begin and must complete a Capstone Project at the end of the program.

Good Academic Standing

Students are expected to achieve a grade of B or higher in didactic course work, have satisfactory practicum evaluations, and pass all comprehensive examinations.

Any student who receives two or more grades of B-minus in a given quarter is expected to meet with his or her advisor to discuss and attempt to resolve any academic difficulties. Two grades of B-minus or below in any quarter mandates a compulsory review by the Master's Student Evaluation Committee.

A grade of "F" in two courses is grounds for dismissal from the program. Students demonstrating academic difficulty will be referred to the Student Evaluation Committee for review.

Students are independently responsible for monitoring any incomplete grades and satisfying course requirements prior to the close of the subsequent quarter.

Students are also evaluated no less than twice annually by their practicum supervisors. Students must maintain satisfactory practicum ratings to maintain good academic standing.

Students are expected to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards of conduct in their activities associated with the school and to abide by Palo Alto University's student handbook and policies. Any student who commits, aids, or attempts to commit "academic misconduct" shall be subject to disciplinary action.

Awarding of the Degree

Criteria for awarding of the Master of Arts are:

  • Course Work: All course work and unit requirements must be completed with a grade of B or higher.
  • Grade Reports: It is the responsibility of each student to make sure that all grade reports have been received by the Registrar's Office and that his or her transcript is cleared of any outstanding grades or incompletes.
  • Financial Aid Clearance: The student must receive financial aid clearance from the Business and Finance Department and have an exit interview with the Financial Aid Coordinator.
  • Fees and Paperwork: All graduate fees and forms must be submitted, including the graduation fee and the Application for Graduation.

Students approaching completion of their degree requirements must file a "Graduation Application" form with the Registrar whether or not they plan to participate in commencement exercises. Students should contact the Registrar's office to request this form.

Psychotherapy Suggestion

In any psychological therapy or counseling training program, evaluations of competence must be based not only on academic achievement but on personal and professional qualities as well. These include a commitment to self-understanding and self-awareness and a capacity for good relationships. These traits are interrelated, since understanding and acceptance of others depends, in part, on self-understanding and self-acceptance.

Students are expected to demonstrate maturity, good judgment, discretion, and respect. If their effectiveness is compromised by personal problems or illness, they are expected to seek competent professional help to determine whether to suspend, terminate, or limit their scope of professional studies within the MA in Counseling program.

Whenever possible, program faculty or advisors will seek to identify high-quality, affordable options for a students' personal psychotherapy experience. Further, the program leadership is committed to increasing opportunities for personal exploration and growth in a safe, confidential, professional environment.

Student Feedback

Students are required to submit written evaluations of each class and each instructor every quarter. This frequent feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the program helps Palo Alto University improve the MA in Counseling program on a continuous basis.

Student Services

Academic Resources and Administrative Support

Whether enrolled in an on campus or online program, all students are members of the PAU community and have access to the full range of student services, including: