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How to Become a Counselor - Degree and Career Guide

What Does a Counselor Do?

counselor with young patient

Counselors help people make the most of their lives in the face of unique challenges and adversity. Broadly defined, a counselor is any trained and licensed professional who provides mental health, behavioral, or emotional assistance to individual clients in need. Counselors develop relationships with their clients, provide emotional support, and recommend problem-solving approaches and relationship-building techniques. Counseling is a dynamic and rewarding profession that offers the rare opportunity to do work of profound significance on a daily basis.

Counselors can specialize in a variety of subjects, such as:

  • Career assistance
  • Rehabilitation
  • Physical and mental disability
  • Crisis (trauma) counseling

The counseling field is growing, yielding many opportunities for counselors with a variety of training specialties across the United States. The field is also incredibly diverse, with counselors working in numerous settings and with a wide range of potential clients. If you are emotionally astute, have good listening skills, and are interested in psychology or psychopathology, you may find a perfect career in one of the many subfields of counseling.

Workplace Details

Counselors are employed at all levels of government and private industry, and also work in academia, medical centers, and outpatient facilities. Some counselors provide services directly to clients from a private practice, though special licensure is necessary to provide services in this way in most states. Counselors can provide services to government and private businesses, as well as small organizations, or they can work directly with clients at the individual level. Some counselors work in community clinics or hospitals, while others choose to work at religious institutions and schools.

Because counselors enjoy such diverse work environments, a prospective counselor is truly empowered to choose the setting that is best suited to his or her unique talents. Working in a clinical or medical setting with clients who are suffering from acute mental illness or recent trauma can be incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing. This can involve late nights and emergency calls, as well as interactions with the legal system and client’s families. While incredibly rewarding, a career in this work environment requires a great degree of emotional resilience.

However, counselors who are seeking a more conventional work schedule and a calmer, more secure work environment can choose to work in school counseling or as a conflict mediation counselor at a large organization. Counselors who work in non-clinical school settings, industrial organizations, or private practices tend to enjoy a consistent 9-to-5 work schedule with high-functioning clients. While providing therapy is always an emotionally intense process, working in such settings is generally regarded as less stressful and less demanding.

Salary and Job Outlook

Counselors’ salary depends on the educational level they have achieved, their counseling focus, and the setting in which they are employed. Overall, higher educational attainment and employment in private settings yields a higher income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salaries of various types of counselor are as follows:

  • Couples counselors: $49,170
  • Mental health counselors: $42,840
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $34,670
  • School and career counselors: $54,560
  • Substance abuse counselors: $41,070

An addictions counselor with an associate’s degree generally earns less than school and career counselors with a master’s degree. Rehabilitation counselors, however, tend to earn lower salaries despite earning a master’s degree.

Overall, the counseling field is growing. In addictions counseling, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 12% increase from 2014 to 2024, which is a higher rate than average. Mental health counselors will see a staggering 20% increase in job opportunities over the next decade. Marriage and family counselors’ jobs will grow by 15%. The field of school and career counseling can expect a slower increase, but will still grow by 8%, which is a pace similar to average job growth. Rehabilitation counselors will grow by 9%, slightly faster than average.

Steps to Become a Counselor

1

Get an undergraduate education.

Most counselors have a master’s degree or an advanced degree such as a PhD or a PsyD, but an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is a great place to begin a counseling career, particularly if a person wants to maintain flexibility in his specific counseling path. In general, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is required for addiction counseling, career counseling and life coaching. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree also introduces a person to the wide variety of counseling career choices, which may help you to determine if counseling is the correct career path for you.

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2

Obtain a master's degree.

A master’s degree and certification are necessary in most cases to work in marriage and family counseling, personal growth counseling, psychotherapy, and some formalized types of addiction counseling. A degree in psychology, social work, or counseling will typically provide strong basic training for such positions, though it may not be adequate on its own.

Prospective counselors who only have a master’s degree will need to obtain training and mentorship from the organization for which they will be providing services – for example, a women’s shelter, juvenile detention facility, or rape crisis center – and may also need to perform a certified internship. Following this training, licensure may be required, particularly if the counselor will be working one-on-one with clients, without constant supervision.

3

Get a doctorate degree if needed.

A number of counseling career paths, such as psychoanalysis and some social work, require a PhD or other doctorate degree (such as a PsyD). Coursework covers topics such as abnormal psychology, psychological assessment, neuroanatomical, addictions counseling, and ethics. Counselors who own and operate private practices, or who wish to work in academic settings usually must possess such an education, as well as licensure.

4

Get licensed.

Licenses to practice counseling are issued on a state-by-state basis. Positions where an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is sufficient generally do not require licensing. For example, to work in basic addictions treatment, all that is necessary is a background in addiction, a degree in a related field, and work experience.

In most cases, though, certification and licensure is a requirement to provide counseling services, and at the very least greatly increases the chances of employment. In order to become licensed, a counselor must past a certification exam provided by a state-accredited institution, and exhibit adequate training by submitting educational transcripts and internship reports. A filing fee and letters of recommendation may also be required. After obtaining a license, counselors must renew their licensing by taking several continuing education courses per year, to ensure that their skills are constantly being expanded, updated, and enriched.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards general certifications to counselors after they have passed a national examination. The examination is typically a part of state licensing procedures. You can find more information about the exam here. The NBCC also awards specialty certifications in Mental Health (CCMHC), School Counseling (NCSC) and a certification as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

5

Advance your career.

A counselor can advance from an associate’s degree all the way to a PhD or other doctorate in the counseling field. They have the option to become educators who teach future counselors, in both academic and institutional settings. Some counselors choose to conduct research in effective counseling techniques, typically in universities or government research offices. A counselor might also enter management or supervisory positions, overseeing the training and work of other counselors. Expertise and experience in counseling can be incredibly valuable, and there are many potential avenues for advancement depending on the individual’s specialty.

Exploring Degree Paths

The American Counseling Association (ACA) defines a professional counselor as someone with a master’s degree in the field. However, some states allow individuals without this level of training to perform limited “counseling” functions under close supervision.

Counselors with high school diplomas, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees usually work for human services agencies, and their scope of practice is limited. They must regularly review their cases with a master’s-trained counselor in a process called supervision. They usually can’t diagnose patients and can only administer simple tests and assessments.

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MASTER'S DEGREE

6 years, including undergrad

This is the most common degree for professional counselors. It’s an absolute requirement for those in private practice and also necessary for licensure in some disciplines (for example, school counseling and couples and family therapy).

If you’re a college undergraduate contemplating a career in counseling, one potential career path is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or social work, and then narrow down to a specialization through a master’s degree program, followed by a PhD or PsyD program if necessary. If you already know which specialty you find most interesting, this is the fastest path. Most colleges and universities have counseling programs housed in either the psychology or social work departments, and one of the best ways to understand the field is to speak to a college counselor about the options available.

To find a counseling master’s program, check with colleges and universities in your area. Admissions committees look for students with a bachelor’s degree in any field who demonstrate academic aptitude and personal fit for the profession.

Some considerations when choosing a counseling master’s program:

  • Most programs are discipline-specific. So for example, if you want to be a licensed mental health counselor, you need to find a program with a mental health track.
  • Many schools offer online master’s degrees in counseling. However, these may not meet the “contact” requirements for licensure or certification. Proceed with caution and double check the credentialing requirements for your state and discipline.
  • It’s not absolutely necessary to attend an accredited master’s program, but doing so can greatly streamline the licensure and certification processes. Master’s programs in most disciplines are regulated by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Master’s students typically begin their education in the classroom studying counseling theory, counseling skills, mental health concepts, and legal and ethical issues. Some classes include a laboratory in which students practice counseling techniques with classmates or volunteers. Common classes include:

Individual counseling

Apply counseling theories and techniques in one-to-one situations and gain experience working with diverse patients.

Group counseling

Learn to form and lead therapeutic groups and understand group dynamics.

Ethics and legal issues

Understand the laws, ethical cannons, and standards of conduct that govern the counseling profession.

Tests and assessments

Study how psychological concepts are measured, the process of test construction, and ethical considerations for administering and interpreting tests.

In addition to their classroom learning, students in CACREP-accredited master’s programs also complete a 40-hour practicum and 600-hour internship. To successfully meet this requirement, they must log a certain number of direct service and supervision hours.

Beyond basic course requirements, most counseling programs have mentoring, skills development, and internship components as well. During the mentorship period, an experienced counselor oversees students in all aspects of counseling, ensuring that the students gain the necessary skills, and providing assistance when the students encounter unfamiliar diagnoses or challenges.

Some master’s programs include a research component. Students in these programs must design and conduct an original investigation and write and defend a thesis. Alternately, counseling students may be required to spend a year or more working in an applied therapeutic setting (such as a wellness center, hospital, Veteran’s Affairs center, or homeless shelter, to name a few). Depending on the state, certification and licensure may require varying degrees of time in such mentorship settings. Most state licensing boards have websites where more information on the specifics may be found.

DOCTORAL DEGREE

3-4 years beyond the master's level

A doctoral degree isn’t necessary to practice as a counselor. But you’ll need one if you want to make a career in research, teaching, or consulting.

The most common doctoral major for counselors is “counselor education and supervision.” There are two common pathways within this major:

  • The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) option emphasizes research and teaching. Graduates typically work for universities or government and community agencies.
  • The Doctor of Education (EdD) option prepares candidates to lead school counseling programs or serve as consultants to school districts

In addition, doctoral students generally focus their studies on a specific counseling discipline such as mental health, school, or career counseling.

Counseling doctoral programs are found at four-year colleges and universities. Most of the more reputable programs hold voluntary accreditation through CACREP.

To gain admission to a doctoral program in counseling, you’ll need to have a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related field like social work. (Many schools strongly prefer graduates of CACREP-accredited master’s programs.) You’ll also need to demonstrate academic and personal aptitude for the profession through your academic transcript, recommendations, essays, and interviews.

Doctoral students begin their programs with about two years of coursework in subjects like:

Supervision and consultation

Learn to help other counselors develop their skills and clinical judgment through one-on-one interactions.

Research methodology

Study experimental design in the social sciences, with emphasis on ethical considerations and writing for publication.

Educational psychology

Gain the skills you need to teach counselor education courses effectively at the graduate level.

Advanced counseling theory

Deepen your knowledge of helping interactions and techniques while developing your personal approach to counseling.

Toward the end of the program, doctoral students complete supervised internships in clinical practice, teaching, or counselor supervision. This is also the time when students focus on their original research and dissertation.

Keys to Success as a Counselor

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Ethical conduct

Counselors are expected to maintain high ethical standards, keeping their clients’ personal information confidential and upholding the values of their discipline. A counselor must never give away clients’ identities, diagnoses, or other personal information. Counselors are also required to respond appropriately to certain “mandatory reporting” scenarios – for example, if a patient or client expresses a desire or plan to harm another individual, a counselor must report the incident to the authorities immediately. Counselors must also be willing to maintain appropriate boundaries with their clients – romantic relationships between clients and counselors are banned, as are intimate friendships, and violation of this rule can result in the counselor losing licensure.

Communication skills

A successful counselor needs highly developed communication skills, both written and oral.

Analytical mind

In order to provide proper services to clients and to maintain accurate records, counselors must be detail-oriented and possess strong critical thinking skills.

Empathy

They need to show sympathy and empathy while at the same time maintaining professional balance and the ability to make critical, sometimes life-changing suggestions to their clients.

Stress management

Counselors must be able to compartmentalize the stress and emotional trauma of their job, to ensure their own emotional and mental well-being. Many counselors choose to see a therapist or counselor to ensure that they are coping with the demands of their jobs appropriately.

Additional Credentials

Counseling certifications are voluntary but preferred by many employers. Having one can also streamline the licensure process in some states.

The National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers the National Certified Counselor Credential, which is one of the most popular counseling certifications. In order to sit for the certification exam, candidates must hold a master’s degree and meet experience and supervision requirements. (All of these can be met by graduating from a CACREP-accredited program.)

NBCC also offers several advanced credentials:

  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
  • Master Addictions Counselor (MAC)

The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification administers the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) credential for vocational rehabilitation counselors. To sit for the exam, candidates must hold a master’s degree from an accredited program or meet education, experience, and supervision requirements.

Many counselors also pursue certification in a specific modality like cognitive behavior therapy or play therapy. Credentialing programs are usually run by a private institute (for example, the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, the William Glasser Institute, or the Alfred Adler Institute). To become certified, students typically need to complete additional training and supervised fieldwork.

Erika Price, PhD

Erika Price has a PhD in Social Psychology from Loyola University Chicago, and serves as an instructor at North Park University and The Chicago School for Professional Psychology. A recent Postdoctoral Research Associate, Erika has studied Open-Mindedness and Political Tolerance with support from the John Templeton Foundation.

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