How to Become a Counselor - Degree and Career Guide

Overview

Counselor taking notes while listening to a client

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:

They may also specialize in rehabilitation and physical and mental disability assistance, or perform crisis counseling for people dealing with recent trauma.

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 psychopatholgy, you may find a perfect career in one of the many subfields of counseling.

Work Environment

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.

Requirements

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.

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.

Other counseling careers, 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.

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.

Training

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. Students will also work in therapeutic “practicums” where they learn treatment modalities and act out therapy sessions with their fellow students. Finally, counseling students may be required to conduct an independent research project or 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.

Licensing and/or Certification

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 (CCNHC), School Counseling (NCSC) and a certification as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

Necessary Skills and Qualities

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.

A successful counselor needs highly developed communication skills, both written and oral. Counselors also need to maintain professional boundaries, train in critical thinking skills, be detail oriented, and maintain accurate records. 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. Finally, counselors must be able to compartmentalize the stress and emotional trauma of their job, to ensure their own emotional and mental wellbeing. Many counselors choose to see a therapist or counselor to ensure that they are coping with the demands of their jobs appropriately.

Opportunities for Advancement

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.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

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.

In May 2013, salaries for counselors ranged from $21,170 to $86,870, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salaries of various types of counselor are as follows.

  • Couples counselors: $48,160
  • Mental health counselors: $40,580
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $34,230
  • School and career counselors: $53,600
  • Substance abuse counselors: $38,620

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.

Job Outlook

Overall, the counseling field is growing. In addictions counseling, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 31% increase from 2012 to 2022, which is a far higher rate than average. Mental health counselors will see a 29% increase in job opportunities over the next decade. Marriage and family counselors' jobs will grow by 31%. The field of school and career counseling expects a slower increase, but will still grow by 12%, which is a pace similar to average job growth. Rehabilitation counselors can expect robust growth of 20%.

Further Reading

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