Counseling Degrees and Careers: Everything You Need to Know
Counselors are highly educated and well-trained professionals who serve as front-line mental health workers. These professionals are employed in a variety of different settings, including in prisons, schools, hospitals or with veterans organizations. As a counselor, you will assess and treat the complex emotional, behavioral, and psychological issues that torment the people who seek your help. From grief and addiction to sex and abuse, your patients will trust you with their most intimate secrets, emotions, and experiences — you’ll often get to know your patients better than nearly any other person in their lives. The work is noble, challenging, and important, which is reflected in the extensive training process that precedes a career in the field.
This page will introduce you to the work of a counselor and help you understand what they do, what they don’t do, where they work, and the salaries they can expect to earn. You’ll learn about the challenging educational journey counselors must take, as well as the necessary licensure and voluntary certifications that follow. You’ll also get a look at the many specialties you can pursue as you zero in on exactly what kind of counselor you want to be.
What is a Counselor?
A counselor is someone who is trained and educated to help individuals and groups work through psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems that are interrupting their lives, careers, and relationships. Counselors work in settings as varied as prisons, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, corporations, group homes, halfway houses, treatment centers, rehab facilities, and private practice. They can specialize in areas like eating disorders, abuse, addiction, marriage, disabilities, sports, and careers, or they can work with specific populations like the elderly, military veterans, the homeless, children, or the LGBT+ community.
In most cases, counselors are not fully trained or qualified psychologists, but they do need to have a background in psychology since many of their duties and responsibilities are the same. Unlike researchers and academics, counselors are hands-on mental health workers who help people through vulnerable and fragile points in their lives. The quality of their training and education have a direct impact on their ability to recognize, evaluate, and mitigate the issues their clients are dealing with.
A counselor’s responsibilities include, but are not limited to:
How to Become a Counselor
In order to become a counselor, you’ll have to dedicate six years of your life – or more – to achieving your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. If you are interested in earning the title of psychologist or counseling psychologist, then you will need to pursue a doctorate degree which can take an additional four to seven years to complete. Regardless of the degree level that you choose, your training during that time will pay dividends down the road — the things you learn and do in school will be the basis for a fulfilling career in treating people who count on you for help.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
A bachelor’s degree is the standard undergraduate credential and a steppingstone on your journey toward a career as a counselor. This degree is required to get into any master’s program, and a master’s degree is required to become a counselor. Most psychology bachelor’s programs result in a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree, although some culminate in a Bachelor of Science (B.S.). There’s little difference between the two in terms of coursework and subject matter, and either way, they both take four years to complete with a standard course load.
Earn a Master’s Degree in Psychology
Once you leave college with a bachelor’s degree in hand, it’s time to work toward a master’s degree, where the real academic heavy lifting begins. It won’t be easy, but if you succeed, you’ll join an elite and exclusive club. Although the country is more educated than it’s ever been — the number of Americans with graduate degrees has more than doubled since 2000 — fewer than 10% of U.S. adults hold master’s degrees. You’ll have to become one of them to work as a counselor. At this point in your education, you can choose a generic degree in counseling or select a specialized concentration, but either way, you should have a specialty in mind as you progress.
Pick a Specialty
Although you’re not required to choose a specialty when you enter graduate school, you’ll have to settle on a concentration by the end. If you’re not certain what concentrations interest you or which ones are even available, don’t worry. Your years of education will expose you to the many specialties that exist in the domain of psychology and counseling, so by the time you wrap up your master’s, you’ll have a solid grasp on what interests you and what doesn’t.
Complete a Practicum/Internship
Another requirement is hands-on fieldwork in the form of a practicum, internship, or both. They’re similar, but practicums are generally more closely supervised than internships, which allow for more independent work. Where your fieldwork takes place, how long it lasts, and what you’ll do varies by school, program, and specialty, but you should expect to participate for at least 1,000 hours in a program that lasts for anywhere from six months to two years. In most cases, the fieldwork takes place before graduation during the second portion of the graduate program. The first portion of the program usually consists of academic coursework.
Earn Your License
Earning a master’s degree is an incredible accomplishment that earns you a place among America’s academic elite and prepares you for a career in counseling, but you still cannot treat clients until you’ve been granted a license. To do that, you’ll have to prove to your state board that you have the necessary training, experience, and knowledge to work with people who are struggling through emotional or psychological distress. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, but you’ll have to pass a comprehensive examination no matter where you live.
Get Certified (Optional)
Unlike state licensure, you’re under no obligation to get certified, but certification can serve as an impressive credential that might open doors in your career. In some cases, employers may require certification. In others, the credential can separate you from the pack in the eyes of not just potential employers, but colleagues, research institutions, and clients. Certification can validate you as someone who has committed to a higher level of training and education even though they didn’t have to. There are several possible certifications, some of which are awarded by the same organization that administers the licensure exam.
Earn a Doctorate (Optional)
You’ll only need to earn a doctorate for a career as a counselor if you’re pursuing the full title of “psychologist,” as in “counseling psychologist.” Some doctoral programs require you to first earn a master’s degree, but many do not—but that’s not the only thing that separates one doctoral program from another. Traditional Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees prepare you for work as a researcher or in academia. In the 1970s, the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree emerged as an alternative for students looking for advanced training to treat patients in clinical environments.
Psychology and counseling programs are available at every degree level for those interested in the field. These programs are offered in many schools across the nation, and each comes with its own positives and negatives. Read on to learn about the different programs available to students interested in counseling.
Undergraduate Psychology Programs
As previously mentioned, a bachelor’s degree in psychology will not qualify you to work as a counselor, but it will allow you to get into a master’s program, which is required to become a licensed counselor. Undergraduate degrees in psychology are usually delivered through Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) programs, but sometimes are offered as Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees. B.S. students will likely encounter more technical coursework like math, statistics, or science, while B.A. programs tend to put a higher premium on liberal arts studies like English, philosophy, and history. Either way, it will take four years to complete with a standard course load.
You shouldn’t go into your first semester expecting that all, or even most of your courses will be directly related to counseling or psychology. Many of your required core courses will be, but all undergraduate psychology programs focus heavily on general education electives. You’ll take courses like English composition, art, literature, algebra and other math, biology and other sciences, written and oral communication, and arts and humanities. Core topics tend to focus on basic courses like introduction to psychology, ethics, theories, and methods. This structure provides a broad, foundational education with a core focus on psychology, which will prepare you for advanced graduate study.
Counseling Master’s Programs
Like all graduate programs, a master’s degree in psychology or psychology counseling is only open to those who have completed an undergraduate program, usually with a GPA of 3.0 or better. Some graduate programs also require you to take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) standardized test, but others do not. Most ask for letters of recommendation, letters of intent, and writing samples, and some graduate programs require you to first have completed an internship or some other work in the field.
Although you’re not always required to pick a specialty right away, your transition into graduate study is where you’ll start thinking about what kind of counselor you want to become. This is particularly important because not all programs offer the same specialized concentrations—you’ll want to be sure to pick a program that gives you the chance to train for the specialty that matches your career goals. You might want to work with specific groups like children, the elderly, the LGBTQ+ community, or military veterans. You may choose to work in a specific setting, like a school or prison, or counsel people with specific behavioral, emotional, or psychological disorders. These concentrations and many more are all available as master’s degree specialties, but not necessarily in the same program or at the same school.
In some cases, there will be different tracks for students who plan to enter the workforce after graduation and those who plan to continue on to doctoral programs. Either way, your coursework will be much more focused on the field of psychology compared to undergraduate general education. You’ll encounter advanced subject matter like interviewing techniques, group theory and processes, counseling theory and methods, and diagnosis and psychopathology. Another major difference is that you’ll be required to complete an internship or practicum.
Counseling Doctorate Programs
A doctorate in psychology or counseling psychology is the most advanced degree you can receive. You don’t always need a master’s degree to be admitted into a doctoral program, but some programs only accept students with graduate degrees. Like master’s programs, some, but not all doctorate programs include the GRE as an admission requirement.
As previously mentioned, you don’t need a doctorate to work as a counselor unless you’re pursuing a career as a counseling psychologist. However, the credential will qualify you to work at the highest levels in the field, to diagnose and treat patients, to work in research, or to teach at the university level. Even though you won’t emerge as a medical doctor, some states allow psychologists to prescribe certain psychiatric medications. You’ll take high-level coursework like qualitative research, diagnosis and intervention, and cognitive assessment. You’ll also have to complete an extended supervised practicum, often after completing other hands-on fieldwork.
Counseling psychology doctorate programs are available both as Psy.D. or Ph.D. degrees. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) directly accredits many Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs at schools all over the country. Although they’re both doctoral degrees, there are some differences between the two. Ph.D. degrees are generally more competitive and take longer to complete, but there are also distinctions in outcomes and applications. Both earn you the title of “psychologist” and qualify you to treat patients, but Ph.D. programs are more geared toward preparing students for careers in academia and research while Psy.D. programs are meant for students who plan to treat patients in clinical settings.
Counselors are needed in a variety of settings, facilities, and environments. Some of them work with specific populations, while others work with a range of populations in settings like hospitals, schools, and private practices. Here’s a look at the salary and job outlook for the most common areas of expertise.
Common Counseling Specialties
|Mental Health Counseling||Substance Abuse Counseling||Career Counseling||Counseling Psychology||Family Therapy||Rehabilitation Counseling|
|Median Salary (2018)||$44,630||$44,630||$56,310||$76,990||$50,090||$35,630|
|Job Growth 2016-2026||23% High||23% High||16% High||14% High||23% High||13% High|
|Job Description||Mental health counselors treat people, both as individuals and in groups, suffering from emotional issues like depression, stress, grief, and anxiety.||Also called “addiction counselors,” these professionals work with individuals, families, and groups affected by addiction and substance abuse.||Career counselors use assessment tests to evaluate the skills and abilities of clients while guiding them through job searches and career advancement.||As a counseling psychologist, you’ll help patients cope with issues they’re having in the community, at home or in the workplace.||Family therapists help families work through emotional and relationship challenges while helping them develop strategies to cope with stress and struggles at home.||Rehabilitation counselors help people live independently by helping them deal with emotional, developmental, physical, or mental disabilities.|
Other Counseling Specialties
There are many other specialties for you to consider on your journey toward a career in counseling. Here are a few of the most popular, most interesting, and most in-demand.
Counseling Licensing Requirements
A license represents validation from the state that you’ve proven you have the knowledge, education, training, proficiency, and professionalism required to work unsupervised in the field. The licensure process exists to protect patients from seeking counsel from unqualified or unscrupulous people and to maintain quality among practitioners in the field. You need a license to practice in every state in America, but the requirements for earning that license vary from state to state.
In addition to submitting proof that you’ve completed a master’s program and all required internship hours or other field experience, you’ll have to pass a comprehensive examination to satisfy your state board. You’ll sit for either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), depending on which exam your state chooses to administer. The former is a 200-question, multiple-choice exam, and the latter consists of 10 clinical simulations. Both tests are administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).
As previously mentioned, unlike licensure, certification is voluntary. You don’t need supplementary certification to work as a counselor, but the extra step is something worth considering. In addition to gaining extra education and training, certification tells employers and patients that you’ve voluntarily gone above and beyond the minimum standards and took it upon yourself to seek an added layer of education and training. Some employers might require certification, and in other cases, you might seek certification to support your work in a specific specialty or concentration.
The most popular and most widely recognized certification in the world is the National Certified Counselor credential, which is granted by NBCC, the same organization that administers the two state licensure exams. The certification is also available in three different specialties: addiction, school counseling, and clinical mental health. You cannot apply for the certification until you’ve earned a master’s degree and completed 3,000 hours of counseling experience and 100 hours of supervision over a two-year, post-graduate period. Other organizations also offer a variety of specialty certifications. For example, the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP), offers certifications in areas like crisis intervention and spiritual counseling.
Traits of a Successful Counselor
The life of a counselor is not for everyone. People often come to them in the most difficult times of their lives. Some may be dealing with grief, eating disorders, abuse, domestic crises, or thoughts of suicide. The traits you embody as a professional counselor could mean the difference between them progressing toward recovery or sliding back into destructive patterns and behaviors. No matter the specialty or work environment, all great counselors share the following traits:
You are not alone on your journey to becoming a counselor. You can and should supplement your education and training by immersing yourself in books, literature, online resources, trade journals, podcasts, social media channels, and videos. Here are a few of the most useful tools:
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