How to Become a Counselor

To become a counselor, you typically need at least a master’s degree, although a doctorate is often preferred. You will also need to be licensed in the state where you practice, and licensure requirements vary by state. You should research the counseling programs that best meet your needs, career goals, and licensure requirements as you look toward your future career. Master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling vary by school, and some programs offer training in specific areas of counseling. As a result, students that have chosen to pursue a degree with an emphasis in one area have the opportunity to study, research, and explore subspecialties in the field. Once you complete your degree, you will possess the skills, tools, and knowledge to practice as a counselor with targeted groups of patients and clients. Keep in mind that you may need to complete additional licensure and certification requirements to practice with a counseling subspecialty.

Types of Counselors

The first step on the path to becoming a counselor is to choose what field you hope to specialize in during your career, such as mental health, addictions and substance abuse, and rehabilitation. Below are some of the specialized fields that you may choose to pursue.

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors work with individuals in need of emotional and psychological support. These counselors most often focus on patients and clients experiencing a wide array of disorders or behaviors and apply different theories and techniques to each case as appropriate. Mental health counselors help patients and clients develop the skills and tools needed to make healthy decisions and behavioral choices for themselves, for their relationships with others, and as they relate to future personal and professional goals. Mental health counselors may work in a hospital or public agency setting with other doctors, social workers, and specialists. Those that work in private practice are more likely to have one-on-one contact with patients and clients, but some counselors lead group therapy and support group sessions as well. Mental health counselors may also refer patients to other healthcare professionals and are equipped with the tools to identify at-risk individuals and situations.

Addiction Counselors

There are several types of addiction counselors, and some only require a high school diploma or an associate degree, although most addiction counselors need at least a master’s degree to practice, especially if they want to work with individuals privately. Addiction counselors can work one-on-one with patients and clients and may also lead group therapy sessions. Some specialize in gambling addiction, shopping addiction, sex addiction, or alcoholism. They help patients and clients understand their addiction, establish treatment plans, and develop coping mechanisms.

Addiction counselors also provide support to individuals with substance abuse or other behaviors that have resulted in mandated or voluntary therapy. If an addiction counselor is working on behalf of a state agency or court, they are responsible for submitting reports on patients and clients about progress and treatment outcomes. Private practice addiction counselors most often focus on patients that are in therapy by choice.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists focus on couples and familial relationships and help people work on the connections, compromises, and boundaries they establish in those contexts. Couples can enter therapy in response to stress in their relationship, but may also see a counselor to build a strong connection outside of a specific crisis. Similarly, family therapy may involve experiences such as a death in the family, a traumatic event, substance abuse, or economic hardship. Marriage and family therapists most often work in private practices to help patients and clients understand each other and communicate effectively as they learn to express their wants and needs. These therapists also identify other potential issues within relationships and may refer patients and clients to physicians, addiction counselors, or a social agency.

Spiritual Counselors

Spiritual counselors provide guidance and support to patients and clients as they develop their own spiritual path. Patients and clients may visit a spiritual counselor at times of strife and hardship to better understand their relationship with spirituality in a specific religious or philosophical context. Not all spiritual counselors have a degree in psychology or training in counseling. Spiritual counselors work with individuals, couples, or families and are affiliated with a particular faith or belief system, such as Christianity or New Age metaphysical thought. Some spiritual counselors may be ordained ministers or hold a position within a church and serve in a pastoral capacity to their members. They can function as mediators, arbitrators, and third-party observers as needed. Spiritual counselors listen to their patients and clients, often advising them to pray and perform introspection, but also use psychological tools and techniques if they have the appropriate training.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counselors help specific populations to overcome challenges related to daily life and work success. Some rehabilitation counselors work with individuals that suffer from autism or are developmentally disabled, providing them with tools and techniques to live and work independently. Other rehabilitation counselors focus on populations that have been injured on the job, are recovering from an illness, or have experienced a change that significantly impacted their way of life. Counselors assist these patients in coping with their new situation as they interact with others, return to work, or face future change. Other rehabilitation counselors function as advocates and consultants on behalf of the populations their profession serves. They may work within a governmental agency or professional organization to enact policy and regulations or to advise companies and workplaces on the best practices for making appropriate accommodations.

Domestic Violence Counselors

Domestic violence counselors focus on individuals that have experienced victimization and abuse. They work with survivors of all ages to help them develop the confidence and skills needed to live safely, and in some cases independently, as they successfully overcome their situation with the goal of stopping the cycle of violence. Counselors identify enabling and perpetrator behaviors as they help their patient or client develop coping mechanisms and techniques to build strong, healthy relationships in their recovery. Many domestic violence counselors work one-on-one, as well as oversee group sessions and support groups. These counselors also work as victim advocates on a local, state, and national level. In some capacities, domestic violence counselors provide data, reports, and evidence to support efforts on behalf of crisis management and social services for domestic violence victims.

Grief Counselors

Grief counselors help patients and clients deal with the loss of a loved one or with grief from a life event that results in a sense of loss. They work at a hospital or hospice to support individuals as they face immediate end-of-life decisions and outcomes. These counselors can work with funeral homes, churches, and other locations where death and bereavement are present. They also provide individual counseling to people experiencing long-term grief about the loss of a child, pet, or loved one. Grief counselors listen to their patients and clients and help them find ways to express their loss, manage their grief, and ultimately find resolution. Many grief counselors hold group therapy and support group sessions for grief victims and survivors, providing outlets for their patients and clients to share their stories and cope effectively.

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The Path to Becoming a Counselor

How Long Does it Take to Become a Counselor?

The length of time it takes to become a counselor depends on your qualifications. Most counselors hold at least a master’s degree, which is often a two-year commitment on top of the time it takes you to get your bachelor’s degree. However, some programs can be shorter than two years if coursework is offered online and/or can be taken at an accelerated pace. Keep in mind, that even if you take coursework online, master’s programs and subsequent licensure require a certain number of practicum, clinical, and internship hours for degree completion.

Clinical experience for master’s degrees involves supervised one-on-one sessions and group counseling activities. The number of hours required varies by program and by state, specifically as it relates to licensure, but a clinical internship can last up to one year. To apply for a counseling license, you need to check what each state requires, any reciprocity or prohibitions, what timeline is in place for applications, any exams that need to be completed, and how often renewal is needed.

If you want to continue on to a Ph.D. in counseling, that is usually another five- to six-year commitment. Doctoral degrees in counseling include additional advanced coursework, practicums, internships or residencies, and completion of a research-based dissertation. Some counseling fields prefer practitioners and professionals to have a Ph.D., but if you want to work as a counseling educator or researcher at a college or university, a Ph.D. is usually required.

Earning Your Undergraduate Degree

Most schools do not have undergraduate degrees in counseling, but a bachelor’s degree in psychology prepares you for further study in the field. A bachelor’s degree in psychology involves survey courses on the types of psychology; theories and practices within the field; and applications of psychology to various scenarios, experiences, and circumstances. Undergraduate degrees in psychology may have coursework that is specific to counseling or clinical interests and offer topical courses on specific aspects of the field. However, students do not need a bachelor’s degree in psychology to pursue a master’s degree in counseling. Undergraduate degrees in other social science fields such as sociology, anthropology, and social work also prepare students by giving them the critical thinking, communication, reading comprehension, and research skills needed to be a counselor.

If you are interested in becoming a counselor, you can prepare yourself by taking coursework that directly relates to that career as well as classes that may be prerequisites for graduate study. For example, research methods, statistics, and laboratory-based coursework will prepare you for master’s programs in counseling.

Earning Your Master’s Degree

There are several types of master’s degrees in counseling, including a master of arts, master of science, master of education in counseling, and master of counseling psychology. You should decide which degree is best suited for you and your future goals. A master’s degree of any kind is usually a two-year commitment, including an internship, practicum, and project or thesis. Admission into master’s programs in counseling vary by school, but a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a field related to psychology is often sufficient as long as academic performance and any test scores, like the GRE, meet admission requirements. If you want to continue on to a doctoral degree in counseling, you will need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field. Some Ph.D. programs in counseling accept students directly from an undergraduate program while others require previous graduate work for admission. A Ph.D. in counseling is ideal for students who seek to become professional psychologists, academic researchers, or college and university educators in the field.

When choosing a graduate degree in counseling, it is essential to check for accreditation of both the school and the program. Master’s and doctoral programs within institutions of higher education are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) according to self-regulating educational standards. CACREP is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as an accrediting body. On-campus, online, and hybrid graduate programs in counseling from around the world have received CACREP accreditation, adding legitimacy and prestige to their degree offerings.

Earning Your Doctoral Degree

Some counseling jobs are best suited for individuals with doctoral degrees, including positions as psychologists and academic instructors and researchers in counseling. Teaching positions may be available to master’s degree holders, but colleges and universities prefer that instructors have a Ph.D. in counseling.

Doctoral degrees in psychology and counseling that are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) are among the most highly regarded in the country. The APA Commission on Accreditation assesses the educational standards, aims, competencies, and outcomes of a program. Doctoral programs in counseling are also accredited by CACREP.

Admission to a doctoral degree requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a closely related field, as well as professional experience, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement of purpose. A doctoral degree in counseling can take up to ten years but are usually completed in five to six. In addition to advanced coursework, students complete practicums, an internship, and write a dissertation. A dissertation is usually written based on research the student has carried out during an internship in conjunction with a faculty member or in a laboratory setting.

With a Ph.D. in counseling, individuals have expanded job opportunities and salary growth, especially for psychologists working in private practice. A Ph.D. in counseling is also ideal for leadership positions in the field and supervisory roles at universities, colleges, and hospitals.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Annual Salary
Master of Arts, Counseling $51,788
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Clinical Experience

To enter the workforce as a mental health counselor, you need to have a specific number of clinical hours. This relates directly to licensure and varies by each state. States require specific supervised practicum and internship hours in addition to individual one-on-one client contact hours. Some states require as many as 6,000 supervised hours and 900 personal contact hours, many of which can be obtained during practicums, internships, and residencies. On average, a student earns 2,000 hours in these categories during their internship.

Under close supervision, practicum settings allow counseling students to observe sessions and begin to apply what they have learned in a clinical environment. During a practicum, counseling students get a chance to demonstrate what they have learned during their coursework and work directly with patients and clients. Practicums are precursors to internships or residencies, during which students are still supervised, but have more autonomy as they work. Interns may hold one-on-one sessions or conduct group counseling at a site they have been placed at by their program’s internship coordinator. Interns check in regularly and are observed by faculty and program administrators to assess their skills, techniques, and efficacy as a counselor. If the student is earning their degree online, they may be placed at a site for this process or required to complete their practicums and internships on-campus.

Getting Licensure

Licensure requirements are based on your degree level and credentials, but requirements vary by state. In addition to formal applications and submission of credentials, some states may require an examination; a background check; and letters of support from instructors, colleagues, and other counseling professionals. Some states, such as California, require 48 hours of graduate coursework, with classes from seven specific areas as well as additional qualifications in psychopharmacology. Washington State requires coursework from seven out of seventeen areas, HIV training, and additional hours of education at a post-master’s degree level. Some states have different requirements for in-state and out-of-state applicants, but reciprocity agreements may allow for students to apply in multiple states with greater ease.

During your program you should consult state requirements to make sure you are on track to apply. You should refer to deadlines, examination dates, and lists of credentials needed for each state where you seek a license. You may want to keep a portfolio of your research and dissertation work as you progress through your coursework, practicums, and internships, or if you are in a doctoral program. You can find requirements at your state’s individual licensure board, Department of Health, or comparable website. Program accreditation also affects state licensure, and some programs that are not offered through regionally accredited schools may not be eligible.

Getting Certification

Certification is an additional voluntary credential. Licensure involves an application and examination according to state guidelines, while certification is obtained through specific organizations, associations, and groups within the field of counseling. Licensure is usually associated with only one state, but certification is transferable across geographic boundaries. To check for certification options, counselors should refer to professional organizations and associations in the field of counseling and their specialty.

Counselors can obtain certifications based on their specialty to enhance their credentials and to stay current with the standards and practices within their field. Certification also opens up additional job opportunities and potential salary growth. Mental health counselors can become a certified mental health counselor from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). To become certified, counselors must hold a master’s degree, meet clinical hour and education requirements, have colleague and professional endorsements, and take a formal examination. School counselors and substance abuse counselors can obtain specialty certifications through the NBCC as well after becoming a board-certified counselor. To become a national certified school counselor or a master addictions counselor, professionals must meet additional guidelines defined by the NBCC. Certification for rehabilitation counselors is available through the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. Grief counselors can obtain certification from the American Association of Grief Counseling in areas such as child and adolescent or pet grief counseling.

Continuing Education

To maintain state licensure, counselors need to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year. This varies by state but includes training in subject areas such as counseling theory and practice, professional identity and practice issues, and assessment and research in psychology and counseling. Counselors can earn continuing education credits by taking college and university courses; attending webinars, seminars, and conferences; publishing or taking part in projects; and holding a leadership position in the field.

In order to apply continuing education hours to licenses and certifications, counselors need to make sure that they take continuing education courses from state- and association-approved providers. Organizations like the NBCC have lists and databases with approved providers, while the American School Counselor Association clearly defines what each state requires for continuing education. If you are a member of an organization such as the American Counselor Association, you often have the opportunity to take part in continuing education courses, offered by the group as part of your membership, for free or at a discounted rate.

Documentation is required in order to receive any continuing education credits. States, organizations, and associations may require counselors to submit certificates of completion for online courses or webinars, program information from conferences and seminars, or letters of support from colleagues and superiors. Counselors need to make sure they complete all continuing education requirements by state, organization, and association deadlines so they do not risk loss of licensure or certification.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Counselors

With more people seeking out mental health and addiction treatment, counselors in private practice, as well as those working at public agencies, social service organizations, and community outreach programs, will continue to experience job growth. Counselors will also continue to work with criminal offenders and individuals in rehabilitation centers who need treatment. Counselors at outpatient care centers and in individual and family services are among the most common industry professionals. They earn mid-level wages in comparison with their counterparts in local government and residential facilities.

Job growth for mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors is expected to increase 23% between 2016 and 2026. Marriage and family therapists will also see a 23% growth. Psychologists will experience a much lower rate of growth at 14%, while school and career counselor positions will grow at a rate of 13% during the same time period. Master’s or doctoral degrees are needed for these careers, making graduate coursework and degree completion an essential component to securing a job.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services 30,170 1.79% $44,580
Outpatient Care Centers 29,890 3.58% $44,770
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 16,160 2.64% $39,060
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 11,490 1.37% $50,640
Local Government 11,130 0.21% $55,880

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Outpatient Care Centers 29,890 3.58% $44,770
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 7,670 3.26% $45,540
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 16,160 2.64% $39,060
Other Residential Care Facilities 4,150 2.57% $38,990
Individual and Family Services 30,170 1.79% $44,580

Source: BLS

How Much Do Counselors Make?

Entry-level annual salaries for mental health, substance abuse, and rehabilitation counselors and marriage and family therapists range between $34,000 and $45,000. Factors such as location and certifications contribute heavily in initial amounts and subsequent salary increases, but experience is one of the most significant factors for salary increases over time. With more experience, each field exhibits salary growth ranging between $2,000 to $6,000 by the time individuals have worked for ten years. At about twenty years, counselors and therapists will see between $10,000 and $20,000 in annual salary growth.

Local governments are the top-paying industries for mental health counselors, with specialty and consulting services following suite. These employment opportunities are outside of the traditional hospital and healthcare facility setting, opening up career options and salary ranges for mental health professionals.

Salaries for Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Mental Health Counselors $44,000 $48,000 $54,000 $58,000
Substance Abuse Counselors $34,000 $38,000 $41,000 $44,000
Marriage and Family Therapists $45,000 $51,000 $59,000 $66,000
Rehabilitation Counselors $36,000 $44,000 $50,000 $56,000

Top-Paying Industries for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services 130 $65,680
Junior Colleges 90 $65,090
Insurance Carriers 120 $62,100
Local Government 11,130 $55,880
Specialty (Except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals) 420 $55,650

Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Counselors

Mental health counselors in the western half of the United States are among the highest paid in the country. Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, and Oregon have the four highest annual mean wages for mental health counselors, ranging between $56,000 and $66,000 in 2016. Metropolitan centers such as Anchorage, Alaska, and Bend-Redmond, Oregon, are among the highest paying areas for mental health counselors in the country.

Skills for a Successful Counseling Career

Your program will help you acquire and learn to use the skills, tools, and techniques needed for effective communication, critical thinking, and research in the field. With additional certifications, continued education, and advanced training, counselors also work on themselves and how they can employ best practices in the field.

  • Interpersonal Skills: Interpersonal skills characterize how you relate to other people. This includes body language, verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening, collaboration, empathy, inquiry, and leadership. As a counselor, you will need all of these elements to work with your patients and clients in a supportive and positive environment.
  • Communication Skills: Communication skills means more than just talking and listening. Counselors must practice active listening and learn awareness of body language cues like hand motions and facial expressions. Counselors need to be able to verbalize psychological ideas, theories, and practices in a way that relates and resonates with individual needs and circumstances.
  • Research Skills: Research skills involve seeking out information and finding the latest data, theories, summaries, and feedback on specific subjects and issues. For counselors, research skills are essential for exploring treatment options and finding resources that are relevant to specific behaviors and disorders. Research skills are also something that a counselor can use to find resources to give to the patient or client for their personal use.
  • Critical Thinking Skills: Critical thinking skills involve analysis, applying theories and standards, using logic, and seeking out resources to respond accordingly. These skills allow for counselors to compare and contrast treatment options, draw inferences and reach conclusions, envision an outcome, and adapt as necessary.

How to Find Counseling Jobs

As you complete your degree, you can look for counseling jobs at job fairs, association and organization websites, listservs, and by working with the career services office at your institution. Your instructors and supervisors can offer you helpful tips on building your resume. You should also consult with your instructors and other department resources about which certifications and credentials will best serve you in your job search and include these on your resume in a format that best represents your strengths and career goals. Departmental or institutional career service officers can also help you write your resume, prepare for an interview, and may even set up mock-interview sessions for you to practice in advance of the real thing.

Many job fairs and career networking opportunities are available at annual conferences and professional group meetings. Universities and colleges often hold job fairs, and job opportunities may arise at the hospital or healthcare facility where you complete your internship or residency. Virtual job fairs like the one offered by Health Resources and Services Administration also provide future behavioral health professionals with opportunities to explore career options.

Depending on your specialty, you may be able to visit specific websites tailored for your job goals. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has a list of each state's affiliate website as well as resources on job descriptions, competencies, and tips for your job search. The ASCA SCENE website is also dedicated to networking, building connections, and providing resources for job seekers and job posters alike. The Association for Addiction Professionals has a job center that substance abuse and addiction counselors can peruse for opportunities as well.

Professional Organizations for Counselors

  • American Psychological Association: The APA is the leading association of psychology students, professionals, practitioners, and consultants in the United States. The APA provides information about research, development, and application of psychology to broad audiences in the hopes of expanding general knowledge on the topic. Members of the APA can take advantage of networking opportunities, continuing education resources, advocacy updates, and the latest research and advancements in the field.
  • American Counseling Association: The ACA supports and enhances counseling as a profession by focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, integrity, professional and community relationships, scientific practice and knowledge, social justice and empowerment, and proactive leadership. Members of the ACA include educators, researchers, and practitioners that work together to advocate for the profession and protect the ethical standards of the field.
  • National Board of Certified Counselors: The NBCC credentials counselors according to educational and ethical guidelines to advance the profession of counseling and maintain professional standards nationally. The NBCC also provides state licensure information to counselors, government policy and advocacy updates, and resources to the public.
  • American Board of Professional Psychology: The ABPP is the main body for specialty certifications in the United States. The ABPP has fifteen specialty boards and one subspecialty board tasked with overseeing and maintaining the high educational and ethical standards among psychological professionals and services. Board certification through the ABPP offers counselors increased job and salary growth and mobility and advancement in their specialty.
  • International Association for Counseling: The IAC works to advance counseling around the world by supporting the development of education, research, and advocacy initiatives. The IAC focuses on expanding counseling globally and strengthening counseling services by supporting and bringing together counselors from around the world. The IAC holds annual conferences, publishes a journal, holds roundtables, and provides certifications to counseling students and professionals.
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