Becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor

What Is a Licensed Professional Counselor?

Licensed professional counselors (LPCs), also called licensed clinical professional counselors or licensed mental health counselors in some states, focus on mental, emotional, and behavioral issues in a variety of healthcare settings. These professionals work with families, individuals, groups, and couples in roles as wide-ranging as substance abuse counseling, psychoanalysis, and learning disability counseling.

Aspiring LPCs must hold at least a master's degree in counseling or a related field. After two years of supervised clinical experience, these professionals may sit for a credentialing exam in order to work in community health agencies, hospitals, and private practice.

What Do Licensed Professional Counselors Do?

Some students enter online LPC programs with a counseling specialization. By specializing, LPCs can tailor their career goals to patient population or particular work settings that best suit their ambitions. For example, an LPC may prefer working in a school setting rather than a medical facility.

LPC licensing terminology indicates a professional's specific credentials. While psychologists offer mental health counseling, they are not considered LPCs. Included below are several of these common terms.

  • Licensed Professional Counselor: LPCs must hold a master's or doctoral degree in mental health counseling, have completed 3,000 supervised clinical hours, and passed the credentialing exam. This professional functions as the front line of mental healthcare, working in community agencies or private practice. LPCs treat couples, families, individuals, and groups.
  • Mental Health Therapist: This broad term refers to any professional who uses therapy as part of their daily practice. This title does include LPCs, but it can apply to social workers, clinical psychologists, school counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Depending on their specialties, all mental health therapists hold at least a master's degree, and many must complete doctoral study.
  • Mental Health Counselor: Much like LPCs, mental health counselors offer guidance to patients using various therapeutic modalities and a holistic approach to mental well-being. Mental health counselors typically must receive state certification and may specialize their study in adjacent fields, such as organizational development or school counseling.
  • School Counselor: Working with high school students, school counselors support disabled students and offer guidance on mental health issues, sometimes serving as a trusted adult in difficult situations. School counselors plan and implement student schedules and coach students in preparation for life after high school.
  • Clinical Director: In any specialty, a clinical director strategizes and develops a clinic or department. Clinical directors recruit, schedule, supervise, and train other professionals, often managing budgets as well. This role requires management skills, knowledge of the specialty at hand, and long hours. Clinical directors need strong skills in finance, medical billing, and public speaking.

Licensed Professional Counselor Salaries

Licensed professional counselors earn a lucrative income, and graduates of online LPC programs can expect a decent return on their investment. External factors can also affect an LPCs salary, with wages varying by job title and responsibility. Longevity pays off, as more experienced LPCs report salary increases over time. Likewise, educational experience directly correlates with higher earnings.

Median Salary for LPC Holders by Occupation

Position Median Annual Salary
Licensed Professional Counselor $45,619
Mental Health Therapist $43,563
Mental Health Counselor $41,867
School Counselor $48,447
Clinical Director $63,346

Source: PayScale

Average Salary for LPC Holders by Years of Experience

Years of Experience Average Annual Salary
Less than 1 year $39,252
1-4 years $42,615
5-9 years $50,307
10-19 years $55,177
20 years or more $61,242

Source: PayScale

Average Salary for LPC Holders by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Annual Salary
Associate of Arts (AA) $46,500
Bachelor of Arts (BA) $49,056
Master of Arts (MA) $48,368
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) $68,004

Source: PayScale

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What Is the Difference Between an LCSW and an LPC?

Licensed professional counselors are often confused with licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). Both licensed professionals provide counseling and must hold to a state-certified code of conduct. LPCs and LCSWs treat families, couples, children, and adolescents. Each of these professionals can diagnose patients with mental and emotional health problems, and both develop treatment plans to address them.

Though their roles appear similar, they differ substantially. LCSWs must earn a master’s in social work, while LPCs must earn one in counseling. LPCs provides direct patient therapy, working toward a specific mental health outcome that he or she designed exclusively for that patient. An LPC may also offer counseling in private practice. Social workers implement services to assist clients. A client may receive counseling from a social worker, but an LCSWs primary role is to refer the client to other resources. For example, an LCSW working with housing or employment assistance for a client may refer that person to an LPC for individual therapy.

  LCSW LPC
Degree Requirements Master of Social Work Master of Counseling
Licensure and Training Requirements Clinical supervision and licensure Clinical supervision and licensure
Common Work Environments Community health agencies, healthcare providers, schools, private practice Community health agencies, healthcare providers, schools, private practice
Public or Private Practice Both Both

How to Become a Licensed Professional Counselor

All LPCs across the country must earn a master’s in counseling and complete years of supervised practice, but each state sets its own specific demands, exam costs, and supervision requirements. One state’s licensure may not easily transfer to another state. Any aspiring LPC should carefully research their state's licensing procedure.

Educational Requirements

Future licensed professional counselors should expect to earn a master’s in counseling, while some LPCs even opt for doctoral study. State specifications vary, but many require degrees from schools programmatically accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), formerly the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE).

Taking the Exam

States most often require online LPC program graduates to take the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). The NCE comprises a 200-question, multiple-choice exam that covers eight major content areas for students to complete in three hours and 45 minutes. In contrast, the NCHMCE requires test-takers to work through clinical simulations. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers these exams in every state to students who have met the credential's rigorous educational and training requirements. When applying to take exams, students must pay a nominal exam fee. Students generally receive scores one month after the examination.

Supervised Work Requirements

Each state requires LPCs to work a minimum number of hours in a clinical environment under board-approved supervision prior to a credentialing exam. State requirements vary widely. As a rule, students should expect to perform 3,000 hours of post-master's counseling before taking the exam. Some states also specify the number of hours of direct client contact, and some require experience in different clinical settings.

Occasionally, a state will allow clinical hours completed during a master's program, but this is not typical. More often, students must prove that any past field study, practicum, or internship meets the standards of the licensing state. Not all state boards specify requirements at the postgraduate study level, but some do. Students considering attending an online LPC program should carefully investigate their state's training requirements.

Applying for Licensure

Most states require students to mail a paper application with supporting documentation that may include official transcripts, certification of education, and licensure in other states. LPCs should expect to pay a smaller initial application fee and a larger fee for the issuance of the license.

Online Continuing Education Opportunities for LPCs

Graduating from an online LPC program and completing supervision does not complete the requirements for a licensed professional counselor, however. In order to maintain their LPC license, counselors must meet certain conditions. One of these includes continuing education (CE) hours. CE courses keep counselors current on new field developments, provide professional improvement, increase career mobility, and sometimes offer networking opportunities.

State boards control LPC CE requirements much like they do licensure. Required hours vary between states, but each state clearly outlines its specifications. Many LPCs find that online CE courses also meet these state requirements. Often more affordable than on-campus options, online coursework allows for greater flexibility in scheduling, though states may limit the number of CE hours sourced from an online vendor. Licensed professional counselors should rely on their state counseling board for the most current information on CE requirements.

Professional mental healthcare organizations commonly offer continuing education hours at regional and national conferences, and many make webinars and other digital resources available on their websites. Other organizations act as third-party clearinghouses for CE credits and allow users to search for courses by professional licensure. Below, we have listed a few examples of continuing education resources.

  • American Counseling Association: Professionals can choose from podcasts, online classes, webinars, practice briefs, journal articles, and selected book chapters for continuing education credits. National and local conferences offer networking opportunities in addition to continuing education.
  • GoodTherapy.org: Known primarily as a patient-therapist referral site, GoodTherapy also hosts continuing education for professionals with endorsement by several psychological and mental healthcare organizations.
  • Psychotherapy.net: Endorsed for LPC, marriage and family therapy, and addiction counseling continuing education credits, this resource offers CE self-study in the form of videos, articles, and online testing.

Counselor Requirements by State

While an LPC license grants the same scope of practice across the country, individual states regulate educational and training requirements, preferred credentialing exams, fees and exam procedures, and post-licensure continuing education. Most, but not all, schools with LPC programs model them after CACREP. Some demand a degree from a school programmatically accredited by CACREP, while some require a master's degree primarily accredited by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. One state may only allow LPCs to hold a master’s in counseling, while its neighbor grants the same licensure to counselors working in psychology, social work, and applied behavioral science. Exam procedures differ as well. Application and licensing fees are not regulated, and some states charge extra fees for fingerprinting or background checks. The majority of states require the NCE, but some states often include an oral or state jurisprudence exam.

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