Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work with clients who are trying to resume normal lives. These clients might be dealing with substance abuse, grief, or trauma, and need help from a trained professional to overcome these challenges.

Rehabilitation counseling is a growing field that is becoming increasingly valuable as social scientists develop deeper understandings of how people function mentally, cognitively, and socially. This brings a better understanding of the causes of the problems clients face and also coping methods for these problems.

A typical counselor has a master's degree, which is the minimum required for licensure in the field. Professionals must hold a master's to work independently in every state. From start to finish, most students can expect to spend six to eight years getting to this point, though various institutions offer faster degree options. Once working in the field, rehabilitation counselors average around $57,000 annually, but this career focuses more on helping people than making money. The field is best suited to those who want to help others more than themselves. This guide helps prospective students decide if they want to pursue a master's in rehabilitation counseling. Use the information and links to begin your own research.

How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor

Degree Requirements

Becoming a rehabilitation counselor, including a vocational rehabilitation counselor, requires at least a master's degree, with some students advancing to earn a doctoral degree. While many get their master's degree in rehabilitation counseling, students can also choose a program focused on different specialized aspects of counseling, including vocational or addiction counseling. A master's is the minimum degree required for this career path because it allows for a deeper, more specialized understanding of issues and treatment options. Unlike a bachelor's degree, master's degree coursework focuses solely on the subject at hand, with no general education requirements. Those who pursue a doctorate can teach in a university setting and can generally earn greater income over time.

A master's in rehabilitation counseling must be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP verifies that degree-granting programs provide the education required for students to successfully pursue careers. As with many degrees, several schools provide online options for individual classes or entire programs aimed at non-traditional learners or working professionals.

Beyond the degree requirements, all 50 states require professionals to earn certifications or apply for licensing. Licensing requirements vary, but students usually must possess an applicable degree, pass an exam, and accrue a certain number of supervised work hours.

Clinical Experience Requirements

All states require rehabilitation counselors to be licensed. Supervised practice is one of the most common requirements for licensure. Licensing usually requires practitioners to spend several thousand hours working in the field under the supervision of someone who is already licensed. These hours can be earned through any employer allowed to offer relevant services. The license is not to allow someone to work in the field, but to allow them to do so on their own, either in private practice or as a self-directed employee for a hospital or other employer. Supervised practice requires working in the field, and those working toward this requirement are employed. Internships or fellowships may count toward this requirement, but students should verify with faculty or the state bureau which governs licensing requirements.

States have different requirements, but most look for between 1,500 and 3,000 hours, sometimes spread over a minimum or maximum number of years. Working full-time, individuals can usually complete this requirement in under three years. Some states also look for specific divisions of that time, such as hours spent directly supervised or working with patient groups. The differences between state requirements can be subtle, so be sure to research those for the state in which you plan to apply for a license.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Every state requires rehabilitation counselors to be licensed, but those requirements vary. Most often, states require a master's degree in an appropriate field, a number of hours of supervised work experience, passing an exam, and paying a fee. Exams are generally offered several times a year, allowing applicants to prepare for them. Fees vary widely, as does the cost of renewing a license, which can happen annually or every few years. Learn more about each state's specific requirements here. Licensing is required to work independently within the field, and is generally expected to happen within several years of earning your degree, after which you might no longer qualify. This helps ensure that counselors are current on the issues facing their field and willing to continue learning.

Certification is a separate process and is generally not required for licensure, but may be required for certain career paths. Certification demonstrates that you have sought out to learn a specific aspect of rehabilitation counseling, and that you are especially qualified to help people with a certain issue or within a certain population. Working in a school might require certification for children or adolescents, while working in drug rehabilitation might require certification in addiction counseling. Certification is generally not required to work within the field, but a certified rehabilitation counselor has a wider variety of career paths than a colleague without any certifications.

Master’s Degree vs. Doctoral Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling

A master's in rehabilitation counseling is the minimum required to work in the field, and for most counselors is also the terminal degree. However, benefits abound for earning a doctoral degree as well, including higher earning potential and better candidacy for leadership positions. Doctoral degrees are also generally required to teach at the university level. Scroll below for more details on each degree.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Addictions Counseling $64,100
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Master’s Degree

A master's in rehabilitation counseling usually takes two to three years beyond the four or five years most students spend on earning their bachelor's degree. Some programs, especially those offered online, offer intensive options which allow you to finish your degree faster. Almost all programs require hands-on experience, sometimes in the form of an internship, before students can take their final courses. Master's degrees generally require some kind of final project, such as a thesis or participation in field research, which students generally complete as the last part of their program before graduation. Generally, this project must represent a unique contribution to the field. Students can also get a degree in psychology or counseling and specialize in rehabilitation.

Having a master's is required to work in the field, so professionals with these degrees fall into the average of salaries and earning potential. With a master's degree, greater earning potential comes from investing time in the profession and with employers who value your work. Aside from teaching at a university, a counselor with a master's degree can perform any job in the field.

Sample Courses

  • Human Growth and Development: Covers the emotional, social, physical, and cognitive development of humans throughout the entire lifecycle and how these relate to rehabilitation.
  • Testing and Assessment: Covers methods and theories of testing patients to determine the causes of their issues and begin treatment programs.
  • Loss and Grief Counseling: Explores the challenges and methods of helping patients cope with loss and get back on course to their life and relationship goals.
  • Older Adults: Older patients have issues and challenges unique to those faced by younger patients, which require specialized knowledge.
  • Human Sexuality: Explores the many different intersections of sexuality, gender, identity, and crisis to help patients accept their own identities and experiences.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree can take four or more years to complete beyond time spent on earlier degrees. As a master's in rehabilitation counseling is required to work in the field, this degree is also required for nearly every doctoral program. Getting into a doctoral program requires a strong application, as most are small and only admit a handful of students annually. All doctoral programs require a dissertation or similar project, which makes a significant contribution to the field. These projects vary greatly in length. Doctoral students work with one or more advisers who guide them through the dissertation process, which is often planned early in the program.

A doctoral degree demands a significant amount of work, but the end result is a professional with broad knowledge, a deeper focus, and a specialization in one or more subjects. With that comes the ability to teach at a college level, as well as a higher earning potential. Someone with a doctorate is an expert in their field.

Sample Courses

  • Ethical and Legal Issues: Explores issues counselors face, as well as how to predict and avoid them. May focus on how to supervise others dealing with such issues.
  • Advanced Counseling Theory: Takes a more theoretical approach to the practice of counseling, situating practices within larger frameworks and addressing how practices relate.
  • Instructional Design: Focuses on how to create curriculum and pedagogies to teach adult learners at the client, university, or professional level.
  • Research Methodology: Often split between quantitative and qualitative courses, this course focuses on how to conduct research to further the field.
  • Professional Leadership: Doctoral candidates are expected to act as leaders in their field, whether supervising other counselors or teaching at universities.

Skills Gained in a Rehabilitation Counseling Program

If you have ever wondered "what is rehabilitation counseling?" and pondered what it takes to be successful, know that you will need a variety of skills. A rehabilitation counseling degree provides certain skills to prepare students for work in their field. These skills are subsequently reinforced through continuing education, supervised practice, and certification programs. Students should expect to continually test and develop the skill sets below.

  • Interpersonal Skills: Interacting with others is the core of rehabilitation counseling, and being able to do so without losing your patience is essential. Understanding that different situations call for different modes of interaction, and applying those modes, is also important to a successful career.
  • Communication Skills: Being able to communicate thoughts and ideas is helpful in any career, but as a counselor it comprises the career. You must express complex ideas to clients and relate them to the challenges they are experiencing to help them proceed with their lives.
  • Listening Skills: Essential to analyzing and diagnosing clients is being able to listen to them and hear what they tell you. Beyond simply hearing the words, a counselor must parse the subtle meanings behind what their clients say and how they say it.
  • Critical-Thinking Skills: Counselors must critically assess clients and their challenges to determine the best recovery path. This means making connections between their experiences and a wide array of knowledge in order to help others overcome challenges.
  • Organizational Skills: Counseling involves keeping track of large amounts of data, which requires a high level of organization. Professionals must stay on top of recovery plans, client histories, and other information. Poor organizational skills can pose serious problems for counselors and their clients.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counseling positions are projected to increase by 13% by 2026, which is faster than the average for other careers. This is about the same growth projected for psychologists and school counselors. Vocational rehabilitation services are state-run programs which help citizens with disabilities receive the training and assistance they need to begin working or return to a career. This sector is the country's largest employer of rehabilitation counselors. Other state and local governments tend to pay higher wages, but they also offer significantly fewer jobs.

The tables below illustrate how these and other employment sectors compare, based upon data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Use the tables to explore potential career paths for someone with a master's in rehabilitation counseling.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Rehabilitation Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Vocational Rehabilitation Services 34,440 10.429% $34,890
Individual and Family Services 17,610 0.76% $36,060
State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 16,330 0.75% $50,600
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 10,280 1.64% $33,390
Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 5,740 0.11% $46,130

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Rehabilitation Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Vocational Rehabilitation Services 34,440 10.429% $34,890
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 10,280 1.64% $33,390
Other Residential Care Facilities 2,650 1.62% $31,720
Community Food and Housing, and Emergency and Other Relief Services 1,490 0.89% $37,270
Individual and Family Services 17,610 0.76% $36,060

Source: BLS

How Much Do Rehabilitation Counselors Make?

As with any career, a rehabilitation counselor salary depends largely upon industry and location. An individual's work experience and degree level also impact pay. In rehabilitation counseling and related careers, certification leads to a higher income potential by making candidates more desirable or opening up new avenues of employment.

Explore the tables below for the potential income of a rehabilitation counseling career. The first table examines salary growth over the course of a career while the second explores mean salaries across several industries. Based on BLS data, this information can help you further refine your career planning.

Salaries for Licensed Rehabilitation Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Rehabilitation Counselors $36,000 $44,000 $50,000 $56,000

Top-Paying Industries for Rehabilitation Counselors

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Insurance Carriers 110 $61,970
Agencies, Brokerages, and Other Insurance-Related Activities 160 $59,880
Junior Colleges 100 $58,430
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 300 $51,850
State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 16,330 $50,600

Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Rehabilitation Counselors

The state in which you live and work impacts your career in many ways. Each state has its own licensure requirements, but economic factors play a more subtle role. The quality of life and cost of living in a given state impacts not only your salary, but how much you have to spend to get by. The size of risk populations is also worth noting as poorer states typically have a greater need for rehabilitation counselors and similar professionals. Some states may focus on helping certain populations, thus necessitating specific experience or additional certifications.

Related Careers for Rehabilitation Counselors

Earning a master's in rehabilitation counseling can also provide a path to careers in several related fields. The table below lists details about several such fields, including salary projections and the level of degrees required. In some cases, specific licenses are mandatory, which may require additional education or certification. However, you can specialize during your education to qualify for some of these careers. Use the table below to get an idea of careers available to people with this education and to begin your own research and career planning.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors These professionals work with people affected by a range of issues which impede healthy interaction with society or their peers. $43,300 Bachelor's, Master's
Mental Health Counselors These professionals specialize in helping people deal with a variety of mental health issues by analyzing those issues and guiding them through treatment. $43,300 Master's
Correctional Treatment Specialists Working within the prison system, these professionals help inmates deal with incarceration and help them readjust to the outside world following their release. $51,410 Bachelor's
Social Worker Social workers help people overcome challenges to social interaction or success. They work in a variety of environments and often focus on specific challenges. $47,980 Master's
Postsecondary Teachers Working at universities and colleges, professors teach undergraduates, guide graduate students through their training, and conduct their own research. $76,000 Doctorate

Source: BLS

How to Find a Rehabilitation Counseling Job

Although often daunting, building a resume, especially for recent graduates, is an essential part of the hiring process. Colleges, especially those with writing centers, often host resume-building workshops or courses to help you showcase your abilities. You can also reference printed and digital guides and resources as you create a professional resume. Be sure to include licensures and certifications on your resume to further differentiate yourself.

Recent graduates wishing to begin or continue their supervised practice should focus on their educational experience. Including specializations and research topics helps set them apart from other candidates. By listing specializations and research topics on your resume, you are also highlighting your interests and strengths to potential employers.

Professionals can attend job fairs held by colleges or local governments, or browse online job boards to discover job openings. Many professional organizations also help rehabilitation counselors find work, either through networking or through hosting or aggregating job postings. Groups such as the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, the National Council on Rehabilitation Education, and the National Rehabilitation Association offer job postings within the field.

Professional Organizations for Rehabilitation Counselors

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