Master's in Substance Abuse Counseling | Program Guide

Substance abuse counselors meet with clients struggling with tobacco use, drugs and alcohol, gambling, and other forms of addiction. To treat substance abuse, counselors help clients pinpoint problematic behaviors and thoughts that trigger addictive behavior.

All 50 states require substance abuse counselors to earn a master's degree in counseling and obtain a state-issued license before opening a private practice. In this guide, you can learn about the educational and professional requirements necessary to become a licensed substance abuse counselor.

Degree Snapshot
Time to Complete Internship / Practicum Component Can I Become a Substance Abuse Counselor With This Degree?
2-3 Years Dependent on Program

Why Get a Master's Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

A master's degree benefits aspiring substance abuse counselors in several ways. Read on to learn about three key advantages of earning a substance abuse counseling master's degree.

Prepares You For Advanced State Licensure

Licensure requirements for substance abuse counselors vary by state. However, counselor candidates in all 50 states need a master's degree in substance abuse counseling or a related field, such as addictions studies, to qualify for their license.

Allows You to Open a Private Practice

Private practice counselors in all 50 states must obtain a license, which requires a master's degree. Counselors working outside of private practice may also need an advanced degree, depending on the state where they work.

Enables You to Become a Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)

Substance abuse counselors with a master's degree can earn additional credentials in their field. These include the master addiction counselor (MAC) certification from the Association for Addiction Professionals, which requires a graduate degree in substance abuse disorders or addiction counseling.

Example Courses in a Substance Abuse Counseling Master's Program

Most substance abuse counseling master's degrees focus on addiction counseling theories and techniques, in addition to laws, ethics, and policies guiding the profession. Other foundational areas of study include anatomy and physiology, psychology, and public health.

As they progress in their degree, master's students learn about additional areas of substance abuse counseling, including relapse prevention, recovery planning, and counseling families. Many programs also offer courses that cover the basics of owning and operating a private practice, such as client evaluation and treatment protocols.

Below, you can find detailed descriptions for five courses commonly found in addictions counselor master's programs.

  • Lifespan Development

    This foundational course covers key development periods for children and adults over the course of their lives and the role mental health plays at each stage. Students learn about historic and contemporary models to better understand how knowledge of lifespan development has evolved and improved over time.

  • Adult Psychopathology

    Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a guide, this course elaborates on substance abuse disorders and other common mental health issues among adults. The curriculum also covers diagnostic procedures, biological treatment methods, and how behavioral therapy can help men and women with different disorders.

  • Treatment and Intervention for Substance Abuse Disorders

    This course discusses inpatient and outpatient treatment, group therapy, alternative treatments, and other forms of treatment and intervention for clients with addiction issues. Students also learn about community-based support systems, intervention methods for relapsing clients, and strategies for helping clients create a recovery plan.

  • Laws and Ethics of Addiction Treatment

    This course delves into the legal and ethical parameters of substance abuse counseling, with a focus on guidelines for treating children, couples, and families. Students also learn cross-cultural strategies for assisting clients that belong to different racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

  • Group Counseling Theories and Techniques

    Many substance abuse counselors offer group therapy as an alternative to one-on-one sessions. This course discusses group selection criteria, leadership styles, and other important considerations for this type of therapy. Students also learn the pros and cons of didactic and experiential group therapy.

Internship Component

Most master's in substance abuse counseling degrees include an internship or practicum course, during which students work in clinical settings and receive hands-on training from experienced addiction counseling professionals. Internships and practicum courses typically span one semester or quarter.

Internship and practicum requirements vary by institution. Most schools require students to complete 150-600 hours of supervised clinical training. Additionally, a portion of these hours must involve direct client services. These hours allow students to hone their counseling, diagnostic, and treatment skills with real clients facing addiction issues.


Colleges and universities seek accreditation to demonstrate quality. Accreditors assess individual institutions based on courses and instructors, student outcomes, and other factors.

Always consider accreditation status before committing to a program

Accreditors may grant regional or national accreditation, both of which apply to the institution as a whole. Degrees, departments, and smaller schools within a university may also earn programmatic accreditation. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the primary programmatic accreditor for master's in substance abuse counseling programs.

Always consider accreditation status before committing to a program. Students who attend non-accredited schools do not qualify for federal loans or grants and cannot transfer course credits to accredited institutions. Additionally, substance abuse counselors often need a degree from an accredited school to qualify for a state-issued license.

What Can You Do With a Master's Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

A master's in addiction counseling prepares students to diagnose and treat substance abuse disorders. The degree also qualifies them for a state-issued license. As a result, counselors with this degree may work in multiple settings. Many licensed counselors work in private practice. Those who do not own a private practice often work for outpatient substance abuse facilities, prisons and juvenile detention centers, halfway houses, and rehabilitation clinics.

Some of the most common work environments for substance abuse counselors are listed below.

Career Advancement in Substance Abuse Counseling

Get Licensed

All 50 states require substance abuse counselors in private practice to obtain a license. Counselors working outside of private practice may not need a license, but some states still require an advanced degree.

The most common exams include the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam and the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification

Licensure requirements for substance abuse counselors vary by state. However, all states require candidates to hold a master's degree in addiction counseling or a closely related field. Each state also requires 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical training.

Once they meet these requirements, candidates may sit for their licensing exam. The most common exams include the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam and the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification. Candidates who earn a passing score on their exams receive a state-issued license, but they must complete a certain number of continuing education credits to renew it. Students should consult their state's licensing body to determine their specific requirements.

Earn Your Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) Certification

The Association for Addiction Professionals offers the aforementioned MAC certification. To qualify for this certificate, candidates must hold a master's degree in substance abuse and addiction disorders or a related field, such as social work or psychology. Additional requirements include a valid state-issued license, at least three years of full-time employment (or 6,000 supervised clinical hours), and at least 500 client contact hours.

Candidates must submit an application and pay a $235 fee to receive their credential, which expires after two years. To renew their MAC certification, counselors must pay a $200 fee and have completed at least 40 hours of continuing education since the last renewal.

Pursue a Doctorate Program in Counseling

Rather than enter the workforce, many graduates with a master's in substance abuse counseling advance to a doctoral program in general counseling. Some doctoral counseling pathways allow students to choose a specialization in substance abuse counseling. The doctoral degree focuses on research and prepares students for clinical and leadership positions, in addition to professors and other high-level academic roles.

Join A Professional Organization

Professional organizations offer many benefits to members, including training and continuing education opportunities, invitations to networking events, and unlimited access to industry-related publications. Read on to learn more about five prominent organizations for substance abuse counselors.

  • Association for Addiction Professionals Known as NAADAC for short, this organization represents more than 100,000 addiction counseling professionals worldwide. The association offers the MAC certification, along with other credentials related to tobacco addiction treatment and conflict resolution.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine The ASAM offers a rotating list of live and online continuing education courses for licensed counselors. Students, residents, and early-career professionals all qualify for discounted membership rates.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA offers practitioner trainings that cover topics like rural opioid addiction, disaster assistance, and suicide prevention. The organization also offers research grants.
  • International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors Founded in 1972, the IAAOC publishes a journal with the latest industry research. The association also sponsors workshops and conferences across the globe.
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers The NAATP maintains a comprehensive directory of licensed addiction treatment specialists across the United States. Job-seekers can also browse openings and post resumes to the association's online career center.
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