All counselors aim to help people work through challenges and make better decisions, but how they do this (and who they counsel) can vary tremendously. A school or career counselor's role is much different from that of a marriage and family therapist or mental health counselor -- and so is their training. This is precisely why counseling schools and degree programs so often allow students to specialize their educations, and why so many professional organizations offer certifications for those already in the field. The first step toward getting the right education for your career goals is knowing your options.
Counselors can help people cope with personal difficulties, make better career choices and even excel in the classroom. With so much diversity in the field, specialized training is key. For students attending counseling trade schools, that usually means enrolling in a specialized degree program that suits their long-term career goals. In some cases, that means earning a different degree altogether (think: clinical mental health versus educational psychology). Some students may earn a more general degree in a field like counseling or psychology, but opt to specialize their training through coursework, minors and school-linked specializations. The following list of counseling specializations provides a snapshot for just how varied these specializations can be.
- Mental health counseling: Mental health counselors treat individuals, families or groups dealing with a variety of issues, like anxiety, grief or depression. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports that students enrolled in these types of programs are trained to recognize and treat various mental and emotional disorders.
- Marriage and family therapy: Marriage and family counselors tend to work with individuals, couples or families who want to improve their interpersonal relationships or overcome challenges in the family dynamic. According to the BLS, students enrolled in MFT programs study marriage, family life and other relationships that can impact one's mental and emotional wellbeing.
- School counseling: School counselors help students overcome learning challenges, improve decision-making skills and make better school and (eventually) career choices. The BLS reports that school counselors typically specialize in working with elementary, middle and high school students, or college students specifically. Because the needs of each group vary, counseling schools often taylor programs accordingly.
- Career counseling: Career counselors can work with individual clients, or in a college or organizational setting. They help students evaluate their skills, interests and career aptitudes so that they can find schools or jobs that speak to them. Some also counsel clients through the job-seeking process, helping them perfect their resume, interview and networking skills.
- Substance abuse counseling: Substance abuse counselors help clients recognize and manage addiction, especially -- but not exclusively -- to drugs and alcohol.
Note that just as the duties and clientele of each of these professionals vary, so do their education and licensing requirements.
Counseling Certifications and Degrees
When evaluating programs at counseling trade schools, it pays to know what type of training employers prefer (or downright require) in your chosen field. Some counselors are required to invest in more training than others. Here is a breakdown of some of the most common counseling credentials available, and the professionals who earn them.
- Postsecondary certificates. Postsecondary certificates are the most basic counseling credential available. They vary in breadth and length, but usually require less than two years of study. In many states, substance abuse counselors complete postsecondary certificates before entering the field.
- Associate degrees. Associate degrees are a bit more thorough than postsecondary certificates, usually requiring at least two years of study. As with postsecondary certificates, associate degrees are a popular option for substance abuse counselors who do not intend to work in private practice.
- Bachelor's degrees. Students attending counseling schools usually use bachelor's degrees as stepping stones to more advanced programs. The BLS reports that mental health, school and marriage and family counselors must each earn master's degrees before they can enter the field. Many master's level programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in a relevant field for admission.
- Master's degrees. As noted above, master's degrees are an entry-level requirement for many counselors, including mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and school and career counselors. The BLS notes that most states also require substance abuse counselors to earn master's degrees if they hope to work in private practice.
- Doctoral degrees. Few counselors are required to earn doctoral degrees, but they are a must for those who want to segue into related fields, like clinical psychology or psychiatry. Counselors who want to teach, particularly at the graduate level, are also often required to earn doctoral degrees.
Please note that those who graduate from counseling vocational schools may choose to pursue additional professional certification, often through a professional organization, to further specialize and certify their training. States may also require certification or licensure, depending on the field. The BLS reports that mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists and public school counselors are required to be licensed to practice, as are substance abuse counselors who intend to work in private practice. The BLS notes that employers also increasingly prefer to hire licensed career counselors, though it is not usually a requirement of employment. Note that certification and licensure requirements vary tremendously, but usually entail meeting minimum education requirements, completing a certain number of clinical hours in the field and passing a state-recognized exam.
How to Become a Counselor
Becoming a counselor entails completing a college education, but you can make a start by following the suggested steps below.
- Finish high school or complete your GED. Courses in math and English language arts in high school act as many fundamental building blocks for college. Whether you are looking to start at a community college or apply to a university, a high school diploma or GED will be important to your continued education.
- Enroll for a counseling program. To make sure you are in the right field, you may want to start by completing an associate degree in psychology, upon which counseling is based. If you are confident this is the right field, you may want to apply to a full four-year program in psychology so that you can learn more about the human psyche, different psychology approaches and even childhood and adult psychology.
- Continue on to a master's degree. Becoming a counselor requires completing a master's degree, according to the BLS. A master's degree is necessary for state licensing as is 2,000 to 4,000 or clinical supervised hours. These hours are often completed through an internship or resdiency. To become licensed, counselor also need to pass a state exam and complete continuing education. The master's degree is the last step thorugh which many of the steps to becoming a counsellor are completed.
- Seek certification. Although certification is not necessary, it could say a lot about your skills and the area your specialize in. One such certification is the National Certified Cousnelor (NCC) certification offered through the National Board of Certified Counselors. More than 63,000 professionals currently hold this credential and it offers a Code of Ethics as well as shows you have met national standards.
- Complete a PhD (optional). Continuing on in your education is certainly not a requirement, but as you gain more skills and learn more about the human psyche you may want to become involved in research or gain an even greater understanding about what you do. PhD programs are available in a number of subject areas including in counselor education and supervision, counseling psychology, psychology and others.
Expert Q&A on Counseling Schools
To gain more insight about what it takes to become a counselor, we spoke with Aida Vazin, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California.
Aida Vazin, MA, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California.
RWM: What is the typical educational path needed to enter this career?
Vazin: The minimum would be a master's degree. The most common route for a career in psychology includes a bachelor's in psychology, however you are not limited to this major. You may have a degree in sociology, human development, and other related social science degrees. After that, one continues with either a master's in social work, marriage and family therapy, licensed professional counselor or a doctorate degree in psychology.
RWM: How long does it typically take to complete education/degree/certification for this job?
Vazin: Most graduate programs require a bachelor's and/or specific courses as prerequisites. Let's say that is 4 years, then a master's degree would be 60 units, typically 2 years to complete. The hours required for licensing include a minimum of 3,000 hours and also a minimum of 2 years. One can start the hours after 12 units have been completed in graduate school, so one can be complete with their hours as early as 1 year after graduation. From there, the board must grant approval to take the board exams which include 2 separate tests. This process takes anywhere from 6 to 12 months to fully complete, depending on how fast the board grants approval and how good your study skills are.
RWM: Why would you encourage someone to pursue this career? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Vazin: Well, if it feels right, and you are enthused about this profession, then by far please pursue it. It's a stable career, there are so many opportunities and so many jobs available that do not include just talk therapy. I'm a big fan of following a career path that brings you joy; if this brings you joy then this is the path for you. Some advantages include a lot of self discovery and personal growth. It brings more patience and understand in one's lives. The disadvantage is that you will be working with heavy experiences and really need to be emotionally balanced and strong to be able to continue in this profession.
RWM: Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in this career?
Vazin: Yes, please please please, do yourself and your future clients a HUGE favor and receive therapy for at least 1 year to see what the experience is like, to work through your own stuff and to really know if this is the right path for you. It will be most beneficial when you are completing your 3,000 hours and will be triggered by a lot of stuff from your clients.
Counselor Salary and Career Info
Students attending counseling trade schools often want to know how much they can expect to earn -- and how quickly they can get a job -- upon graduation. This is tricky to answer since so many factors influence earnings and career outlook. There are some general trends, however. The following list of counseling careers along with their BLS-reported national median salaries may help provide perspective. Note that earnings tend to vary with location, education and experience.
|Career||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Number of New Jobs||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists||76,040||30,500||19.6|
Of course, a number of factors can influence how easily you actually land a job, not the least of which is geography. Also, education and experience can also impact career outlook. Generally speaking, the more you have of either, the better off you may be. That means counselors who invest in voluntary certifications or degrees that exceed baseline requirements may find a job faster than their lesser-trained career competition, and could advance through the ranks more quickly once hired. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however, so it pays to do your research. We recommend contacting prospective schools to learn more about specific programs. In many cases, schools can even provide career placement statistics and average beginning salaries for their graduates. The BLS and professional organizations can help, too.
- Certification, National Board of Certified Counselors, http://www.nbcc.org/certification
- Mental Health counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
- School and Career Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm
- Projections Central, State Occupational Projections, Long Term Occupational Projections, http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
- May 2013 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: United States, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm