What Is Counseling? A Complete Guide to Counseling Degrees and Jobs

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What Is Counseling Exactly?

Counseling is the psychological practice of helping individuals and families work through emotional, mental, and behavioral challenges.

Counselors may work with clients dealing with clinical mental health conditions, like addiction or depression, or day-to-day relational and social problems.

With a degree in counseling, you can become a school counselor, mental health counselor, addiction counselor, or marriage and family therapist. Common responsibilities for counselors include leading therapy sessions, completing assessments, crafting treatment plans, and guiding clients to achieve their goals.

Many people use the terms “counseling” and “therapy” interchangeably, but they differ slightly. Counseling is a broader term that can apply to many forms of professional guidance — typically mental health counseling focuses on practical problem-solving. Therapy more deeply explores emotions and experiences, often over a longer period of time.

Meanwhile, psychologists focus on the scientific study of human behavior and mental processes.

For example, you may see a counselor for a short period of time to help with grief after a loss. In contrast, you may see a psychologist for a mental health assessment, who may work together with a therapist to help you through a long-term journey with depression.

What Types of Counseling Degrees Are There?

Counseling degrees are often concentrations or specializations you tack onto a psychology degree. For most careers in counseling, you’ll need a related master’s degree.

Professionals can also choose to further their specialization with a certificate.

Bachelor’s in Counseling

A bachelor’s degree in counseling is often the first step to becoming a counselor. In an undergraduate program, you’ll gain foundational knowledge in psychology and counseling theories and build essential communication skills.

Common courses for a bachelor’s in counseling include:

  • chevron-rightIntroduction to counseling
  • chevron-rightCrisis intervention
  • chevron-rightHistory of psychology
  • chevron-rightMethods of counseling
  • chevron-rightBehavioral psychology

You’ll also learn about ethics, confidentiality, and the importance of client-centered care.

A bachelor’s degree can qualify you for entry-level counseling positions like case manager, rehabilitation specialist, and mental health worker.

Master’s in Counseling

A master’s degree in counseling equips you with the skills you need to become a licensed mental health professional. In this program, you’ll learn to diagnose and treat clients, conduct research and apply findings, and interact with various populations.

A typical master’s in counseling program includes courses like:

  • chevron-rightHuman development
  • chevron-rightAbnormal psychology
  • chevron-rightAssessment and diagnosis
  • chevron-rightMulticultural counseling
  • chevron-rightTherapy theories and techniques

You’ll also complete a clinical internship that provides hands-on experience working with clients.

With a master’s in counseling, you can pursue a career as a clinical mental health counselor, school counselor, marriage and family therapist, or substance misuse counselor.

Certificate in Counseling

A certificate in counseling is a short-term program that provides additional training and knowledge in counseling.

Counseling certificate programs typically target professionals who already have a master’s in counseling and are looking to expand their expertise in a specific counseling subfield.

Common focuses for certificate programs include:

  • chevron-rightFamily counseling
  • chevron-rightAddiction counseling
  • chevron-rightRehabilitation counseling
  • chevron-rightSchool counseling
  • chevron-rightTrauma and crisis counseling

Certificates are a great way to broaden your knowledge, advance your career, and specialize in a particular area of counseling.

Ph.D. in Counseling

A Ph.D. in counseling is a doctoral program that prepares students for careers as professors, researchers, and advanced practitioners.

This graduate program typically lasts 3-5 years and focuses on the theories, research, and practices in counseling. You must complete a dissertation or research project that demonstrates your expertise in the field.

Alternatively, you can pursue a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) in counseling psychology. This program prepares you for clinical practice as a psychologist.

A Psy.D. focuses on the practical application of psychological theories, whereas a Ph.D. is more research-based.

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Does Accreditation Matter for a Counseling Program?

Attending an accredited program is essential for a career in counseling. College accreditation is required for federal financial aid eligibility, graduate school acceptance, and earning professional licensure.

Accreditation is a process in which independent accrediting agencies measure a school’s overall academic quality. These agencies examine curricula, faculty, student resources, and student outcomes.

Legitimate accreditors must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Besides institutional accreditation, you should look for counseling programs with programmatic accreditation. Here are two recognized counseling accreditors to keep an eye out for:

What Kinds of Counseling Jobs Can You Get?

Overall, social service jobs like counseling aren’t the most lucrative. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual salary of $48,410 for community and social service jobs in May 2021.

On the upside, most counseling careers have a positive projected growth rate. Jobs for substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are projected to grow 22% from 2021 to 2031, according to the BLS.

You’ll need an advanced degree to increase your chances of employment and salary potential. Most clinical counseling jobs require at least a master’s degree.

School and career counselors and advisors boast the highest median annual salary of $60,510.

Counseling Careers & Salaries
JobMedian Annual Salary (May 2021)Job Growth Rate (2021-2031)Minimum Education Required
School and Career Counselors and Advisors$60,51010%Master’s
Marriage and Family Therapists$49,88014%Master’s
Substance Misuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors$48,52022%Bachelor’s
Rehabilitation Counselors$38,56011%Master’s

Source: BLS

Do You Need a License to Be a Counselor?

Most states require you to get a license to practice as a counselor.

To earn licensure, you’ll usually need a master’s degree. You must also have completed an internship or practicum, performed a set number of hours of supervised clinical experience, and passed an exam.

Your state may ask you to take one of three counseling exams:

Application fees range from $25 to $300, with additional licensure fees usually costing around $300. Once you’ve received your counseling license, you may need to complete continuing education courses to maintain that license.

For specific guidance on counseling licensure, turn to your state. Each state has specific qualifications and procedures. Your graduate program or place of work can also assist you with applying for licensure.

What Counseling Certifications Can You Get?

Counseling certifications are additional qualifications that can advance your counseling career and increase your expertise. A certification demonstrates to employers and clients that you’ve received specialized training.

Some common counseling certifications include:

Having a certification can open up more job opportunities, increase your salary potential, and give you a competitive edge in the job market.

Some certifications may have additional requirements, such as continuing education, to maintain the certification.

Frequently Asked Questions About Counseling

question-mark-circleWhat is the best degree for counseling?

The best degree for counseling will vary depending on your career goals and your state’s requirements. Generally, a master’s in counseling is the minimum credential required for many counseling positions.

Depending on the type of counseling you’re interested in, you might choose a degree with a specialization or concentration in substance misuse, family therapy, or mental health.

question-mark-circleAre online counseling degrees respected?

Online counseling degrees are just as respected as traditional in-person degrees. As long as you choose a reputable and accredited online school, the program’s content should be just as rigorous and valuable as that of a campus-based program.

For counseling specifically, note that you’ll still need to complete practicum or internship requirements in person. Face-to-face counseling experience is an important part of most degree programs.

question-mark-circleWhat’s the difference between a counselor and a therapist?

Although counselors and therapists both provide mental health support to individuals, the context and extent of that support can vary.

A mental health counselor typically holds a degree in counseling and focuses on helping clients with everyday challenges such as stress, relationship problems, and personal growth.

A therapist is a broader term that can refer to any mental health professional, typically one with a graduate degree in psychology. They may specialize in clinical psychology and treat more severe mental health conditions.

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become a counselor?

It can take around seven years to become a practicing counselor. A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years to complete, followed by 2-3 years of a master’s program.

To earn your counseling license, you’ll need several years of clinical experience, part of which you’ll complete during your master’s program.

question-mark-circleIs a counseling degree worth it?

A counseling degree can be worth it if you’re passionate about helping others and making a positive impact in people’s lives. With a degree in counseling, you can pursue a variety of careers that offer both personal fulfillment and good earning potential.

Many professionals find counseling work personally rewarding. However, it’s important to carefully consider the financial and time investment required to earn a counseling degree and weigh that against your career aspirations.

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