Master's in Counseling Programs, Timelines and Career Possibilities
Online master's programs typically allow students the freedom to balance school with other aspects of life such as work and family, and can also be more cost effective, allowing students to earn a master's degree in counseling from distance schools without having to relocate. An online master's in counseling typically helps to prepare students to become licensed professional counselors and allows them to specialize in areas like school, career, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse and addictive behaviors, and clinical mental health. Find out more below about earning an online master's degree in counseling, the application process and possible career paths for graduates.
Best Online Master's in Counseling Programs
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With so many high quality online master's in counseling programs available, it can be difficult to narrow down the options for prospective students. By utilizing the rankings list below, prospective students can compare the best online master's in counseling programs based on factors like student-to-teacher ratios, costs and graduate rates.
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Timeline to a Master's in Counseling
Whether a student is still working on their bachelor's degree or they have been out of school for a while, it's never too early to start planning a graduate education. Once research has been conducted and an online master's in counseling degree program has been selected, it's time to start gathering all the required pieces necessary for a successful application. Below is a helpful list of common requirements for the application process and a few ideas of what a student can typically expect in an online master's in counseling degree program once they have been accepted.
The application process for an online master's in counseling degree is often similar among most schools, but each school may vary slightly in what they require. Below are examples requirements typically needed to apply to an online master's in counseling graduate program.
In addition to a bachelor's degree, certain pre-requisite classes are often an entrance requirement for a master's in counseling degree. This requirement may vary depending on the school, but usually a certain amount of undergraduate credits in behavioral sciences, such as psychology and statistics, will be required. It's ultimately up to the department to decide what classes will satisfy this requirement.
Graduate Application and Fee
Prospective students will typically need to submit a completed graduate school application and an application fee, which will vary from school to school. The fee generally ranges from $30-$50 and can be deferred until after financial aid is determined if need be. Some master's in counseling degree programs will have strict application deadlines, and others will accept them at any time during the year.
For an online master's degree, most schools will require transcripts of all undergraduate work, including any degrees earned. Depending on the school, unofficial transcripts may be acceptable for admittance purposes, and official transcripts may need to be sent later from the registrar's office upon acceptance. The transcripts usually must include the school's logo, the student's cumulative GPA, a list of completed courses and the degree earned.
Some graduate schools may require that test scores be submitted, such as the GRE, SAT/ACT or MAT. Depending on the school, test results may be acceptable in place of the required GPA if the student has not met the required GPA minimum, but has a high enough score on one of these tests.
Letter of Recommendation
Students pursuing an online master's in counseling degree will most likely need to submit two to three letters of recommendation. These are generally letters from professional references like former professors or employers. The letters should typically vouch for the student's motivation and ability to complete the coursework required to become a counselor and should highlight the applicant's character, ethics, maturity level, dedication and ability to help others.
A professional résumé may be required for an online master's in counseling degree applicant. This should typically include related job experience, extracurricular activities and any clinical experience as an undergraduate.
Personal Statement and Letter of Intent
Applicants may be required to submit a personal statement and/or a letter of intent. Students generally write about their interest in earning the master's in counseling degree, how their background has prepared them for the program, how they plan to succeed in completing the program and their future goals as a counselor. In addition, students may also be required to write an essay. The topics will vary and are usually set by the school department. Examples of things to write about include why the student thinks he or she is a good fit in the field of counseling, professional interests and goals, autobiographical information and related experience.
YEAR 1 MILESTONES
The first year of an online master's in counseling program typically introduces students to basic concepts, ideas and techniques of counseling that they will often later apply in their third year of study. Below are some learning objectives and milestones students will usually reach in the first year of the program.
Introductory Classes and Specializations
Students will typically become oriented to the counseling profession and learn about specialized areas of counseling with introduction classes. Students may also start thinking about elective classes as well as areas of specialization to move into in their second year.
Assessment Techniques and Theory
Students will often become familiar with assessment techniques in counseling. Assessing, diagnosing and treating are fundamental skills that students generally become familiar with in the first year and may later get hands-on practice with in the third year. Students will typically learn about the history and theory behind the counseling profession and how these apply to current methods.
Students will often learn about professional ethics and issues that arise in the counseling profession and how to deal with these issues when faced with these types of challenges further into the program during their practicum, internship and later in their professional career.
YEAR 2 MILESTONES
Students will usually begin to sharpen basic skills learned from the first year in the second year of an online master's in counseling program. They may also complete core requirements and begin to focus on specializations along and a deeper analysis of mental health. Research skills often come into play as students begin planning their independent study projects.
- Research Skills
Students will typically learn techniques to gather information. Psychological testing and methods of research and statistics are often covered in the second year that may be used in real world counseling during their third year and in their professional careers as counselors.
Thesis or Independent Study Project
In the second year, students usually begin planning out their thesis or independent study project. Typically, with an online master's in counseling program, students are given a non-thesis option since they may be earning their degree in a different location than the school. Along with beginning work on this project, students usually deepen areas of interest and specialization that they will focus on for their project as well as for their careers down the road.
Areas of Specialization
Some online master's in counseling programs are designed so students will choose an area of specialization in their second year. Depending on the program, students will either continue into the third year studying in a more general capacity or they will choose and begin their focus on an area of specialization like marriage and family counseling, substance abuse or career counseling. At this point, students may also research potential internships that coincide with their area of interest.
YEAR 3 MILESTONES
During the final year of a master's in counseling degree program, students will typically wrap-up research and work on their thesis or independent projects and practicum hours and may begin preparing for comprehensive exams. Students will also need to begin preparing for future graduation requirements and may want to begin applying and interviewing for potential jobs.
- Independent Study Projects or Thesis
Students usually have been working on their independent study projects or thesis, which usually involve extensive research and time commitments, and will begin finalizing the remaining components. Students will typically work on this project along with fulfilling their practicum and internship hours.
Practicum and Internship
Students will typically need to complete a number of practicum hours and secure an internship to meet their program's Internship requirements. A certain amount of hours is generally required for both of these courses, and students will usually satisfy these hours working full-time in real world situations. Students will often work with clients under direct supervision of professional clinical counselors and faculty.
A passing grade on a comprehensive exam is often required for all online master's in counseling students in order to graduate. This test is usually taken during the last semester after completion of all required coursework. Most programs use the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Exam (CPCE), which is primarily multiple choice.
Graduation Requirements and Licensure
During the third year, students will typically prepare for graduation, credentials and licensure requirements. Once students have met the graduation requirements, they will usually be ready to obtain the proper credentials and licensing to become professional counselors. Students will need to research any national and state certification requirements applicable to them as licensure requirements may vary.
The requirements needed in order to graduate with an online master's in counseling degree are often built into a program's curriculum, but may vary on exactly when they will take place. In addition to faculty approval for advancement to candidacy and request to graduate, the following standard requirements typically must be met:
- Complete Required Amount of Credits
Students must have completed the required coursework and required credits in an allotted amount of time. Depending on the school, online master's in counseling students typically are given five to seven years to complete the program. In addition, maintaining above a certain GPA throughout the program may also be a graduation requirement.
Complete Independent Study Project or Thesis
Completion and approval of an independent study or thesis project is often required. Online master's in counseling students are usually given an option of a non-thesis program, which can take the form of an independent study project or research project under supervision of a student advisor.
Complete Fieldwork, Practicum and Internship Hours
Students typically must have completed all required fieldwork, practicum and internship hours, usually totaling 1,200 hours, at an approved facility with proper supervision and must have all necessary related documents turned in. Some states may mandate more hours for licensure.
Pass Comprehensive Exam
Students often must take a comprehensive exam with a passing score to graduate. Most schools use the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Exam (CPCE). Online students may need to travel to the school to take the comprehensive exam or may need to find an accredited school in their state that offers it.
After Your Degree: What to do with a Master's in Counseling
Online master's in counseling degrees typically prepare students to become licensed professional counselors and can open doors to a variety of career paths. Master's in counseling graduates may decide to continue their education and pursue a doctoral degree or may go on to work in areas like academia, medicine or mental health or may choose to work in private practice settings as marriage and family, career, academic, school, substance abuse, rehabilitation or mental health counselors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in this field is expected to be faster than average in the years 2014-2014, which can be encouraging data for those looking to pursue a career in counseling. Below are some examples of what working as a counselor may look like along with expected salary and growth in the field:
Marriage and Family Counselor
Marriage and family counselors generally provide therapy to individuals and families by assessing, diagnosing and treating mental health and emotional issues. They often help clients with treatment plans to manage, overcome and resolve problems and issues typically relating to relationships and the family dynamic. They usually work in private practices, mental health centers, schools and healthcare settings such as clinics and hospitals.
Mean Annual Wage $43,190
Growth Potential 19%
Substance Abuse/Behavioral Disorders Counselor
Substance Abuse/Behavioral Disorders Counselors generally work with individuals and groups to manage and recover from addiction and behavior disorders such as alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders. They also may work with family members affected by these issues and, at times, may provide prevention and crisis care. They often work in treatment environments such as prisons, outpatient and inpatient facilities, community and mental health centers, and private practices.
Mean Annual Wage$39,980
Growth Potential 22%
Career counselors typically work in a high schools, colleges, career centers, government agencies and private practices. They often help students with social skills, academic and future career goals, financial aid, and college and degree selection based on desired outcome. They may help people looking for career changes, job search skills and those working with disabilities enter the work force.
Mean Annual Wage $53,660
Growth Potential 8%
Core Principles and Skills Learned in an Online Master's in Counseling Program
Master's in Counseling
- Ability to Assess, Diagnose and Treat Clients
This is essentially the basis of what counselors do, and many of the core classes in an online master's in counseling program will typically contribute to students learning these skills. Courses like clinical diagnosis, treatment planning and personality testing will often introduce students to clinical assessment, diagnosis techniques and treatment planning. The required practicum and internship hours may provide the hands-on experience necessary for students to practice and hone these skills they can later apply to their own practice.
- Apply Research, Statistics and Counseling Theories to Practice
These are all tools counselors often use to be effective in providing counseling, treatment and resolution to clients seeking help. Theories of counseling and statistics and research methods are examples of courses that can teach students how to gather information, theories and techniques that they can apply to their counseling practice.
- Ability to Interact With Diverse Populations
This is an important skill to have as students will often work with a diverse client base during their practicum and internship and later as professional counselors. Classes such as multicultural counseling and community and agency counseling are examples of courses that often contribute to students learning this skill.
- Strong Professional Ethics
It is of utmost importance that students and professional counselors follow ethical standards and guidelines in counseling and are familiar with ethical and legal issues and procedures in counseling. Online master's in counseling students will typically become familiar with a code of ethics for counselors and learn about ethical issues and professional challenges counselors may face in classes like ethical and legal issues in counseling.
The following is a list of resources that may be helpful for online master's in counseling students and those thinking about pursuing a career as a counselor.
The ACA is a membership-based, non-profit organization for counseling professionals and students designed to promote, develop and advance the field of professional counseling. The website contains various professional and educational resources like job search options, webinars, publications and continuing education opportunities.
The BLS provides a wealth of information on different career paths. Readers can search on specific occupations, including counseling and related occupations, and get an overview or detailed description of what the career entails, expected growth and salaries in areas across the U.S.
The CCE is a non-profit organization that offers business support, licensure and credentials to counseling professionals and organizations. The CCE is an affiliate of the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and offers the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE), which is a standard for graduating master's in counseling students.
The CACREP is the accrediting body for master's and doctoral degree programs in counseling. Prospective master's in counseling students can use this website to learn the value of accreditation when selecting a school and find accredited master's in counseling programs.