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As a career designation, "counselor" is a bit like "entertainer" or "engineer." There are, of course, all kinds of entertainers working at very different levels in the entertainment industry, and whether or not they're actually entertaining is often a matter of taste. Similarly, there are nuclear engineers, civil engineers, aerospace engineers, chemical engineers, nanotechnology engineers, and, if you happen to have a young child, the word might bring to mind a guy in a train yard wearing overalls and a very particular kind of hat.

Counseling is a lot like that, minus the hulking locomotives and the compulsory caboose. The Oxford dictionary defines counselor as, "A person trained to give guidance on personal, social, or psychological problems." It also includes this secondary definition: "A person who gives advice on a specified subject." And, in deference to those living in North America, it acknowledges that counselor refers to a role that's often filled by high school students at summer camps.

But, even if we stick to the more narrowly constrained realm of professional counseling, there are all kinds of counselors -- school counselors, mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, behavioral disorder counselors, vocational counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and even grief counselors. These professionals are trained in various counseling techniques, are usually certified and licensed in the state they practice, and work in schools, clinics, community centers, residential facilities, and private practices, helping individuals, couples, and families overcome difficulties and cope with setbacks.

What Does a Counselor Do?

The American Counseling Association (ACA), a non-profit member organization representing people employed in all facets of professional counseling, makes some very clear distinctions when it comes to whom it considers a counselor. Actually, professional counselor is the term the ACA prefers, for two very practical reasons:

  1. Counseling is a generic term that can refer to camp counselors and financial counselors, two designations that don't fit the ACA's definition.
  2. Professional counselors are licensed by the states in which they practice to perform a very specific function, usually after earning a master's degree in the field.

By contrast, Therapists are not regulated in the same manner, whereas psychologists and social workers, both of whom may provide counseling in a professional setting, are generally considered to have different priorities.

Psychologists, who often have to earn a PhD in order to practice professionally, often engage in research and other clinical duties, as well as in counseling. And social workers, as the ACA literature explains, "are trained to assist individuals with more basic needs than counselors" -- needs like securing health care services, housing, and other basic resources. Counselors, on the other hand, "Focus on wellness, career development, client empowerment, and client strengths, and are also experts in addressing the needs of different cultures."

The ACA's overview of professional counseling goes into further detail: "Counseling is a collaborative effort between the counselor and client. Professional counselors help clients identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health… Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals."

In practical terms, that means meeting with clients, listening to their problems, assessing their situation, and providing concrete strategies, advice, and resources to help them improve their situation in life. For a school counselor, that would mean meeting with students and, in some cases, parents to address academic and career goals, behavioral problems, or other specific issues. For marriage and family counselors, that entails meeting with individuals, couples, and groups to help them work through family problems. There are addiction and mental health counselors, who meet with clients in clinics and other healthcare facilities to help their clients develop coping mechanisms and other life skills, and military counselors, who may work on military bases or in veterans hospitals, assisting men and women in uniform cope with the stress of their jobs and/or make the transition to civilian life. And there are child counselors and gerontological counselors, who specialize in working with clients on challenges related to their respective points in the cycle of life.

The charts below, drawn from the most recent data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), include a breakdown of where these professionals work, depending on the area of specialization.

Mental Health Counselors

Nursing and residential care facilities 18%
Outpatient care facilities 18%
Individual and family services 17%
Hospitals 12%
Government 9%

School and Career Counselors

State, local, and private elementary schools 47%
Junior college, universities, and professional schools 31%
Healthcare and social assistance 9%
Government 4%

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers 22%
Nursing and residential care facilities 22%
Individual and family services 13%
Hospitals 10%

How Long Does it Take to Become a Counselor?

The most direct path to a career in counseling -- i.e., a career as a licensed professional counselor -- has four basic steps:

  1. Earn a four-year bachelor's degree in counseling, or a related field like psychology or sociology, at an accredited college or university.
  2. Complete a two-year master's degree program in counseling, which should include some kind of supervised internship or practicum.
  3. Complete the in-the-field work experience necessary to qualify for state licensure and/or national certification. Note, some states have a two-tiered system that allows qualified holders of a master's degree to be licensed prior to completing two years of work experience.
  4. Take the state licensing exam and/or the National Board for Certified Counselors' National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification exam.

So, it can take up to eight years, from the beginning of a bachelor's degree program through full state licensure, to become a professional counselor.

This process can vary by two or more years, depending on the particular career in counseling. For example, mental health and marriage and family counselors generally do need a master's degree plus two years of work experience in most states, while some states require school counselors to have one to two years of classroom teaching experience or to hold a teaching license. At the other end of the spectrum, it is possible in many states to become an addiction counselor with just a bachelor's degree, although job prospects and salaries are quite a bit better for those with a master's. The ACA provides links to each state's professional counseling licensing board and school counselor certification agency.

What Do You Need to Study to be a Counselor?

If the study of psychology exists on a continuum, with research and theory on one end, and direct, person-to-person treatment and intervention on the other, then counseling is clearly on the latter side. It is, at heart, an applied social science, one that's certainly grounded in a foundational knowledge of psychological and sociological principles, but that requires the communication, assessment, and interpersonal skills necessary for working with individuals in need of help. As a result, most of what students need to learn for a successful career in counseling happens at the graduate level, through the coursework and supervised internship opportunities that are part of a master's degree in counseling.

There are some colleges and universities that offer the option of majoring in counseling, usually as part of a concentration in psychology, but a four-year bachelor of arts or bachelor of science in any discipline is technically sufficient to qualify for admissions to a master's degree program in counseling. That said, it's recommended that students aiming for a career in counseling start by taking introductory psychology and sociology classes as an undergraduate. Here are some of the other types of bachelor's degree courses that can provide a solid foundation for a counseling career:

  • Social Science Statistics and Data Analysis
  • Psychology Research Methods
  • Social Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Behavioral Biology
  • Social Policy
  • Theories of Learning and Cognition

There are essentially two parts of a master's degree in counseling. The first consists of general coursework in the principles and practices of counseling, and often includes classes that cover the following topics:

  • Legal and Ethical Concerns in Counseling
  • Human Development
  • Research Methodologies and Assessment Protocols in Counseling
  • Theories of Psychological Counseling
  • Group Counseling and Process
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling
  • Counseling Diagnosis and Treatment

The second part of a master's degree program includes supervised, in-the-field counseling experience, as well as more specialized advance coursework that target a specific area within counseling. These classes typically address the following topics, although this can vary quite a bit from program to program:

  • Career Counseling
  • Elementary School Counseling
  • Middle School Counseling
  • High School Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Family Dynamics in Counseling
  • Substance Abuse Counseling

How Much Do Counselors Earn?

Counseling is a broad field, with many different paths and areas of specialization. And they all require a level of dedication, commitment, patience, and compassion that isn't easy to neatly correlate with salaries, which can vary quite a bit from area to area. For example, the most recent BLS employment data indicates that the median annual salary for mental health counselors as of May 2014 was $40,850. However, those in the lowest tenth percentile of mental health counselors, which likely includes those who have yet to be fully licensed, earned less than $26,030, while those in the top tenth percentile earned more than $66,930. Here are salaries in other areas of counseling:

Category Median Annual Salary Lowest 10th Percentile Top 10th Percentile
Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors $53,370 $31,960 $86,610
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors $39,270 $25,310 $61,420
Marriage and Family Therapists $48,040 $30,510 $78,920
Counselors, All Other $44,830 $26,110 $72,810

Sources
"Professional Counseling Fact Sheet," American Counseling Association, http://www.counseling.org/docs/default-document-library/professional-counseling-fact-sheet.pdf?sfvrsn=2
"What is a Professional Counselor?," American Counseling Association, http://www.counseling.org/aca-community/learn-about-counseling/what-is-counseling/overview
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/oes/home.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
National Board for Certified Counselors, "Understanding National Certification and State Licensure," http://www.nbcc.org/Certification/CertificationorLicensure

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