How to Become a Counselor

The process of becoming a counselor is both a fairly straightforward and oddly complex process, in large part because the term “counselor” refers to several somewhat different career paths and avocations. The real question is, what kind of counselor do you have in mind? There are school counselors, mental health counselors, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, and rehabilitation counselors, each with its own unique focus, and each with a somewhat different set of standards for licensure and certification. And those are just the four types of counselors that are officially recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. Social workers and psychologists, whose work can overlap with that of certain types of counselors, are considered separately, and for good reason. On the other hand, marriage and family therapists, who also provide a form of counseling, are placed in the same category by the BLS.

So, yeah, it’s a bit confusing. But the basics of what a licensed and/or certified counselor does are easier to pin down. In simple terms, counselors are trained professional who provide counseling to those who need help in a fairly well-delineated area of life. School and career counselors work with students from elementary up through high school, helping them navigate academic issues, plan for college and future careers, and overcome impediments to educational success and personal development. Mental health counselors, and marriage and family therapists, assist people in managing and overcoming emotional turmoil and family problems. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people confront the problems associated with alcohol and drug dependency and addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral issues. And rehabilitation counselors work with clients who have physical and/or emotional disabilities.

Steps to Becoming a Counselor

A career in counseling generally requires two things: a master’s degree and the proper licensure. And, for the most part, the steps to becoming a counselor in all of these areas of specialization are rather similar. We’ll delineate some of the differences below. But, first, here’s what a typical trajectory toward becoming a licensed/certified counselor looks like:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited four-year college or university
  2. Find and enroll in a master’s degree program that fits your preferred area of specialization in counseling
  3. Begin supervised work-study experience necessary for licensure, and apply for a provisional license in states where available
  4. Obtain a state counseling license to practice in a particular area of counseling

What Does a Counselor Do?

Counselors work in a variety of different settings, depending on their chosen field, and use skills and techniques that are specific to each of those fields. However, there are many parallels. For example, counseling by its very nature involves frequent interaction with people, oftentimes people who are under duress, anxious, or struggling with specific problems. Counselors must be patient, show compassion, and have well-honed listening and interpersonal skills. The abilities to problem solve and think critically are also important. As the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook stresses, “Being able to work with different types of people is essential for counselors and therapists, who spend most of their time working directly with clients and other professionals and must be able to encourage good relationships.”

Because counseling sessions often begin and end as a conversation, most counselors work in some kind of comfortable office space. School counselors generally have an office in a particular elementary, middle, or high school, although some have off-site private practices. Mental health, marriage, and family therapy counselors may work out of a community clinic or a private practice, which is also true of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. The latter may also be based in hospitals, schools, or healthcare facilities. Many rehabilitation counselors are employed by healthcare institutions and hospitals, although they too may set up private practices.

To get a better sense of the work environments that are typical for counselors, here’s the most recent data breakdown from the BLS:

Mental Health Counselors

Nursing and residential care facilities18%
Outpatient care facilities18%
Individual and family services17%

School and Career Counselors

State, local, and private elementary schools47%
Junior college, universities, and professional schools31%
Heathcare and social assistance9%

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers22%
Nursing and residential care facilities22%
Individual and family services13%

What Education Does a Counselor Need?

There are two-year associate degree programs in counseling, but they are mostly a steppingstone to enrolling in a four-year bachelor’s of arts or sciences degree program. The reason is simple: Most jobs in the counseling field require at the very least the completion of a bachelor’s degree. In fact, as the BLS notes, and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) emphasizes, a bachelor’s degree in counseling is an absolute requirement in most states for licensure in most areas of counseling, and some combination of a master’s degree and supervised counseling experience is often a necessary to practice as a licensed counselor.

The Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degree programs that specifically target counseling do exist, but they are rare. In some cases, a concentration in counseling may be part of a major in psychology, sociology, or education. However, it isn’t necessary to major in counseling as an undergraduate. A career in counseling simply begins with the completion of a bachelor’s degree. And, while majoring in one of the behavioral sciences may be helpful, it isn’t required or even necessary.

Master’s Degree in Counseling

The key degree for those aspiring to a career as a licensed counselor is the master’s degree. It isn’t required for licensing in every state or in every area of specialization, but it’s where the nuts and bolts of counseling is taught, explored, and put into practice. And, it’s what the BLS and the NBCC recommends for the best career outcomes. It’s also something that’s required for certification by the NBCC, and we’ll get to that in a moment. The importance of the master’s degree in counseling cannot be overstated: While there’s foundational value to what you’ll learn as an undergraduate, the master’s degree program focuses on applied research and assessment techniques in counseling; mental health counseling strategies; the diagnosis and treatment of child, adolescent, and adult psychopathologies; human growth, development, and sexuality; couples, family, and group counseling; and psychological testing protocols. It’s also when you’ll begin supervised work in the field, through internship requirements and opportunities. And, any properly accredited master’s degree program in counseling should provide adequate preparation for licensing exams and board certifications.

Getting Licensed as a Counselor

It has become more and more common for states to require a counseling license for anyone intending to practice as a professional counselor. And, increasingly, employers are looking for counselors who have at least been granted a provisional license on their way to achieving full licensure. School/career counselors and mental health counselors are required to be licensed in addition to a master’s degree and some supervised work experience. Rehabilitation counselors who aren’t licensed are restricted in terms of the services they are allowed to perform in most states. And, while substance abuse and mental health counselors who want to set up a private practice must be licensed in most states, the BLS notes that not all states require licensure or even anything more than a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

The standard exam used for licensure in counseling is the National Counseling Exam, a 200-item multiple-choice exam that is also used on the federal level for the military and VA health systems. More information about the exam is available from the National Board of Certified Counselors. The NBCC also offers board certification for counselors in the form of National Certified Counselor (NCC) certificate, which is offered in three areas of specialization: addictions, clinical mental health, and school counseling. While these certificates aren’t required for licensure or practice, they are often useful for job placement and advancement.

Job Outlook and Salaries for Licensed Counselors

The latest BLS data indicates that the job outlook for counselors is rather good across the board through 2022, with employment of school and career counselors projected to grow 12 percent, which is on par with the average for all occupations. Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists have a much higher than average projected growth rate of 29 percent, as do substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors (31 percent) and rehabilitation counselors (20 percent). To put those numbers in perspective, the average growth rate in community and social services occupations is projected at 17 percent. Here’s a chart that includes these counseling specializations alongside some similar occupations in the social services and education sector:

BLS projected employment growth rates through 2022

OccupationProjected Job Outlook
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors31%
Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists29%
Rehabilitation counselors20%
School and career counselors12%
Social workers19%
Health educators and community health workers21%
High school teachers6%
Middle school teachers12%
Special education teachers6%

Salaries for counselors can vary quite a bit, depending on the type of counseling, the level of education, and the kinds of licensing and certifications that are available in the field. For example, 2014 data from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics pegs the average annual salary for mental health counselors at $43,990. But those in the lowest 10 percentile of mental health counselors earned an average of $26,030, while those in the top 10 percentile earned an average of $66,930. Here are some of the other average annual salaries from the BLS data:

Average annual salaries as of May 2014 (according to the BLS)

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
School and career counselors$56,040
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors$41,870
Rehabilitation counselors$37,890
Marriage and family therapists$51,730

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