Counseling – degrees, programs and career options

HomeCounseling overview

Introduction to counseling

Counseling is a healing profession, where the counselor works collaboratively with the client to identify issues and come up with solutions. It involves unique skills, such as empathy, active listening, and the ability to remain objective. 

Most counseling roles involve specific approaches in therapy. These could be based on psychodynamic theory, cognitive behavioral therapy, a person-centred approach, or a mix of different theories.  

A recent report from Mental Health America showed that 9 million adults with mental illness tried but couldn’t get effective treatment. By pursuing a career as a counselor, you could help people address their issues early on and assist them in implementing positive behavior changes. Talk therapy can assist people in dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, and issues with self-esteem. 

Are you considering a career in counseling? In general, you need a master’s degree or doctorate for this profession. These graduate programs prepare you to assist people in improving their quality of life. Counselors help clients succeed at school, work, home, or in the community. Below, we’ll look at the details of each degree program. 

Bachelor’s in counseling

Most bachelor’s degrees are 4-year programs that cover broad topics. The majority of classes are theoretical, although you might also complete a research project, practicum, or internship. 

Coursework and concentrations 

Typical coursework in a counseling degree includes: 

  • Introduction to counseling 
  • General psychology 
  • Methods of counseling 
  • Crisis intervention 
  • Diversity issues in counseling 

Concentrations within a counseling program could include: 

  • School counseling 
  • Addiction 
  • Recovery and rehabilitation 
  • Marriage and family therapy 
  • Mental health 

Positions available with a bachelor’s degree in counseling 

Substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor 

These professionals work with people who struggle with drug addiction, alcoholism, or similar behavioral problems. They work in many locations including community health centers, private clinics, and prisons. The average yearly salary is $46,240. 

College career counselor 

College career counselors work in colleges or universities. They help students understand different career options and choose the one that’s best for them. They earn an average of $48,614 annually. 

Further education in counseling 

Bachelor’s degrees may offer access to a few counseling positions, as seen above. However, most counselors need at least a master’s degree to earn a license and practice in the field. Graduate courses offer opportunities to gain supervised practical experience and elevated skills.  

Master’s in counseling  

A master’s in counseling equips you to work with many different types of clients. Most programs are designed to prepare you for professional licensure. They typically include theoretical courses, group work, and a practicum or internship where you can gain supervised practice hours.  

These programs often push you to better understand yourself. While earning this degree, you’ll explore your strengths and how to use them ethically. You’ll also learn how to build healthy relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. 

Coursework and concentrations 

A master’s in counseling typically includes coursework like: 

  • Counseling theories 
  • Abnormal psychology 
  • Addictions counseling 
  • Community mental health 
  • Multicultural counseling 
  • Human development 
  • Working with families 
  • Law and ethics 

The program usually takes 2-3 years to complete. Internships provide vital practice in real-life situations while students work under the supervision of professionals with years of experience. 

Depending on the school you choose, you may have several different options for concentrations. They can include: 

  • Art therapy – combining art with counseling 
  • Rehabilitation counseling – helping individuals with disabilities live independently 
  • School and career counseling – advising and assisting students with educational and vocational choices 
  • Marriage and family therapy – helping people overcome problems in interpersonal relationships 
  • Substance abuse counseling – advising individuals who struggle with substance abuse or other addictive behaviors 

What can I do with a master’s in counseling? 

There are many possible career options for someone who earns this degree. For example, you could work in any of these areas: 

  • Social services
  • Drug rehabilitation
  • Mental health
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Postsecondary education

A master’s degree may qualify you to work in the following positions. 

Art therapist 

Art therapists use a combination of art and psychology to help different types of clients in various settings. These may include schools, psychiatric hospitals, and community health clinics. Average yearly pay for this position is $58,600. 

Rehabilitation counselor 

Rehabilitation counselors work in settings like youth guidance organizations, senior living facilities, and community rehabilitation centers. They help people with physical, developmental, emotional, or mental disabilities live more independently. Annual wages average $35,950 per year. 

Guidance counselor 

Guidance counselors typically work in elementary, middle, and high school settings. They provide students with educational and vocational guidance. Average annual pay is $61,000. 

Marriage and family therapist 

Marriage and family therapists work with people to help them manage relationship issues. They can help clients overcome problems in marriage and family situations. These professionals may work in mental health centers or private practice. Median pay is $49,610 per year. 

Graduate teaching assistant  

This position can help support you financially while you pursue your doctorate. You could take on this role at your university teaching undergraduate students in your field. For this position, median annual earnings are typically about $34,000.  

Postsecondary teacher 

Working in an educational setting, you could lead classes for adults. Some community colleges hire professors with master’s degrees. In this role, you could earn an average salary of approximately $80,000 per year. 


If you start comparing the prices of master’s programs, you’ll quickly discover that they vary significantly. You’ll find some regions of the country have higher tuition than others. Public and private universities typically differ in the amount they charge. Out-of-state students usually pay more than those who reside in-state.  

That said, a report from 2020 has compiled the average costs for master’s degrees at institutions across the U.S. The report indicates that yearly tuition and fees average near $9,000 for off-campus students at public universities, compared to $30,000 at private schools. Those living in a residence hall can expect to pay about $10,000 for room and board at a public institution, versus $12,500 at a private one. 

Hybrid coursework

Distance learning programs are often more affordable than in-person studies. Since counseling degrees require internships, they typically aren’t available exclusively online. They most often classify as hybrid, meaning that there are some web-based classes but also an in-person component. 

Opportunities for further study 

Once you complete your master’s coursework, you may wish to continue studying. A doctoral degree can yield broader opportunities in the field. Continuing education courses are an excellent choice if you choose not to pursue a doctoral degree right away. They allow you to hone your expertise in specific areas and help you maintain licensure if you already have it. 

Ph.D. in counseling  

Students in this program obtain in-depth knowledge about how people function internally and in interpersonal relations. They learn to work with individuals at all stages of life. Generally, programs focus on research and assembling the skills you’ll need to create a successful counseling practice.  

What can I do with a Ph.D. in counseling? 

You can work as a counselor in your own private practice or in partnership with other professionals. For example, you might choose to serve in one of the following settings: 

  • Physicians’ offices 
  • Individual or family services 
  • Outpatient care centers 
  • Offices of other health professionals 

The primary option for doctoral graduates is to practice as a counselor, but there are several options:  

  • Professor – as a postsecondary teacher you could give talks and lectures on counseling to adults at universities and other educational institutions. The mean annual wage for these professionals is approximately $88,000. 
  • Researcher – similar to a professor role, you could enter academia at an institution that focuses more on research than teaching. This role could be at a university or a research facility. The mean annual salary is around $66,000. 

Coursework and concentrations 

A doctorate typically takes 4-5 years to complete if you study full time. The length of the program can vary based on your previous educational experience. For example, if you already have a master’s degree in this field, you’ll likely need to take fewer courses than someone who’s entering after completing only a bachelor’s program. 

Coursework typically includes advanced courses in: 

  • Professional identity, ethics, growth, and wellbeing 
  • Career and lifestyle planning 
  • Research 
  • Counseling theories and models 
  • Lifespan development 
  • Clinical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment 
  • Neurobiology and psychopharmacology 
  • Planning, consultation, and leadership 
  • Clinical applications of research 
  • Impact, assessment, and treatment of trauma 

Alongside the theoretical and research courses, you’ll complete clinical hours. You might also work closely with a chosen member of the faculty to conduct a research project. This project usually becomes part of your dissertation.  

You can choose from several different concentrations during your doctoral program. Be sure that the school you pick has the specialization you desire. Some possibilities include: 

  • Substance abuse counseling – helping people overcome addiction 
  • Rehabilitation counseling – working to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities 
  • Mental health counseling – diagnosing and treating mental health problems 

Cost involved 

The yearly cost of a doctorate can vary significantly. For example, an off-campus student at a public university pays an average of $11,500. On the other end of the spectrum, if you choose to live on campus at a private college, the price averages $60,000. This figure includes tuition and fees, housing, and a meal plan. 

Getting into a graduate program 

Admission requirements are different for every school. Each institution can decide what to request during the application process. Most prefer that potential students have specific coursework related to counseling. Some programs require research, work, or volunteer experience. 

Documents and prerequisites 

To enter a master’s or doctoral program in counseling psychology, you typically need the following: 

  • Application form 
  • Current resume 
  • Essay or personal statement 
  • Letters of recommendation from professors or supervisors 
  • Proof you completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field 
  • Transcripts from schools you previously attended 
  • GRE test scores, sometimes including the psychology subject test 
  • For international students – test scores, either TOEFL or IELTS, that show English language proficiency 

Some Ph.D. in counseling programs may require that you first complete a master’s degree. Others will admit students with only a bachelor’s qualification. 

When you apply, you deal directly with the admissions office at the school you’re interested in. Be sure to study the relevant deadlines and requirements before starting the process. 


Accreditation is a system that recognizes the quality of academic programs. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits masters and doctoral level counseling programs in many specializations. 

As you search for a graduate program in counseling, look for one that holds CACREP credentials. In many cases, you can only obtain licensure if you graduate from an accredited course. 

State counseling licensure 

Most states require that counselors obtain licensure to practice. Each state has its own requirements. Schools may tailor their degree programs to the qualifications in that region. As a result, many students choose to study in the state where they hope to get a license. 

Though license requirements vary from one location to another, most require a counseling degree and a supervised internship. You typically need to pass an exam, as well. Contact your state licensure and certification board for details on the requirements where you live. 

These are a few of the qualifications available through state licensure: 

  • Licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC) 
  • Licensed addiction counselor (LAC), licensed clinical addiction counselor (LCAC),  Licensed masters addiction counselor (LMAC) 
  • Licensed chemical dependency counselor (LCDC), licensed substance abuse counselor (LSAC), licensed drug and alcohol counselor (LDAC) 

Certifications for counselors 

Some states also certify competencies for specific professionals. Consult your state guidelines to understand if these certifications apply to your career path: 

  • Certified addiction counselor (CAC) 
  • Certified addiction practitioner or certified addiction professional (CAP) 
  • Certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC) 

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) offers a certification for sexuality counselors. Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and document 1,000 hours of counseling experience in the past 2-5 years. They should also be AASECT members and show they’ve completed at least 90 hours of sexuality education. 

You may also be eligible for national certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This organization offers 4 qualifications in varying areas of counseling. 

National Certified Counselor (NCC) 

Counselors must hold a master’s degree or higher to earn this qualification. Specific coursework, a professional endorsement, and 3,000 hours of work experience are also necessary. Candidates must pass the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). 

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) 

To obtain this credential, you must first be an NCC. You also need to show completion of coursework specific to this area of counseling. Additional requirements include clinical supervision, a professional endorsement, and at least 3,000 hours of postgraduate clinical work with clients. You must also earn a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). 

National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) 

This is a specialized certification available only to those who already hold the NCC qualification. In addition, candidates must show completion of specific coursework and at least 3,000 hours of work experience. A professional endorsement is necessary, as is a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or National Counselor Examination (NCE). 

Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) 

MAC certification shows a counselor is a specialist in addictions counseling. This credential opens the opportunity to seek federal Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) status with the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). To obtain this certification, a counselor must first hold the NCC qualification. Candidates need to document specific coursework and pass the Examination for Master Addictions Counselors (EMAC). 

The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) provides voluntary national certifications for counselors working with substance abuse. The following 3 qualifications may increase your career opportunities if you work with addictions. 

National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I) 

To earn this certification, counselors must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent and a current state license as an addiction counselor or professional counselor. Candidates should also show 6,000 hours of supervised experience and 270 hours of training in substance abuse or related subjects. Counselors must also pass an exam to obtain this qualification. 

National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II) 

Candidates for this certification need a bachelor’s degree or higher in substance abuse or a related counseling subject. Current state licensure is also necessary. Counselors should also show they have at least 6,000 hours of supervised experiences and 450 hours of training in addiction topics. A passing score on the appropriate exam is also required. 

National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor (NCAAC) 

The NCAAC recognizes competencies and clinical practice that meet national standards of treatment of teenagers with addictions. To obtain this qualification, you need a bachelor’s degree or higher in substance use disorders or a related subject. The certification process requires you show at least 10,000 hours of supervised work experience, plus 270 hours of education in addictions or related counseling subjects. You must also pass the NCAAC exam. 

Financial aid possibilities 

Many graduate programs offer funding to help students pay for their education. You may be able to secure a teaching assistantship (TA) or research assistantship (RA). These positions typically offer tuition remission, meaning your work results in free or reduced tuition. As a TA, you provide teaching services to receive this benefit. RAs generally work on an experimental project. 

The Federal Student Aid website provides general information about government grants, scholarships, and other funding sources. You can also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to discover which forms of financial aid may be available to you.  

Graduate students may be able to find aid from the following sources: 

  • Federal work-study programs, educational tax benefits, or loans 
  • Private and employer grants 
  • Institutional grants 
  • State grants 
  • Federal veterans’ benefits 

Award amounts range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. The organization that provides the funding determines how much to offer. They also set eligibility guidelines and time limits for applying. As a result, you need to pay close attention to the details of each opportunity.  

American Counseling Association (ACA)  

The ACA offers information on ethics, licensure requirements, current events, and more. It also provides continuing education opportunities. 

American School Counselor Association (ASCA)  

ASCA provides information and resources for school counselors in the U.S. and around the world. It offers networking as well as access to publications and professional development events. 

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT)  

This association represents professionals who provide relationship counseling. The site offers resources, advocacy, and a directory of marriage and family therapists. 

American Rehabilitation Counseling Association (ARCA)  

The ARCA provides membership opportunities for professional rehabilitation counselors. It also offers professional development opportunities, including an annual conference. 

American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA)  

The association represents mental health counseling professionals, offering membership and professional development. The AMHCA also advocates for better access to mental health care services.