Careers in counseling
Counseling is the act of helping someone work through a personal, social, psychological, or professional problem or difficulty. In this career, you assist and guide individuals, couples, or families through challenging times. A counselor listens to clients and helps them identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The counselor then guides clients to make adjustments and changes to improve the underlying circumstances behind them seeking help.
Since tribal times, humans have engaged in counseling. Early counseling sessions involved humans sharing their experiences, stories, and dreams in group settings. As civilization developed, religious leaders offered counseling to individuals. In the 1890s, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis, a field in which one person listens to another and interprets how the person’s subconscious psyche influences behavior. The field of counseling as we know it today gained popularity in the 1950s with the development of additional schools of thought, including psychoanalytical, behaviorist, and humanistic. These approaches help us understand why we think and act in certain ways, allowing us to connect to ourselves and others in more balanced and healthy ways.
Main tasks and responsibilities of a counselor
As a counselor, you play an important role in the lives of clients. Your responsibilities as a counselor include helping clients work through personal, emotional, social, relationship, and academic challenges. To succeed, you will need a variety of skills as you complete your tasks and responsibilities.
First, you need to exercise compassion, empathy and understanding as you employ active listening skills. As a counselor you will need to use critical thinking skills as you ask thoughtful questions to understand your clients and their thoughts, feelings and needs. You may need to have a wide array of knowledge about various people groups, situations, and challenges. It is also helpful if you know how to defuse tension, manage conflict, and handle crises. If you want to lead group therapy or discussions, obtain facilitation skills. Finally, maintain control of your emotions so that you can remain calm, controlled, stable, and confident in all types of high-stress situations.
First, you need to exercise compassion, empathy and understanding as you employ active listening skills.
Your tasks will include meeting with clients regularly – although not necessarily face to face. In this capacity, you develop treatment goals and teach clients how to put their new skills into practice and track progress. As you meet with clients for individual or group sessions, you may prepare homework assignments and provide resource materials, including crisis intervention numbers or additional referrals. Prepare to coordinate care with community agencies, healthcare providers, other service agencies and providers.
After each session, a counselor typically records the details about the topics discussed. You may be responsible to complete insurance paperwork, mail invoices, and manage payments. If you work in an agency, expect to report to a supervisor and collaborate with coworkers.
To complete these tasks, you need organizational skills and the ability to think creatively. Depending on your job, you may also need a willingness to work on short notice or be on-call.
Many counselors complete advanced training by going back to school to earn an advanced degree or qualify for a different licensure. Earning continuing education (CE) credits may be required to maintain your National Certified Counselor certification, and to stay current on the latest practices in the counseling field.
Careers in counseling
Education and career guidance counselor
Also referred to as school counselors or academic guidance counselors, these positions are typically located in schools, colleges and universities. Although the individual roles can vary slightly depending on the age group of the student population, the main responsibilities of the counselor center on providing support, guidance and counseling to individual students.
To succeed in this position, typically requires being an individual who is responsible, reliable, honest and holds high ethical standards. They tend to have strong communication skills and be sensitive to the emotional or psychological needs of others, both clients and colleagues. These professionals are team players, enjoy collaborative work with colleagues, and strive to improve the lives of the students they see. These traits are common to careers in teaching, nursing and allied healthcare.
- Assist students to select, register, and schedule classes that fulfill academic requirements and match student interests, career or educational goals
- Identify problems and provide counseling for issues that impede a student’s learning – including mental health factors (e.g. depression and anxiety), stressors at school (e.g. bullying, conflict with teachers) or home (e.g. abuse, death of family member), and practical concerns (e.g. lack of money or transport)
- Crisis interventions that may include anything from fights between students, suicide risks, students threatened with expulsion due to truancy or other behavioral issues
- Liaison with family, teaching and administration staff to advocate for a student who is experiencing emotional, behavioral or academic problems, to introduce a plan that optimized their learning experience
School counseling positions require a master’s degree and state licensure.
Mental health counselors
Mental health counselors work with clients of all ages, cultures, and sectors of the community. Mental health stressors can affect anyone, and these counselors are here to help their clients resolve issues, provide therapy, and teach ways of coping better with life.
Mental health counselors need to be excellent communicators, critical thinkers, solution-focused, empathetic, and have a strong knowledge foundation in human psychology, conflict resolution, counseling and therapeutic interventions.
- Conduct initial assessments of clients and develop a plan of treatment relevant to the presenting problem
- Note a comprehensive client history through testing, observations, interviews, past records – and keep the client record accurate and current
- Provide therapeutic counseling to individuals or small groups depending on the problem and treatment plan
- Crisis counseling as required (e.g. suicide risks)
- Work with clients to increase and improve their skills to identify and deal with the issues and problems they bring to you (e.g. addictions, anxiety, relationship issues)
Most positions require a minimum of a master’s degree in counseling, a completed internship and licensure. Positions are available in the public health system and in private practice.
Marriage and family therapists
Also known as marriage and family therapists, these professionals work with individuals, couples and groups within the family system. The presenting issues can include dysfunctional relationships between family members, psychological or behavioral issues, mental or physical illness, communication problems, and conflict that arises due to changes in circumstances.
- Initial assessment of clients that includes compiling a history of the individuals until the time of referral
- Gaining a clear understanding of the issues that culminated in the individuals and families coming to the appointment, and deciding whether counseling is the appropriate intervention, or whether a referral to a different specialist or service is required
- Developing an intervention plan that covers treatment of the family system and meets the needs of the individuals in this system (e.g. this plan may include teaching strategies to minimize conflict, and address the anxiety or addiction issues of individual)
- Provide counseling to individuals within the family, or relationship counseling to improve the relationships between 2 or more members of a family
- Collaborating with all involved healthcare professionals on case plans that address the needs of the clients
Professionals who succeed in this role are typically good at relationships with other people. They have are critical thinkers, clear communicators and excellent listeners. Their knowledge of human development, conflict resolution, and therapeutic interventions is advanced. This position demands state licensure, which requires a minimum of a master’s degree and an extensive period, often 2 years, of supervised clinical experience.
The major approaches of counseling
Counselors can address a client’s problem with a variety of styles and approaches. The type of approach counselors use depends on their education, training, and preferences. A counselor may also utilize several approaches, depending on the needs to the client.
Popular therapeutic approaches include:
- Psychodynamic — Address a client’s behavioral challenges by discerning how their past experiences affect their unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
- Humanistic — Ask clients to explore their current thoughts, feelings, and actions, and offer support as they work out solutions to their challenges.
- Behavioral — Correct learned behavior by embracing new and helpful strategies, behaviors, and tools.
- Interpersonal — Offer compassion and support as you help clients reduce environmental stressors, practice self-efficacy, and involve others as they address disorders.
- Mindfulness — Prompt clients to become aware of their feelings and thoughts in a non-judgmental way and use tools like breathing, meditation, yoga, and body scan to reduce stress.
- Existential — Explore your clients’ needs as you question what it means to be alive and guide them to make rational choices as they grow, change, and develop.
Where do counselors work?
Counseling jobs are available in numerous settings. After you earn your degree and licensure, make a difference in the lives of others when you work in one of these main locations.
|Earn a graduate degree and license, then open a counseling office based on your specialization. You can work with children and/or adults with mental health, substance abuse or family challenges. Other private practice work options include research or consulting.|
|Use your bachelor’s or master’s degree in counseling to work with people recovering from physical or mental health illnesses in a hospital or outpatient healthcare service.|
|Help elderly clients manage transitions, work through personal challenges, and navigate other later life challenges and concerns. With an undergraduate or graduate degree, you can work in counseling positions in retirement homes, assisted or independent living communities, or other facilities.|
|A school counselor can offer crisis intervention, provide behavioral support, identify special needs, guide career selection, and support parents. With a graduate degree, counselors can also work in colleges or universities, conducting research, teaching future counselors, or developing curricula.|
|Individuals who live in a residential care facility often require continuous supervision. Use your undergraduate or graduate degree to support people with physical or mental disabilities, at-risk youth and adults, or people with severe autism.|
|Counsel, supervise and support individuals seeking to overcome addiction. Use your degree to provide crisis intervention, coordinate educational classes, therapeutic activities, and group discussions. Depending on the facility, you might also guide residents in transitional housing facilities and recovery houses.|
|Assist veterans and their families with challenges such as grief, anger management, post-traumatic stress disorder and relationships. While you may need at least a master’s degree to work in a VA hospital setting, a bachelor’s degree may be adequate for outpatient clinics and support staff positions.|
|Provide individual and group counseling to inmates after you earn a graduate degree. Your duties could include working through personal and social challenges, achieving rehabilitation goals and transitioning back into society. With an undergraduate degree, you may be eligible to work in parole offices and post-incarceration positions.|
|Serve individuals, families, and communities as you provide mental health, rehabilitation, substance abuse, adoption, foster care, and interpersonal counseling. Many positions require a bachelor’s degree, although after you earn a master’s or doctorate degree you may be eligible for a supervisory role.|
Qualifications to become a counselor
The path to becoming a counselor includes several steps. Expect to earn an accredited degree, complete fieldwork, take an exam, and earn a license as you train to work as a counselor.
Earn a degree
Start by earning an undergraduate or graduate degree. Choose a school that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This independent agency is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, the organization that accredits master’s degree mental health and other counseling specialty programs. With a degree from an accredited school, you can go on to earn a license.
Complete supervised counseling
Next, complete a supervised, hands-on internship, practicum, and other fieldwork under the supervision of a qualified clinician. The CACREP requires 700 hours of supervised experience, but you may need as many as 4,000 hours depending on your chosen counseling specialization and your state’s licensing requirements. By working as a counselor in various settings, you practice what you have learned in school and hone your skills. This opportunity also helps you choose a specialization.
Take an examination
All states require professional counselors to pass a comprehensive examination before they can apply for a license to practice. The exam shows that you know the counseling theory, can practice successfully with clients, and follow ethics and safe practices. Commonly recognized examinations include:
National Counselor Examination (NCE) — The most common credentialing exam is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). It includes 200 multiple choice questions that reflect real-world counseling practice situations.
National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) — Also administered by NBCC, the NCMHCE focuses specifically on mental health practice. Through 12 to 14 case studies, you show that you know how to assess clients, create a treatment plan, and practice intervention skills.
Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) — Administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), the CRCE is accepted in some states. With 175 multiple choice questions, this exam tests your knowledge over 12 domains, including rehabilitation counseling.
Apply for a license
Complete the paperwork for your official license and pay any associated fees. Many states also require criminal background checks and professional references. You may need to prove citizenship and English language proficiency.
Schedule continuing education
To maintain your licensure, you will need to take additional classes throughout your career. Examples of continuing education include workshops, webinars, and graduate-level college courses. You may also complete home study classes. Refer to your specialization requirements and state guidelines as you earn continuing education credits.
Education and career options
Earn an undergraduate or graduate degree before you pursue your counseling career. Here is a college degrees list and a few examples of careers you can do with each degree.
While many counseling licenses require a graduate degree, you could earn a 2-year associate degree and qualify for entry-level or support jobs.
The coursework to earn an associate degree in counseling includes psychological theories and models, human services, family studies, ethics, and case management. Other course requirements include general education classes in math, science, English, writing, and humanities.
You can earn 3 different associate degrees depending on the institution you attend.
You can earn 3 different associate degrees depending on the institution you attend. Generally, an associate of arts (A.A.) program includes classes in general study with a focus on arts and humanities, such as history, languages, and English. An associate of science (A.S.) features core classes in sciences, math, statistics, and social sciences. An associate of applied science (AAS) includes an applied learning experience, such as an internship or practicum.
With an associate degree in counseling, you may qualify to work in several roles. Some states allow you to work as a mental health technician, outreach specialist, human service assistant, counseling assistant, family mediator, or caseworker. You may also be able to work as an addictions or substance abuse counselor, particularly if you have extensive experience in the field.
Earn a bachelor of arts (B.A.) degree with a focus on arts, humanities, and foreign language classes or a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree, which includes classes in math, statistics and natural science. For majors in counseling, students typically take courses in psychology, sociology, social work, behavioral health, human services, communication, case management, and ethics. They also complete an internship, practicum, or research project as part of their skill development. Note: to pursue a graduate degree and licensure, attending a CACREP-accredited college or university is strongly recommended.
Earn a 4-year bachelor’s degree in counseling to work in entry-level or supportive jobs in mental health, marriage and family, substance abuse, rehabilitation, or school industries at various community centers, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, or similar settings.
With a master’s degree in counseling from a CACREP-accredited school, you can obtain licensure and practice in various settings. Expect to spend 2 to 5 years earning this graduate degree.
Before you enroll in a master’s degree program, choose a specialization concentration from the list below (more niche options may be available at some schools):
- clinical mental health
- marriage, couple, and family counseling
- addiction counseling
- school counseling
- career counseling
- student affairs and college counseling
- gerontological counseling
- counselor education and supervision
Additionally, you can select a licensure or research track. The licensure track prepares you to work directly with clients. The research track may be a prerequisite for a doctorate in counseling program.
The courses you will study in a master’s degree program include
- professional counseling orientation and ethical practice
- human growth and development
- social and cultural diversity
- counseling and helping relationships
- assessment and testing
- career development
- group counseling and group work
- research and program evaluation
Supervised fieldwork is a requirement for a master’s degree. Use this experience to practice your counseling skills and prepare to work independently college. Generally, you will need a complete 40 hours of direct patient contact as part of the 100 required practicum hours. Also, plan to complete a 500-hour supervised counseling internship in your specialization, with 240 hours of direct patient service experience.
With your master’s degree, you may work in numerous settings.
With your master’s degree, you may work in numerous settings. In addition to working directly with clients, consider a career in geriatric, recreational, behavioral health, genetic, or pastoral counseling. You could work in a community mental health center, correctional facility, homeless shelter, inpatient or outpatient facility, or wellness center.
Your specialization may also determine the careers you can choose. For example, if you earn an M.S. in clinical mental health counseling, you can work as an addiction, trauma or marriage and family counselor. Or, earn an M.A. in marriage, couple, and family counseling to work as a family therapist. Other open careers include forensic counseling or military families and culture.
Doctoral degrees in counseling are primarily for roles in academia. The CACREP is pushing for all counseling courses to be taught by people holding a doctorate degree in counseling (previously this was also done by psychologists with Ph.D.s). Outside of academia, this advanced degree can be beneficial to those seeking roles in program design, research, management roles, and private practice. It is worthy noting that earning a doctorate degree does not improve insurance reimbursement rates because a master’s degree is the terminal degree to practice.
Completion of this degree typically requires 4 years, and you can earn a:
- Ph.D. in mental health counseling
- Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy
- Ph.D. in substance abuse counseling
- Ph.D. in school counseling
- Ph.D. in rehabilitation counseling
Before you apply to a doctorate program, complete the prerequisites. In most cases, you will need a license in a major counseling specialization, such as mental health (professional or clinical) counseling, marriage and family therapy, substance abuse counseling, school counseling, or rehabilitation counseling.
In your doctorate program, you will complete at least 48 credits in courses that cover counseling, leadership and advocacy, supervision, teaching, and research and scholarship. Also, complete a 100-hour practicum, a 600-hour clinical internship and research, plus an independent dissertation or a portfolio or published articles.
Types of counselors
You can choose from dozens of counseling careers. In addition to the 3 careers discussed previously, here are 6 common careers you can review as you choose a specialization. Note that most of these careers require a master’s degree if you plan to provide direct clinical care to clients.
Addiction counselorMedian salary: $40K
Diagnose and treat individuals who struggle with substance abuse, gambling, sex, and other addictions. You may assess and test for addictions and offer intervention and treatment techniques. While you may work with patients who are both willing and resistant to treatment, your duties could also include helping family members. Take a job in a treatment facility, rehabilitation center, detention center, or private practice.
Help clients determine their career path. In addition to administering career skill tests, you may evaluate clients’ mental, emotional, and physical needs. As a career counselor, you may work in private practice, with corporations, in government, or at a community-centered agency.
Support clients recovering from trauma, disease, addiction, or other medical conditions. You will evaluate functional capacity and offer mental, vocational, or independent living help. Along with understanding the healthcare system, you will likely work with an interdisciplinary team. Many rehabilitation counselors work in medical settings such as hospitals and long-term rehabilitation facilities.
Serve incarcerated individuals and their families. Diagnose mental health disorders, offer substance abuse treatment, or lead talk therapy sessions. You may also conduct evaluations for court or parole as you work in correctional facilities or related settings.
Military counselorMedian salary: $62K
Support military personnel and their families who may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, or relationship challenges. In this role, you develop rapport and implement a treatment plan. Use your military counselor training to work in overseas or stateside military installations, veteran’s hospitals, or government agencies.
Education and supervision counselorMedian salary: $60K
Teach potential counselors, supervise a clinical setting as an administrator, conduct research, or remain in private practice. Through education and supervision, you advance the counseling field. Generally, you must obtain a doctorate to work in this capacity.
Types of counseling licenses
To work as a professional counselor, you may need a license. Different counseling jobs require practitioners to earn a license. Also, licensing requirements vary by state. Before you pursue a specific specialization, verify the type of license you need and ensure you obtain adequate training, certification, and experience for that licensure.
In general, you can obtain the following counseling licenses.
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
- Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC)
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
- Licensed Rehabilitation Counselor (LRC)
Keep in mind that some states refer to the same license by different names. For example, Licensed Professional Counselor is the same as Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselors, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors or Licensed Mental Health Counselors depending on which state you practice in.
You also may be able to obtain an associate license. In this case, you have met the education and exam requirements but must still complete the supervised experience requirement. Examples of associate licenses include:
- Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC)
- Licensed Professional Counselor Associate (LPCA)
- Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor (LGPC)
Different specialties include different types of licenses, too. For example, if you want to work as an addiction counselor, you could earn one or more of the following licenses.
- Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC)
- Certified Addictions Practitioner (CAP)
- Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC)
- Licensed Addiction Counselor (LAC)
- Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC)
- Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LDAC)
- Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC)
Salary and job market
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, counselors can earn an average of $50,800. Salaries range from $29,120 to $79,030. Your specific job, specialization and degree affect how much money you can make. The career is growing by 14%.
Counseling and psychology – similarities and differences
The fields of counseling and psychology overlap. Professionals in both careers may diagnose and treat mental health disorders and help clients work through challenges. But there are a few differences in education, clients, and limitations. Let us briefly review the similarities and differences as we compare the 2 careers.
Counseling careers typically require a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). To work directly with clients, counselors must also pass licensure requirements, including a comprehensive examination, and complete supervised work in the field.
A counselor’s clients can include a variety of individuals in numerous settings. They may work with children or adults in a rehab, prison, school, hospital, clinics, or private practice. With clients, counselors focus on fixing problems, meeting needs, discovering practical and pragmatic solutions.
Counseling limitations involve the type of psychotherapy provided. A counselor’s main role is to both talk about how an individual feels and what they think about their problems, and to facilitate skill development. Counselors cannot prescribe medications, a job that typically belongs solely to a psychiatrist.
Psychologists who work as counseling psychologist have typically earned a doctorate degree in a program accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Psychologists complete supervised fieldwork, research projects and a dissertation, plus gain licensure. With this degree, psychologists can work in research, as a professor or with clients who have serious mental health conditions.
Psychology clients include individuals in dozens of settings. Psychologists may work in private practice or a rehab, school, hospital, clinic, government setting, and other locations. With clients, psychologists focus on the origin of behaviors, attitudes, and problems as they help individuals understand themselves and their perception of the world.
Psychology limitations involve addressing current feelings and situations. Typically, these professionals will encourage individuals to explore how their early experiences influence their current actions. The majority of psychologists cannot prescribe medications (this is only possible in 5 U.S. states with extra certification), a role generally reserved for psychiatrists.
The independent agency recommends a model for the curriculum for master’s of counseling programs. Choose a program that follows the CACREP requirements as you prepare adequately for licensure.
This worldwide association provides information about education and training for counselors of various specializations. Discover leadership training, continuing education opportunities, advocacy, and other resources.
This organization sets the standards for collaboration, ethics, education, research, and collaboration. Use AMHCA resources if you are a clinical mental health counselor or involved in another counseling.
Counselors who have achieved the highest standard of practice may qualify for credentialing through this organization. The NBCC also takes steps to enhance mental health and advance the counseling profession.
Meet our counseling expert
Meet our counseling expert
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Rayelle Davis is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor, and Board Certified Telemental Health Provider specializing in addictions and trauma. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Duquesne University where she works as an adjunct faculty member and clinical supervisor for master’s level counseling students. She is passionate about mental health education and reducing related stigma. Her research focuses on the cultural trauma of the Appalachian region of the United States. She has presented at various professional conferences and received research awards from Duquesne University and the American Counseling Association. She owns her own practice in western Maryland where she resides with her family.