Master of counseling complete program guide
Introduction to counseling
The counseling profession has roots in 2 main streams: the vocational guidance movement of the 1890s, and the pioneering work of the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud.
The end of the 19th century brought an influx of job-seekers and migrants to newly industrialized American cities. Social reformers rallied for vocational guidance, and in response, the Vocation Bureau was formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1908. The mission of the bureau was to assist migrants, women, and unskilled workers to make sound vocational decisions and avoid exploitation.
The “talking cure” had an immense impact on both counseling psychology and the separate field of counseling that would eventually develop.
At around the same time, Jesse B. Davis, a high school principal in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was championing vocational guidance in schools. He organized the first systematized guidance in public schools and encouraged teachers to help students investigate careers. It can be said that he was the fist-ever guidance counselor.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Sigmund Freud was developing a new method he called psychoanalysis, from the Greek psyche – soul, and analysis – breaking up or untying. Asylums and hospitals for the mentally ill had existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. What made Freud’s method unique was the notion that talking to patients could be a form of cure in itself.
The “talking cure” had an immense impact on both counseling psychology and the separate field of counseling that would eventually develop. Counseling was also influenced by those early vocational guidance counselors.
After a century of the “talking cure,” some counselors and therapists now employ the “writing cure.” Therapeutic writing is used as an expressive therapy to process difficult feelings.
What do counselors do?
Helping people adjust to major life changes such as bereavement, divorce, unemployment, or return from military service is at the heart of what counselors do. By assisting clients in building skills for addressing interpersonal, professional, or social challenges, they help them build more fulfilling lives.
Counselors usually meet clients one-on-one or in group sessions. They are employed in various locations, treatment centers, substance abuse clinics, private practice, veterans’ hospitals, schools, and other community settings.
Using evidence-based therapy techniques, counselors help their clients:
- identify and adjust behaviors that undermine their wellbeing and quality of life
- manage anxiety, depression, addictions, and other mental health challenges
- define personal goals and develop strategies for meeting those goals
- access other resources and services they may need, such as specialists, support groups, or employment services
- evaluate mental health, including addictions and problematic behavior
- create treatment goals and plans with clients and their families
- educate clients and their family members on mental disorders or addictions to help them develop coping strategies
- run outreach programs related to their specializations, such as eating disorders, addictions, and more
What’s the difference between counseling, therapy, and psychology?
The work of counselors, therapists, and counseling psychologists shares many theoretical and methodological similarities. The main differences lie in their educational backgrounds and legal obligations.
Some similarities that these roles share include:
- requiring state licensure (with some exceptions, explained below)
- direct contact with clients or patients
- being covered by most insurance
- focused on improving clients’ quality of life
In what are referred to as Title Act states, practitioners can freely offer therapy or counseling, but can only use the term “licensed” if they meet their state’s regulatory requirements. In Practice Act states, practicing any form of counseling or therapy without a license is forbidden. In all 50 states, practicing psychology requires state licensure as a psychologist.
Programs you might be interested in:
About the degree
In most states, a master’s degree is required for licensure as a counselor. Counseling master’s degrees exist under a variety of titles, including Master of Arts (M.A.) in counseling, Master of Science (M.S.) in clinical mental health counseling, and Master of Education (M.Ed.) in counseling. M.A. programs are likely to have more practical orientations, with the master of science being more research-based. M.Ed. degrees are usually focused on working in educational settings. In some cases, these designations do not translate into significant differences between programs. Master degrees in counseling typically take 2 years to complete.
The degree provides theoretical framework and hands-on professional training focused on best practices to serve clients.
The degree provides theoretical framework and hands-on professional training focused on best practices to serve clients. Because of its practical focus, the program usually does not culminate in a dissertation.
Different counseling programs offer various concentrations or electives. Some are designated as “all fields”, meaning they prepare you for a general career in counseling. Common concentrations include:
- school or education
- clinical mental health
- family and marriage
- substance abuse
- expressive arts therapy
Your choice of specialization impacts the career opportunities available to you upon graduation, but it may be possible to transition into a different counseling specialization in the course of your career.
Common requirements for acceptance into a master’s in counseling include:
- bachelor’s degree
- GPA of 3.0 or higher
- previous work experience in helping professions (recommended)
- research or volunteer experience in a related field (recommended)
Many graduate degree programs also require GRE test scores, along with a personal essay or statement of purpose, resume, and 2-3 letters of recommendation. An admissions interview may also be part of the application process.
Note that not all programs require these prerequisites, particularly if the program is online.
Coursework in a master’s in counseling program
Typically, coursework in a master’s counseling program includes subjects such as:
This course introduces counseling theories. The focus is on applied knowledge of theoretical treatment approaches and integrating counseling theories into counseling practice.
Child and adolescent counseling
This course focuses on applied knowledge of evidence-based treatment
approaches and assessments used in child and adolescent counseling. Some courses may focus on integrating child and adolescent counseling into whole-family therapy.
Legal and ethical foundations
This course focuses on the ethical, legal, and professional issues related to the counseling profession. It is aimed at training would-be counselors in making informed and ethical professional decisions. Courses may focus on the philosophical elements of ethical decisions, while also covering legal and professional aspects of ethics. Practical examples using possible situations are often used in these courses to ground theory.
Multicultural counseling theories and techniques
This course focuses on training culturally competent counselors. Inclusion of marginalized and underserved communities is often covered, as well as advocacy, understanding divergent identities and cultural experiences.
Crisis and trauma counseling
This course focuses on trauma and crisis assessment, and treatment modalities. Targeted strategies, skills, and interventions for addressing crisis situations are covered. The concepts of personal and community resilience may also be discussed. Many courses include a suicide risk assessment and
intervention component in addition to partner violence assessments.
Some form of supervised practical experience, such as a practicum, internship, or supervision, is a requirement for licensure in most states. It may also be a mandatory component of your program. Field placements vary significantly in terms of location, type of work, and required hours.
A practicum is typically competed in the first or second year of studies, usually consisting of 100 hours across an entire term. It offers an opportunity for students to practice counseling skills under close supervision in a professional setting.
Internships are completed following a practicum. They commonly consist of 600 hours, including 240 hours in direct service. Internships usually involve more advanced responsibilities compared to practicums, but are also strictly supervised by licensed counselors.
The supervision component of fieldwork is typically completed following graduation. It is required for licensure in most states. Supervision involves direct experience in professional counseling under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Often, around 3,000 hours of post-degree supervised experience is required.
Attitudes towards mental health are finally shifting. Around 15% of millennials and 18% percent of Gen-Xers say they would never see a counselor or therapist. The percentages are twice as high for baby boomers and elders – 34% and 30%, respectively.
Master’s degree programs are becoming more flexible in terms of course availability, type, and program speed. Most are available on campus, online, or a hybrid of the 2, with programs increasingly tailored to the needs of students to better accommodate a work-life balance. Going to school part-time will mean the degree takes longer, but can be a viable alternative for students who are working full-time or have family responsibilities.
Online courses may be offered in a synchronous or asynchronous format. Synchronous courses occur on set days and times, with students and instructors online at the same time, mirroring an offline course. Asynchronous courses allow students to complete their work in their own time, often within a one-week window per class.
If choosing an online program, carefully check that the degree is eligible for licensure in your state. Some online programs advertise being accredited by an educational body, but this does not guarantee licensure eligibility. Online programs that do lead to licensure may have an in-person residency requirement, which is important to be aware of before enrolling.
Tuition costs and financial aid
Tuition costs depends on multiple factors, such as whether the college is private or public, course format, and if you’re a local or out-of-state student. Projected tuition rates for 2021 suggest a master’s degree from a public 4-year college will cost around $19,630 per year, and $42,030 if you attend a 4-year private non-profit college. Both projected estimates include tuition cost, fees, room and board. The differences between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates are typically $10,000 or more, with in-state tuition being the cheaper option.
For general information about financial aid options, visit Federal Student Aid, where you can complete the free FAFSA application form to check your eligibility for federal aid.
If you’re specializing in particular areas, you might find grants from independent organizations. One example is the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). It offers funding to students who will progress to healthcare or rehabilitation counseling roles. Alternatively, if you’re specializing in addiction counseling, you could be eligible for financial support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Accreditation is carried out by independent bodies to review the quality of schools and their programs. Specific organizations are set up to evaluate and use peer review for particular subjects, like counseling. The benefit of this certification is that students can recognize which universities meet professional standards. Peer review also looks at student services and financial stability.
The Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) reviews institutions offering counseling degree programs. Another common route for accreditation is through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Look for the logo of either of these bodies on the university website or curriculum information pages. In addition to MPCAC or CACREP accreditation, be sure to check that graduates of your program are eligible for licensure as a counselor in your state, as MPCAC and CACREP accreditation doesn’t always guarantee that. You can also contact the National Board of Certified Counselors, which administers the licensure examinations used by all 50 states
Licensing and certification
If you wish to practice as a certified counselor in a Title Act state, licensure will be required. In Practice Act states, any form of counseling offered will require licensure, regardless of whether you use the title “licensed” or not.
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) is the most common title for licensed counselors. However, in some states, you’ll become a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) or a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) once certified. The American Counseling Association website has a tool that directs you to your state licensure board. Typically, you’ll take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE).
The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) provides the option for voluntary certification. Certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) demonstrates that you uphold certain professional standards. There are 3 specialist certifications to choose from: school counseling, clinical mental health, and addiction. For these, you may need to complete a specialist degree.
Careers in counseling
Mental health and substance abuse counselors
Clinical mental health counselors work with clients of all ages, cultures, and sectors of the community. Substance abuse counselor provide support to individuals with drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders, and other behavioral issues.
District of Columbia
Projected growth (2018-2028)
Clinical mental health counselor
Tasks and responsibilities include conducting initial assessments, developing treatment plans, testing, observations, interviews, reviewing past records, and keeping records accurate and current.
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.
Substance abuse counselor
They assist individuals in modifying their behaviors. The focus is on full recovery from substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. Relapses are very common, so these counselors may work with the same clients over many years.
Marriage and family therapists
These professionals work with individuals, couples, and groups within a 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.
District of Columbia
Projected growth (2018-2028)
Tasks and duties
Tasks and responsibilities include initial assessment, gaining a clear understanding of the presenting issues, deciding whether counseling is the appropriate intervention, and developing an intervention plan that meets the needs of the individuals in the family system. Provide counseling may be provided to individuals within the family. Collaborating with other healthcare professionals who may be involved is common.
Art therapistMedian salary: 47K US$
Art therapist may specialize in a certain modality, such as dance, music, or painting. The specialization of expressive arts therapy combines modalities, including visual art, movement, drama, music, and writing.
Art therapists work on fostering personal growth, psychological wellbeing, and community development through artistic expression.
After earning your master’s degree, you could consider a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in counseling, which is primarily an academic rather than professional degree. If you prefer to focus on clinical training, you might be interested in a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D) degree with a focus on counseling psychology. This program has a different range of possibilities from counseling master’s programs, as it prepares you for independent practice, assessment, and treatment of those with mental health issues.
American Counseling Association
This counseling membership body is a resource for professional information and provides information on state licensing boards.
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
The main accrediting body for schools providing counseling courses.
Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC)
The website for an additional accreditation council that specializes in counseling.
National Board for Certified Counselors
A national body that provides information and the means to certify as a National Certified Counselor voluntarily.
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.