Counselors provide professional guidance and support to groups and individuals experiencing social, personal, or psychological problems in diverse settings. Counseling jobs include vocational and career counseling, rehabilitation and mental health counseling, marriage and family counseling, and many other specialized fields. The job outlook for counselling careers in the mental health and marriage and family therapy fields is projected to grow at a rate of 19% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Counseling careers are suited to those who have a strong emotional stability, high physical energy, and those who can handle stress well. This field requires advanced interpersonal skills, empathy, high standards of ethics, and a desire to help people achieve emotional and mental health. Counselors in all fields often rely on personal experience to bring understanding and a caring attitude to their work, and seek to inspire trust and confidence in their clients while remaining ethical and confidential with sensitive issues.
Counseling Employment by StateThe need for mental health counseling is reflected in the following data that shows the number of working professionals, their mean annual salaries, and the percentage of jobs, by category, in the total industry. Though each state has a unique profile, mental health counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and substance abuse and behavioral counselors generally make up the greatest percentage of jobs in each state. Clinical counseling and school psychologists generally have the highest mean annual wages and form a relatively small percentage of the total jobs. Marriage and family therapists form the smallest sub group within the industry.
Counseling Employment SnapshotSource: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Educational Paths to a Career in Counseling
Educational requirements vary within each field of counseling, but generally a master’s degree or higher from an accredited school is required for higher-level positions, as well as state- and occupation-specific licensure. Counseling programs are often offered through the education, psychology, or human services departments at colleges and universities. In addition, counselors may be required to undergo supervised clinical practical experience. Post-graduation, some counselors may seek certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors or other counseling organizations to bolster their job prospects.
A bachelor’s degree prepares future counselors with the foundational requirements to move into a master’s program. Undergraduates in counseling, psychology, and social services learn to develop strong communication, organization, and interpersonal skills that will serve them well as they move on to a higher level degree. Career specialization is not required at the undergraduate level, but as a student begins to get a feel for what type of counseling career they are interested in, they may need to supplement their studies with specific coursework or work experience. For example, mental health counseling master’s programs often require psychology courses as a prerequisite, and education counseling master’s programs will sometimes require field experience in teaching.
Degree Spotlight: Psychology
Psychology majors study foundational topics in ethics, statistics, cognitive science, clinical and social psychology, and will gain valuable and broadly applicable skills in analysis, communication, problem solving, interpersonal awareness, and pragmatic evaluation. The distinction between a BA and BS in psychology is subtle, as coursework in these programs often overlaps significantly. However, BS psychology degrees are generally more science-oriented, requiring higher-level math and additional science classes, and are geared towards students interested in graduate-level psychology, medicine, and research. The BA psychology degree is well-suited to those interested in counseling, as it encompases more liberal arts and humanities courses, providing a broader educational foundation for this field. Students should be aware of the core classes offered in each degree and focus on the courses that will better prepare them for graduate work and their specific vocational interests.
Master’s Degree in Counseling
Courses at the master’s level are taught by skilled practitioners, and combine real world experience through internships with research and lectures. Programs fully prepare candidates by teaching them skills and knowledge found in the eight core areas defined by Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Placement in master’s programs is competitive, and candidates can expect to achieve the highest level of training through accredited programs. As the core knowledge base for counseling, as evaluated by CACREP, accreditation provides the highest benchmark for evaluating candidates’ proficiency in this field.
The master’s program allows students to fully develop their skills in a specific area of counseling. They learn to treat patients through a holistic and multi-cultural approach, combining the highest levels of ethics and confidence with the finer details of clinical research and the practice of therapy. Study at the master’s level will also enable students to fully immerse themselves in the field of counseling or psychology that they wish to specialize in.
Specializations in CounselingWithin the field of counseling, there are numerous areas of specialization ranging from mental health, family, and career counseling to art therapy, addiction counseling, student affairs, and college counseling. Each field relies on similar foundational skills, but requires additional focus and specialization in coursework. Here are some of the most common counseling specializations and their core content:
- Addiction Counseling
Addiction counseling programs focus on the treatment of individuals and families dealing with substance abuse problems and other addictions, and requires approximately 60 semester hours of coursework to complete. Upon graduating, candidates may choose to open a private practice, work with community support groups, or become certified as an addictions counselor, chemical dependency professional, probation assessment officer, alcohol drug information instructor, or substance abuse prevention specialist.
- Career Counseling
Career counselors learn to help individuals cope with issues within the dynamic and interrelated fields of work, education, family, and career. Working from a multicultural perspective, career counselors learn to assess a wide array of work-related issues, including sexual harassment, worker dysfunction, and violence. Career counselors work as part of career development teams, and may choose to specialize in K-12 or higher education counseling. Candidates in this field might consider becoming a licensed professional clinical counselor.
- Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Clinical mental health counselors are eligible to become licensed professional counselors or licensed professional counselors specializing in mental health. These programs, offered as a master’s degree, enable candidates to work in hospitals, mental health clinics, residential treatment centers, substance abuse treatment centers, or group and private practices. Students conduct research and learn to deal with an array of mental health issues and treatment in a clinical setting.
- Expressive Arts Therapy
Therapists in this field help individuals learn and transform through the exploration of expressive arts and to develop insights through alternative methods of communication. Psychology is an essential element to training in this field as is specialized knowledge of instruction in art, music, poetry, and dance in helping clients achieve growth and positive change. Candidates may become licensed mental health counselors or registered expressive arts therapists.
- Gerontological Counseling
Gerontological counseling is an interdisciplinary field that combines knowledge of the science of aging with psychology. Coursework covers topics including mental health counseling, law, and ethics, as well as fieldwork. Examples of issues students might confront include elder abuse, discrimination, substance abuse, and family counseling. Candidates can go on to work in hospitals, churches, nursing homes, business, colleges, and government agencies.
- Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling
Counselors in this field study the complexities of family relationships and treat patients with a variety of psychological, social, and interrelational problems and disorders. Candidates often come from backgrounds in psychology who have or will train to become licensed marriage and family therapists. Coursework is intensive and relies heavily on face-to-face contact with clients.
- Pastoral Counseling
Pastoral counselors work to provide support for faith and healing among members of their religious communities. Students in this field generally have previous training in religion or theology and work within a faith-based system. Counselors often work in churches, hospitals, and hospices and provide mental health support with the highest professional standards.
- Rehabilitation Counselors
Counselors in this field work to help mentally, physically, and emotionally distressed people heal and reintegrate into society. Students in this field undergo extensive training in topics of multicultural counseling, medical aspects of disability, rehabilitation services, and ethical standards.
- School Counseling
School counselors train to provide career, family, and individual guidance to children in K-12. They study school guidance techniques and theories and work to develop and assess school counseling programs. Candidates may also conduct research related to school counseling practices. This highly collaborative field draws candidates from diverse backgrounds in psychology, business, social work, and the military.
- Student Affairs and College Counseling
Counselors in this field train to work in diverse roles within the higher education system. They study the theories, philosophy, and ethics of college counseling as well as administrative and organizational dynamics and how student development affects school policy. They help students with the school environment outside the classroom, serving in administrative, career counseling, and academic advising roles, among others.
The Next Steps: Getting Licensed
It is critical that counselors achieve professional licensure and accreditation to fulfill the professional requirements of their field. These standards are outlined by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), which serves to uphold the highest standards of the profession, protect the general public from substandard practitioners, and acknowledge a high level of education and training for new candidates. State licenses may differ in name, and certification may be acquired by passing regional exams. State requirements for licensure include a master’s degree, a certain amount of training and real world experience, and a passing exam score.
Supervised Clinical Hours
Just as important as learning the theory of counseling, completing clinical hours gives students the ability to put their education into practice. They gain first hand knowledge of what it is like working with patients in their chosen fields. For some students, clinical hours are fulfilled while participating in intern- or externships. Students often shadow and work with licensed professionals in a setting relevant to their career goals.
Supervision in counseling is a practical means of peer review in which a counselor operates under the supervision of a colleague in their field. The supervisor maintains a system of checks and balances to provide for patient safety and student improvement. Supervision is required for all levels of counseling experience. This third party “eye” reduces serious risk in the working environment and among counselor/patient relationships. Patient confidentiality is strictly enforced in this review system, and clients’ identities are protected in the exchange of information. Supervision may be completed online.
Exams are used by the NBCC to determine eligibility for national and state licensure and certification. These standardized tests are administered for all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. There are two main examinations: The National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). The NCE, which is required for national certified counselor and state licensure, is comprised of 200 multiple choice questions that test knowledge of counseling services. The test was first given in 1983 and undergoes continual updating and review.
The NCMHCE, which is required for the certified clinical mental health counselor and state licensure, is comprised of 10 clinical simulations that test an array of practical knowledge. The test is designed to assess the abilities of a candidate beyond rote memory. The test covers topics in client diagnosis; counseling and psychotherapy; and administration, consultation, and supervision proficiency. Scores are weighted on a +3/-3 scale, and passing grades must be above the minimum requirements in the broad areas of information gathering and decision-making.
Each state requires that professional counselors achieve a master’s degree, pass the relevant exams, and undergo a period of work to become fully licensed. CACREP school accreditation requirements vary across state boundaries, and the required number of coursework and work supervision hours may differ as well. These distinctions are critical; practicing without the proper credentials might disqualify a counselor from achieving licensure and may result in criminal charges, so it is important to understand the differences. Each state has a counseling board that gives the exact requirements for certification and licensing.
Gaining certification is not the same as becoming licensed, though some states may not require counselors to become certified in a specific field in order to become licensed. The National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification does transfer from state to state, however, counselors must seek licensure from their specific state.
Voluntary certification as a national certified counselor shows employers and clients that the counselor has met national standards and achieved the necessary amount of work experience. This certification serves as a marker for the counselor’s professionalism, dedication, and high ethical standards, and may improve their standing within the profession and enhance employment opportunities. Aside from enhancing a counselor’s marketability, certification can be completed for specialized fields via nongovernmental agencies. Mental health counseling, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, addiction counseling, pastoral counseling, and art counseling all maintain specialized certification categories.
Continuing Education (CE) opportunities enable counselors to achieve specialized certifications and to log coursework hours. Many programs are offered online and in home-study formats for working professionals. Some states, such as California, require continuing education in order to renew certifications and licensure. CE credit requirements vary by state, certification type and subject, and licensure. Continuing education and license renewal ensure that all practitioners are up to date with their credentials and are trained in new practices, procedures, and treatments. Fulfilling CE requirements shows clients that counselors are dedicated to providing the best care with the most up-to-date information.
Distance Learning Opportunities
Online education in counseling might begin with introductory counseling and psychology courses, often in a hybrid format at either the bachelor’s or master’s degree-level. There are few completely online courses available, as much of a counselor’s training depends upon face-to-face interaction with clients, peer supervision, and minimum state requirements.
However, once certification has been achieved, license renewal and continuing education options are often offered online, as they are catered to the working professional. Professionals can participate in i-Counseling, an online continuing education program offered by NBCC. Other online CE platforms include:
Career Paths in Counseling
"Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals."
At the master’s degree-level, students focus their attention on a specific area of study that will develop into a career path. Often, this will be an interdisciplinary area, covering an array of topics and multicultural perspectives as well as a balance of scientific research, practical work experience, and a firm ethical foundation. Below we have listed job data for various subfields of counseling. Within each of these categories, it is important to note that salaries may vary widely based on the working environment, client load, and professional experience.
- Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
- Mean Annual Salary: $43,190
- Degree/Certification Required: Master’s
- Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 20%
- Number of People Employed: 32,070
Mental health counselors provide individuals and families support for mental and emotional disorders, addiction, career advice, and support during life changes. Mental health counselors help clients deal with a vast array of emotions, while marriage and family therapists treat the individual and family relationships.
- Rehabilitation Counselors
- Mean Annual Salary: $34,390
- Degree/Certification Required: Master’s
- Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 9%
- Number of People Employed: 101,630
Rehabilitation counselors provide support for those suffering from mental or physical disabilities. Many counselors work with disabled people as they transition into the workforce and focus on career training.
- School and Career Counselors
- Mean Annual Salary: $53,660
- Degree/Certification Required: Master’s
- Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 8%
- Number of People Employed: 253,460
School and career counselors can work at any level from K-12, helping students adjust to life changes, family issues, stress, addiction, and numerous other social disorders. Counselors also work with students to achieve learning and career goals.
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors
- Mean Annual Salary: $39,980
- Degree/Certification Required: Master’s
- Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 22%
- Number of People Employed: 87,090
Substance abuse counselors help people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction and provide therapy to support behavior modification in overcoming these problems. Some counselors deal with a specific demographic, such as college students, veterans, or the elderly.
- Mean Annual Salary: $72,580
- Degree/Certification Required: Master’s
- Projected Job Growth Outlook (2014-24): 19%
- Number of People Employed: 105,600
Psychologists study the cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors, and look for patterns that enable a better understanding of ailments and their cures. Psychologists might specialize in counseling or forensic, development, industrial, and school psychology. Clinical psychologists deal directly with patients and help them to implement behavior modification programs to deal with an array of disorders.
Psychologist vs Psychiatrists
Both psychologists and psychiatrists study the brain and cognitive functions, however, the two fields differ in education, training, and salary. Psychologists usually hold an undergraduate degree in psychology and develop their curriculum along these lines, while psychiatrists must complete medical school and generally hold an undergraduate degree in science. Psychiatry training is completed at a hospital while psychology training is usually carried out within a private or group practice. Psychologists are not able to write prescriptions, while psychiatrists are. However, both fields do work with one another frequently. Psychiatry treats the chemical and physical imbalances of the brain while psychology deals with the emotional aspect of the mind and the patients’ experiences.
The Increasing Demand for Mental Health Care Workers
With an aging population and decreases in the number of trained mental health care professionals available, demand is increasing for certified counselors in this field. Professionals are especially needed among poorer communities in the United States as poverty levels for aging Americans remains high; 15.1% of those over age 65 are living in poverty according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. With The Affordable Care Act requiring coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorders, the number of patients entitled to treatment has increased. The mental health workforce has not risen to meet the increased demand. Job growth is slow in the field and resources are often unavailable in communities with the greatest need for help. In light of this, there is critical need for geropsychologists, mental health counselors for older americans, and substance abuse experts.
Please summarize your professional and academic experience.
I received my master’s degree well over 40 years ago and was licensed as a professional counselor and employed as a family counselor, as well as in the field of adoption, for about 10 years. Life then directed me into a long-standing career in the field of criminal justice, where I ultimately became an administrator of various programs for prisoners. Over the past 15 years, however, I founded and have served as director for a nonprofit agency providing services to the entire prison family. While I am still licensed as a professional counselor, today I am “semi-retired,” but very active as the founder and chair of the annual InterNational Prisoner’s Family Conference. I also participate in the conference’s Advocacy in Action Coalition to provide advocacy on behalf of the prison family for criminal justice and prison reform.
What factors should a student take into account when considering a degree in counseling?
Today, the age range of college and university students is quite broad, ranging from high school graduates to senior citizens, so the factors to be considered in selecting an area of service are essentially age-related. Unless a young person has personal experiences propelling them into a particular field, they should remain open-minded to the many areas of practice available. For example, I would never have considered working in the field of criminal justice, but this has been an exceptionally fulfilling area of work for me. To do any job well, a person of any age must have a great passion for the purpose and people they are serving. Sometimes it takes many years to determine one’s true passion. The more mature student may already know their passion.
What do you find most fulfilling about counseling?
The career path I allowed myself to be open to, although initially reluctantly, has been exceptionally fulfilling, because of both the intense challenges faced daily and the many rewards that come with knowing I am fulfilling an enormous need socially, mentally, and spiritually. The rewards have also come through the amazingly wonderful and inspiring people I’ve met throughout this unlikely journey. Many of those amazing people are the prisoners, themselves.
What’s the greatest day-to-day challenge you face as a counselor?
Daily challenges of this career path are the amount of flexibility and patience required to address the intense unmet needs of deserving people who are disenfranchised and shunned by the mainstream community. Daily challenges requiring flexibility also include the fact that just as no two people are the same, no two days are the same. There is nothing at all routine about this work. I might have a perfectly clear plan for the day ahead and one single phone call may require totally changing those plans, immediately. So, a person considering work in the field of criminal justice would benefit from self-assessment. Rigid “A-type” people become angry and bitter when they realize they cannot simply set out to achieve a goal because their plans will be repeatedly interrupted and delayed. To do this job well and effectively, patience is not only a virtue but is essential!
What type of person excels in the counseling profession?
In addition to being patient and flexible, the most successful people I’ve met on this journey have a great passion for their personal purpose in life and are people who are willing to persevere despite numerous obstacles. They are exceptionally confident within themselves and about their purpose and remain unflappable when confronted by numerous challenges they experience daily. Possibly the greatest attribute the most successful criminal justice career person must have is a quick wit; a great sense of humor!
What additional advice can you give to someone pursuing counseling?
Know yourself very well; be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Of course, work to resolve those weaknesses, but learn to live joyfully and peacefully within the boundaries of your abilities and tolerances.
Counseling Job Sites
- American Counseling Association: The ACA was founded in 1952 and is the largest association of professional counselors in the world. It provides a career center and job listing site through a non-profit educational association.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association: SAMHSA offers job, fellowship, and internship listings.
- USAJOBS: This free government job board lists federal positions in psychology and counseling.
- Counseling Today: Hosted by the American Counseling Association, this new publication offers easy-to-use job resources for counseling.
Continuing Education for Counseling Careers
- American Counseling Association: The ACA continuing education resource page links to online courses, learning institutes, and conferences.
- National Board for Certified Counselors: NBCC provides information for recertification, approved continuing education providers, and links to the online continuing education platform.
- Cross Country Education: Counselors and therapists have access to continuing education resources. The CCE works with 100 national and state boards and associations to provide continuing education for professionals working in many diverse healthcare fields.
- American Psychological Association: The APA provides access to professional development resources for psychologists and mental health professionals. There is a searchable database of education providers by degree type and credit.
- Quantum Units Education: Licensed and certified counseling professionals have access to continuing education resources; financial aid, incentives and savings plan resources; and 300 CEU courses and 1,000 CEU hours.
Professional Organization for Counselors
- American Mental Health Counselors Association: Members take advantage of career and education resources and advocacy specifically for mental health professionals.
- American School Counselor Association: The ASCA provides career development resources and community information for school counselors.
- The Association for Addiction Professionals: Members have access to conferences, digital resources, and certification.
- International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors: This division of the American Counseling Association offers membership, credentialing, job listings, and benefits for marriage and family counselors.
- National Career Development Association: Career development professionals benefit from professional development resources, continuing education, advocacy, standards, publications, and membership benefits.