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Addiction counseling and recovery is one of the most important career fields in the United States. Job opportunities continue to grow due to an expanding healthcare system, evolving technologies, and a heightened need among the general population. American Addiction Centers reports that more than 19.7 million Americans aged 12 and older struggled with a substance use disorder in 2017. The same year, 1 in 8 adult Americans battled drug addiction and alcoholism simultaneously.
This guide offers extensive information on program options, degree concentrations, and skill development. You will learn about career opportunities and minimum requirements for job entry. You'll also gain insight into professional development resources, including certification programs and networking events.
Skills Gained in an Addiction and Recovery Degree Program
With curriculums typically based on social and human services administration, addiction and recovery programs train students to identify, diagnose, and treat substance misuse and collateral mental illnesses. Learners gain integrative communication skills that enable them to convey complex technical information to clients, families, government officials, and healthcare professionals. In graduate programs, students develop the leadership skills for managing diverse teams. They also delve into research methods. Practitioners usually obtain state licensure and/or industry certification on top of their college credentials in order to qualify for clinical positions. The following list details the core skills gained through completing an addiction and recovery degree program.
- Diagnosis and Intake
- Students learn to evaluate the physiological, social, and psychological signs of drug abuse. They analyze symptoms to determine if a client meets the eligibility criteria for program intake with respect to government regulations, laws, and organizational policies. Learners also develop the ability to diagnose coexisting conditions that require additional social or medical services.
- Assessment and Treatment Planning
- In this critical skill, students practice gathering client history, choosing appropriate assessment tools, and explaining results to clients and their families. They learn how to collaborate with clients to establish immediate and long-term goals. They also gain practice in writing treatment plans that use specialized behavioral terms to explain treatment methods and resources.
- Case Management
- An integral skill for counselors and support staff, case management comprises the activities needed to gather resources and services to achieve specific results. Students learn how to coordinate staff and agencies to provide holistic support for patients, including medical treatment and vocational rehabilitation. They also develop the communication skills to explain action plans to clients.
- Crisis Intervention
- Individuals who struggle with drug and alcohol misuse often experience distress or trauma caused by their addiction. All clinical recovery students must learn to recognize crisis elements and implement immediate actions to negate behavior that threatens to compromise the rehabilitation effort. They also need to factor past crisis scenarios into long-term treatment plans.
- Client and Community Education
- In addition to providing clinical services and counseling, professionals in this field act as formal and informal educators who help individuals, families, and communities understand drug use and abuse. Students learn how to present information about health and social services and provide referrals for external resources and additional support.
Why Pursue a Career in Addiction and Recovery?
Populations in many communities challenged by increasing rates of drug misuse and mental illness need more skilled counselors, educators, and clinicians. By pursuing a career in drug addiction and recovery, you can gain the opportunity to help at-risk individuals and underserved groups.
Unsurprisingly, employment in this field continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling positions will increase by 23% from 2016 to 2026, adding more than 60,300 jobs.
Students who earn substance abuse counseling degrees or related credentials can work as chemical dependency professionals and community health educators. Practitioners who meet state-specific requirements can work as licensed drug and alcohol counselors. They can also explore career options such as social worker and psychiatric nurse.
Professionals who obtain doctoral degrees can gain access to executive-level positions within nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They can also work as psychologists, psychiatrists, social science researchers, and university professors.
How Much Do Addiction and Recovery Majors Make?
The table below details median salaries, based on experience, for professionals who possess a master's in mental health counseling. Although these numbers provide insight into pay potential in this field, they do not factor in elements like individual qualifications and job functions.
According to the BLS, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn annual salaries that range from $28,240 (the bottom 10%) to $72,990 (the top 10%). Your level of educational attainment also impacts pay potential. Master's degree holders enjoy approximately $12,000 in greater average annual salary than individuals with baccalaureate credentials. They also benefit from a lower unemployment rate.
Cali Estes, Ph.D.
Cali Estes, Ph.D. is an author and highly sought-after addiction therapist and life/corporate coach who specializes in harm reduction. She has over 20 years of experience helping individuals overcome drug, alcohol, and food addictions, utilizing holistic approaches to treat mental conditions that prevent her clients from reaching their full potential. She works with individuals, drug and alcohol treatment teams, and addiction professionals looking to advance their knowledge base.
Dr. Estes has a deep understanding of drug and alcohol addiction, including its behaviors and ramifications, placing her at the top in the field of addiction therapy. Her uncommon no-nonsense approaches to cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and life coaching combine to provide the perfect support for an addict. Additionally, Dr. Estes is unique in her understanding of food addictions and their effects on one's psyche and physical well-being.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in addiction psychology? Was it something you were always interested in?
I became interested in psychology because there are a lot of mental health problems in my family. I always wondered why my family was so different from everyone else's. I had always thought that it was my bad behavior that caused my father to be so angry and so sad, until I later learned that he was severely bipolar. Even then, I didn't know that it was a medical condition in the brain until I actually started studying psychology in college. I think that, had I not had such a crazy home life with all the arguing and violence, I probably would not have studied psychology.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A degree in psychology can be used in any field. Psychology is the understanding of human behavior and why people do the things they do, which can even be applied while walking through Walmart. If you want to become successful in any career, you really need to know how to talk to people and what their patterns of behavior and thought processes look like. Whether you're in sales, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a janitor, you still need to have those skills and be able to read people -- psychology does that.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
After I graduated with a BA in psychology from Pennsylvania State University, I went on to West Chester University to get a master's degree in criminal justice because I was interested in studying the criminal mind and how it works. After that, I went back to clinical psychology to get my Ph.D. because I wanted to focus on therapy and life coaching in the addiction arena.
- What are some of the most challenging aspects of working in addiction psychology and counseling? Some of the most rewarding aspects?
The most challenging aspect of working in addiction psychology and counseling is having to deal with negative people on a daily basis. A lot of people who suffer from addiction do not want to change, and I spent a lot of my time in the beginning convincing them that they need to and explaining to them how they can have a better life. This can be very draining if you're doing it day in and day out and don't take enough time for yourself and practice self-care. One of the most rewarding aspects of this career is when I see a client one year, two years, or even five years later and they are successful and thriving.
I recently saw one of my clients on a billboard because she won a Grammy. Five years ago, she would never have done that because she was drinking too heavily. So it was very awesome to see that, and it was rewarding to see I was able to impact someone's life in that way. Another big rewarding aspect is when someone sends me a private message on Facebook or an email telling me I impacted their life, even though they were never a client. They saw a post or a TV show interview or something I did that made them change their thought process, get sober, and have a better life. Both of those things are super rewarding.
- What are some of the necessary skills or traits for someone to be successful in an addiction psychology career?
To be successful in the field of addiction psychology, you need to have patience and understanding, understand body language to read your clients, and parent. What I mean by parenting is that you need to be able to say no and to guide your client in a direction that is in their best interest. Sometimes this can be very difficult when you're dealing with a client that really doesn't want to change and is being resistant to the treatment. You really have to be able to toe the line, even if the client is nasty or aggressive with you, and you have to make them see the outcome.
Another important trait that an addiction counselor needs is the ability to plan and execute self-care and vacation time. This field has a high burnout rate because a lot of people never say no and they find themselves working 40-, 50-, or 60-hour workweeks and helping friends and family with their personal issues on their downtime. You have to be able to unplug to be good at your job.
- What advice would you give to recent addiction psychology graduates seeking a job in the field?
I would say learn everything you can, do an internship, and get a really good mentor. I learned from my mentor about body language and how to understand someone just by watching their body cues and their social cues. This is important because when an addict is talking, they may be lying to you, so you need to know how to read that.
How to Succeed in the Addiction and Recovery Field
Although students with an associate degree may qualify for some entry-level administrative and support positions, the majority of careers in recovery and addiction require at least a bachelor's degree. Bachelor's programs in addiction counseling deliver comprehensive instruction in general psychology and core principles of individual and group counseling. By completing an undergraduate program, you will be prepared to work as a human service coordinator or community health worker.
To work as a counselor, you'll need a graduate degree. Master's in addiction counseling programs provide advanced skill development and research training needed for certification and licensure. They also prepare students for management careers.
Professionals who want to pursue careers as research scientists, clinical psychologists, and postsecondary teachers must earn a doctoral degree.
At the bachelor's and master's levels, addiction counseling programs generally embed practicums and internships into the curriculum. These hands-on experiences enable students to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. Practicums also allow learners to cultivate professional relationships that can provide resources and job leads.
Students who want to work as mental health, substance abuse, and recovery and rehabilitation counselors often are required to complete clinical residencies. Under the supervision of licensed counselors and physicians, learners practice intake, health assessment, treatment planning, and crisis intervention steps with real clients. They also receive certification and licensure guidance.
Licensure and Certification
Licensure and certification requirements vary among substance abuse counseling careers. In general, addiction and recovery counselors need a state-issued license to work in private practice. Government-affiliated clinics and facilities may have more leeway in their hiring processes. This section examines licensure and certification options for two counseling occupations.
After earning a master's degree, future practitioners must complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical training before sitting for a licensing exam. The National Board of Certified Counselors provides information on state-specific requirements and offers optional board certification.
Similarly, the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) offers three levels of voluntary certification for general addiction counselors. Candidates may also pursue specialized certification in areas like nicotine dependence, peer recovery support, and adolescent addiction counseling. Eligibility criteria consists of bachelor's credentials or higher, at least 6,000 hours (or three years) of supervised work experience, and active state licensure.
All mental health counselors need state-issued licensure to practice in private, public, and government settings. These practitioners must earn graduate credentials from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. They also need to accumulate at least 3,000 hours of post-degree, supervised work experience.
Upon meeting all criteria, prospective counselors sit for either the National Counselor Examination or the National Clinical Health Counseling Examination. Some states require one exam or the other, but other states allow candidates to choose between the two. After passing the exam, candidates can apply for state licensure. They maintain their credentials by completing continuing education hours through state-approved vendors and organizations.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Addiction and Recovery?
Your career options in addiction and recovery greatly depend on your educational attainment. With a bachelor's degree, you can work as a health educator, community service coordinator, or behavioral health technician.
Most counseling positions require practitioners to hold a master's degree and specific licensure and/or certification. By enrolling in a master's program in addiction counseling, learners prepare for careers as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors where they help patients overcome addictions and eating disorders. They may also pursue roles as mental health counselors in hospitals, inpatient and outpatient clinics, and correctional facilities. Additional career options include social worker, school/career counselor, and social service manager.
With doctoral training, professionals can work as university professors, organizational directors, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Bachelor's Degree in Addiction and Recovery
Bachelor of addiction counseling programs typically require a minimum of 120 credits, which full-time students can complete in four years. Accelerated online tracks enable distance learners to complete their training in just two years. Similarly, many higher education institutions provide degree completion pathways for learners with an associate degree and other returning students.
A typical curriculum includes core concepts in abnormal psychology, lifespan development, and sociology of social problems. Students develop addiction counseling skills for individuals, groups, and dysfunctional family systems. They also complete counseling practicums and capstone projects that prepare them for career entry and graduate-level academics.
- Health Educator
Health educators teach individuals about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They gather and analyze data about community health needs to implement effective outreach events and social service programming. As organizational leaders, health educators also train staff, coordinate volunteers, and advocate for improved resources and better public policies.
Average Annual Salary: $46,080
- Correctional Treatment Specialist
Also known as correctional counselors, these professionals support parolees and probationers. They work with clients and their families to develop rehabilitation plans and may help negotiate an inmate's release. Correctional treatment specialists also connect clients with addiction and mental health counseling services, job placement programs, and affordable housing resources.
Average Annual Salary: $53,020
- Social Services Coordinator
Social services coordinators act as links connecting individuals to government resources and human services. They typically work in community organizations, helping clients to assess needs and apply for social service programs like food stamps, reduced-cost school lunches, and low-income housing. Social services coordinators work with a variety of underserved populations, including recovering addicts, veterans, and the elderly.
Average Annual Salary: $44,160
- Mental Health Case Manager
These managers work for hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and government agencies. They oversee the intake process, assess client eligibility and medical needs, and submit required paperwork to healthcare providers. They also collaborate with counselors and physicians to develop action plans. Mental health case managers also regularly check on clients' progress and ensure that provided services meet government standards.
Average Annual Salary: $37,065
- Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator
Substance abuse prevention coordinators develop educational programs and community resources that prevent drug and alcohol misuse. They work under the guidance of licensed counselors and social service managers to identify areas of need and train staff and volunteers. They also write grants, create budgets, and evaluate program success.
Average Annual Salary: $45,000
Master's Degree in Addiction and Recovery
Master's programs in addiction counseling generally total at least 30 credits, which students typically complete in two years. Full-time learners can enroll in accelerated online options and earn their degree in as little as 12 months.
Degree plans often include courses like substance abuse prevention, psychopharmacology, and group counseling techniques. Students take advanced classes in their chosen concentration, selecting from counseling specialties such as mental health, adolescent drug use, and excessive alcohol use. They typically complete their studies with a capstone project and/or comprehensive exam.
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor
Also called addiction counselors, these practitioners work with individual clients and groups. They identify problems and develop treatment plans that include health services and supplementary resources. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors also help clients gain new skills and rebuild family relationships.
Average Annual Salary: $44,630
- Mental Health Counselor
Mental health counselors find employment in hospitals, community centers, and correctional facilities. By conducting assessments and recommending treatments, they help clients deal with psychological issues including addiction, anxiety, depression, sexual/domestic violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health counselors often work with a specific group such as children, veterans, or senior citizens.
Average Annual Salary: $47,817
- School and Career Counselor
School counselors help students overcome behavioral and social problems by connecting them with support systems and health services. They also help students develop better study habits and plan for graduation. Career counselors work in educational institutions, community organizations, and government agencies. They conduct aptitude tests and assist clients with skill development and job searches.
Average Annual Salary: $56,310
- Social Service Manager
These organizational leaders oversee the development and implementation of social service programs. They collaborate with stakeholders and community members to identify areas of need and define objectives. Social service managers write funding proposals, allocate resources, and administer programs. They also conduct evaluations to determine program effectiveness.
Average Annual Salary: $65,230
- Social Worker
Social workers support individuals and communities in need. They help clients cope with life challenges such as unemployment, illness, and divorce. Social workers who obtain state licensure can diagnose emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. They may also develop treatment plans and conduct therapy sessions. Social workers often specialize in an area like healthcare, education, mental health, or child and family services.
Average Annual Salary: $49,470
Doctoral Degree in Addiction and Recovery
Doctoral degrees in addiction and recovery open the door to high-level clinical and executive positions. Colleges and universities generally offer either a Ph.D. in psychology or a doctor of professional counseling (DPC) degree with a concentration in addiction studies. The former emphasizes research and teaching, while the latter focuses on practical skill application in clinical settings.
Ph.D. or DPC programs typically require 50-80 credits; students generally earn their degree in 4-7 years. They spend the first two years completing required classes in areas like addictive behaviors and substance abuse, appraisal and psychometrics, and advanced counseling skills and techniques. They spend the remaining time conducting research, writing, and completing field experiences to prepare for their dissertation defense. By earning a doctorate, practitioners can work as licensed psychologists. They may also pursue leadership roles with colleges and universities, community health and rehabilitation centers, and pharmaceutical companies.
- Postsecondary Instructor
Postsecondary teachers provide classroom instruction in their area of expertise. They help students find internships, navigate degree plans, and prepare for post-graduation goals. College and university professors also pursue their own research, publishing findings in scholarly journals and presenting at academic conferences. Within their departments, they assist with curriculum development and student recruitment.
Average Annual Salary: $78,470
- Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologists identify and diagnose behavioral, emotional, and psychological issues. They work with clients to define goals and develop treatment/action plans. These professionals also teach and pursue their own research. Clinical psychologists must earn a doctorate approved by the American Psychological Association. They then complete post-degree fellowship programs and apply for state licensure.
Average Annual Salary: $79,010
- Research Scientist
When working in academic settings, research scientists focus on gathering, evaluating, and presenting knowledge. They keep abreast of developments in their field and collaborate with colleagues on projects and publications. Research scientists can also work for private companies and government entities. There, they conduct research and apply findings to develop products, services, and programs.
Average Annual Salary: $78,503
Where Can You Work With a Degree in Addiction and Recovery?
Careers in addiction and recovery require competencies in human and social services, psychology, education, healthcare, and public policy. With this diverse skill set, professionals benefit from a plethora of career options. They can work with government bodies and private companies as administrators, program directors, and consultants. Practitioners may also occupy counseling and social work positions with health facilities, nonprofit organizations, and universities. This section explores how factors like location and industry affect job prospects and pay potential.
All counseling and clinical occupations are defined by state-specific criteria in regard to post-degree fellowships, supervised work experience, and certification/licensure. In addition, practitioners who meet one state's professional requirements may not be able to transfer their credentials to another state.
Location also affects employment and salary. According to the BLS, California boasts the highest employment level for substance abuse and mental health counselors, followed by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. These counselors enjoy the highest wages in Utah, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. In addition to pay potential, job candidates should factor in the cost of living when deciding where to work and reside.
Careers in addiction and recovery span multiple industries, with general healthcare organizations and residential facilities representing the highest-paying employers. BLS data reveals that outpatient care centers hire the most substance abuse and mental health counselors, accounting for nearly 7% of total industry employment. Education is another lucrative industry where professionals can work as school and career counselors, university administrators, and postsecondary teachers.
- Community Mental Health Center
- Partially funded by state and federal governments, community mental health centers offer affordable services for low-income individuals. In this industry, professionals work as counselors and social workers. They can also occupy administrative positions like service coordinator and case manager.
- Counseling Services
- This industry encompasses a wide range of employers, including clinics, hospitals, and community centers. Universities also offer counseling services to students, faculty, and staff. They also operate programs for community members, often using these services as a way to train degree candidates.
- Residential Mental Health or Substance Abuse Facility
- Residential facilities offer 24-hour inpatient services and subacute treatments. Here, professionals typically work as counselors, mental health aides, and intake specialists. Because these facilities are state-supported, all employees must possess the appropriate credentials.
- The general healthcare field includes hospitals, clinics, residential facilities, and outpatient programs. Within this industry, careers in addiction and recovery cover all roles and include licensed counselors, case managers, social workers, and health educators.
- Drug use and mental health education stands at the center of substance misuse prevention and treatment. In this industry, professionals work as health educators and community advocates. They may also occupy positions as school counselors and research scientists.
How Do You Find a Job as an Addiction and Recovery Graduate?
By earning counseling degrees and gaining licensure and certification, you can pursue a variety of high-demand careers in addiction and recovery. The BLS projects that demand for social workers and health educators will grow by 16% from 2016 to 2026. Social and community service managers are projected to benefit from an 18% increase, or more than 26,000 new jobs, in the same time frame.
Professionals can expand their network and bolster career opportunities by engaging with industry organizations. The International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors connects members through online communities and global conferences. Organizations such as the American Mental Health Counselors Association and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals also provide career guidance and other resources.
Professional Resources for Addiction and Recovery Majors
Established in 1952, ACA is the world's largest organization for professional counselors. The association advocates for practitioners and clients at every level of government. Members benefit from conferences, leadership training, and a comprehensive knowledge database. They can access continuing education resources, including online courses and webinars. ACA also operates a vast career center where professionals seek guidance and apply for paid positions and internships.
ASAM supports over 6,000 physicians, counselors, and related professionals in the addiction medicine field. The society funds research awards and academic scholarships. Members connect through student groups, state chapters, and in-person training seminars. Through an e-learning center, they access online classes, continuing education programs, and certification guidance.
NCHEC strengthens the health education field through research initiatives and policy development. Members enjoy a comprehensive suite of educational resources, including information on certification options. The commission offers support in the forms of career resources and preparation materials for health education specialist exams. NCHEC also provides continuing education tools.
Founded in 1955, NASW serves more than 120,000 social workers by establishing industry standards and providing resources for professional growth. Members connect through local chapters, leadership committees, and national conferences. NASW provides job search tools and extensive information on certification, continuing education, and specialty practice.
As part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NIAAA conducts research and promotes education on alcohol abuse prevention. Members can access information on the latest best practices, policy developments, and statistical findings. They can also take advantage of research training and career development tools. Furthermore, NIAAA provides research funding, travel grants, and student awards.
Another member of the NIH, NIDA advances scientific knowledge of addiction to improve individual and community health. The institute operates a comprehensive library of scholarly journals, research publications, and online articles on drug misuse and mental health. Members collaborate on institutional research projects such as the HEAL (helping to end addiction long-term) Initiative. They also benefit from career development tools and research grants.
Founded in 1985, NSWM strives to improve leadership in the health and human services industry. Members can access a library of journals and webinars and connect through online forums and networking events across the U.S. The network operates skill development institutes for emerging leaders and doctoral candidates. NSWM also provides international mentorship and policy fellowship programs.
SoAP facilitates research initiatives on a wide range of addictive behaviors, including nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs, gambling, and eating disorders. The society establishes standards for evidence-based practices involving assessment and treatment. Members can collaborate through national conventions and online discussion lists. Student members can seek guidance on credentialing in addiction psychology and early career development.
Established in 1950, SOPHE is an independent nonprofit organization for health educators and researchers. Members collaborate on projects highlighting focus areas like school health, tobacco and smoking cessation, and emergency preparedness. The society provides student internship opportunities and publishes job postings. SOPHE also delivers online professional development tools, including preparation materials for the certified health education specialist exam.
An agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SAMHSA is dedicated to reducing the effects of mental illness and substance misuse. Professionals in the field benefit from practitioner training in areas like rural opioid addiction assistance and clinical support for serious mental illness. Individuals with addictions can access a referral hotline. SAMHSA also provides program grants and research funding.