10 Expert Tips for Choosing the Right Counseling Degree

Thinking about choosing a counseling specialization but don't know where to start? Consider using these tips from counseling experts to help you decide.
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Published on April 25, 2023
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  • Choosing a counseling specialization can make you more competent and marketable.
  • Experts interviewed by BestColleges provided tips for picking the right one.
  • Considering your personal experience and scheduling preferences are among their top tips.

Every degree or career seems to have crossroads where you must make big decisions. For counseling students, it's choosing from types of counseling specializations.

Counseling students can pick a specific area to focus on in school and enroll in a program to maximize their training in that area. Choosing a counseling specialization can be beneficial for a couple reasons, said Dr. Matt Glowiak, Ph.D., LCPC.

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From a treatment perspective, specializing enhances competence, which greatly benefits clients, Glowiak said. Further, it helps make one more marketable, if that is important, too.

You can specialize in one of five types of counseling:

  1. Marriage and Family Counseling
  2. School Counseling
  3. Substance Misuse Counseling
  4. Rehabilitation Counseling
  5. Clinical Mental Health Counseling

We asked experts for their advice on choosing a counseling specialization. Considering your personal experience, scheduling preferences, and the challenges of each specialization are among their top tips.

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1. Rule Out Options You Don't Want

The first place to start may be considering what you don't want to specialize in. Decreasing your choices will help narrow down your options.

“I knew that I absolutely did not want to work with children, so I could happily leave those school internships to my peers who were passionate about kids. I knew I was interested in a clinical mental health specialization and a dual degree program, so I looked specifically for universities that offered dual master's degree programs that complemented each other.”

Hannah Brents, LICSW

2. Consider the Challenges of Each Specialization

Look into real-life challenges experienced with the different specializations. When you picture what your future day-to-day will look like, don't set yourself up for disappointment by only picturing the good parts.

“For example, a school counselor may find bureaucracies frustrating like academic standards that aren't in the best interest of students, lack of funding or too large of a student body. Whereas, a family therapist may be frustrated with how much effort and skills outside of counseling are required to build up a practice.”

Dr. Lea McMahon, LPC, Ed.D

3. Get a Sneak Peek Into Specializations by Shadowing

If you are struggling to choose the right path for counseling, it can be a good option to try shadowing the different environments to see what can be best for you.

“Each field will have its own attractions and deterrents, so if you sample each type of counseling by either consulting with other professionals in the field or doing your own research about the key features of each option, you may have a better idea of what to expect and how it will work for you.”

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

4. Think About Your Scheduling Preferences

Each specialization comes with its own quirks. One of the biggest variables revolves around work schedules. Consider your preferences for how, when, and where you want to work before deciding.

“School counselors tend to have standard weekday schedules with summers off, whereas inpatient mental health hospitals or substance abuse rehabs may require weekend or evening hours. A private practice family therapist is more likely to be able to set their own schedule and be able to work virtually, though not with the same financial security of other specialties.”

Dr. Lea McMahon, LPC, Ed.D.

5. Choose a Broad Specialization if You Have Doubts

It's not always easy to narrow down your options. You might not even be sure about the type of people you want to work with. What then? A broad specialization might be the way to go.

“If you aren't completely sure of which setting or what type of population you want to work with, consider the broadest specialization, which would be clinical mental health, in my opinion. … One of my favorite things about this specialty is that you can work with a variety of clients in a variety of settings, which keeps me engaged and prevents burnout.”

Joyce Marter, LCPC

6. Consider the Scope of Each Specialization

Knowing what you're getting into with each specialization is important. Sometimes, a specialty you're interested in may go beyond the scope of what you expect.

“High school counseling positions can frequently entail a wide range of duties beyond what many think of as 'traditional' counseling. These can include college admissions advising and even administrative tasks like planning the school's course schedule.”

Dr. Robert Kohen, independent educational consultant

7. Find a Purpose Based on Your Personal Experiences

You may have overcome something personally and want to share your experience to help others. Or a social injustice greatly impacted your life, and you want to contribute toward change. Having a clear purpose based on personal experiences can help you decide.

“I can personally say that after losing my father to addiction and also experiencing social injustices it made sense for me to develop a specialization in addiction and multicultural counseling. This pain defined my purpose. My purpose defined my specialization.”

Dr. Masica Jordan, LCPC

8. Remember That You're Not Limited to One Specialization

If you're unsure or stressed about choosing a counseling specialization, remember you're not limited to one throughout your career.

“Fortunately, it is possible to attain multiple specialization credentials. Many professionals do this… If after specializing in something, it no longer seems like a good fit or burnout occurs, one is not required to stick specifically with it.”

Dr. Matt Glowiak, Ph.D, LCPC

9. Keep in Mind Some Specializations Are Transferable

Licensure is often state-specific, and requirements for things like credit hours or supervised direct experience can vary. What does that mean? One specialization can work for another, and vice versa.

“Depending on your state's requirements, some of these specializations are transferable to other specializations while others are not. For example, in some states, a clinical mental health counselor can often work in schools, but a school counselor would not be able to work as a clinical mental health counselor unless they took additional coursework to qualify for licensure. In other states, the opposite is true.”

Joyce Marter, LCPC

10. Choosing Generalized Counseling May Be More Flexible

Finally, it's important to remember: You don't have to specialize. While being a specialized counselor helps you align your strengths and goals, a general counseling degree may be more flexible.

“With (a) general program, one will have many options for specialization upon graduation, especially after attaining full licensure. … Should one decide to enroll in a graduate program that is already specialized, options to do something different post-graduation may be limited.”

Dr. Matt Glowiak, Ph.D, LCPC

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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