If you’re interested in a career that involves making a substantial difference in the lives of others, consider earning a master’s in counseling. In all states, licensed counselors must possess a master’s degree in order to practice. Students pursuing their degree can feel secure about their job prospects upon graduating. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral counseling jobs to increase by 23% by 2026.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral counseling jobs to increase by 23% by 2026.
Professional counselors enjoy working with diverse populations in various speciality areas. They can help those with mental or behavioral disorders, those who suffer from substance abuse or addiction, couples and families navigating difficult transitions, and students with disabilities or social disorders. Some counselors may work in private clinics or hospitals, while others may find employment in schools, retirement homes, or rehabilitation centers. Others may work with extremely specialized groups of people, such as veterans or female victims of domestic violence. This page explores what it takes to earn a master’s in counseling and what kinds of career paths you can pursue with your degree.
Should I Get a Master's in Counseling?
Anyone interested in becoming a licensed counselor should consider earning a counseling master’s degree. Some people people may find themselves more prepared to enter a program than others. Earning a master’s in counseling through an on-campus program may especially appeal to students who recently earned their bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or a related field and who already know they want to pursue a career as a licensed counselor. In contrast, the flexibility of an online master’s in counseling may appeal more to working professionals who want to change careers while maintaining professional responsibilities. Regardless of age or experience, all applicants must first earn a bachelor’s degree before pursuing a master’s in counseling.
In a master’s in counseling program, students learn the fundamentals of counseling while exploring case histories and evidence-based research. They learn about human development, psychology, and how to work with different groups of people, such as children or people struggling with addiction. Some programs offer concentrations that prepare students for careers in specialized fields, such as school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or marriage and family counseling. These concentrations require their own unique courses that address issues within the respective field.
Students earning their master’s of counseling through an on-campus program enjoy many benefits, such as making important professional connections with their peers and professors. They may also enjoy access to more resources or opportunities, such as conferences or networking events. Many programs, including some online programs, also help students find internships or post-graduation employment. Earning a counseling master’s from a reputable, accredited program provides students a competitive edge when entering the job market.
What Can I Do With a Master’s in Counseling?
Graduates who hold a master’s in counseling can enter a variety of careers, each of which serves a specific demographic. These career paths include mental health counseling, school and career counseling, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse and addiction counseling, and rehabilitation counseling. Some master’s programs prepare students to enter a specific field of counseling or to work with a particular population of people. However, all counseling programs prepare students to work with a diverse client base and to identify, diagnose, and treat their clients’ problems with respect and care. Some fields, such as mental health and substance abuse, may overlap in the type of clients they attract, allowing fluidity between sectors and more job opportunities for graduates.
- Mental Health Counselor
Mental health counselors treat individuals who suffer from disorders such as depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder. They may specialize in a certain demographic group, such as children, students, veterans, or the elderly. All licensed clinical counselors must hold at least a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $43,300
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- School and Career Counselors
School counselors help students meet academic goals or address certain academic or behavioral problems that may affect their success in school. They may help students create better study habits or address problems with bullying. Career counselors help people identify and achieve their career goals or help people transition into a new field. Most school and career counselors hold a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $55,410
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
- Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists provide counseling and guidance to couples and families. They may help their clients navigate difficult or stressful transitions, such as divorce, separation, adoption, job losses, or death. They help clients create strategies, increase communication, and implement healthy behavioral changes.
Median Annual Salary: $48,790
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- Substance Abuse Counselor
Substance abuse counselors help those who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. They work with clients and their families to identify problems and develop a plan of treatment, often helping their clients mend relationships or regain employment. They may also connect clients with outside resources, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Licensed substance abuse counselors must hold a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $43,300
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- Rehabilitation Counselor
Rehabilitation counselors help people with a physical, mental, behavioral, or social disabilities pursue independent, healthy, and productive lives. They may work with doctors and psychologists to create a rehabilitation plan that suits their clients’ needs. Many help their clients access outside resources to accommodate their disability. Rehabilitation counselors typically possess a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $34,860
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
How to Choose a Master's in Counseling Program
Before selecting which master’s programs in counseling to apply to, students should consider each program’s location, duration, cost, and requirements. The location of a school matters for several reasons. Foremost, students hesitant to relocate or quit their job for school should research schools in their area or consider earning an online master’s in counseling. Location may also determine where students complete their practicum or internship requirements; schools in rural locations may require students to travel to fulfill these requirements. Students should also research their school’s location to decide if the area fits with their lifestyle. Does it offer amenities like hospitals, airports, and recreation? What kind of weather can you expect? If considering an on-campus program, students should think about whether they want to live in an area before applying to school there.
Students should also consider the length and cost of the program. Does the school offer accelerated courses? Does it require a full-time commitment or can students enroll part time? Working professionals should consider whether they can keep their job while they pursue their degree. Night or distance course options typically allow students to continue working while they pursue their degree, a boon that can help students finance their degree. Other financial considerations include in-state versus out-of-state tuition rates, scholarship offerings, and cost of living in the school’s area.
Students should make sure their program meets their academic and career goals. Some schools may offer different specializations than others; students should check that their program offers the concentration area they wish to pursue. Students should also browse the program’s course offerings to understand what types of courses the program offers. In a similar vein, students should understand the program’s requirements for graduation and feel prepared to meet these requirements. Most master’s in counseling programs demand some kind of internship or practicum experience. Depending on the state or school, students may also need to complete a thesis or capstone requirement. Students should also research their program’s accreditation, a topic discussed in greater detail below.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master’s in Counseling Programs
Programmatic accreditation means that an outside accreditation agency reviewed a school’s program and determined that it meets certain standards of quality in the field. Graduate counseling programs most often receive accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Another newer accrediting body, Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council, also accredits master’s in counseling programs. Other relevant accrediting bodies include the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education and the American Psychological Association. For students who want to pursue a career in licensed counseling, CACREP generally serves as the most significant accrediting body.
Counseling students should make sure that their program boasts accreditation from CACREP. Currently, six states require that students pursuing their professional license hold a degree from a CACREP-accredited program. In other words, holding a degree from a school without programmatic accreditation may disqualify graduates from gaining licensure in their state. Some states may also feature reduced licensing requirements for students who hold a degree from a CACREP-accredited program.
Master's in Counseling Program Admissions
Like many graduate programs, master’s programs in counseling feature a somewhat involved application process. Applicants must submit several documents, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, test scores, an essay, and a resume. Some programs may require applicants to demonstrate specific academic, professional, or volunteer-related experience. Some programs may require students to demonstrate a history of undergraduate coursework related to the social sciences. Other programs may prefer students who possess experience working, volunteering, or performing research in a context relating to mental health. School counseling programs may prefer students with experience teaching or working with children.
Applying to schools involves a commitment of time and money. Students should take time to research where they want to apply. When deciding how many schools to apply to, students should first decide where they want to study, considering factors like location, cost, academic goals, and the likelihood of acceptance. A good rule of thumb suggests applying to five schools: two you feel confident about, two that boast a more competitive pool of applicants, and one dream school.
- Bachelor’s Degree: All applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree. Although some programs prefer candidates who hold an undergraduate degree in a relevant social science field, such as psychology or social work, many programs consider students from other academic backgrounds.
- Professional Experience: Many graduate counseling programs prefer applicants who possess some history of professional or volunteer experience relating to the field of mental health. Counseling internships and practicums, research experience, and teaching experience may all help you stand out on an application.
- Minimum GPA: Most programs require a minimum undergraduate GPA of around 2.7 to 3.0. However, a program may consider exceptional candidates who stand out in other areas, such as their GRE scores or professional experience, regardless of their GPA.
- Application: Give yourself plenty of time to complete an application. Most schools require students to submit their application by late October or early December; students should start thinking about their applications as early as August.
- Transcripts: Most grad programs require transcripts from all postsecondary institutions you attended. Most schools provide their graduates a free PDF of their transcript (these count as unofficial transcripts) but charge a fee, typically around $10, for each official transcript.
- Letters of Recommendation: Most programs require three letters of recommendation. These letters should come from someone who can attest to your academic ability and character. Good choices include former professors or people who supervised you in a professional context related to counseling. Out of courtesy, ask your recommenders at least two months before you need the letter.
- Test Scores: Counseling graduate programs typically require applicants to submit their general GRE scores. Some schools may also require the psychology subject test, while others may consider the subject test optional. Nonnative English speakers may also need to submit their TOEFL scores.
- Application Fee: Application fees can range anywhere from $40 to over $100, depending on the school. Students who demonstrate financial need (typically evidenced through tax returns) can typically receive a fee waiver.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Counseling Program?
This section provides a general overview of what students can expect from a master’s in counseling program. Although counseling programs tend to share some fundamental characteristics, different programs and schools may offer unique courses, specializations, and requirements, meaning details may vary depending on the school and the specific graduate program.
|Mental Health Counseling||In this concentration, students learn how to identify and treat those with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or depression. They also learn how to help people navigate difficult life events, such as death, physical illness, or abuse. Students may specialize in a certain population group, such as elderly people, veterans, women, or children.||Mental health counselor, behavioral disorder counselor, substance abuse counselor, grief counselor, veterans counselor, domestic violence counselor|
|School Counseling||In this concentration, students learn how to help K-12 children or college students achieve their academic goals. They explore topics relating to lifespan development, social justice, group dynamics, and cultural contexts. Some programs offer certifications in LGBTQ health, bilingual school counseling, and social services.||School counselor, career counselor|
|Addiction Counseling||In this concentration, students learn how to help those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. As part of learning how to treat and prevent substance abuse, they explore topics in human development, counseling techniques, psychopathology and treatment, the neurobiology of addiction, and the ethics of counseling.||Substance abuse counselor|
|Marriage and Family Counseling||In this concentration, students learn about family systems and psychotherapy in order to address problems within relationships and families. They learn to help couples struggling with abuse, sexual disorders, depression, or failing communication. They may also help families struggling with divorce, addiction, or the death of a family member. Some work with families of children who struggle with an emotional or behavioral disorder.||Marriage counselor, family counselor, divorce counselor, sex counselor|
|Rehabilitation Counseling||In this concentration, students learn how to help people who suffer from a physical, behavioral, mental, or social disability. In addition to the fundamentals of counseling, students also explore the medical and psychosocial aspects of disability and the ethical and legal issues of counseling.||Rehabilitation counselor|
Courses in a Master’s in Counseling Program
Every master’s in counseling program offers its own unique selection of courses, focusing on different concentration areas or specific subjects within the field. However, a few courses that explore the fundamentals of counseling typically appear as part of a master’s in counseling curriculum. A sampling of these courses appear below.
- Theories of Counseling
This foundational course, necessary for all fields of counseling, explores the fundamental theories and research methods of counseling. It examines typical problems in counseling, using case histories as examples. During the course, students develop their own philosophy of counseling, which they can apply to their studies and practice going forward.
- Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling
This course explores the legal and ethical standards and principles that guide the field of counseling. Students familiarize themselves with the philosophical foundations of the field and ethical codes used in practice. Legal topics include confidentiality, client rights, and mental health laws. This course remains applicable to all areas of counseling.
- Multicultural Counseling
In this course, students learn about the cultural influences that can affect counseling and the counselor-client relationship. It explores topics such as racism, ageism, sexism, and personal bias against certain cultural groups. Students entering any field of counseling benefit from the skills gained in this course.
- Human Growth and Development
This course looks at how factors like genes, parental influence, and peer influence can affect human development over a lifespan. Students study the development of gender identity, intelligence, morals, language, and perception. Students in all fields of counseling benefit from this course.
- Group Counseling
In this course, students learn effective strategies for group counseling, studying the theories and principles behind group process and group leadership. Students studying to become substance abuse, family, or school counselors may find this course especially useful.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s in Counseling?
Students typically earn their counseling master’s in two years. However, this timeframe may vary depending on a variety of factors. Most master’s program require 60 credit hours, but some may require fewer or more, affecting the amount of time it takes to graduate. Students may also choose to take fewer credits per term to accommodate work or family obligations, or more credits per term in order to graduate sooner. A student doubling up on credits may earn their degree much faster than a student who only enrolls on a part-time basis. Students who earn their degree in less time typically end up paying less overall, since most schools charge fees for each term of enrollment. Some scholarships and fellowships may also only apply to students enrolled full time. Other factors that may affect the length of a program include transfer credits, accelerated courses, and internship or practicum requirements.
How Much Is a Master’s in Counseling?
The cost of earning a counseling master’s degree can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, with an overall average cost around $18,400 per year according to a 2017 National Center for Education Statistics report. The same report shows an average tuition rate of $11,600 for public institutions and $24,700 at private institutions. The most significant factors that affect cost of tuition include the type of school — private versus public — and whether you qualify for in-state or out-of-state tuition. Public schools, while generally more affordable than private schools, typically charge more for out-of-state students than in-state students. However, many graduate programs offer out-of-state tuition waivers or help students achieve in-state residency status as quickly as possible. Online programs, on the other hand, often charge the same tuition rate for in-state and out-of-state students. Overall, online programs tend to cost significantly less than on-campus programs.
Beyond tuition, students should also consider peripheral costs such as housing, campus fees, technology, books, transportation, dining, and parking. Again, online students save money on the majority of these costs. Working students should also consider whether their program considers time for students to continue working, perhaps by offering evening or online courses. Finally, the cost of earning a master’s in counseling degree may vary greatly after accounting for scholarships, fellowships, grants, or student teaching opportunities.
Certifications and Licenses a Master’s in Counseling Prepares For
- Licensed Professional Counselor
LPCs, also known in some states as licensed clinical professional counselors or licensed mental health counselors, provide mental health services to individuals and groups of people. Generally, to earn an LPC, one must hold at least a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, possess a minimum of 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, and pass the National Counselor Exam (NCE). Additional requirements may differ from state to state.
- National Certified Counselor
This certification, earned through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), requires applicants to hold a master’s degree, complete 100 hours of supervised counseling experience and 3,000 hours of professional counseling experience (both waived under certain circumstances), submit a professional endorsement, and earn a passing score on the NCE.
- National Certified School Counselor
The NBCC also offers this certification, requiring NCSC applicants to possess NCC certification, complete 100 hours of supervised social work experience and two academic years of school counseling experience, submit a professional endorsement, and earn a passing score on the NCE.
- Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor
The NBCC offers this certification as well, requiring CCMHC applicants to hold NCC certification, complete 100 hours of supervised experience and 3,000 hours of clinical counseling experience, earn a passing score on the NCE exam, and submit professional endorsements.
- Master Addiction Counselor
Created jointly through the American Counseling Association, NBCC, and the International Association of Addiction and Offenders Counselors, this certification requires applicants to hold NCC certification, complete at least 12 semester hours of graduate-level addiction coursework and at least three years (two postgraduate) of supervised experience working as an addictions counselor, and earn a passing score on the NCE.
Resources for Counseling Graduate Students
Founded in 1979, NAMI builds public awareness about mental illness. It also provides a platform for mental health advocates and students to stay connected through publications, education programs, online discussion boards, and conventions.
This listserv specifically serves graduate counseling students. It facilitates dialogues about graduate school-related matters like coursework, job searches, internships, and research.
Diversegrad-L provides a platform for graduate students who want to discuss issues of diversity or multiculturalism in counseling and society as a whole.
Students and counselors can visit this ACA counseling blog to learn about a variety of topics relevant to the career, such as developing healthy eating habits, dealing with the death of a pet, and minimizing memory loss.
HHS serves as the home for many of the country’s mental health programs and services. It offers job postings for counselors and internship opportunities for graduate students.
Professional Organizations in Counseling
Master’s in counseling students and recent graduates should consider joining a professional organization for counselors. In addition to helping students and recent graduates find employment through job boards and networking events, professional organizations also offer benefits like online continuing education programs, discounts on liability insurance, and publications that keep members up to date on events and topics in the counseling world. Many organizations also host annual conferences or symposiums, fostering a sense of community and allowing members to make meaningful personal and professional connections.
ACA serves as the world’s largest nonprofit association for professional counselors. Members enjoy benefits such as discounts on insurance and access to counseling publications, free online continuing education courses, and job boards.
ASCA connects and advocates for school counselors across the country. Member resources include job boards, publications, continuing education webinars, and a library of free lesson plans, surveys, and parent handouts.
AAMFT members receive a variety of resources to help them build and sustain their marriage and family therapy practice, including online education and training, webinars, job boards, and an annual conference.
Members of AMHCA enjoy access to professional publications, job boards, and credentialing services. Members also receive discounts on shipping, educational programs, and health and wellness plans. Student members even receive access to free liability insurance.
A subgroup of ACA, CSJ promotes social justice for professional counselors through educational and professional development. The organization offers a webinar series, awards, grants, publications, a newsletter, and localized chapters at the state and university level.