Counseling Careers Employment and Education Information for Helping Others Heal

Counselors and therapists help people get through challenging, stressful, and emotional experiences. They may decide to get into the field for many different reasons – some are just naturally drawn to helping people, while others may have suffered through difficult times and are now motivated to help others get through their tough times. Demand for good counselors is high and the field offers a wealth of possibilities. If you want to help others take genuine steps towards a healthier, happier life, read on to see what a career in counseling might look like and how to achieve that goal.

Exploring Counseling Careers

Counselors work with individuals, couples, families, and groups who are struggling a variety of problems. Issues might range from mild to severe depression, problems with alcohol or anger management, marital conflict, or career challenges. Below are some common jobs for counselors:

Addiction Counselor

Also known as behavior disorder counselors or substance abuse counselors, addiction counselors work both one-on-one and in groups with people to identify what’s causing their destructive behaviors and help them establish healthier habits to break the cycle of addiction. Addiction counselors can either work with people who are willingly seeking treatment or with people who are taking part in a program because of a court order.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 22%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree, although private practice requires a license and a master’s degree.

Social Worker

These professionals work directly with people to help them cope with everyday problems and ensure they get access to the resources they need. They may work with children, the elderly, families, people with disabilities, or people with serious addictions, to name a few.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 12%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in social work

Psychologist

Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists do not prescribe medications. Instead, they use psychotherapy to help patients address problematic thoughts and behaviors and retrain their brains to adopt healthy behaviors.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 20%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Master’s or doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology

Mental Health Counselor

People dealing with severe mental illness may see a mental health counselor, who would diagnose them and develop a treatment plan to modify their negative behaviors.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 20%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling or related field

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists sometimes work with individuals in their private practice, but their focus is always helping people work through issues they are having with their home life. They understand that families don’t exist in a vacuum and attempt to address how various factors – such as work, personal conflict, or addiction – affect their clients’ relationships, and how those relationships in turn affect their mental health. Together, they establish goals with their clients to reduce negative behaviors and replace them with healthy ones.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 15%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or related field

Psychiatrist

Like mental health counselors, psychiatrists work with people who have mental illnesses. However, in addition to counseling, their treatment plans may involve prescription medications to address the underlying cause of an illness. They’re also responsible for diagnosing patients, as this is part of their medical training.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 15%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Doctor of medicine

School and Career Counselor

The specific job responsibilities of a school counselor can depend on the school they are placed in. High school counselors, for example, work with students who are trying to find their calling, helping them get ready for college or the workforce. They also work closely with students who have behavioral issues and with students who struggle academically.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 8%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in school counseling, child development, or related field

Healthcare Social Worker
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 19%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree in social work

Social and Community Service Manager
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 10%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree in social work or related field

Rehabilitation Counselor
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 9%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or related field

Probation Officer or Correction Treatment Specialist
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree in social work, criminal justice, or related field, plus government-sponsored training program

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014 and Occupational Information Network

Counseling Salaries by Career

Due to their high levels of required education, counselors can command a higher salary; but how much higher depends on the specific position. To illustrate, the graph below highlights salary trends across many different counseling careers.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

As with all jobs, experience and skill set also has a bearing on overall salary potential. The visuals below show how years of experience and specialized skills can help boost salaries for licensed professional counselors.

How Experience Affects Counselor Salaries

Median
Salary
  • Late-Career +26%
  • Experienced +14%
  • Mid-Career +5%
  • National Average $46,000
  • Entry-Level-8%

How Certain Skills Affect Counselor Salaries

  • Clinical supervision +11%
  • Substance abuse +7%
  • Bereavement counseling +5%
  • Counseling +1%
  • National average $46,000

Source: PayScale.com

Would You Be a Good Counselor?

Counselors work with people, so they need to have strong people skills. But what does that mean exactly? Use the questions below as a guide to see if counseling could be a good career path for you:

Are you empathetic?

Empathy, or the ability to relate to other people in a compassionate manner, is a key personal characteristic for the licensed counselor.

Are you patient?

Clients’ progress is not always linear and every patient is different – some are able to work through their issues fairly quickly and have no problem adopting recommended coping strategies. Others, however, may have deeper problems that require a lot more work before any profess is made.

Are you a good listener?

Counselors work in patient-centric environments and since everyone’s circumstances are different, you’ll have to pay close attention to what clients tell you in order to build trust and camaraderie.

Can you be diplomatic?

Counselors have to create a safe space for their clients to discuss personal issues. This involves walking a line between being hard on the behavior without being hard on the client.

Can you keep a secret?

Strict confidentiality is essential in counseling.

Required and Preferred Skills

Formal education leading to a master’s degree in counseling or psychology focuses on learning the principles and procedures for diagnosing and treating emotional, physical, and mental issues. Some skills will be honed during a degree program but others just come naturally to some people drawn to the counseling profession. For instance, superior listening skills coupled with the ability to inspire are key attributes of a successful counselor. Others include:

Good listener

An ability to process another person’s expressed thoughts before responding is imperative for counselors. Being a good listener can also help patients feel safe and comfortable when talking about difficult emotions and experiences.

Exceptional interpersonal skills

Along the same lines as good listening skills, exceptional interpersonal skills are a must. This means being able to communicate in a sensitive yet effective manner, as well as being able to pick up on what others are thinking and feeling, even when words aren’t used.

Commitment to follow through on the client’s needs

This means being able to build alliances with your patients and developing and following a consistent plan of treatment.

Inspirational and flexible

This refers to the ability to build confidence with positive reinforcement and recognizing that treatment may need sometimes need to be modified in order to be truly effective.

Biofeedback equipment

Operate computer-assisted apparatus that helps patients learn to control bodily processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature

Basic medical spreadsheet software

Record and track patient records and progress

Analytical and scientific software

Utilize computer skills to manipulate research databases that can assist in diagnosing clients

Education Requirements for Aspiring Counselors

If you’re interested in becoming a counselor, a degree in counseling or a related field, such as psychology, will give you the skills and knowledge you need to pass licensure requirements and start practicing. A master’s degree is usually required to become a licensed, practicing counselor in all U.S. states. Some professionals will pursue doctoral studies, which expands both knowledge and opportunities for career advancement. This terminal degree will typically add at least another three years to the education timeline, but it also enables the counselor to teach at the university level, obtain managerial work in clinical studies, and serve as a consultant to governments and businesses.

For an idea of what to expect, academically, review the timeline below:

Associate Degree

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are few colleges that offer an associate degree in counseling; however, there are many more educational options if you’re interested in pursuing a two-year degree in substance abuse/addiction counseling, which can serve as the foundation for further counseling education or help qualify you for entry-level roles working with communities in residential and outpatient substance abuse centers, public health agencies, youth services, homeless shelters, and jails and prisons. In addition to completing an approved practicum, coursework typically includes:

  • Intro to Substance Abuse

  • Physiology of Substance Abuse

  • Case Management

  • Individual Counseling Methods

  • Group & Family Counseling Methods

Bachelor’s Degree

Few colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in counseling. It’s much more common for colleges to offer general or applied psychology degree programs, which include an overview of counseling concepts. This interdisciplinary degree helps students learn the key principles of psychological theory and research, as well as their applications in the real world. Sample course titles include:

  • Brain and behavior

  • Social Psychology

  • Human Development

  • Cognition

  • Abnormal Psychology

  • Personality Psychology

Master’s Degree

Degree programs specifically in counseling are widely available at the graduate level. These advanced programs help students develop the skills and knowledge required to perform counseling duties – and qualify for licensure – in a variety of fields, from education to health and human services to business. Curriculum usually consists of core courses, fieldwork, workshops, and a capstone project before graduation. Students can also choose to focus on a specific area of counseling such as school, rehabilitation, or marriage, family and child counseling/therapy. Some examples of courses are:

  • Counseling Theory

  • Life Span Development

  • Clinical Interviewing

  • Diagnosis and Treatment Planning

  • Crisis and Trauma Counseling

  • Multicultural Counseling Theories and Techniques

Doctoral Degree

Earning a PhD in counseling is the ideal path for someone who wants to teach at a university, conduct academic research, work as a counseling professional in a specific niche area, or hold a high-level policy-related mental health job in government. These programs usually take about four to six years to complete and culminate with a research dissertation and defense. Many universities also require the completion of a practicum and/or specified number of fieldwork hours. Courses cover:

  • Diagnosis and Treatment Planning

  • Advanced Multicultural Counseling

  • Advanced Theories in Counseling

  • Qualitative Research Methods

  • Case Study Research Methods

  • Predictive Designs and Analyses

Specializations

Counselors work with a wide range of people. Patients will be of different ages, have different ethnic backgrounds, and come from different socioeconomic environments. As a result, many colleges offer a variety of specializations within their counseling degree programs, particularly that master’s level. Exact specializations will vary from school to school, but below is a list of example niche areas that you can pursue within the field:

  • School counseling
  • Marriage, family, and child counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Clinical counseling
  • Community mental health
  • Career counseling
  • College student services

Requirements to Practice as a Counselor

State licensing requirements typically stipulate that counselors must have at least a master’s degree in the field to be eligible to practice unsupervised in a clinical setting. Most states also require graduate students to complete up to 4,000 hours of work in a clinical setting. This is known as a practicum. Counselors must also pass a state government-approved exam. Some states also require annual recertification through continuing education.

National certification is available through two boards, depending on the area of practice: National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) and Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), which is dedicated to serving people with disabilities.

The NBCC certifies counselors who meet training, experience, and performance standards on the board’s exam. The CRCC is a nonprofit organization that sets standards for rehabilitation counseling services. Certification by the CRCC is recognized internationally.

Work Environments

Counseling jobs are available across a range of industries and healthcare settings. Counselors can set up a private practice or work in local family services agencies, outpatient or inpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, public and private hospitals, state and federal government agencies, and public or private schools. In addition, counselors can pursue a career in social work or mental healthcare through state employment. These work environments are discussed in more detail below:

Private practices

Private offices are venues for individual counseling sessions, which requires a master’s degree and a license.

Outpatient centers

Outpatient centers are for people who can cope from day to day but need personalized attention with issues such as substance abuse or depression. Such facilities welcome clients for appointments, meaning that the people who work there can expect to see a high volume of patients throughout the week.

Residential facilities

Residential facilities are for people with more serious mental health or substance abuse disorders who need — or want — constant monitoring or a refuge from their regular routines. Employees or residential facilities will be able to observe their patients on a daily basis.

Hospitals

Social workers and counselors may be employed directly by hospitals, as many of the people entering for physical ailments also have mental illnesses or behavioral disorders.

Government offices

Social workers may be hired by the government to keep tabs on children at risk of abuse, families battling substance abuse or other cases.

Schools and colleges

School counselors are based here, where they have most access to students and can observe them in their academic habitat. Some specialists may be employed by the district or at another administrative level and travel to multiple schools.

Where to Find Counseling Jobs

Many professional counseling associations maintain job boards and employment resources that can be viewed even by nonmembers. Here are some job hunting resources to get the search started.

  • American Psychological Association

    The APA’s career development page has CV samples, links to funding and tips for clinicians and academics alike.

  • Biblical Counseling Coalition

    Though biblical counseling is a separate discipline, some Christian counselors may find their backgrounds in marriage counseling qualify them to apply for jobs posted on the BCC.

  • Breining Institute

    Substance abuse counselors will find quality jobs added to the Breining Institute’s website each day, complete with salary details. All jobs are located in Southern California.

  • iHireMentalHealth.com

    A name, email and ZIP code is enough to get mental health professionals registered on this site, which groups positions by title, city and state.

  • National Association of School Psychologists

    Getting a job is a two-way street on NASP’s career center. Find employers through the search function, and upload your resume to make sure employers can find you.

  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

    Veterans Affairs has offices across the U.S. for which they need psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors. Search their job openings by entering a job title and ZIP code.

Counseling Internships

Internships may be available to counselors-in-training who are in the midst of pursuing a graduate degree in the field. These opportunities are generally open to students pursuing a specific type of counseling specialty, such as family therapy. Work experience through a counseling internship may qualify toward the practicum, which is the total number of clinical hours required to be licensed, depending on the state. Volunteering at a rehabilitation center or similar public facility is also a way to gain experience before pursuing an internship. Check local state requirements to determine if volunteer work can be applied toward hours required for licensure.

Although college departments have local internship programs and students should take advantage of them, below are a few examples of what’s available around the country.

Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center

Location: Oakland, CA

Prelicensed marriage and family therapists can apply to be trained at Grateful Heart, which utilizes a holistic approach to psychotherapy. Interns receive a regular caseload, which they will be expected to spend 10 hours a week managing, in addition to attending regular trainings and meetings.

Kaiser Permanente

Location: San Jose or San Francisco, CA

Kaiser runs internships for marriage and family therapists who have already earned a master’s degree. By the end of the yearlong program, most interns will have worked with more than 100 outpatients in classroom and group settings.

Pace University Counseling Center

Location: New York, NY

Undergraduate psychology majors can spend a summer in New York, where they’ll shadow practicing psychologists to learn how they approach research, public education efforts and clinical duties.

Skyland Trail

Location: Atlanta, GA

Prospective social workers and clinical counselors pursuing graduate studies can benefit from an internship at a residential facility. Interns learn how to apply multiple therapies for people with mental illnesses by working with them under professional supervision.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Location: Rockville, MD

Public health and behavioral science students and recent graduates can apply to be SAMHSA interns, where they will work on projects or do research designed to prevent and treat behavioral disorders. There are two sessions: a 15-week program in the spring and a 10-week program in the summer.

Professional Associations to Consider

Membership in professional counseling associations gives counselors broader opportunities to meet colleagues in the field, share insights and network with other professionals. The American Counseling Association is the largest general group, but many organizations exist to serve counselors pursuing a specialized area of practice.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

Focused on the continuing education needs of marriage and family therapists, AAMFT also facilitates a job board, fellowships and practical information on state and federal regulations.

American Counseling Association

The largest U.S. organization serving licensed counselors, ACA publishes a monthly toolkit for members that showcases new offerings, including job posts, podcasts and publications.

American Family Therapy Academy

AFTA’s website makes it easy for members to connect with potential clients seeking therapy. Members can also make new professional contacts using the academy’s searchable database.

International Family Therapy Association

Provides international conferences to promote, strengthen and improve the quality of family therapy services worldwide.

National Board for Certified Counselors

NBCC is an advocacy organization for maintaining professional standards, advancing the field and supporting counselors in career development. Members can benefit from the certifications NBCC offers.

National Council on Family Relations

NCFR is a professional organization focused on family research, policy and practice. Trained counselors might consider joining because membership extends to all professionals working with families, including educators and clergy, thereby promoting a broader dialogue within the organization.

Society of Counseling Psychology

A division of the American Psychological Association, SCP is an academic organization offering opportunities for ongoing education and access to the latest research in the field.