Guide to Counseling Degree Programs
Learn How You Can Study Counseling
You can study counseling at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate levels, and there are a variety of campus-based and online counseling programs to choose from. Although at the associate’s and bachelor’s level you can complete all of your coursework online, most master’s and PhD programs require on-campus residencies or mentoring sessions prior to graduation.
Brick-and-mortar vs. online counseling programs
Although the study of counseling involves theory and methodology, face-to-face contact with an experienced professor is invaluable. A professional counselor can share how and when different methods are applied most effectively, in addition to providing guidance on your decision to specialize. Another major advantage of traditional counseling degree programs is that you can practice counseling in groups or one-on-one with other students during class time.
You can earn a counseling degree online at all levels, and more and more universities are offering online or hybrid programs in counseling. Counseling programs at more advanced levels generally include on-campus components such as mentoring, residencies, or practicums as a requirement before graduation, though these may only take place once or twice per year. While online students are at a disadvantage when it comes to practicing counseling with their peers, online programs are increasingly using software such as Skype to allow students or entire classes to connect in real time and practice counseling skills. However, a career in counseling requires frequent face-to-face contact with clients, and interaction via videoconferencing doesn’t provide the same dynamic of a conversation in person. You can supplement online study with internships, mentorships, or work experience in the field that will allow you to work on skills such as body language, bedside manner, and communication, which are difficult to master without practice.
Additionally, most professional counselors need to be certified or licensed before they are able to practice, and requirements vary from state to state. Some states have a list of licensure-qualifying counseling programs; if you are considering an online counseling degree program, contact your state’s professional licensure department to find out if the program satisfies licensure requirements.
Assess whether counseling is the right fit for you
If you are considering counseling as a career, you must have a strong sense of compassion and empathy toward others. While specific skills differ between specializations, as a counselor in any field you should have the following characteristics and skills:
- Strong listening skills
- Oral communication skills
- Ability to identify with the emotions of others
- A professional, caring manner
- Problem-solving skills
- Trustworthiness and ability to keep confidential information
- Ability to build relationships with others
See What it Takes to Earn a Counseling Degree
Counseling is a diverse field, and there is no one right path toward a career in counseling. Many counselors begin their studies in fields like psychology or social work and later specialize in their chosen field at the graduate level.
The courses you take will depend on your degree level and specialization. At the associate’s and bachelor’s levels you will learn the basics of psychology and counseling that apply to all of the specializations. These include core courses in the liberal arts and sciences as well as the basics of assessment procedures, education psychology and child development, medical terminology, human development, and ethical, legal, and professional issues in counseling. At the graduate level you will focus on your specialization, taking courses such as child psychology if you plan to work with children or the psychology of addiction if you want to be a substance abuse counselor. At the PhD level, you can prepare to teach those pursuing degrees in counseling or supervise others.
Browse common counseling courses:
Introduction to Counseling
Ethics and Professional Responsibility
Counseling Capstone or Practicum
Consider your counseling specialization
Most counselors specialize in a type of counseling, and their specialty determines their work environment and required educational level, as well as certification. For example, if you want to get out in the field quickly, you should consider becoming a substance abuse counselor, as in many cases you only need an associate’s degree to begin working.
When considering your specialization, think about whether you would prefer working with children or adults, as some specializations will provide more training for different age groups and stages of development. While mental health counseling and behavioral counseling are both popular specializations, you can also specialize further in childhood mental health counseling. This will allow you to become an expert in your niche field and become more competitive in that specialization. Other specializations include school counseling, which would allow you to work with children and teenagers from elementary to high school; career counseling, where you’ll work with college students or adults to help them decide on a vocation; and marriage, family, or group counselors meet with couples, entire families, or groups to facilitate communication and provide an outside perspective on family or relationship problems.
There are also more specialized types of counselors who are experts at addressing disabilities or mental health illnesses. These include addiction counselors, mental health counselors, and rehabilitation counselors. They work in specialized clinics, mental health facilities, public and private hospitals, and other healthcare facilities.
Choose What Counseling Degree to Earn
Counseling degrees are available at the following degree levels:
Understand Why Accreditation Matters
CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, is the accrediting organization that standardizes counseling master’s programs in the United States. If you are interested in earning a master’s in addiction counseling, career counseling, clinical mental health counseling, family counseling, school or college counseling, or a PhD in counselor education, you should verify that the program you are considering is accredited by CACREP to ensure quality and adherence to state certification guidelines. The CACREP website features an online directory of accredited counseling schools and programs.
Upon graduation from an accredited counseling program, you can become certified through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) as a National Certified Counselor (NCC). Additionally, if you decide to specialize, you can also become licensed as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC), Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), or National Certified School Counselor (NCSC). These are nationwide certifications that you can earn in addition to state counselor licensure.
Discover the Job Landscape for Counseling Professionals
As of 2010, the job outlook for counseling professionals is positive, as there is a greater demand for all types of counselors than is currently being met. Specific growth projections and average salaries vary by specialization, education level, and location. The job outlook for the next decade is a very high 37% for mental health and family counselors, while school counselors can expect an increase of 19%, and addiction counseling jobs are projected to increase by 27%. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average counseling salary varies from $38,120 per year for addiction and behavioral disorder counselors to $53,380 per year for school and career counselors. While these are the average salaries, experienced licensed counselors can earn more if they run their own private practices or provide consultation services.