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How to Become a Counselor

Specialty Areas, Educational Requirements and Salaries for Counselors

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Teenagers(14-16)in therapy session, lying on floor talking, close-up
Zigy Kaluzny/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

While some students who major in psychology go on to to become psychologists, some others opt to pursue an alternative career path. Counseling is a popular specialty area that offers a diverse range of job opportunities.

If you are still debating which option is best suited to your needs, continue reading to learn more about how to become a counselor including what type of education you will need and the type of jobs you will find once you graduate.

Types of Counselors

First it is important to understand the different specialty areas that are available within the counseling profession.

  • Educational and school counselors offer personal, educational, social and academic counseling services. The professionals often work in elementary school, high school or university settings and may help students assess their abilities and resolve personal or social problems. The job may also involve working as part of a team that includes teachers and school administrators.

  • Vocational counselors, also known as career counselors, help people make career decisions. They often conduct assessments to help people determine which jobs are best-suited to their needs, interests and talents.

    Career counselors also counsel clients to help them improve their job skills, practice interviewing and develop a resume. Other job duties include aiding people who are experiencing work-related stress or burnout and supporting individuals who have lost their jobs.

  • Marriage and family counselors offer social, emotional and mental health treatment to couples and families. They may conduct counseling sessions with a couple or the entire family unit, or they may focus on helping one individual within the family who is suffering from emotional or psychological distress.

  • Addictions and behavioral counselors work with people suffering from addictions to things such as drugs, alcohol and gambling. Some counselors in this field specialize in working with individuals with a specific behavioral problem such as an eating disorder. Professionals in this sub-specialty area often conduct individual counseling sessions, but they may also perform group therapy. In addition to working with the person suffering from the addiction or behavioral problem, these counselors also help family members who have been impacted by the primary client's actions.

  • Mental health counselors work with people suffering from emotional or psychological distress and promote mental health. They may work with individuals suffering from a range of problems including anxiety, phobias, depression, grief, esteem issues, trauma, substance abuse and other issues. In addition to offering individual counseling, mental health counselors often work as part of a treatment team that might include physicians, psychologists, social workers and other health care professionals.

  • Rehabilitation counselors help individuals suffering from physical or emotional disabilities that may affect their family, social, school or work life. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, these professionals "...evaluate the strengths and limitations of individuals, provide personal and vocational counseling, offer case management support, and arrange for medical care, vocational training, and job placement."

    They may also help individuals who have experienced an injury make the transition back into the workforce. By serving as advocates for their clients and connecting them with other services, rehab counselors help their clients maximize their ability to live and work independently.

Educational Requirements

The educational and licensing requirements vary depending upon the state in which you wish to practice and the specialty area you choose. In most cases, a minimum of a master's degree in counseling, psychology or social work is required to become a counselor. The type of degree you ultimately choose to pursue will also depend on the type of counseling you want to perform.

Counseling programs are often located in a university's school of education, health science or psychology. Some of the possible areas of study that may be offered include:

  • School counseling
  • Student affairs counseling
  • Career counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Community counseling
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling

In order to gain licensure, most states require at least a master's degree. For some specialty areas, such as school counseling, states may require graduation from an accredited school counseling program and additional continuing education credits. For marriage and family counselors, many states require a master's degree and an additional two years of supervised clinical experience in order to be licensed.

Licensing requirements can also vary depending upon the work setting. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that while counselors employed in a college career center may not need to be licensed, some states require career counselors employed in private practice to have a professional counseling license.

In addition to earning state licensure, some counselors opt to become certified by a professional certification board. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers a National Certified Counselor credential as well as certifications in sub-specialty areas including addiction counseling, clinical mental health counseling and school counseling.

If you are interested in becoming a counselor, start by doing some research on your State's educational and licensing requirements for different counseling specialty areas.

Where Do Counselors Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 665,500 counselors employed in 2008. The Occupational Outlook Handbook offers the following employment distribution:

  • Educational, vocational, and school counselors: 275,800
  • Rehabilitation counselors: 129,500
  • Mental health counselors: 113,300
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors: 86,100
  • Marriage and family therapists: 27,300
  • Counselors, all other: 33,400

How Much Do Counselors Earn?

As with any profession, salaries for counselors vary depending upon education, specialty area, employer, years of experience and geographic location.

In 2008, median annual wages for individuals employed in the follow areas were:

  • School, Educational and Vocational Counselors: $51,050
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Counselors: $37,030
  • Mental Health Counselors: $36,810
  • Marriage and Family Counselors: $44,590
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: $30,930

The Occupational Outlook Handbook notes that individuals who work in group practices and those who are self-employed in a well-established practice tend to have the highest earnings.

References:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Counselors, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos067.htm

Understanding NBCC’s National Certifications. (2011). National Board for Certified Counselors. http://www.nbcc.org/OurCertifications

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