How to Become a Counselor: Education and Training Requirements

Dec 05, 2019

Students wondering how to become a therapist or why become a counselor can learn how education, training, and certification can lead to a rewarding career helping others. Counseling even allows students to specialize in particular areas of interest.

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Why Become a Counselor?

Counseling is a diverse field that aims to help people through different problems or issues they are facing in their lives. There are many different kinds of counselors who specialize in helping people through specific topics or aspects of their lives, such as a:

  • Mental health counselor
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Marriage and family therapist
  • School and career counselor
  • Rehabilitation counselor
  • Behavioral disorder counselor

Typically counselors spend time evaluating their patients' lives and situations and develop plans for moving forward. They usually spend a long time talking and working through problems, concerns, or questions with their patients and may offer additional outside resources to assist. Counselors usually need to be compassionate, patient, and have good listening and speaking skills.

What Do You Need to Become a Counselor?

Counseling qualifications may vary based on the kind of counselor a student wants to be. For example, the education, experience, and licensure requirements for a mental health counselor are a little different than the requirements for an education counselor, like a college counselor or a school counselor. As we explore the steps to become a counselor below, we will use these 2 types of counselors as examples.

Step 1: Counseling Education

Most counseling positions require at least a bachelor's degree in counselling or a related field, but many require a master's degree. Depending on the state and employer, mental health counselors typically need a master's degree. Students wanting a career as a mental health counselor may pursue a counselling major or study areas like social work or psychology.

Students interested in becoming a school or career counselor generally need to have their master's degree. They may pursue a master's in educational counseling, school counseling, or another related field.

Step 2: Experience

Most counseling education programs, including those for mental health counselors and school counselors, typically require a supervised, hands-on learning experience, such as an internship. Again, depending on the kind of counselor, these hours of clinical experience may be as high as 2,000 to 4,000 hours (per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)). Depending on the state, some school counselors may need 1 to 2 years of teaching experience before they are able to obtain state certification in the field.

Step 3: Professional Licensure

Students looking to become a licensed professional counselor will need to meet their specific state's licensure requirements. Mental health counselors are required to hold a state license to practice in any of the 50 states, while licensure requirements for school or career counselors vary by state.

Some states may require school counselors to earn a certification, endorsement, or license to work in the public school systems. This credential usually requires a master's degree, practicum/internship experience, and passing an exam. Career counselors in some states may also need to obtain a license.

Counselor Salary and Outlook

In 2018, the BLS reported that the average annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $47,920. Most of these counselors worked for outpatient care centers and made an average salary of $46,260, while those working at junior colleges made the most with an annual average salary of $63,760 in 2018.

The BLS also reported that the average salary for educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors in 2018 was $60,160. Most of these counselors worked in elementary and secondary schools making an average salary of $66,910 in 2018, while those in the federal executive branch made the highest average salary for the year at $71,690.

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