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Counseling Degree Programs – Information and Resources

Overview of Counseling Degree Programs

Counselors are professionals who help their patients cope with a variety of issues, ranging from everyday stresses to serious mental health problems. The field of counseling covers a number of professions, and counseling jobs for individuals with varying levels of education are available. As a counselor, you can choose from many different specialties, including family counseling, school counseling, substance abuse counseling, social work and many more.

Salary Information for Counselors

The salary you can expect to earn as a counselor varies considerably based on your level of education, work experience, job title, location and other characteristics. However, below are some of the average salaries for various counseling professions, as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Substance Abuse Counselor – $38,520
Mental Health Counselor/Marriage Counselor/ Family Therapist – $41,500
Social Worker – $44,200
School or Career Counselor – $53,610
Counseling Psychologist – $67,650

Work Environment for Counselors

Work environments for counselors vary based on the type of position. According to the BLS, counselors may work in schools, hospitals, outpatient care centers, private practices, government facilities and social assistance facilities. Some counselors may also be self-employed. Most counselors work during business hours, although counselors in some types of positions may work nights and weekends when necessary. Counselors typically work in an office setting and may spend a significant part of the day in a seated position. Counselors may work full or part time, depending on the nature of the position.

Job Outlook for Counselors

The demand for various types of counselors across the United States is increasing at the same or a faster rate than in most other professions. The average expected increase in job openings for all professions is 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, according to the BLS. The rates of expected increase for counseling professions are as follows:

Social Workers – 19 percent
School and Career Counselors – 12 percent
Mental Health Counselors – 29 percent
Marriage and Family Counselors – 29 percent
Substance Abuse Counselors – 31 percent
Psychologists – 12 percent

Counseling Degrees by Level

Certificates/On-the-Job Training – Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors are counselors who work with patients who are addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs or controlled substances in order to help them overcome their addictions.

In many cases, you can become a substance abuse counselor with only a high school diploma. However, you may need to complete a short on-the-job training program before you can begin working independently. Keep in mind that some employers may require higher degrees, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree, before you can apply for a job. Furthermore, you cannot work in private practice as a substance abuse counselor without a master’s degree and licensure from the state.

On-the-job training programs for substance abuse counselors will typically cover the following topics:

•Recognizing addiction
•Mechanisms for overcoming addiction
•Counseling skills
•Responding to crisis situations

Associate Degrees

With the exception of substance abuse counseling, most counseling professions require at least a bachelor’s degree. However, associate degree programs in the field of counseling are available from certain institutions and may allow you to obtain some entry level positions in counseling or a more demanding job at a facility with less restriction such as a religious organization or community center.

Associate degrees available to counselors include Associate of Arts in Psychology, Associate in Mental Health Counseling and Associate of Science in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling. Other specialties may also be available.

Associate degree programs typically require two years of full-time study and are often available from community colleges. Courses included in the curriculum of an associate degree program depend on the program’s focus. However, common topics studied include:

•Individual Counseling
•Group and Family Counseling
•Law and Ethics
•Case Management
•Topics specific to practice area (substance abuse, mental health issues, etc)

Some colleges require you to satisfy certain prerequisites before you can enroll in a program. These requirements often include a passing grade in specific general education courses. Most associate degree programs combine classroom study with observation and real-world counseling experiences. Although you won’t typically qualify for state licensure after completing an associate degree program, you may be able to obtain certification from a professional organization in order to enhance your resume.

Bachelor of Science in Counseling/Psychology

Although you still won’t be able to hold a license or begin your own practice in most cases, obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Counseling or Psychology allows you to apply for entry-level positions in most counseling specialties. You can typically obtain a bachelor’s degree in four years if you attend school full-time. However, the amount of time required to complete your degree may be longer or shorter, if you have transfer credits or attend school part-time.

Specific courses may vary, but a typical curriculum for a Bachelor of Science in Counseling or Psychology program will include:

•Intro to Counseling
•Theories of Personality
•Abnormal Psychology
•Social Policy
•Individual Counseling
•Group and Family Counseling
•Counseling Strategy and Techniques
•Trauma and Crisis
•Case Management

To enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, you may need to meet certain prerequisites. You may also have to satisfy general education requirements in order to graduate from the program.

After completing your Bachelor of Science in Counseling or Psychology, you may begin working in the field, or you may decide to pursue a higher degree. As with an associate’s degree, you won’t qualify for state licensure, but you may be able to obtain certification from a professional organization.

Bachelor of Social Work

If you want to become a social worker, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in this field can choose between a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and a Bachelor of Science in Social Work. Both degrees have similar career outcomes. However, a Bachelor of Arts program will typically incorporate more liberal arts courses, while a Bachelor of Science program will incorporate more science and math courses.

As with most other bachelor’s degrees, you can complete a Bachelor of Social Work in four years with full-time study. Courses often included in a Bachelor of Social Work program are:

•Intro to Sociology
•Abnormal Psychology
•General Psychology
•Psychology Research Methods
•Human Behavior
•Intro to Social Work
•Individual Counseling
•Group Counseling

Depending on whether you choose a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, you may also have to take specific liberal arts or math and science courses.

Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees are available in a number of specialties within the field of counseling, including social work, school counseling, marriage and family counseling, psychology and more. The master’s degree program you choose will determine what specialties you are qualified to pursue after graduation. Most master’s programs are available only to students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field. In most cases, you can obtain a master’s degree in two years if you attend school full time.

After obtaining your master’s degree, you will be able to qualify for nearly all entry-level positions in the field of counseling, as well as many leadership positions. You will also be able to qualify for state licensure and open your own private practice.

Master’s degree programs have varying curriculums, depending on the focus you choose. In general, these programs require you to study the same types of topics as a bachelor’s degree program requires. However, topics are covered more thoroughly. You will also be expected to take courses specific to your field of focus. For example, if you are enrolled in a Master of School Counseling program, you will take courses that apply specifically to school counseling.

Doctoral Degrees

Several doctoral degrees are available in the field of counseling, including a Doctor of Education in Counseling (Ed.D.), Doctor of Philosophy in Counseling (Ph.D.), Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D.) or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Your career options depend primarily on the degree you choose:

•Ed.D. in Counseling – Director/coordinator of school counseling programs
•Ph.D. in Counseling – Clinician positions in government agencies and universities, Professor of Counseling, Researcher or leadership position
•Ph.D. in Psychology – Professor of Psychology, Counseling Psychologist
•Psy.D. – Counseling Psychologist

Doctoral programs vary in length depending on your background. If you have only a bachelor’s degree, a doctoral program may take three to four years to complete with full-time study. However, if you have a master’s degree in a related field, you may be able to complete your doctoral degree in as little as two years. The curriculum also varies considerably by program. While doctoral programs with a concentration in psychology will focus more on psychological research and theories, doctoral programs with a focus on counseling will be more technical in nature. Most programs will require students to complete classroom study, clinical experience and/or research projects.
Keep in mind that you may still need to apply for state licensure in order to qualify for certain positions after completing your doctoral program.

Choosing a Counseling Program

Regardless of the type of degree you are pursuing, you should consider several different characteristics when choosing a program. Some of these characteristics include:


If your career path requires you to apply for state licensure after completing your degree program, you must make sure that the program you choose is approved by your state. Consult your state’s licensure board to ensure that all programs you are considering are approved.


In order to become accredited, counseling degree programs must meet certain standards published by various professional organizations. Programs that meet these standards tend to be of higher quality. However, keep in mind that a program may be approved by the state and not accredited, or vice versa.

Graduation Rate

Avoid programs with lower graduation rates, as these programs may be less effective or offer less support to their students.

Examination Pass Rate

If your career of choice requires you to pass a certification or licensure examination, try to find out the pass rate among students who have graduated from each program you are considering. Programs with higher pass rates tend to be more effective than those with lower pass rates.

Employment Rate

If students have trouble finding employment after graduation, the program they attended may not have prepared them for their careers as well as it should have. Inquire about the employment rate among graduates of all programs you are considering.

Faculty-to-Student Ratios

The lower the faculty-to-student ratio, the more individualized attention you can expect to receive. One-on-one attention from faculty members can greatly increase your chance of success, so try to choose a program with a low ratio.

Program Flexibility

While some programs may allow you to attend only part-time, other programs accept only full-time students. Be sure to find out whether a program allows for part-time study and/or online courses if you have other obligations, such as a job or family. If you have taken courses in the past, it’s also wise to find out whether your credits will transfer to the program you are considering.

Tuition and Fees

Before applying to any program, ask for a comprehensive list of all tuition and fees you will pay. If you cannot afford the cost, ask about financial aid. While some programs may offer scholarships, grants or loans, others may not. If you think you will still owe money after financial aid, be sure to ask about available payment programs.

Beginning Your Career

All programs will require you to satisfy certain qualifications before you can be accepted. Make sure that you understand all of these requirements thoroughly before you submit your application. In addition, it’s also important to learn about the requirements of the career you hope to pursue after graduation, which may include a background check, certification, license and more.

Counseling Scholarships

American Psychological Foundation Scholarships Association of Black Psychologists Epilepsy Foundation
Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Child Psychology Graduate Student Fellowship Future Counselors of America Scholarship Gallagher Koster Health Careers Scholarship
Kay Wilson Presidential Leadership Award NIH Undergraduate Scholarship NAJA Graduate Scholarship
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Psi Chi Awards and Grants Wayne F. Placek Grants
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