What Is Counseling?
Are you a good listener and a perceptive thinker? You could put those talents to use in a variety of fields with a career as a counselor. You'll need to earn a college degree, but the level and type of degree necessary will depend on your desired career specialization. To match the wide variety of counseling careers available, counseling degrees also come in many different shapes and sizes, full-time and part-time, on-campus and online.
Generally speaking, a counseling degree prepares students to apply psychological, developmental, and mental health principles to effect cognitive, affective, behavioral, and/or systemic change. These skills may be used in a wide variety of employment settings, including hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, and private mental health practices.
A counseling degree prepares you for the situations you may face as a professional counselor. Depending on your specialization, you might help patients cope with anxiety, depression, mental disorders, emotional disorders, relationship issues, substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, career changes, job stress, athletic pressures, aging issues, the death of a loved one, suicidal tendencies, self-esteem problems, adolescent issues, or even the process of preparing for, applying to, and paying for college.
Preparing for a College Degree Program in Counseling
Obviously, the best counselors enjoy--and are good at--listening to and helping people who are experiencing various types of stress. Everyone experiences stress of some sort, which means that many very different career opportunities await counseling students. However, this variety also makes it important for students to choose a specialty fairly early, so they may prepare for the unique demands of their chosen field.
As early as possible, you should evaluate your goals and desires, as well as your own strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself the following questions to avoid ending up with the wrong type of counseling degree or on the wrong career path.
- How many years am I willing to spend on my own education?
- When I graduate, do I want to work with individuals, married couples, families, groups, or organizations?
- Would I be better at helping people with mental and/or emotional disorders, with addictions and/or eating disorders, with a history of abuse, or people dealing with career changes and job stress?
- Is my personality better suited to working with children, teenagers, the elderly, or people of middle age?
- Would I prefer to work in a clinical, corporate, or educational setting?
- If I want to work in education, do I wish to gain employment at the elementary, secondary, or college level?
These questions will help you narrow down the extensive list of possibilities.
Planning Ahead for Your Counseling Career
Careful preparation will improve any student's chance of success in a college degree program in counseling, whether it is at the undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level. The ill-prepared student may stumble into any one of a number of costly mistakes, most of which can be easily avoided with a minimal amount of research and simple planning.
Even as early as high school, students interested in pursuing a counseling career can begin to prepare themselves by taking counseling-friendly courses like biology, sociology, psychology, statistics, and speech communication. Research your educational and career opportunities (and restrictions) online, and volunteer with peer-counseling groups or teen awareness programs that promote a healthy and responsible lifestyle. Most importantly, check your state's licensure and certification requirements, and then draw up a plan for meeting each and every requirement.
Since most states require a graduate degree to become licensed as a professional counselor, you must decide what major to choose in college. It's important to keep in mind that many professional counselors choose to earn their bachelor's degrees in something other than counseling, such as psychology, education, sociology, or social work. When planning for graduate school, consider carefully the counseling specialization you wish to pursue and be sure the school you choose supports it.
Another great tip for those planning their counseling education is to seek the advice of potential employers, or talk to someone who is currently employed in your desired career. Ask them what courses and extracurricular activities would best prepare you for employment in their field. You'll not only gain valuable information but can also plug in to a useful network of professionals in your chosen field, which can help when it's time to hunt for jobs.
Career Education in Counseling
For the prospective counseling student, the increasing number of educational options might prove to be a bit overwhelming. However, with some research and a careful educational plan, the options tend to narrow substantially. Choosing the right level and type of degree program is extremely important and should not be taken lightly. Since the educational requirements for licensure and certification can differ by state, be sure to do your homework prior to choosing the degree program that will help you best reach your career goals.
Some factors to consider when choosing a program are its faculty, philosophy, specialty areas, accreditation, and location. Most of these factors can be researched on the school's website or by talking with faculty and students. Don't be afraid to ask questions, because you will be paying good money for your education. Find out if the faculty is more oriented towards teaching or research. Does the faculty work well together as a unit? Is the program's philosophy based on competence or experience? Is the program tailored to the licensure requirements of a particular state? Is the program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), or by another appropriate accrediting body, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), or the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE)?
Bachelor's Degrees in Counseling
Since most states and employers require counselors to have a graduate degree in their specialized field, the prospective counseling student has many options for undergraduate degrees, including a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in psychology, education, sociology, or social work. Bachelor's degrees specifically in counseling are less common.
With required courses like psychology, sociology, biology, statistics, and human development, a four-year B.A. or B.S. degree serves as an educational foundation, which a more specialized graduate degree can then build upon. Graduates of bachelor's degree programs (and sometimes even two-year associate degree programs) may be able to get jobs as social workers or substance abuse counselors, but a higher degree is usually required for certification in most mental health fields.
Online Degrees in Counseling
At the graduate level, many online opportunities exist for counseling students who wish to earn their master's or doctoral degrees in a distance learning, e-learning, or low-residency program. Although few undergraduate degree programs in counseling are currently offered online, many universities offer online undergraduate degrees in related fields, such as psychology, education, sociology, and social work. If you need flexibility in your degree program, accredited online colleges and universities can offer high-quality programs that allow you to work around your current schedule and obligations. Clinical programs will require either a brief campus residency or a locally arranged practicum, so that you can get the required hands-on training and patient contact.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Counseling?
A career education in counseling can lead to a wide variety of employment opportunities within the fields of human development, mental health, and psychotherapy. You could work in settings as diverse as schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and departments of social services, not to mention privately owned individual or group practices. Here are some of the most popular career paths:
- Mental Health Counselor
Together with other mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and school counselors, mental health counselors help individuals and groups deal with a variety of issues, including addiction, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, aging issues, job stress, and self-esteem issues.
- School Counselor
At every level of our education system, school counselors perform a variety of different functions. In an elementary school, a counselor might work with teachers and parents to evaluate a student's strengths, weaknesses, and special needs. High school counselors, sometimes called guidance counselors, assist students with various issues common to teenagers. They may advise students about anything from self-esteem or behavioral issues to college and/or career planning. A day as a guidance counselor might include listening to and advising a student who is upset, performing tests on and evaluating a different student who is struggling academically, helping another student plan their course schedule, and giving yet another student information about college majors, admission requirements, and financial aid or internship opportunities. All school counselors must be state-certified. Depending on the state, certification may require a master's degree, a teaching license, and/or two to five years of teaching experience.
- Vocational (Career) Counselor
Because of the broad demand for career counseling, counselors can either work within or outside an educational setting. Employment counselors help people make possibly life-changing career choices by evaluating their interests, skills, and experience, at the academic, professional, and volunteer levels. They also help people find employment opportunities and develop their job-hunting skills by teaching them techniques for interviewing and writing a resume.
Although career counselors may be able to find employment with only a bachelor's degree in vocational counseling, a master's degree is typically preferred, especially for college and university career counselors.
- Substance Abuse or Behavioral Disorder Counselor
These specialists help people overcome destructive behavior patterns, such as drug or gambling addictions, substance abuse problems, or eating disorders. Substance abuse counselors may sometimes be allowed to practice with as little as an associate degree, but national certification as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) still requires a master's degree in counseling, National Counselor Certification, and three years of clinical experience.
- Counseling Psychologist
Using a variety of techniques, including tests and personal interviews, counseling psychologists give people advice on dealing with everyday problems. Counseling psychologists work in a variety of venues, including universities, hospitals, and private practices, although most states require a doctoral degree (PsyD or PhD) in psychology for private practice.
Prospective students in this field should look closely at all state licensure requirements before committing to a particular program of study.
- Rehabilitation Counselor
Rehabilitation counselors are employed in a variety of settings, including private rehabilitation agencies, hospitals, and departments of social services. They work to personally, socially, and vocationally rehabilitate people who are dealing with a physical disability or a behavioral disorder like substance abuse.
- Marriage and Family Counselor
Marriage and family counselors work to help people with the sensitive issues that evolve within the home. Using non-medical psychotherapy techniques, marriage and family counselors participate in pre-marital or couples counseling, conflict resolution, divorce mediation, sexual counseling, and child or spousal abuse counseling. A master's degree in marriage and family counseling is required for national certification, but not all states require certification to practice.
Because all counseling career specializations focus on common themes like interpersonal communication, mental health, human development, and conflict resolution, counseling graduates may find their degrees useful in many other careers that focus on helping people. It's common for counseling students to pursue careers as teachers, social workers, registered nurses, clergy members, sports psychologists, or occupational therapists. Some may choose to pursue a master's or doctoral degree in clinical or educational psychology in order to become a clinical or school psychologist, while other students may choose to become psychiatrists by obtaining an M.D. in psychiatric medicine.
Certification and Licensure
Although 46 states and the District of Columbia have established certification or licensure programs for counseling professions, all of them are slightly different, and not all of them are mandatory. This means that the prospective counselor must carefully research her particular state's requirements in order to choose the correct educational program for licensure.
It is mandatory in all states for school counselors to obtain state certification as a school counselor. However, certification requirements vary by state, so the importance of research cannot be overstated. For example, some states even require public school counselors to have both counseling and teaching certificates and two to five years of teaching experience.
On a national level, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) grants a general certification of National Certified Counselor (NCC) to those counselors who earn a graduate degree, complete two years of field work (graduates of CACREP-accredited programs in counselor education are exempt from this requirement), and pass the NBCC's National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE). Although this certification is voluntary, some states exempt NCCs from taking their state's mandatory certification exam. Some other general mental health counseling certifications through national organizations include Certified Mental Health Counselor (CMHC), Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (NACCMHC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).
The NBCC and other organizations, like the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), also offer specialized certifications in fields like school counseling, addictions counseling, clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.
To maintain their certification, NCCs must complete at least 100 hours of acceptable continuing education credit every five years (or retake and pass the NCE). State certifications also require continuing education, but the required amounts may differ by state.