Do you aspire to help people with mental, emotional, or behavioral problems find useful techniques and tactics to both cope with, and better thrive in, their daily lives? Do you love psychology and giving advice, but don’t want the extra expense or additional challenge of attending medical school, nor the responsibility of prescribing medicine or treatment? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, a career in professional counseling may be perfect for you.
Professional counselors must complete a graduate (master’s or doctoral) degree; however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional counselors earn roughly $44,170 per year. Additionally, the field is expected to grow by 19% by 2024.
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Employment Growth for Counselors, 2014-2024
|Employment, 2014||Employment, 2024|
|Mental health counselors||134,500||160,900|
|Marriage and family therapists||33,700||38,700|
- Do you want a master’s degree or a doctorate?
- What do you want to specialize in?
Because counseling usually requires a graduate degree, colleges that offer online counseling degrees are worth consideration. Online programs can help mitigate costs while also allowing for a more flexible schedule. See our directory of colleges that offer online counseling programs.
What’s the Difference Between a Counselor, Psychologist, and Psychiatrist?
While counseling, psychology, and psychiatry overlap, they are not the same thing.
- A licensed mental health counselor has at least a master’s degree and a minimum of two years’ working experience. They can evaluate and treat mental health problems with counseling or psychotherapy only.
- Psychologists have a doctoral degree—Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.—and their studies primarily focus on the mind and behaviors. They can provide counseling, psychotherapy, psychological testing, and treatment for mental disorders. They cannot write prescriptions.
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors first—M.D. or D.O.—and their training starts with four years of medical school, then continues with a year-long internship and at least three years of additional training as a psychiatric resident. Psychiatrists determine the difference between a mental disorder and an underlying condition that has psychiatric symptoms. As medical doctors, they can write prescriptions.
Is a Counselor the Same Thing as a Therapist?
The terms “counselor” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably, and they are closely related. That said, counseling focuses on specific issues and helps you address specific issues, such as work stress. Psychotherapy helps you address your underlying patterns of behavior, allowing you to make changes that help you feel better-equipped for life in general.
What Are the Advantages of an Online Counseling Degree?
A counseling degree from an accredited university opens a lot of paths to you. Because counseling is work in which you empower people to solve their mental health problems, on a personal level, you will learn a lot about yourself. More importantly, you will empower your clients to better their lives. Addiction counselors, career counselors, and trauma counselors (to name a few specializations) need a license, and the licensing process starts with your degree.
Can You Get a Counseling Degree Online?
If you couldn’t get an online counseling degree, we wouldn’t have written this article. You can absolutely earn your counseling degree online. What you can’t earn online is your license to practice.
What License Do I Need to Become a Counselor?
Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, so check out the American Counseling Association site for information. For the contact info and website of your state’s licensing board, there is this list on the American Counseling Association site.
Counseling Specialties and Concentrations
Online counseling degrees cover a broad range of topics, but typically, a major life change is central to the material. While different colleges will specialize in different concentrations, ultimately, your choice of concentration will depend on what you are most comfortable with.
- Addiction Counseling
Normally a 60-semester-hour program, these programs teach counseling students how to help people and families struggling with addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual or eating disorders, focusing on models of treatment and recovery, avoiding relapses and how to apply interventions.
- Career Counseling
Career counselors help students and individuals with career decisions and direction. Also known as vocational counselors, they help make sense and optimize the education, passions, personality, skills and interests for the best possible career paths.
- Clinical Mental Health
CMHC (Clinical Mental Health Counseling) span a wide variety of mental and emotional disorders, as well as promoting mental health and wellness.
- Community Agency Counseling
This area of study is specific to most organized agencies that specialize in problems like drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, and family.
- Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling
These counselors principally address the particular dynamics and issues of a family unit, while working with the entire family, a couple or individuals within the unit.
- Gerontological Counseling
These programs provide the knowledge and skills necessary to work with older adults and their families, specifically around the aging process, including the psychological, biological and social-cultural factors around this particular phase of life and the needs of both older adults and their families and caregivers.
- School Counseling
Graduates may work with any age of student from Kindergarten through high school. They work to promote the academic, career and professional development of all students K-12 in a school environment ranging from individual and group counseling to classroom and teacher guidance.
- Student Affairs and College Counseling
Specific to higher education and post-graduation from high school, this area of counseling tends to focus on the university environment, in everything from student life to residential, leadership and orientation events to career counseling and multiculturalism.
Accreditation for Online Counseling Programs
When selecting the online counseling degree program you want to attend, it is important to make sure that the college and program you select are accredited, which ensures that you receive an education with an acceptable level of quality. Accreditation from a system with U.S. Department of Education simply means that you will learn currently accepted practices.
Furthermore, to earn your American Counseling Association license, you must earn your degree from a program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE). Please note that as of July 15, 2015, these two accreditation boards are working toward merging.
Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs
The CACREP is a specialized accreditor, and only maintains accreditation responsibilities for counseling programs—including online counseling degrees—within a larger institution.
To obtain accreditation, counseling programs are required to submit a self-study that the CACREP reviews against standards. These standards include a variety of regulations regarding institutional settings, program mission and objectives, program content, practicum experiences, student selection and advising, faculty qualifications and workload, program governance, instructional support, and self-evaluation.
Educational Paths to Becoming a Counselor
Because of the variety of counseling specializations available, there are many paths to become a counselor. Not only do colleges offer different specializations, but some universities offer faith-based counseling while others maintain secular curriculum.
What you study plays a large part in the kind of work you get after graduation. For instance, anyone attending online school counseling programs is unlikely to work as a gerontological counselor. You studied a different age group and set of psychological needs, and you are likely missing vital classes and relevant work in a post-graduate fellowship experience.
Curriculum for an Online Counseling Program
Due to the variety of approaches to counseling and specialties available, courses can vary in scope and content. Due to accreditation standards, courses such as these remain somewhat consistent between online counseling degrees and traditional degrees:
- Critical Evaluation of Research
Provides understanding of research methods, statistical analyses, needs assessment, and program evaluation. This serves as a base-level introduction to the challenges faced by professional counselors.
- Counseling Skills and Techniques
Training in the skills needed to maintain an effective relationship with patients. This course usually involves some role playing for hands-on experience with techniques.
- Counseling Theories
An introduction to various theories of counseling and psychotherapy. In this class, you learn about the history and evolution of counseling, including Freudian psychotherapy, humanism, and so on.
- Group Counseling
An overview of counseling in a group setting, including group dynamics, leadership skills, and group counseling theories.
- Psychopathology & DSM-5
An examination of the criteria for psychological diagnosis and the use of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). A critical class for developing the ability to recognize and treatment of psychological conditions.
In most cases, being a counselor will start with a master’s degree; however, there are times when an associate or bachelor’s degree are accepted. Because of the slant in the field toward graduate-level study, earnings potential and job opportunities greatly increase as your education expands.
- Associate of Arts (AA)
Includes any associate degrees or certificates in relative fields from business to data and IT to health services, engineering, natural sciences or public service, depending on the community or junior college or bachelor’s program. An internship in counseling while completing your associate or undergraduate study program will help direct you later to the best course of study for you.
- Bachelor of Arts (BA)
A wide variety of liberal arts degrees are offered by most colleges and universities and may range from art to English to languages to history to economics to physical and social sciences including psychology. A BA will ensure a well-rounded, foundational education, but also can be focused on counseling-supportive studies and skills.
- Bachelor of Science (BS)
The word ‘science’ in a bachelor of science degree may be somewhat misleading as the specialization may range from architecture to biology to chemistry to computer science to divinity to education to history to journalism to marketing to microbiology to politics or psychology. Clearly, there are some BS degrees (like psychology, nursing or cognitive science) that may be more well suited for a degree in counseling, but most programs will accept any undergraduate degree from an accredited institution. Especially fitting is the BSW or bachelor of social work, if available at your school.
- Master of Arts (MA)
Most common degree types for those pursuing a career in counseling are a master of arts in social work or counseling for families, individuals or even substance abuse.
- Master of Science (MS)
The most common masters of science in social work with counseling specialties from addiction to marriage and family to mental health to school to human behavior to counseling psychology.
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
Requires six years of college/university or clinical coursework in social work, guidance, counseling, psychotherapy, human services, psychology and others.
- Master’s Degree in Social Work or Social Welfare (MSW), Master of Science in Counseling (MSC), Master of Arts in Professional Counseling (MAPC) and Masters of Science in Education (MSEd)
All are varying degrees programs that are good foundations for a counseling career. Check both for accreditation and individual school’s course of study to see what is required.
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
A doctor of philosophy in psychology is an ideal degree for a counselor but also involves independent research and providing professional services. However, to use the title, ‘psychologist,’ you must meet state requirements and obtain a license to practice.
- Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
A doctor of psychology is an ideal degree for a counselor but also involves research, scholarship and some clinical training, as well as a possible dissertation. Again, to use the title, ‘psychologist,’ you must meet state requirements and obtain a license to practice.
- Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Involves completion of medical school and a residency, but may be in mental health.
- Doctor of Educational Psychology (EdD)
Doctoral degree not for private practice without licensing and board certification.
To find success as a counselor, a wide range of skills are needed. Many of these are considered “people skills,” but some are more technical and critical to behind-the-scenes work. While looking at different counseling degrees online, it greatly benefits you to find a program that will help you learn, practice, and master some of the below skills:
- Clinical Supervision
A formal process of support and learning that enables you to develop knowledge and competence while also taking responsibility for your practice and enhancing the protection and safety of your patients.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 9%
- Bereavement Counseling
A form of psychotherapy that helps people cope with death or with a major life change that results in feelings of grief, for example, a divorce.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 6%
- Substance Abuse
Also sometimes called addiction counseling, this skillset helps you guide your patient to overcome their addiction and find and stick to a recovery plan.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 5%
- Group Therapy
Patients often look to group therapy as a cost-effective way to receive treatment and support. As a practitioner of group therapy, you must gain leadership skills and understand group dynamics and counseling methodologies.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 2%
- Writing Procedures and Documentation
Knowledge is only useful if you can share it with others, and often, hospital or clinic privileges are predicated on how up-to-date your patient records are. Effective documentation is a must.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 2%
- Oral/Verbal Communication
Much of your time is spent helping people understand why they behave in ways they regret. Effectively communicating such information is paramount to your patient’s success.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 3%
- Diagnosis and Treatment Planning
You need to know how to diagnose various mental illnesses and, to successfully treat your patients, you need a plan of action.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 12%
- Case Management
Each patient is a case, and each case requires assessment, planning, care coordination, and advocacy options. It is likely you will need to work with other professionals to create optimal, cost-effective outcomes.
Salary growth potential for professionals with this skill: 2%
Internships and Fellowships
Internships aren’t just important, nice-to-have work experience for counselors. If you plan to earn your license, an internship or fellowship is necessary. The American Counseling Association requires 600 hours of internship to qualify for licensure, and many states also have their own internship or fellowship requirements. Check with your state’s licensure board for internship requirements.
An internship in counseling involves practical application of all skills learned in class, from actual counseling sessions to case management and diagnosis. In many cases, those earning their internship hours will go through organizations who specialize in offering affordable therapy and counseling. Moreover, internships can help further solidify your specialization by allowing you more time to practice diagnosis, theory, and treatment.
Licensing and Certifications
There are several different certifications available for counselors, and each helps further define your specialization:
- Mental Health Counseling: The National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination consists of 10 simulations designed to sample varied areas of competency. The NCMHCE is required for licensure in some states, and it is one of two testing options for the National Certified Counselor (NCC) designation.
- School Counseling: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, or The National Board) offers certification for school counselors, including those with degrees from online school counseling programs. To earn this certification, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, three years’ teaching experience, and if necessary in your state, a teaching license.
- Rehabilitation Counseling: The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) certification program not only allows certificate holders to declare their specialty in rehabilitation counseling, but also maintains a job board available only to those with the CRCC certification.
- Addiction Counseling: The National Board for Certified Counselors offers a Master Addictions Counselor certification. If you want to become an addiction counselor, this certification designates your professionalism and commitment to the field.
- Expressive Arts Counseling: Art therapy uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic, healing practice. The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) has several different levels of certification for art therapists, but all require a degree.
Career Outlook for Counselors
In a word, the job outlook for counselors is healthy. Because counselors can approach mental health from so many different directions and are present in so many fields—including education, hospitals, and their own counseling practices—the need for counselors continues to grow.
In particular, there is fast growth within mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and rehabilitation counseling. While all three of these fields require a master’s degree, they are projected to grow quickly between now and 2024. Below is a chart of where counselors work and the percentage of mental health counselors each work environment employs.
|Career Setting||Percentage of total counselor employment|
|Individual and family services||21%|
|Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers||17%|
|Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities||12%|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||11%|
|State and local government, excluding education and hospitals||9%|
Careers Requiring Advanced Degree
- School Counselor
- Description: School counselors help students develop academic and social skills needed for educational success.
- Average Salary: $54,560
- Degree and License Required: Master’s degree/license requirements vary by state
- Marriage and Family Counselor
- Description: Marriage and family counselors help people manage and address mental and emotional disorders and problems with family.
- Average Salary: $44,170
- Degree and License Required: Master’s degree/state license to practice counseling
- Crisis Counselor
- Description: A crisis counselor works with clients who have been through crises, listening to clients and providing resources and suggestions related to the crisis and clients’ specific needs.
- Average Salary: $38,000
- Degree and License Required: Varies by employer and state
- Addiction Counselor
- Description: Addiction counselors advise those with alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, or other behavioral problems.
- Average Salary: $41,070
- Degree and License Required:Bachelor’s degree/varies by employer and state
- NBCC Minority Fellowship Program – Master’s Addictions: Awards up to $11,000; Must pursue a master’s degree in addictions counseling. Must demonstrate knowledge of and experience with racially and ethnically diverse populations. Must show commitment to providing addiction counseling services to underserved minority transition-age youth (age 16-25).
- NBCC Minority Fellowship Program – Master’s Mental Health: Awards up to $8,000; Must pursue a master’s degree in mental health counseling. Must demonstrate knowledge of and experience with racially and ethnically diverse populations. Must show commitment to providing mental health services to underserved minority transition-age youth (age 16-25).
- Albert Hood Promising Scholar Award: Awards vary; Awarded to a doctoral student in the Department of Rehabilitation and Counselor Education at the University of Iowa.
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Minority Fellowship Program: Award varies; Must be in the first three years of a graduate-level academic program and enrolled full-time in a Marriage and Family Therapy doctoral program. Must be an AAMFT member at the time of selection and throughout the duration of the fellowship.
- American Mental Health Counselors Association: The AMCHA is the lead organization for licensed clinical mental health counselors. It provides advocacy, education, leadership, and more.
- American Counseling Association: The ACA is the world’s largest association of professional counselors. It offers continuing education as well as certification.
- Psychology Career Center: The Psychology Career Center is a free resource for students, educators, and professionals in psychology. It provides information on salaries, degree programs, and internships.
- American School Counselor Association: The AMSCA supports school counselors, including those attending online school counseling programs, and their efforts to help students academically, emotionally, socially, and with regards to their career aspirations.