As a counselor, you will have the chance to change lives. Before you can get started helping clients with challenging life situations, relationship problems or mental and emotional health disorders solve their problems, you will need a college education. Jobs at the bachelor’s degree level are limited, but many opportunities emerge for those with a master’s degree program. One positive of working in the field of counseling is that you don’t need a doctoral degree for the best jobs in the field.
Can You Be a Counselor With Only a Bachelor’s Degree?
There are certain roles in counseling for which an undergraduate degree is enough, but they might not be what students think of as “good” jobs. These primarily entry-level roles exist only in certain fields of counseling, such as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling, and only in certain environments and capacities, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
In these roles, you may be limited to conducting group counseling sessions rather than one-on-one counseling services. You won’t be able to move into a different area of counseling, like mental health counseling, school counseling or marriage and family therapy, without going back to school. You can’t work in any environment or capacity that would require you to hold a license, because you don’t have enough education to be eligible for licensing. If you want to run your own private practice, a bachelor’s degree won’t help you achieve your goal.
Only 19 percent of substance abuse counselors report a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education.
What Can a Master’s Degree Do for Your Counseling Career?
A master’s degree is the expected level of education for most jobs in the field of counseling. Through master’s level programs in subjects like marriage and family counseling, school counseling, mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation counseling, you learn the theories and practices you need to work in the field. A master’s degree is generally necessary to attain the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist credential or Licensed Professional Counselor credential. Without going to graduate school, you will have a hard time finding a job in most areas of counseling.
One especially valuable aspect of master’s degree programs in counseling is the fieldwork component. Any graduate counseling program you enter is likely to include substantial field experience requirements. Through practicum and internship experiences, you will work under the supervision of experienced counselors to learn to apply the counseling techniques you have learned in the classroom and experience what it is like to provide direct client service.
Although a master’s degree is one requirement for licensure eligibility, most states also have experience requirements for professional counseling licenses. It’s not unusual to need to complete thousands of hours of supervised experience before you can get your license.
When Would You Need a Doctorate in Counseling?
In the field of psychology, doctoral degrees are often a necessity, but that is not the case in counseling occupations. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) outlines specific situations in which a doctoral degree would be useful. Doctorates in psychology can help counselors who want to contribute to research, teach and supervise students at the college and university level or take on administrative and leadership duties in a counseling agency or organization.
What if you just enjoy the direct client service component – essentially, the counseling part of the counseling career – and aren’t interested in research, teaching or administration? While doctoral degrees include some focus on counseling theories and practices, the curricula focus more heavily on these other areas of counseling, including advocacy, scholarship and leadership.
If you wish to expand your counseling skills and areas of practice without branching out into these other job duties, post-graduate certificate programs and professional development opportunities may be better choices for advancing your knowledge.
The Best Jobs in Counseling
The best-paying counseling roles are school and career counselor. These related occupations earn a combined median wage of $56,310, the highest median salary of all counseling jobs, according to the BLS. The 44 percent of school and career counselors who work in public and private elementary and secondary schools enjoy an even higher median wage of $63,280. Opportunities in the field are also growing by 13 percent, nearly twice the rate of job growth for all occupations. School counselors tend to find it rewarding to work with children and help them succeed academically and socially.
Another excellent counseling role is marriage and family therapist. With a $50,090 median wage and a much faster than average rate of job growth at 23 percent, both income potential and job outlook are positive in this occupation. It can be challenging to work with spouses who are on the verge of separation or to try to mend damaged family dynamics. However, the results of seeing people who love each other learn how to communicate better and develop more functional relationships make the stress worthwhile. This role also affords you the opportunity to start your own private practice, and about eight percent of the workforce is self-employed, the BLS reported.
Counseling roles in the fields of mental health, substance abuse and behavioral disorders have their good points as well as their bad points. These jobs can be emotionally challenging in many ways. The median wage for this group of occupations, $44,630, is lower, even though a graduate degree is still required for most roles, the BLS reported. The job outlook, with an expected growth rate of 23 percent, is highly positive, but that might not be sufficient to make up for the stress and the comparably low pay rate.
One particular counseling role, rehabilitation counselor, pays a median wage even lower than that of all occupations across all levels of education, despite requiring a master’s degree. To consider this role a good job, you must have a real passion for the work.