For most counseling roles, you should be prepared to go to graduate school. Licensed counselors require a master’s degree plus thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although your precise career preparation path will depend on what kind of counseling you practice, where you work, and what your state’s requirements are, many aspiring counselors will spend at least seven years in school beyond earning their high school diploma. For counselors, training doesn’t end with a formal college education. They must also accrue thousands of hours of post-master’s clinical work experience and complete one or more professional exams before they can acquire a license.

Undergraduate Work for Prospective Counselors

Before you can embark on the graduate-level education needed to become a licensed counselor, you need to fulfill your undergraduate requirements. Most bachelor’s degree programs require around 120 college credits, which means full-time students can complete them in four years of study.

Although students may already have an inkling that they’re interested in a career in counseling by the time they begin college, most don’t major in counseling. Undergraduate degree programs in counseling are far less prevalent than those in related subjects of study, such as psychology.

Some colleges offer bachelor’s degree programs with a counseling element. These programs range from Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Counseling and Bachelor of Science in Counseling and Human Services programs to psychology programs with a focus on counseling, such as Bachelor of Science in Psychology – Crisis Counseling and Bachelor of Science in Psychology/Counseling degrees.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Degree in Counseling?

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One exception to the requirement that counselors hold a master’s degree is the field of substance abuse counseling. Although addiction counselors in private practice must have a master’s degree and a license, those working in other settings don’t always need an advanced education. In fact, there are some jobs for substance abuse counselors with just a high school diploma and certification, according to the BLS. If you know you want to be a substance abuse counselor but you don’t have your heart set on running your own private practice, then a Bachelor of Science in Addiction Counseling degree could be all the formal education you need.

Besides uncommon undergraduate counseling degree options, the best majors for aspiring counselors include all social and behavioral sciences as well as human services programs. Many counseling programs accept students with any undergraduate background.

Master’s Degrees in Counseling Studies

To become licensed as a mental health counselor or a marriage and family therapist, you need a master’s degree, the BLS reported. Although not required for all positions, master’s degrees can also expand your scope of practice in fields like mental health counseling and behavioral disorder counseling. With this advanced degree, you can provide a more extensive range of services and find work in employment settings that may not be available to you otherwise, such as private practice.

If you approach the field of counseling from a background in social work, you will need a master’s degree: the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Only with this degree and a license can you become a clinical social worker who is authorized to provide counseling services, the BLS reported.

What should you expect from a master’s degree program in counseling? Often, these programs are longer than traditional master’s degree programs, requiring as many as 60 or more graduate-level college credits. Completing these programs can take two and a half to three years of full-time study. Hands-on experience is crucial in master’s degree programs in counseling, which must often include practicum or internship obligations that meet or exceed state requirements. Your coursework will be tailored to your area of interest. Aspiring family and marriage therapists will devote more of their studies to learning about family dynamics. Substance abuse counseling students will focus more narrowly on matters specific to addiction, including substance use disorders, addiction and pharmacology and addiction and co-occurring disorders.

Other counseling roles that typically require a master’s degree include rehabilitation counselor, school counselor and career counselor, according to the BLS.

Doctoral Degrees and Counseling

When do you need a doctoral degree in counseling? For most counseling jobs that involve direct interaction with clients, earning a master’s degree and subsequent license is sufficient. You may wish to pursue a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree if you want to work in research, advance to a supervisory role or become qualified to teach and train aspiring counselors.

On the other hand, students who study counseling psychology, as opposed to mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling or marriage and family therapy, typically do need a doctoral degree. To use the job title “psychologist” in most capacities, a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree is required, according to the BLS.

While counseling psychologists spend more time in school than counselors and therapists, they earn higher wages. The BLS reports a median salary of $76,990 for counseling, clinical and school psychologists, compared $44,000 to $50,000 salary ranges for counselors.

The Path to Counseling Licensure

Licensure is a common part of the professional practice of counseling, but requirements vary by state and type of counseling offered. It’s not unusual for counselors to spend two, three or even four years acquiring the post-master’s supervised experience they need to finally become a licensed counselor.

Many states require applicants to pass some form of professional exam, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) for Licensure and Certification or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).

Additional Resources

What Can I Do With a Degree in Counseling?

What Is the Salary Potential for Someone With a Counseling Degree?

What Is the Difference Between a Counseling Degree and a Psychology Degree?

How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychologist?