Starting a Career in Counseling

Girl talking to counselor

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Do you enjoy helping people work through their problems? You may want to consider becoming a counselor. Counseling is a popular specialty area that offers a diverse range of job opportunities.

Counseling Is a Popular Career

There are a wide variety of career options available to students of psychology, but counseling is one area that's particularly popular. Counseling can be an exciting career path, especially for students looking for a job centered on working directly with people to help solve real-world problems. If you're thinking about pursuing a job as a counselor, start by checking out some of the many specialty areas that are available.


While school counseling and mental health counseling might immediately come to mind, there are several other options too, including marriage and family counseling, vocational counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Here are the major specialties in counseling:

  • Educational and school counselors offer personal, educational, social, and academic counseling services. These professionals often work in elementary school, high school, or university settings and may help students assess their abilities and resolve personal or social problems. The job may also involve working as part of a team that includes teachers and school administrators.
  • Vocational counselors, also known as career counselors, help people make career decisions. They often conduct assessments to help people determine which jobs are best-suited to their needs, interests, and talents. Career counselors also counsel clients to help them improve their job skills, practice interviewing, and develop a resume. Other job duties include aiding people who are experiencing work-related stress or burnout and supporting individuals who have lost their jobs.
  • Marriage and family counselors offer social, emotional, and mental health treatment to couples and families. They may conduct counseling sessions with a couple or the entire family unit, or they may focus on helping one individual within the family who is experiencing emotional or psychological distress.
  • Substance abuse and behavioral counselors work with people who have addictions to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Some counselors in this field specialize in working with individuals with a specific behavioral problem, such as an eating disorder. Professionals in this sub-specialty area often conduct individual counseling sessions, but they may also perform group therapy. In addition to working with the person who has the addiction or behavioral problem, these counselors also help family members who have been impacted by the primary client's actions.
  • Mental health counselors work with people experiencing emotional or psychological distress and promote mental health. They may work with individuals experiencing a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, phobias, depression, grief, self-esteem issues, trauma, substance abuse, and more. In addition to offering individual counseling, mental health counselors often work as part of a treatment team that might include physicians, psychologists, social workers, and other healthcare professionals.
  • Rehabilitation counselors help individuals who have physical or emotional disabilities that may affect their family, social, school, or work life. They may also help individuals who have experienced an injury make the transition back into the workforce. By serving as advocates for their clients and connecting them with other services, rehab counselors help their clients maximize their ability to live and work independently.

Educational Requirements

The educational and licensing requirements to be a counselor vary depending upon the state in which you wish to practice and the specialty area you choose. In most cases, a minimum of a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or social work is required to become a counselor. The type of degree you ultimately choose to pursue will also depend on the type of counseling you want to perform. Counseling programs are often located in a university's school of education, health science, or psychology.

Getting a Licensed

If you're interested in becoming a counselor, start by doing some research on your state's educational and licensing requirements for different counseling specialty areas. In order to gain licensure, most states require at least a master's degree. For some specialty areas, such as school counseling, states may require graduation from an accredited school counseling program and additional continuing education credits. For marriage and family counselors, many states require a master's degree and an additional two years of supervised clinical experience in order to be licensed.

Licensing requirements can also vary depending upon the work setting. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that while counselors employed in a college career center may not need to be licensed, some states require career counselors employed in private practice to have a professional counseling license.

In addition to earning state licensure, some counselors opt to become certified by a professional certification board. One of the most well known is the National Board for Certified Counselors, which offers a National Certified Counselor credential as well as certifications in clinical mental health counseling and school counseling.

Number of Counselors in Varying Specialties

As of 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook offers the following employment distribution for counselors:

  • School and career counselors: 324,500
  • Rehabilitation counselors: 119,700
  • Substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral disorder counselors: 304,500
  • Marriage and family therapists: 55,300


As with any profession, salaries for counselors vary depending upon education, specialty area, employer, years of experience, and geographic location.

Current median annual wages for counselors employed in the following areas are:

  • School and career counselors: $56,310
  • Substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral disorder counselors: $44,630
  • Marriage and family therapists: $50,090
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $35,630

Outlook for the Counseling Profession

The Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates that the need for counselors and social workers will grow 12% from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than average. For marriage and family therapists, as well as substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral disorder counselors, the job outlook is a growth of 22% in the same time frame. 

1 Source
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  1. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. About marriage and family therapists.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.