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Counselor Careers

Counselors offer guidance to individuals who need personal, professional, behavioral or emotional help. The treatment and advice they are qualified to provide depends on what type of counseling they have specialized in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), counselors fall under the following categories:

  • Career Counselors: Help clients identify career paths that match their interests and skillset, link them to professional networking opportunities, provide job-search assistance and more.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists: Help couples and families overcome serious relationship problems by examining how each individual in the relationship is affecting the situation.
  • Mental Health Counselors: Diagnose and treat individuals suffering from psychological problems such as grief, anxiety, stress and depression.
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: Work with physically and emotionally disabled individuals, providing the necessary resources to help them to find suitable job opportunities and lead independent lives.
  • School Counselors: Help students find academic and social success at school. Duties may include addressing issues such as bullying or tardiness, and planning future course schedules.
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: Treat those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and other conditions.

Counselors work in several settings, including mental health facilities, private practices, rehabilitation facilities, schools, government agencies, independent living facilities, and prisons. Most counselors work standard, full-time schedules. However, they may need to work nights or weekends to treat some clients and school counselors may have summer months off, reports the BLS.

How to Become a Counselor

Because counselors treat people dealing with serious life issues, they typically need extensive training to enter the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most counselors are required to obtain graduate degrees and state licensure before they begin practicing. Students should research whether a degree program has been accredited by an organization like the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACRP), as this could be a factor in licensure eligibility.

The following steps represent one possible path towards counselor careers, although employment cannot be guaranteed:

  1. Obtain a high school diploma, or obtain the equivalent.
  2. Earn a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology or a related discipline.
  3. Complete a master's degree in a specific counseling specialty, which usually includes a practicum and/or internship where clinical experience is gained.
  4. Fulfill any additional counselor training requirements in order to earn state licensure.
  5. Apply for a counselor position in your field.
  6. Consider pursuing professional certification opportunities.
  7. Take continuing education (CE) courses to keep skills and knowledge current. CE courses are often a requirement for maintaining a state license and professional certification.

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

Those who wish to pursue counseling careers are generally required to earn a professional license to practice in their state. Licensure is awarded in a particular specialty, such as mental health counseling or school counseling. In addition to earning a master's degree, licensure candidates typically need to gain a specific amount of clinical experience and pass a state or national exam. Licensure may not be required in all circumstances, so it's best to check with state licensing boards for more information.

Professional certification is also available through several national organizations. Certification is different from a state license, although it may help fulfill licensing criteria in some states. Certification may also be preferred or required by employers.

Examples of organizations that grant professional certification to counselors include:

  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC): This organization offers voluntary professional certifications that allow counselors to demonstrate their expertise, including National Certified Counselor (NCC), National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), and Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC). States often require individuals to pass NBCC exams as part of the licensure process.
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS): This organization allows school counselors who embody the highest standards in the field to become board certified.
  • Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC): Individuals can become a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor through the CRCC. The BLS notes that some employers prefer to hire rehabilitation counselors who have obtained this credential. Certification is granted based on the test scores, education, clinical supervision requirements, and work history.

Certification and licensure for counselors often need to be renewed periodically. This typically includes completing continuing education courses. Students may need to gain several years of work experience before they are eligible for some professional certifications.

Counselor Job Growth and Average Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, counselor jobs are expected to grow between 2010 and 2020. In fact, as a group, counselors can expect to see a 26 percent national increase in employment - which compares favorably against the 14 percent average occupational growth rate.

The demand for counselors is attributed to a number of factors. For example, there is an increased demand for rehabilitation counselors because of the growing elderly population that is vulnerable to becoming disabled, as well as the expanding wounded veteran population. Substance abuse counselors are in demand because of the trend toward court-mandated drug treatment. Meanwhile, mental health and marriage counselors are seeing an increased demand as the societal stigma of seeking this kind of treatment decreases. Finally, school and career counselors should see more opportunities due to the continuing influx of students at all levels of education.

For job growth data broken down by specialty, as well as average salaries for counselor careers, refer to the table below:

National Job Growth Rate

(2010-2020)

Mean Annual Salary

(May 2012)

Marriage and Family Therapists

41%

$49,270

Mental Health Counselors

36%

$43,290

Rehabilitation Counselors

28%

$37,330

School and Career Counselors

19%

$56,170

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

27%

$40,920

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012; Occupational Employment Statistics, 2013

* Salary can vary based on location, employer, experience and other factors.

List of Related Careers

Those who are interested in helping others deal with major life situations may be interested in pursuing related careers, such as:

  • Occupational Therapists: Enable injured or disabled individuals to successfully participate in activities and perform daily tasks through equipment, behavior modification and other treatment methods.
  • Social and Community Service Managers: Ensure that social service programs and community organizations are effectively and efficiently providing help to a community.
  • Psychologists: Psychologists treat patients with a variety of health, mental and social issues by observing and interpreting their behaviors, as well as creating a treatment plan that will help to improve their conditions.

* These and other careers can require additional education, training and licensure.

Links to Sources and Associations

The following websites contain more information about the counseling profession:

American College Counseling Association, http://www.collegecounseling.org/

American Counseling Association, http://www.counseling.org/

American Mental Health Counselors Association, http://www.amhca.org/

American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, http://www.arcaweb.org/

American School Counselor Association, http://www.schoolcounselor.org/

Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm

Rehabilitation Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm

National Board for Certified Counselors, http://www.nbcc.org/

National Employment by Occupation, Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://bls.gov/emp/ep_table_102.htm

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, http://www.nbpts.org/

National Rehabilitation Counseling Association, http://nrca-net.org/

School and Career Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm

United States, May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm