Counseling Degree Overview


Updated April 19, 2024 · 3 Min Read

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A degree in counseling is the first step to a potentially rewarding career in the growing mental health field. Learn more about the types of counseling degrees, licensure requirements, and what you can do after graduation.

Types of Counseling Degrees

State boards generally reserve the title of counselor for individuals who meet specific educational and licensure requirements. You need a graduate degree to become a licensed counselor in most states.

Earning an associate or bachelor’s degree can help launch you into entry-level positions or prepare you for advanced studies, but a master’s in counseling is the minimum educational requirement for licensure. In almost all states, you cannot use the title of counseling psychologist without completing a doctorate in counseling psychology.

Associate Degrees in Counseling

While most states require a master’s for counseling licensure, an associate degree provides the knowledge and transferable skills needed to continue your undergraduate education or move directly into the work world in counseling support positions, such as mental health technicians or youth counseling assistants.

A 60-credit associate degree may fulfill the general education requirements of four-year bachelor-granting institutions. Aspiring counselors should look for an associate degree that includes coursework in counseling, general psychology, human services, or related areas.

Associate degrees typically take two years to finish and may save time and money for students unsure about their career plans. The availability of online associate programs offers a convenient option for adults with work or family commitments.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Counseling

Bachelor's degrees in counseling are not as prevalent as those in general psychology, but both prepare you for entry-level positions in addiction counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or case management. The academic foundation you receive in an undergraduate degree prepares you to enter a master’s program, which most states require for a professional counseling license.

The 120-credit bachelor’s curriculum typically covers theoretical perspectives, research methods, and counseling tools and techniques. Common courses cover lifespan development, abnormal psychology, and individual counseling techniques. Most programs require an internship or some form of clinical field experience.

An online bachelor’s may offer a more convenient and, in some cases, more affordable alternative to on-campus degrees. However, many web-based programs require in-person field experiences or on-campus components.

Master’s Degrees in Counseling

You can become a licensed counselor in most states with a master's degree from a regionally accredited school or a program approved by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

A master’s in counseling, available in campus-based, online, and hybrid formats, requires approximately 48-60 credits. Popular specializations include substance use, mental health, and school counseling. A curriculum aligned with CACREP standards prepares you for licensure by emphasizing professional counseling orientation and ethics, social and cultural diversity, human growth and development, career development, group work, counseling relationships, research, and assessment.

In addition to earning your master's, obtaining counseling licensure requires a passing score on the National Counselor or National Clinical Mental Health Counselor examinations and completing your state’s supervised experience requirement.

Doctoral Degrees in Counseling

A doctorate in counseling psychology is a terminal degree preparing graduates for advanced clinical, administrative, research, and teaching roles. Although a master’s is required to practice as a licensed counselor, only doctoral degree holders can use the title of counseling psychologist.

You may choose from two types of doctoral programs. A Psy.D. degree prepares you for advanced clinical practice, while a Ph.D. emphasizes research and teaching. Ph.D. programs require a written dissertation based on original research. A Psy.D. degree typically requires a capstone project based on applied research on a counseling problem or application. Both degrees require an internship or practicum.

Several doctoral programs in counseling psychology offer distance learning options. However, the American Psychological Association does not accredit fully online doctoral degrees, which may affect your eligibility for licensure.

Frequently Asked Questions About Counseling Degree Types

What degree is best for counseling?

A bachelor's degree may qualify you for entry-level positions in counseling roles, but you need a master's in counseling to practice as a licensed professional counselor.

Are online counseling degrees respected?

Online programs from accredited schools meet the same academic standards as campus-based options. Your diploma does not indicate whether you earned your degree online or in person.

Can you become a counselor without a degree?

You need at least a bachelor's for entry-level positions and a master's in counseling for state licensure. However, a high school diploma may qualify you for employment in counseling-related support roles as community health workers, social services assistants, and teacher aides.

How long does it take to earn a counseling degree?

After earning a four-year bachelor's degree, you will spend approximately 2-3 years completing your master's in counseling. Some accelerated online programs may only take 18 months. A doctorate in counseling psychology can require anywhere from 4-8 more years.

What Does a Counselor Do?

Counselors work with people from diverse backgrounds and all age groups who seek help with a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral conditions that negatively impact their lives.

These professionals apply different types of therapeutic methods and techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapy, to diagnose and treat multiple conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and phobias. They help their clients develop coping strategies and make decisions that lead to a healthier life.

Licensed professional counselors must hold a master’s in counseling and the designated state licenses to practice in their specialties. The most common employers include hospitals, mental health and substance abuse clinics, and social service agencies.

What Else Can I Do With a Counseling Degree?

A counseling degree can lead to various careers beyond mental health settings. Counselors may use their skills to find employment as career coaches, financial consultants, and school guidance counselors. Employers may hire counselors for full-time positions or as consultants in areas such as marketing and consumer research, human resources, and workplace training and development.

Licensed professional counselors often expand their skills and marketability by obtaining voluntary certifications and a state license to practice. Certifications in addiction counseling, rehabilitation counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, and career counseling demonstrate that a counselor has met national standards for this specialty practice, including additional education and experience.

Page last reviewed on April 15, 2024

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