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If you are interested in earning a graduate counseling degree, many schools offer both a master of science (MS) or a master of arts (MS). Both programs prepare you for counseling careers, but each offers a different emphasis. Use our guide to help you choose between an MS vs. MA in counseling.
MS vs. MA in Counseling: Curriculum Comparison
While both degrees share similar features, there are important differences. An MS in counseling focuses on the scientific and research aspects of the field. It also centers on the use of statistics and empirical evidence to inform counseling practice. The MA degree is grounded in the humanities, placing more of an emphasis on theoretical applications, therapeutic approaches, and legal and ethical issues.
Students who hold a bachelor's in liberal arts often pursue the more generalist MA degree. The MS degree, which usually offers more specializations, typically admits students with a bachelor's in psychology or a related field. Almost all master's programs require 600-700 hours of clinical internships that help fulfill state licensure requirements.
Both master's programs usually take two years of full-time study, requiring approximately 60 credits. Core courses include counseling practice; diagnosis, assessment and treatment; and professional orientation and ethics. However, an MS program requires more instruction in research methods, statistics, and evidence-based interventions.
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MS vs. MA in Counseling: Student Outcomes
Before enrolling in a counseling program, you need to consider whether the program meets your personal needs and career goals. Requirements differ for each MS and MA program, depending on where you live and the kinds of specializations offered.
Both an MS and MA degree can prepare you for state licensure in preparation for entering careers in the field. Because licensure regulations vary by state, you should always check with your state board before enrolling in a program. The licensed professional counselor (LPC) designation is the most common credential, although some states use the title licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) which is generally equivalent to the LPC license.
Career and Salary Outlook
Your master's degree can lead to an array of career possibilities, in positions such as mental health counselors, grief counselors, substance abuse counselors, and marriage and family counselors. Recent data comparing MS vs. MA counseling salaries indicates some variation in earning potential between the two types of degrees, with higher average annual salaries for MS degree-holders. In addition to the type of degree you hold, your salary also depends on where you work and your specialization.
Source: Payscale, September 2023
If you plan to advance your career in areas like research, postsecondary teaching, or specialized practice, you might consider a doctorate in counseling. Most Ph.D. and Ed.D programs do not differentiate between MS or MA applicants, admitting students from a variety of backgrounds in counseling, psychology, and related fields. While both types of master's degrees provide the foundational knowledge needed for doctoral-level work, the MS emphasizes research and empirical applications that might provide an advantage in some doctoral programs.
Choosing Between an MS vs. MA in Counseling
Despite the differences in emphasis, MS and MA degrees share many features, including a similar core curriculum, internship experiences, and credit requirements. As you evaluate the options available to you, consider whether they meet your personal needs and career and licensure goals.
- What are the program's prerequisites and admission requirements?
- Does the program meet licensing requirements for the state where I plan to practice?
- What specializations or concentrations does the program offer?
- What are the experience and expertise areas of program faculty?
- Does the department have robust connections with clinical sites?
- Does the program offer research opportunities that align with my interests or goals?
- Does the program prepare me for my career and licensure goals?
- Does the program offer my preferred learning format (on-site, hybrid, online)?
- Does the program offer flexibility if I want to work while I study?
- How much does the program cost, and what types of financial aid is available?
Other Counseling Degrees to Consider
Earning a graduate degree represents a considerable investment of time and resources. Before you choose any graduate program, take some time to consider your career goals and what degree path best fits your interests. You may find that other degrees besides an MS or MA in counseling might work better for you, personally and professionally. These are some of the other options available to you.
M.Ed in Counseling
Depending on the program, this degree can prepare you for a career as a K-12 counselor, college counselor, and mental health counselor, or as an administrator or educational researcher. The M.Ed in counseling often appeals to professionals with teaching or counseling experience.
Master's in Counseling Psychology
Like an MS or MA in counseling, this degree leads to a counseling license. However, the curriculum places more emphasis on core areas of psychology, statistics, and research. Students take courses in psychopathology; psychopharmacology; and psychoanalytical, diagnostic, and intervention therapies.
Master of Social Work
An MSW qualifies you to apply for clinical social work licensure. Licensed graduates can offer direct counseling services and work in a variety of settings, developing and implementing treatment plans and matching social services to client needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
What degree do most mental health counselors have?
Mental health counselors have completed a four-year bachelor's degree followed by a two-year MS or MA in counseling. Although specific requirements for counseling licensure differ across the country, most states require a master's degree, completion of postgraduate clinical hours, and a passing score on the national counseling exam.
Does MS vs. MA in counseling matter?
The answer depends on your personal interests and professional goals. While both degrees require about 60 credits to complete and cover the basic core foundations, there are key differences. In contrast to the humanistic-oriented MA degree, the MS places more emphasis on scientific inquiry and empirical applications. Both degrees prepare you for state licensure.
Can you get licensed with an MA in counseling?
An MA in counseling can prepare you for licensure as long as you fulfill the requirements established by your state board. To become eligible for a license to practice independently as a counselor in most states, you must hold at least a master's degree, complete supervised clinical hours, and pass the state-approved exam.
Is an MS or MA in counseling better?
You should choose the program that best aligns with the counseling career you intend to pursue. If you have a liberal arts and humanistic orientation, an MA may offer the right path to enter a career in the helping professions. If you are interested in scientific inquiry and applied research, an MS program may prepare you for those kinds of professional opportunities.