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How to Become a Counselor

Become counselor

How to Become a Counselor

First, we’ll start with a quick definition: a counselor (also called a therapist) is a licensed professional who enable others to overcome problematic issues and achieve personal goals. They are extensively trained, and they use techniques that help clients to lead happier, more satisfying lives.

There are many ways that counselors provide therapy for their clients: some work with families, and help strengthen relationships; others assist individuals who are struggling with a specific issue, such as a mental health disorder, an addiction, or a behavioral problems; some choose to work with a specific age group, and counsel children or adults or senior citizens.

The career options for people who are interested in counseling are broad, and many therapists change their focus a few times over the course of their careers.

In general, though, most counselors fall into the following categories:

School Counselors. Sometimes called guidance counselors or educational counselors, school counselors work with students in an elementary or high school setting. They have a wide range of responsibilities, and help kids and young adults with:

  • Academic achievement: Counselors help find tutors and get the in-class resources students need to excel scholastically;
  • Social issues: Educational therapists ensure that students are getting along with each other, and help classmates form positive bonds; and
  • Family or personal issues: School counselors offer private, one-on-one sessions so that students can discuss their interactions with peers and family members.

School counselors interact with their clients in a variety of ways—perhaps moreso than any other type of counselor—and can make truly a meaningful difference in a child or young adult’s life. We’ve included posts on the steps to become a counselor in schools (as well as all other environments) in our blog and in our sidebar, so feel free to learn more!

University Counselors

College students face a unique set of issues: many are living away from home for the first time and experiencing a level of independence that is new to them; some feel exasperated by the intensity of their classes, and the responsibility of being a student; and all of them are meeting new people and dealing with social situations that may be intimidating. College life can be difficult, and a college counselor is tasked with helping students maintain a healthy and positive lifestyle. It is worth noting that whereas grammar school counselors and high school counselors may also focus on a student’s academic and professional career, college counselors usually focus only on traditional counseling, and help with the student with personal issues.

Marriage and Family Counselors

Families come in all shapes and sizes, but every family faces issues that can make life difficult. Even the most stable and loving people will eventually experience dilemmas that undermine and harm relationships. A marriage and family counselor focuses on interventions to help resolve conflicts between family members, and promote a happy, health family unit. They are trained to assist with concerns related to relationship dynamics, communication problems, parenting skills, financial difficulties, and the bonds between family members.

While the work can be difficult, many practitioners find working with couples and families very rewarding. Families who “do the work” and embrace a new style of interacting with each other often grow closer and more loving, and for a counselor, being part of the process can be a very satisfying career experience.

Substance Abuse/Addiction Counselors

People who have a dependence on drugs or alcohol often find their lives are spinning out of control. They may lose their jobs, find themselves in financial trouble, or destroy their most valuable personal relationships and harm the people they love. Many attempt to control their behavior on their own, but find their efforts ineffective. A substance abuse counselor helps people with addictive behaviors to retain control of their lives, and repair the damage done to their relationships. Much of a substance abuse counselor’s work is done one-on-one with the client, but they also use group therapy to provide support and develop an addict’s accountability, as well as family therapy to help those who have been impacted by the primary client’s behaviors.

Behavioral counseling is a related field of work, where therapists specialize their focus and work with people who want to discontinue a destructive or maladaptive activity. Behavioral counselors may work with people who suffer from eating disorder, gambling problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and other self-harming actions.

Our scientific understanding of what makes a person become repeat a self-damaging behavior is limited, and we do not yet comprehend the neurological processes that cause people to become addicted or act in self-harming ways. But despite the lack of scientific insight, substance counselors and behavioral counselors successfully counsel clients to discontinue unhealthy activities and dependencies, so that they can repair their lives and create fulfilling relationships.

Mental Health Counselors

Many people suffer from conditions that they do not understand. They may feel depressed, and not understand why, or they may feel tremendous anxiety, even though there is nothing in particular that should worry them. Some others may experience paranoia or delusions, and have no one to share their concerns with. Mental health counselors work with people who suffer from a variety of disorders, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and trauma.

Therapists who provide mental health support engage in one-on-one counseling appointments, arrange group sessions so that clients have community support, and work with families of the primary client to promote healthy relationships and communication. Very often, mental health counselors are a part of a “treatment team” comprised of physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals who convene to provide the most in-depth care possible.

Just as we do not understand the physical and chemical nature of addiction, our understanding of mental illness is also in its infancy. However, researchers have developed powerful medications that provide support and an “emotional base” for those suffering from the mental health conditions. With the help of medication and counseling, a very high number of people are able to lead satisfying and happy lives.

Private Practice Counselors

Instead of working at a school or a hospital or a mental health clinic, many counselors “open their own shop” and provide therapy for people who live in the community. Private counselors (sometimes called “private practitioners”) help people with a wide range of problems, and may help clients with relationship problems, family concerns, drug addiction, personal growth, or whatever else the client wants to discuss. Because they are self-employed, private practitioners may charge their clients cash for each visit, or accept insurance payments from health insurance companies.

Multi-purpose Counseling

It is worth noting that while many counselors focus on working with a group of people who have a specific problem, most therapists will work with people who have any number of the problems listed above. A marriage and family therapist may work with a client who has been addicted to drugs, and help him or her to redevelop family bonds; a substance abuse counselor may serve as a marriage counselor and enhance communication between two spouses; or a mental health counselor working with someone with severe depression may also provide support that helps that client overcome an eating disorder. While therapists often choose a specific branch of counseling to practice, they usually find themselves helping clients face issues that are outside their field of focus. Therefore, most counseling degrees train a therapist to work with clients who face any number of issues.

How to Become A Licensed Therapist

So how do you become employed as a therapist? In the U.S., each state has different requirements that determine how to become a counselor—but they all require that counselors receive a certain level of education and attain certain licenses. Here are the requirements for education and licensing that are common to most states:


Most states will require a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. Each of those master’s programs teach techniques that therapists use with patients, but each has a slightly different focus. A counseling degree is the broadest course of study, and focuses on counseling interventions and family interactions. A psychology degree is a broader program that teaches counseling techniques, but it also trains students to do psychological research in a laboratory setting. A social work degree also instructs students on how to counsel people, but it has more of an emphasis on social justice and the political/social factors that affect clients’ lives. For more information about the different types of education counselors receive, we’ve written a detailed post about types of counseling degrees.

It is important to note that some counselor’s continue on after their master’s degree and get a doctorate degree (PhD), but obtaining a doctorate degree is not necessary in order to become a counselor.


Each state has a specific set of licenses that a counselor must attain. For the most part, the requirements to get a state counseling license consist of a certain number of supervised hours at a job site counseling patients (which usually takes two years to complete), and successful completion a state exam. Each state has different licensing requirements for each field of counseling, so a psychologist will have the get a psychologist’s license, a social worker will have to get a social worker’s license, and so on.

For an excellent resource about each state’s educational and licensing requirements, you can check your state’s homepage. They will usually list the educational degrees needed, the licenses that need to be attain, and any other state-specific requirements.

One last note: it is important to remember that you can get your master’s degree from any accredited program in any state. However, in order to be a counselor in a specific state, you will have to attain counseling licenses in the state you wish to practice. So, for example, if you wish to work as a counselor in Washington state, you can go to school in Oregon, but you must attain the a Washington state license in order to practice in Washington.

How Nicole Became a Counselor

Sometimes it’s easier to understand how to become a therapist when all the steps are laid out. Here’s an example of someone—let’s call her Nicole—who wants to become a counselor in the state of New York. According to the requirements of New York, Nicole would need to:

  • Graduate from high school;
  • Attain a bachelor’s degree, usually in psychology, counseling, or social work—although some master’s programs (such as a social work master’s program) will admit applicants who have bachelor’s degree in other fields of study, such as political science, sociology, English literature, or finance;
  • Attain a master’s degree—in Nicole’s case, she decides to get a master’s degree in social work (called an “MSW”), and complete the two internships that are a part of a master’s in social work;
  • Obtain her first New York state license right after she graduates from her master’s program, and become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), by passing an examination. Nicole is now allowed to counsel patients, but she must do so under a supervisor’s guidance; and, finally, Nicole can
  • Obtain her second New York state license, and become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), by completing three years of counseling people with the help of a supervisor, and passing an exam.

It is important to note that Nicole is able to counsel (and get paid!) while she gets her master’s degree, and while she completes the three years of supervised counseling. HOWEVER, during those three years, she must have a supervisor who gives her feedback. (Supervision is a very important part of a counselor’s training and licensing, because it is where counselors get feedback from training and licensed counselors). After completing the three years of supervised training, Nicole would be a fully-licensed counselor, and would have a number of professional opportunities, including the opportunity to open up her own practice.

How Much Do Counselors Make? Salary and Income Information

So how much do different types of counselors make? Here is a breakdown, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Marriage and Family Therapists earned different salaries, depending on where they worked. Those who worked for…

  • State government made $56,320 per year;
  • Local government made $54,340 per year;
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers made $47,480 per year;
  • Offices of mental health practitioners made $46,800 per year; and those who worked for
  • Individual and family services made $42,150 per year.

The lowest-paid 10% of marriage and family therapists earned less than $24,180 per year, but the top 10% of marriage and family therapists made more than $63,630.

Mental Health Counselors also made different salaries depending on where they worked. Those who worked for…

  • Local government made $46,590 per year;
  • Hospitals made $41,930 per year;
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers made $38,840 per year;
  • Individual and family services made $37,700 per year; and those who worked at
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities made $30,260 per year.

10% of mental health counselors earned less than $24,180 a year, while the top 10% earned more than $63,630 a year.

School and Career Counselors earned the following:

  • Counselors in elementary and grammar schools earned $60,000 a year;
  • Counselors in junior colleges and community colleges made $51,050 per year;
  • Counselors in colleges and universities earned $44,610 a year; and
  • Counselors in vocational rehabilitation centers made $35,210 per year.

The bottom 10% of school and career counselors made less than $31,630 a year, and the top 10% earned more than $86,250.

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors had the following earning statistics. Those who worked in…

  • Hospitals earned $45,160 a year;
  • Local government made $44,280 per year;
  • Individual and family services earned $37,020 per year;
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers earned $35,670 in a year; and those who worked in
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities made $33,570 per year.

For substance abuse counselors, the lowest-paid 10% earned $24,690 or less, and the highest-paid 10% made more than $60,400.

Psychologists are among the highest paid counselors. The latest salary research determined that psychologists who work as…

  • industrial-organizational psychologists earned $87,330 a year;
  • clinical, counseling, or school psychologists earned $66,810 per year; and psychologists who worked in…
  • “all other fields” made $89,900 per year.

The bottom 10% of psychologists made less than $39,200 per year, and the highest-paid psychologists earned more than $111,810 per year.

(Quick note: If you’ve read the salaries above, you probably want to know what a “industrial-organizational psychologist” is. An industrial-organizational psychologist focuses on workplace behavior, and concentrates on the “psychology of the workplace.” S/he will develop strategies and tools to come up with programs to enable workers to be more productive, tests on how to hire “the right person for the job”, and may also be involved with “product psychology”—that is, the processes by which people decide they do or do not like a product. A career as an industrial-organizational psychologist isn’t a good fit for someone who wants to be a counselor, but it’s great for people who are interested in how business and psychology interact).

Final Thoughts About a Career as a Therapist

Hopefully the information about gives you a clearer idea on how to become a counselor. Therapists provide a valuable service to the community, and can make a huge difference in the lives of the people they work with. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to explore the site. We’ve included interviews with psychologists, social workers, and counseling grads; we’ve detailed different career options; and we’ve listed some of most rewarding (and some of the most challenging) aspects of the profession.

If you decide that a career as a counselor is right for you, we wish you all the best—and we want you to succeed. The world needs more people who want to help others, and you can be one of them!