Counseling degree programs can open the door to many occupations within the counseling profession, including that of school or career counselors, family therapists, mental health counselors, guidance counselors, marriage therapists and more.
To become a counselor, one must successfully complete a master's degree program, then meet all the licensure requirements for the appropriate state. Most counseling positions require a period of supervised work, such as an internship, before counselors are allowed to work with clients on an individual basis. There might be other requirements, including continuing education, that vary between states and from one counseling career path to another.
Counseling Degree Programs
Becoming a counselor requires a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field, followed by a master's degree in counseling. Many counseling degrees are specialized and prepare students for a particular career path, such as that of school counselor or mental health counselor. General counseling degree programs include but are not limited to courses such as the following:
- Interpersonal Communications -- covers effective communication, listening skills, paraphrasing, encouraging, asking appropriate questions, having empathy, reflecting feeling and meaning, and more.
- Human Sexuality -- provides background information and perspective regarding various facets of human sexuality, including emotional and cultural aspects, as well as how it drives behavior.
- Psychology of Childhood -- understanding the psychology of various aspects of childhood and adolescence, attachment theories, social adjustments and more.
- Psychology of Relationships -- study of how humans move into relationships, how they change in the light of various relationship struggles, how they orient themselves in relation to others and in the context of the relationship, and how relationships form between couples, friends, parents and families.
- Psychology of Group Counseling -- learning techniques that help the student lead group sessions, understanding how groups interact with one another to find deeper assistance, and ethical and professional leadership skills.
- Research Methods -- how to analyze research in counseling, psychotherapy, group interactions and more. The course might also touch on how to prepare research proposals, how to find research groups and subjects and how to proceed with the research process.
- Correctional Psychology -- discussion on principles, procedures and theories surrounding corrections, criminal justice, aggression and prejudice reduction, life skills training, functional assessments, treatment programs and more.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy -- an overview of CBT theories, practices and current research, including relaxation practice, activity scheduling and treatment plans for a variety of populations.
- Ethical and Legal Issues in Counseling -- study of ethical issues that might arise during family, marital or mental health counseling, confidentiality, clients' rights, signs of abuse and more.
- Counseling for Grief, Loss and Trauma -- how individuals and families react and respond to negative events, the cultural and spiritual aspects of loss, stress management, the practices of hospice and palliative care and therapeutic interventions with families.
- Clinical Assessments -- the recognition, understanding and treatment of various behaviors, including diagnostic categories such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychosis, affective disorders and lifestyle patterns that could be harmful.
In addition to the courses required for graduation, students might also be required to complete a master's thesis project. This can include in-depth research and analysis on a topic of study that fits into the student's potential career path.
Certification and Licensure
Most states require a license, certificate or endorsement in order for counselors to begin working with patients. Licensing typically requires a master's degree and anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In some states, obtaining a license also requires a background check. Counselors must pass the exam recognized by their state, as well as perform a requisite number of continuing education hours in order to keep their license. For more information on licensing for counselors, the National Board for Certified Counselors is a solid place to begin research.
Work Environment and Typical Responsibilities
Counselors work in a variety of settings, including clinics, hospitals, private practices, treatment centers, public or private schools and colleges, just to name a few. In each setting, counselors likely have private offices where they can speak with clients while preserving confidentiality and privacy. Many counselors work full time, and depending on the setting, they might work during regular daytime business hours, or might offer evening and weekend hours to accommodate more patients.
General responsibilities for counselors include:
- Diagnose and treat emotional and mental disorders, including depression and anxiety
- Help clients through serious situations, such as divorce or death in the family
- Aid clients healthy interactions with the important people in their life, such as spouses or children
- Work with teachers, administrators, hospital professionals and the like to obtain the treatment their clients might need
- Provide educational resources for situations such as bullying or mental illness
- Identify and report cases of suspected abuse or neglect
- Help clients set realistic goals and strategies to reach those goals
Salary Information and Employment Outlook
The average annual salary of counselors depends upon the type of counseling they do. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that mental health counselors made a national mean annual salary of $43,290 in May 2012, and have projected national job growth of 37 percent from 2010 to 2020 (bls.gov/oes, 2013; bls.gov/ooh, 2012). Marriage and family therapists made a national mean wage of $49,270 per year and also saw a job outlook of 37 percent. Counselors who worked in school counseling programs made a national mean annual salary of $56,170, and saw a national job outlook of 19 percent from 2010 to 2020.
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics: Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics: Mental Health Counselors
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics: Marriage and Family Therapists
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: School and Career Counselors
Santa Clara University: School of Education and Counseling Psychology: Course Descriptions
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