A master’s degree in counseling is intended to support graduates and often leads to career outcomes in the counseling profession, as well as other related industries such as healthcare and wellness. This degree is required for counseling licensures such as: licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and school counselor. It can also act as a stepping stone for professionals seeking to earn a doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision, or other related counseling topics.
Career outcomes for professional counselors remain positive. According to recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, positions for mental health and substance abuse counselors are expected to rise 23 percent in the next decade (much faster than the average). For school and career counselors, there is expected to be an 11 percent rise (also faster than average). As we become more aware of the numerous benefits of counseling in schools and the broader community, it’s assumed that professional counselors will continue to be in high demand.In this guide
- Summary of master’s in counseling
- Online master’s in counseling
- Cost and commitment
- Accreditation and licensing
- Scholarships and financial aid
- Careers and salary
- Expert advice
Summary of master’s in counseling
A master’s in counseling prepares individuals to establish professional, empowering relationships with diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.
Obtaining a graduate degree is one of the main goalposts towards becoming a licensed professional. Once becoming licensed, you can work in numerous settings with various populations.
Each school has different requirements for enrolling in its program. However, most schools require that you provide:
- Updated academic transcripts.
- Current resume.
- A completed application (along with any associated fees for applying).
- Letters of recommendation.
- A personal statement answering specific questions about your desired career trajectory or past work experiences.
- GRE test scores.
Many counseling programs also require you to attend on-campus or virtual interviews. These interviews encourage you to interact with different faculty and learn more about the program. They also allow faculty to determine if you are a good fit for the program.
Graduate schools range in program competitiveness. Some schools may only accept a small percentage of applicants each academic year. Others enroll students every semester or quarter, thereby creating more opportunities to apply for admission into the program.
Most schools display their program acceptance rates for potential candidates. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to apply to a few different programs to increase the likelihood of acceptance.
The master’s degree in counseling program includes foundational knowledge in the following areas
- Introduction to professional counseling
- Diagnosis and assessment
- Laws and ethics in the counseling profession
- Counseling theory
- Research and evaluation
- Social and cultural diversity
- Human growth and development
- Career development
- Group counseling and group work
- Counseling and psychotherapy techniques
Programs may also include various elective courses. These courses can focus on working with specialized populations (such as children, girls and women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and older adults) and specialty areas (such as play therapy, motivational interviewing, and trauma-informed practice).
Online master’s in counseling programs
More and more graduate students are turning to online learning for their higher education. Online programs can offer flexibility, convenience, and accessibility for professionals wanting to obtain their master’s degree.
When comparing online programs versus traditional, on-campus programs you should consider:
- Your learning style.
- Differences (if any) in specific curriculums.
- Specific program accreditation.
- Expectations for practicum/fieldwork.
- Accessibility to professors during office hours and when needing additional assistance.
- Graduation and passing test rates.
- Total tuition costs.
Online programs usually offer a hybrid approach as part of their curriculum: students complete instructional coursework virtually, but they still must secure a fieldwork placement in their local community. Some schools may also require some in-person meetings or classes throughout the year.
As telehealth continues rising in popularity and gaining research support for its effectiveness, some programs now offer telehealth fieldwork placements. With this option, students can connect virtually with clients who are not in the same location; for example, through live video conferencing. This skill can be crucial if you plan on serving as a telehealth provider.
Keep in mind that there isn’t a “best” online program. Instead, it’s important to consider your top priorities (such as cost, specific faculty, access to various fieldwork sites) and use those criteria to narrow down your potential choices.
Master in counseling degree cost and commitment
The cost of this degree varies wildly depending on the type of school, location, whether you qualify for in-state tuition, and other financial aid considerations. Furthermore, there are additional costs for textbooks, house and boarding, and other educational expenses.
With that said, tuition costs can range anywhere from $5,000-$30,000 per semester. To best understand the bottom-line prices, it’s essential to reach out to each counseling program directly.
Counseling programs typically range between two to three years, depending on how many courses you take each semester. Most students begin fieldwork toward the end of the program. Fieldwork (generally referred to as “practicum” and “internship” experiences) consists of providing direct counseling services under licensed supervision. You will be working as a counselor-in-training and accruing hours towards degree completion and licensure.
Accreditation and licensing
When a school has accreditation, its program meets the standards set forth by a specific professional accreditation body. Accreditation is a crucial consideration when narrowing down potential graduate programs.
Graduating from an accredited school is usually optional. However, some states, including Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio, require that you attend a CACREP-accredited school to become licensed. It can be assumed that other states may attempt to follow suit. Furthermore, some employers or agencies will only hire candidates from an accredited school.
CACREP stands for the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educated Programs. It provides accreditation for both master’s and doctorate counseling programs. This accreditation seeks to ensure that qualified programs meet the licensing standards for licensure and the intended field of practice.
MPCAC stands for Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. It aims to accredit master’s programs offering science-based, culturally-responsive education and counselor training.
Getting licensed as a professional counselor
The journey towards licensure can take anywhere from two to seven years depending on the type of license. Some states have tiered licensure systems for mental health counselors. For example, Ohio has three tiers: licensed professional counselor (that involves practicing with supervision), licensed professional clinical counselor (that involves practicing without supervision), and licensed professional clinical counselor-supervisor (that involves practices independently with the option to supervise).
States usually require anywhere from 2,000-4,000 counseling hours before becoming licensed. These hours often entail providing face-to-face counseling services, completing documentation and other administrative tasks, and participating in supervision.
People working in full-time counseling jobs can obtain hours quickly. Others may work at a part-time pace, particularly if they have other career or personal obligations. In addition to receiving their graduate degree, all professional counselors must submit their clinical hours and pass state board licensing exams to become licensed.
Scholarships and financial aid
Graduate school can be undoubtedly expensive, and it’s crucial to plan for these costs ahead of time. Here are some options to consider.
Direct Unsubsidized Loans
Direct unsubsidized loans do not require you to demonstrate financial need. Instead, the school chooses how much you can borrow based on tuition costs and other financial aid packages.
You will be liable for paying the loan interest during all periods. The interest rate remains fixed. But if you opt to defer the interest, it will accrue and be capitalized over time.
To apply for a loan, you must complete a FAFSA form. Your school will review this form to determine your loan rate eligibility.
Direct PLUS Loans
Graduate students can qualify for PLUS loans if they meet general aid requirements, have good credit, and are enrolled in a graduate program at least half-time.
The full amount you can borrow is the total cost of tuition minus other financial subsidies. You will need to start making payments six months after graduating or leaving school.
Most programs require that you apply for this loan online. Not all schools are eligible for this aid, so it’s important to check in advance.
Work-study programs offer part-time employment to help you pay your tuition. It is available to graduate students attending school either part-time or full-time.
The jobs may either be on-campus or off-campus in a public agency or nonprofit organization. In some cases, the school will have an arrangement with for-profit employers, but the work must be relevant to your field of study.
Compensation rates vary depending on your level of financial need, school funding abilities, and when you apply for the program. You may be either paid hourly or at a salary rate.
You can earn scholarships through specific organizations, states, or regions. Scholarship opportunities are vast- you may qualify for being a member of a specific population or gaining expertise in a particular niche.
All scholarship requirements are different, but many include some form of essay or other forms of creative expression. It’s a good idea to start your search early and keep yourself organized when applying.
You can also ask a program directly if they offer any scholarships or grants. Some private universities with high tuition costs provide these options.
Examples of specialization or career paths
The master’s degree in counseling offers valuable flexibility and numerous career options. Here are some popular paths to consider.
Data show that 18.1 percent of the US population has an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, or generalized anxiety. Therapists can help individuals with anxiety by providing education and resources.
In their treatment, they offer specific interventions designed to promote relaxation and reduce negative thoughts. They might also engage in activities related to exposure, desensitization, and cognitive restructuring.
Marital/couples therapists help couples struggling with communication, intimacy, or navigating new stressors. Therapy often focuses on establishing healthier boundaries and coming together to solve problems.
This therapy can support couples as they reach new milestones (marriage, having a baby, changing careers, entering retirement). Furthermore, some therapists will also help couples who have already decided to end the relationship or divorce.
Addiction rates are on the rise, and half a million Americans died in the past decade from an overdose involving an opioid. Therapists specializing in addiction treatment work with clients struggling with substance use and other co-occurring disorders.
This treatment focuses on understanding triggers and implementing new coping skills for healthier living. Addiction therapists often coordinate care with case managers, physicians, psychiatrists, and supportive family members.
About 70 percent of adults report experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, and trauma represents a risk factor in nearly all mental health and behavioral disorders.
Trauma therapists help clients process and heal from their distress. Therapy may include a combination of relaxation exercises, education about new coping skills, and reframing negative thoughts.
Family therapists can work with any set of family members, including entire systems or just a parent and child. This therapy aims to improve communication and connection.
Therapists may help family members assert their needs, listen to each other more attentively, and practice new problem-solving techniques.
Young children cannot verbalize their feelings or needs the same way adults can. They express their inner worlds through play. As a result, play therapists use toys, art, and other creative means to help support these younger clients.
Play therapy can help children with trauma, developmental disorders, or other life adjustments. It can also be a supplemental treatment to family therapy.
We all face loss, and loss can include anything from death to losing a job, home, or relationship. Grief or bereavement therapists can help individuals struggling with this adversity.
These therapists can help clients process their emotions and eventually reach a place of acceptance. Some therapists also offer grief or bereavement support groups for like-minded individuals to come together.
FAQ about master in counseling degree programs
First, determine your state’s requirements for accreditation. Examine the tuition costs, financial aid packages, and the length of the program. Consider speaking with a faculty member or current student to learn more about the program.
In general, graduate school can be rigorous. You should anticipate committing to 10-15 hours of lectures per week, additional readings and studying, and fieldwork. Some students still work while in school, but this balance is often challenging.
It’s crucial to evaluate the available financial aid packages before enrolling in a program. Speak to an admissions counselor if you need additional support or clarification. Consider looking into scholarship opportunities in advance.
Fieldwork can take place in nonprofit organizations, schools, hospitals, outpatient settings, and community mental health. Some placements are paid, and some sites hire trainees or interns after graduation. It’s a good idea to ask about these opportunities.
You will need to continue accruing clinical hours under a licensed supervisor. You will also need to submit paperwork to your board and pass any required board exams. After becoming licensed, you must adhere to all current laws and ethics and complete ongoing continuing education.
The career outlook is excellent. Our society has a current demand for adequate intervention, assessment, and treatment, especially in addiction-based and community mental health settings.
This degree offers a flexible and versatile career track if you want to work as a mental health professional. In addition to providing therapy, you may also be able to teach, conduct research, supervise, and engage in mental health advocacy in this role.
Expert Advice – for master’s in counseling
Find the latest interviews with subject matter experts and people working at the forefront of their field and get advice on master’s in counseling directly from some of the world’s leading authorities. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in social work today.
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