How to Become a Counselor

Learn about the various types of counseling specialties and the degree you need to become a counselor.

how to become a counselor

Once you decide to become a counselor, you'll need to understand the differences between the many specialty areas in counseling.

Read on to learn about fields of counseling you can earn your degree in, including mental health counseling, school counseling, community counseling, rehabilitation counseling, substance abuse counseling, guidance counseling and vocational counseling.

First, Find a Specialty

Mental Health Counselors help people cope with emotional and mental trauma such as depression, stress, addictions and substance abuse. 

Rehabilitation Counselors help people deal with the personal, social, and vocational effects of disabilities.

School Counselors are trained to facilitate the academic, personal/social, and career development of children and young adults in school settings.

Psychologist vs. Counselor

Both psychologists and counselors help people cope with emotional stress, but licensed clinical, counseling, or educational psychologists must have a doctorate in psychology, which requires 5-to-7 years of postgraduate work. More than half of licensed counselors have master's degrees.

Counselor Job Description

Once you become a counselor, you'll generally divide your time between counseling patients, researching mental health issues and analyzing patient conditions. You'll work with people who are suffering from a wide variety of conditions ranging from career and stress management issues to more serious conditions like chemical addiction and suicidal depression.

Marriage and family therapists use therapeutic techniques to treat individuals, family groups, or couples. They are concerned with modifying behavior and enhancing communication and understanding among all family members. Some MFTs use psychotherapy of a non-medical nature, referring patients to psychiatrists for medication.

Different Types of Therapists

  • Clinical psychologists (PhD, EdD, or PsyD): Trained in psychological theories and methods.
  • Psychiatrist (MD): Trained medical doctor with a specialty in psychiatry. Emphasis on the biological causes of mental disorders. Treats patients with medication.
  • Psychoanalyst (MD or PhD): Trained in psychoanalysis.
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW/MSW- MS, MA, PhD): LSWs have supervised internship requirements similar to psychologists.
  • School Psychologist (MA, MS, EdS): Trained in psychology with an education and child development emphasis.
  • Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor (MFT, MFCC- MA, MS): Training in psychology or social work.

Become a Counselor: Education & Training

Most counselors have a post-bachelor's graduate degree (MA or PhD) from a Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredited program. Coursework generally includes psychology, sociology, child development, statistics, in addition to research and counseling techniques. After receiving your degree you'll need at least two years of clinical training.

Counselor Licensing

Most states require licensure or certification. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) grants a general practice credential, National Certified Counselor (NCC), to counselors who have passed their examination, have completed a graduate degree and have two years of fieldwork.

Other mental health counselor certification boards grant such titles as:

  • Certified Mental Health Counselor (CMHC)
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (NACCMHC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).