Counseling Degrees: What You'll Study
Read about courses you'll take in a counseling degree program.
What degree levels are available?
Counselors must earn a four-year undergraduate degree, and typically a master's degree, in order to begin their practice. A bachelor's degree in most fields is acceptable to enter the required master's level program afterward. If you did earn a bachelor in psychology or a related field, your studies will be a benefit when pursuing your master's degree.
Some types of master's degree programs in counseling include:
- Master of Science in Counseling Studies
- Master of Science in Professional Counseling
- Master of Arts in Counseling
- Master of Arts in Community Counseling
- Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling
- Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology: Art Therapy
- Master of Science in Career Counseling
- Master of Science in Marriage and Family Counseling
Earning a doctorate is not required for this specialty, though some people seek one after working in the field.
Bachelor's Degree Programs
Most undergraduate degree programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses. You'll typically have chosen your concentration—like psychology, counseling or human services—and be ready to take electives by your junior year. If you'd like to go into counseling, junior year is a good time to start considering graduate school plans. You'll want to start looking at programs that will focus on counseling, and where you can use what you've learned from core classes or electives in your bachelor degree.
Specializing in psychology for your bachelor's degree is a typical entry point to the study of counseling.
As another example of a bachelor's that can funnel into a counseling master's, we'll look at Kaplan University's Bachelor of Science in Human Services. This bachelor degree offers emphasis areas (four classes each) in Child and Family Welfare, Gerontology or Human Services Administration. In addition to the core courses you'll take, here’s a sampling of major courses in the program:
Examples of Major Courses
- Interpersonal Communications: Emphasizes how to be an effective communicator in professional and personal situations of varying context. Topics include the influence of perception on communication, verbal and nonverbal elements of interaction, listening, conflict management, the communication of emotions and effective communication strategies.
- Human Behavior and the Environment: Basic systems and influences that help to define, identify and explain behavior. How family structures, institutions, organizations and communities contribute to complex issues facing diverse populations in the 21st century. How to incorporate these theories and develop practical intervention skills.
- Survey of Social Problems: Imparts tools to analyze social problems, potential solutions and the effects of these problems on individuals and society.
- Prevention and Crisis Intervention: Students will learn appropriate and ethical prevention and intervention strategies. Learn to identify risk factors that contribute to crisis situations—involving youth, families and the elderly in various settings—and distinguish between intervention and prevention strategies.
- Human Services and Social Policy: Explore the relationships between social policies, government and the services provided by human services agencies.
- Case Management in Human Services: Learn the importance of time management and how to prioritize and organize data, critical skills for working with human services clients.
- Human Services Delivery: Strategic approaches to planning and evaluating the services delivered to clients.
- Statistics: Introduction to collecting, organizing and summarizing and analyzing data using statistical software.
- Introduction to Psychology: Introduction to topics with insight into human thought and actions, including what motivate us to study human behavior, ethical decisions, problem solving and theories on memory, learning, intelligence and personality.
Additionally, senior-year students will take a Capstone Course for Human Services, which creates an integrative project that combines the cumulative learning of their 4-year program into a "senior project."
There are many types of master's programs available in counseling, depending upon your desired degree—whether it's a Master of Science, Master of Art or Educational Specialist—and specialization. Options include general counseling, counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, art therapy and others.
A master's degree will take between two and three years to complete. This degree offers a combination of learning and hands-on experience in classroom settings.
As an example of some courses you may take in a master's counseling program, we'll look at Grand Canyon University's Master of Science in Professional Counseling. This online, accredited private school is based in Arizona.
Examples of Core and Major Courses
- Introduction to Addictions and Substance Use Disorders
- Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethics
- Counseling Theories
- Group Counseling Theory and Practice
- Social and Cultural Diversity Issues in Counseling
- Human Sexuality, Aging and Long-Term Care
- Marriage and Family Therapy
- Spousal and Child Abuse, Crisis and Trauma Counseling
- Tests and Appraisal in Counseling
- Career Development and Counseling
- Research Methods
- Diagnostics, Assessment and Treatment
- Psychopathology and Counseling
You'll also complete lab work and a clinical internship in preparation to meet certification and licensure in all states. Some states and programs will also require a written exam. Check the requirements for the state you plan to attend school in.
A doctoral degree isn't necessary to work as a counselor, although you may pursue it to increase your opportunities in academia or specific work environments. For instance, you may choose to further your career after a few years of working in the field. Some doctoral degrees you can earn in counseling include:
- PhD in Counseling Psychology (New York University)
- EdD (Doctor of Education) in Counseling Psychology (Argosy University)
- PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy: General Family Therapy (Northcentral University)
What certification will I need to practice counseling?
Becoming a Licensed Counselor
All counselors must be licensed to practice in the United States. For example, becoming a licensed mental health counselor requires a master's degree and 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Most specialties follow a similar requirement. Counselors must also pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes.
Licensing and certification guidelines for mental health counselors vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study. Information about requirements for each state is available from the National Board for Certified Counselors.
Licensing and certification guidelines for counseling psychologists vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.
How long will it take?
Depending upon your level of dedication, the education necessary to work as a mental health counselor can take the following time to complete:
- Four-years in a bachelor's degree in psychology, education or other field
- One-two years in a master's degree program
- Programs may require a one-year internship
Are online programs available?
Online programs for earning your master’s in counseling are available. For example, both Capella University and Walden University offer a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling. Southern New Hampshire University also offers a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, with a concentration in Mental Health, online.
Course outlines differ for each school, so check for information on the differences and how they pertain to your goals in earning your degree.
How much will my education cost?
Bachelor's degree programs vary depending upon the institution you attend. According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2012-2013, the average annual cost* for a four-year, public institution runs around $8,655 for in-state tuition and $21,706 for out-of-state-tuition.
The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $29,056 and $15,172 for a private for-profit school.
Master's degree program tuition at in-state public institutions cost an average of $7,606 annually, and doctorate program tuition cost $9,539 annually at in-state public institutions.
*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.
As one example, the online Master of Science in Professional Counseling at private, Arizona-based Grand Canyon University has a cost of $30,250, not including supplies and room and board, if applicable.
Are there prerequisites?
Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your psychology or counseling degree program. Courses in science, math, English, history, social studies, and a foreign language are important. Science and math are especially critical because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology and education courses.
Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor's degree in psychology, counseling or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you’ve taken in psychology or counseling will be valuable in your graduate work.
GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it's not, but you've taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.
What accreditation is there for my program?
Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. Many masters and doctoral programs in mental health counseling, for instance, are fully accredited by the American Psychological Association.
Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.
There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The Higher Learning Commission conducts institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western).
What should I expect my student-teacher ratio to be?
Students in undergraduate programs will find a higher student- teacher ratio as many preparatory classes are lecture-oriented and you can expect class size to be larger. As a rule, the further you progress in your education and field of specialty the smaller you should expect the ratio to become.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the U.S. average for student- teacher ratio is 15:5, including all teachers in schools, not just in a classroom.
One classic criticism of online programs is that you're isolated from your teachers and classmates, but the opposite is often true. You may actually interact more with instructors and peers in online discussions, social media venues, and emails, than in a traditional classroom setting. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks the top 64 online universities on a number of factors, including student-teacher ratio. They found a range of 7:1–94:1 for their top 64 not-for-profit and for-profit schools.