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Counseling Job Description: What You’ll Do

Here are some of the roles and responsibilities of a counselor.

group counseling session with counselor

We all face challenges throughout our lives.

Often, counselors will be one of the first resources available to people in need of emotional and psychological support.

Your strong sense of compassion and commitment to helping people are the most necessary qualities for a successful career as a counselor.

You will need to have a strong support system of your own in place to ensure your well-being as you undertake this challenging and rewarding vocation.

By addressing concerns with quality care from a counselor, clients learn how to make informed and healthy decisions about themselves, their relationships and their futures.

What does a counselor do?

Counselors offer guidance to individuals, couples, families and groups who are dealing with issues that affect their mental health and well-being. Many counselors approach their work holistically, using a “wellness” model (as opposed to an “illness” model) which highlights and encourages client’s strengths.

On the job counselors:

  • Work with individuals, groups and communities to improve mental health
  • Encourage clients to discuss emotions and experiences
  • Examine issues including substance abuse, aging, bullying, anger management, careers, depression, relationships, LGBTQ issues, self-image, stress and suicide
  • Work with families
  • Help clients define goals, plan action and gain insight
  • Develop therapeutic processes
  • Refer clients to psychologists and other services
  • Take a holistic (mind and body) approach to mental health care

What education or certification will I need to become a counselor?

Earning an undergraduate degree in counseling, psychology, sociology, or social work is the first step in becoming a mental health counselor. However, you can have an undergraduate degree in another field and pursue your master’s in counseling. Your master’s will usually take one to two years to obtain.

Most states require that counselors complete two years of post-graduate supervised work, totaling between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education courses. The learning is never done—and your hard work will be rewarded with greater skills and understanding.

Licensing and certification guidelines for counselors vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.

What career paths can I take in counseling?

As a counselor, you can work in family services, outpatient mental health, and substance abuse centers, hospitals, government, schools, and in private practice. You can choose to work with a specific population, such as with teenagers, the incarcerated, families, and the elderly. A parallel career path is marriage and family therapy, which brings a family-centered perspective to mental health treatment, even when treating individuals.

If you’re so inclined you may choose vocational and career counseling as a path. Here, you’ll look more at the fit and possibilities in particular job markets and industries to help people achieve their goals. As Patricia Burgin, a Seattle-based MA and LMFT who moved from therapy to life coaching and career counseling says, “The restlessness I felt in myself and saw in my clients energized me. What if both I and the people who came to my practice really did begin to move toward specific ways of creating a better future for themselves?”

Burgin earned her first master’s degree in theology, and her first experience in counseling came in the form of the pastoral type. After several years, she returned for another degree, this one in Applied Behavioral Science.

For the next ten years she practiced as a marriage and family therapist, working with couples, individuals, and always with groups. She says her own “enduring curiosity about the restlessness, aspirations, and longing for greater satisfaction” that she saw in people led to her career change and she applauds the field of coaching and counseling as one where you get to “continuously improve and innovate—and be compensated for it.”

Like Burgin, you’ll have the option to continue your education or specialize by earning a PhD in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or mental health therapy. Earning a PhD will take a time commitment of five to six years. Throughout the course of your education, you’ll gain much experience by volunteering or interning at places like rehab treatment centers, hospitals or counseling clinics.

Are you interested in helping others, but unsure if counseling is your path? Other careers that center on human services include education, social work, specialized care, and nursing.

Learn about Pay & Job Projections for mental health counselors.