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Counseling Degree Overview: Paths to Becoming a Professional Counselor

21 Apr
mental health counselor talking to man

Bryce Hagedorn understands that, in the American military community, there is a stigma associated with seeking mental health services and resistance to treatment if individuals feel that a counselor doesn’t understand their experiences. After experiencing combat as a United States Marine during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he was inspired to become a military counselor so he could make a positive impact on the lives of active service members and veterans.1 He noticed the significant gaps in the mental health services available for veterans, which can significantly affect their recovery from trauma. Veterans are often told, for example, that they need to wait six weeks or more for mental health support. But drop-in counseling centers, which are affiliated with the Veterans Administration, are underutilized resources because many veterans are not aware they exist.1

As a licensed professional counselor, whether you work with the military community or with civilians, you can create healing spaces for individuals recovering from trauma and help them develop strategies to improve their mental health and quality of life. Among other options, your career path might involve assisting individuals with substance abuse, helping students through emotional challenges, or crafting interventions for families in crisis.2

This post explores these paths, as well as types of degrees and specializations, training, and professional development.

Professional Counselors: Importance and Career Outlook

Professional counselors play a pivotal role in tackling a diverse range of social issues, from navigating systemic challenges like poverty and oppression to nurturing personal growth and resilience in individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of mental health and the positive impact that certified counselors can have during a crisis.3

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN, nearly 90% of the public acknowledges the ongoing mental health crisis in the U.S., with 50% of young adults reporting frequent anxiety.3 In addition, there is an urgent need for more diverse mental health professionals to serve in marginalized communities where services are lacking.4 To address these gaps, many leaders are advocating for ways to reduce barriers, including grants to cover licensure exam fees and the ability for group practices to hire master’s-level clinicians who offer affordable services to those who need it most.4

There is also a need for counselors who specialize in substance abuse, behavioral disorders and mental health issues. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is expected to grow by 18% between 2022 and 2032, with approximately 42,000 annual openings. This is a much faster rate of employment growth than the national average.5

Different Paths to Enter the Counseling Profession

If you are drawn to the counseling field, you might have a personal connection to specific populations and want to make a positive impact. During the supervised clinical experience of an internship, you might find that you have a talent for helping young people, or discover by serving as a rehabilitation counselor that your true calling is to support individuals with disabilities. Whatever draws you to counseling, this field offers a range of specializations and career opportunities to suit diverse interests and goals.

Types of Counseling Degrees

Earning a degree is an important first step toward becoming a licensed counseling professional. You can pursue education and training at different levels:6

  • Undergraduate degree: At this level, you'll gain foundational knowledge in psychology, human behavior and communication skills and prepare for entry-level positions or further education
  • Graduate degree: In a master's program, you'll explore counseling theories, techniques and ethical considerations. These programs often offer specializations such as clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, marriage and family therapy or military and veterans counseling
  • Doctoral degree: These programs focus on advanced research, clinical practice and leadership in the counseling profession. Doctoral programs are ideal for individuals aspiring to roles in academia, supervision or specialized clinical practice

You could hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering or liberal arts and still pursue a master’s degree in counseling. In fact, many people enter the counseling profession as career shifters. It’s important to learn as much as you can about what support each university offers students as they pursue state licensure and certification.

Specializations in Counseling

Within the field of counseling, various specializations serve specific client populations and rely on particular areas of expertise, such as: 2

  • Marriage and family therapy: Working with couples and families to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and strengthen relationships
  • Crisis and trauma counseling: Assisting individuals in coping with and recovering from traumatic experiences such as combat, violence, natural disasters and personal crises, as well as managing crisis situations effectively
  • Substance abuse counseling: Providing interventions and support for individuals struggling with substance use disorders, including but not limited to alcoholism, opioid addiction, stimulant abuse
  • School counseling: Supporting students’ academic, social and emotional development within educational settings

Education and Training

Counseling programs emphasize a combination of coursework, supervised practicum experiences, and internships to develop clinical skills and therapeutic competencies. Ongoing continuing education helps counselors stay abreast of current research, best practices and ethical considerations in their field.

Diversity and Cultural Competence

If you pursue a counseling-related degree, you will likely receive training in multicultural competence and diversity awareness. However, not all programs sufficiently cover these areas, according to American research psychologist and scholar Janet E. Helms.7 Counselors who choose to focus their practice on serving diverse populations may need additional training. With it, they’ll be better prepared to focus on diversity-related areas, such as multicultural counseling, LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy, or social justice advocacy.7

You can develop cultural competence by:7

  • Learning about yourself: Reflect on your historical roots, beliefs and biases
  • Studying other cultures: Engage with diverse perspectives through academic resources, memoirs, novels and documentaries. Consider learning a second (or third or fourth) language to deepen cultural understanding and connection
  • Interacting with diverse groups of people: Gain practical experience through research, internships and volunteering; expand your perspectives through non-clinical social interactions
  • Attending diversity-focused conferences: Access formal training, research insights and networking by participating in industry events

Steps to Becoming a Professional Counselor

Counseling programs emphasize a combination of coursework, supervised practicum experiences and internships to develop clinical skills and therapeutic competencies. In many states, you may need a master’s degree in a counseling-related area to obtain a license and diagnose and treat mental health disorders.

Follow these steps to become a licensed professional counselor:8,9

  1. Choose the right program: Select a counseling program—most likely a master’s degree program—that aligns with your career goals, interests and desired specialization.
  2. Meet educational requirements: Complete coursework, practicum hours and internship experiences as outlined by your chosen program.
  3. Gain practical experience: Engage in supervised clinical practice to develop skill with counseling techniques and apply theoretical knowledge in real-world settings. In general, states typically require 2,000-3,000 supervised hours or approximately 12-18 months.
  4. Pursue licensure and certification: Meet state licensure requirements and obtain national certifications, so that you can legally practice as a professional counselor. Requirements for licensure vary: Passing the National Mental Health Counseling Exam is a requirement in many states. Due to the shortage of mental health professionals, many states are reviewing these requirements, so be sure to check your state's regulations.9,10

Continuing Professional Development

Once you obtain your license, lifelong learning and professional growth will be integral to your counseling practice. Keep up with the latest research, interventions, and ethical standards so that you can best serve your clients. Membership in professional associations provides access to resources, networking opportunities, and ongoing support in the counseling field.

Whether you’re interested in building your own private practice, serving as a school counselor, or providing specialized services, take advantage of opportunities to grow personally and professionally.

Pursue the Counseling Career That Inspires You

William & Mary’s Online M.Ed. in Counseling program offers concentrations in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) and School Counseling. The CMHC concentration includes the option to specialize in Military and Veterans Counseling.

Each flexible online program is led by world-class faculty who teach a robust curriculum that will develop your ability to guide the mental, emotional and physical development of clients of all ages and needs. William & Mary’s CACREP-accredited online counseling programs will help you become a leader in creating positive transformation—one individual, family, school and community at a time.

Start the next step in your career today. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor.