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Counselor: Career Overview, Salary, and Job Outlook

Lisa Alizadeh

Featuring expert Q&A with Lisa Alizadeh, LPC

Fast Facts about Counselors in the U.S.

  • Counselors are highly educated. To practice, most counselors are required to have at least a master’s degree in the field. Some counselors also have their doctorate.
  • Counselors specialize in a certain concentration. During their education, counselors have the opportunity to decide what specialization they want to go into, such as substance abuse counseling, marriage counseling, or child counseling.
  • California has the highest number of counselors in the U.S. as of May 2019, with 32,380 substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.
  • Utah is the state that pays counselors the highest average salary, at $67,410 annually.

Counseling can be a rewarding and fulfilling career path for those interested in improving the lives of others. If patience, empathy, and critical thinking are in your skillset, you could be a successful and talented counselor, regardless of the specialty you choose. This guide explains what a counselor does, salary and growth expectations, information about how to become on, and a variety of resources for current and future counselors.

What Is a Counselor?

According to the American Counseling Association, a counselor is a licensed professional who helps “individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” The type of license a counselor must hold to be able to practice varies by location. In some states, for example, there may be a different license for mental health counseling than for career counseling. Many professionals who earn a Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.) go on to be counselors after earning licensure.

This field provides the opportunity for counselors to make connections with their clients, build professional relationships, and – hopefully – see the fruits of both their labors by exhibiting positive changes in their clients’ emotional and mental well-being, their outlooks on life, and how they approach future challenges and stressors.

What Does a Counselor Do?

Due to the wide range of counseling concentrations, a counselor’s duties and work environment can vary. For example, a mental health or behavioral counselor might exclusively work one-on-one with clients to equip them with the mindset and retrain their minds to rise above their situations. A substance abuse counselor might work in a rehabilitation center and conduct group therapy sessions that promote support, reliance, and accountability among all members of the group. A marriage counselor might help couples find a middle ground and work through their relationship issues.

Regardless of concentration, all counselors have the same end goal for their clients: to help improve their lives and equip them with the tools needed to become happy, healthy, and well-adjusted.

Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

Because there are many types of counselors, salaries and expected job growth can vary within the field. The following jobs are some of the most common kinds of counselors, though there are others as well.

Career 2019 Median Salary Median Hourly Wage Expected Job Growth
Rehabilitation Counselors $35,950 $17.28 10%
Marriage and Family Therapists $49,610 $23.85 22%
School and Career Counselors $57,040 $27.42 8%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $46,240 $22.23 22% (much faster than average)

All data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Expected jobs growth is for 2018-2028

How to Become a Counselor

For prospective counselors, there is no single pathway towards licensure nor a national title due to the variations in each state. However, there are similarities between the fields’ and locations’ requirements.

Educational Requirements

Counselors are usually required to have at minimum of a master’s degree to be eligible for licensure and able to practice. However, not every state has the same requirements, and expectations can differ depending on the specialization you choose. Double-check with your state’s authority to learn what is required of you. The authorities are typically boards of psychology or health.

Two common and highly related educational and career paths for counselors are:

  1. Earning an Master’s in Social Work, usually from a program with a heavily clinical focus, and obtaining LCSW licensure
  2. Earning a Master’s in Counseling and obtaining LCP licensure

However, there are other educational and licensing routes to becoming a counselor if your state permits them.

Even if the state you want to practice in doesn’t require a master’s degree to work as a counselor, having that additional degree can improve your job and salary prospects and make you a more desirable job candidate. Additionally, some states require a doctorate to practice in certain concentrations; however, this is relatively rare.

When choosing your degree program, it’s essential to make sure the program is accredited. Accreditation means a school or program meets a rigorous set of educational standards. In the field of counseling, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is one of the commonly recognized accreditors. The benefits of completing an accredited program are multiple: potential employers recognize the quality of your education, some states only allow licensure if your school was accredited, and if you want to continue your education, the completion of an accredited program is often required.

Internship or Practicum

While requirements for licensure and earning a degree varies by career, program, and state, a necessary step to becoming a licensed professional counselor is supervised, hands-on training, such as in the form of an internship or practicum. A practicum is a learning experience built into the curriculum of your degree program. The hours required vary depending on the licensing requirements of your state.

An internship, on the other hand, is not a part of a degree program, though they may also be required by your school or prospective employers. Similar to practicums, they allow future counselors to acquire hands-on experience that’s highly relevant to their eventual careers. Research the details of your state’s licensing body as well as the requirements of your degree program to find out whether internships are a necessary step on the path to licensure.

Exams and Licensing

After completing your education and training, you must pass certain exams to become licensed and able to practice in the field in many states. The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is a common exam required for licensure around the country, as is the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). It’s important to check your state’s guidelines, as they may require different exams to be passed, or they may offer a variety of licenses with unique requirements. Some of the common types of counselor licenses are:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Types of Counselors

Counselors can specialize in one of many different types of counseling, or they can choose to work with specific populations. For instance, counselors may work specifically with LGBTQ+ clients, those who are recovering from trauma, or veterans.

Common types of counselors include:

Mental health and behavioral disorder counselors
These counselors work with clients who have mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, or other emotional issues, like grief or anger. They can also work with individuals who have behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Substance abuse or addiction counselors
Substance abuse counselors help individuals who want to overcome addictions to alcohol or drugs. They may also help their clients repair damaged personal relationships or get their professional life back in order during recovery.

Marriage and family counselors
Marriage and family counselors may work with an individual, a couple, or several family members at once to help them deal with big changes in their lives or simply with the common stresses that can occur in personal relationships.

Rehabilitation counselors
Rehabilitation counselors help people with a variety of disabilities live independent and fulfilling lives. Their clients may include senior adults, those with physical disabilities and mobility issues, or people with developmental disabilities.

Career counselors
Career counselors help individuals make decisions regarding their careers and realize their professional potential. By learning about their backgrounds, experience, and aptitudes, these counselors can help their clients find a fulfilling career field best suited to their skills.

School counselors
School counselors work with students of all ages, particularly at the K-12 levels, to resolve issues that may be affecting academic or social success.

Understanding Counselors vs. Social Workers, Counselors vs. Therapists

The terms “counselor” and others like “therapist,” “psychologist,” or “social worker” can be easy to confuse with one another. The work counselors do to help people with social, emotional, or relationship problems can often overlap with the objectives of other occupations, and the differences between each can be unclear.

Not all social workers become counselors, but they can be, and only some counselors have social work education or licensure. M.S.W. graduates who want a career as a counselor can choose a program more geared toward clinical work, then obtain an LCSW and work in a job with a clinical focus. In the cases where they do have a clinical focus, because of their social work training, they will typically focus more on the broader social environment of the disorders or challenges their clients face and provide them with community or government resources that can help.

Perhaps the most common term used when referencing counseling is “therapist”. This umbrella term refers encompasses individuals beyond those with that word in their license titles, including psychologists. Therapists and counselors typically provide the same service: helping clients with their personal issues and mental well-being. The difference emerges in the approach these professionals use to help their clients. Therapists tend to use more of a theory-based approach, such as exploring why their clients feel the way they do. Counselors, on the other hand, come at issues with a practical problem-solving approach, such as finding out how they can fix the issue and what actions they will have their clients do to achieve that goal.

Personal Traits of Counselors

People who desire to become counselors of course want to help people, but what specific attributes make for a successful counselor? The best counselors are:

Nonjudgmental and empathetic
Clients sometimes must share incredibly personal details of their life that they don’t trust anyone else with. As a counselor, you must not let your personal feelings about “right” and “wrong” affect the caring treatment you provide.

Problem-solving and analytical to find the right evidence-based approach
Humans, as well as the messy situations we often find ourselves in, are complicated and unique. What may work for one person may not work for the next. It’s your duty to find a solution that does work for the client at hand.

Flexible and patient when guiding clients to solve their own problems
Sometimes it feels much easier to see the right answer to a problem when it’s not a part of your own life. As a counselor, you must help guide your client to the right solution without doing all the work for them.

Willing to continually improve
Being able to accept constructive feedback and stay up-to-date on new findings and techniques, then use that information to improve yourself and the care you provide, is vital to success.

Common Employers of Counselors

Due to the range of specialties that counselors can pursue, their work environments and employers can also vary. Some of the typical employers of counselors are:

  • Hospitals or other healthcare facilities
  • Drug and alcohol treatment facilities
  • Private clinics or companies
  • Nonprofit behavioral health, substance abuse recovery, or other facilities or shelters
  • Government agencies
  • School districts
  • Community centers
  • Correctional facilities such as prisons or jails

Expert Q&A with Lisa Alizadeh, LPC

Lisa Alizadeh

Lisa Alizadeh has more than a decade of experience providing therapy and psychological services to children and families in schools, hospitals, and outpatient settings. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is licensed as a professional counselor (LPC). She has written for several research publications within the field of psychology. In her spare time, Lisa enjoys playing with her toddler and husband, recreational soccer, and living a healthy vegan lifestyle.

What is your current role?

I currently work for a school-based company that is contracted by school districts around the state to provide several services including Behavioral Health support. Within the company, I work as a behavioral health therapist that provides counseling and testing/assessments for students, suicide prevention services and assessments, and consultation for staff, teachers, and administration regarding any behavioral health needs within that school district. I would be considered a contracted school-based therapist/counselor.

What do you do on an average work day?

On an average work day, I provide counseling sessions for 5-6 students and meet with teachers/school counselors as needed to receive updates on the students’ progress and needs. Some days, I provide assessments and analysis reports such as cognitive and achievement assessments for Individualized Education Plan evaluations, risk assessments to determine if a student is safe to return to school following a safety concern, or functional behavioral assessments to determine a student’s problem behaviors and the school interventions needed to improve those behaviors.

I also provide all-day suicide prevention and assessment services within a school that involves providing a presentation on mental health and suicide to students and teachers, then providing assessments and meeting with at-risk students throughout the day to determine any needed interventions or support for those students at this time. During this time, I work with the school counselors and administration to implement these suicide prevention strategies throughout the day.

How long have you been a counselor?

I have been officially working as a counselor since 2014, which would be 6 years at this time. I began working as a counselor following my completion of graduate school and of an international volunteer internship in South Africa where I provided HIV testing counseling among rural communities. Throughout graduate school, you are able to work in roles as a counselor through practicum training and internships to receive more experience and prepare you to enter the field of counseling as well.

How has the field changed throughout your career?

There are changes locally, nationally, and globally that can occur from politics to technology that directly impact the field of counseling and mental health services. For example, when changes in political leaders and structures occur, it can affect how healthcare and insurance are implemented which directly impacts various individuals’ and families’ ability to receive adequate coverage for the mental healthcare costs.

Technology and the increased use of social media have also had a significant impact in the field, especially among the adolescent population. Specifically, adolescents often struggle from emotional distress related to cyberbullying and other peer comparisons within social network platforms, which can lead to increased depression, anxiety, suicidality, or other forms of negative and unhealthy thinking.

Also, when a crisis occurs (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic), it has a direct impact on how services and treatment are provided. For example, teletherapy platforms increased and treatment related to stressors surrounding isolation and quarantine became a major change that has recently occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When I would typically be providing treatment related to how children engage within school and with peers, it has now changed to how to support students with online schooling engagement and the stress of separation from peers and social activities. These changes, such as the increase of teletherapy use, will likely have lasting impacts on how healthcare services can and will be provided in the future as well.

What do you think the future of counseling will look like?

I believe the use of technology and ways to serve others from a distance will increase through teletherapeutic services. For example, this can benefit smaller towns and rural communities that may not have access to as many mental health services as major metropolitan cities. Additionally, awareness of social justice and equality will likely have an impact on therapeutic approaches and strategies to both heal within oppressed populations and raise awareness within communities to improve the perception and treatment of others in need. For example, LGBTQ+ counseling specializations were not as common or utilized in the mental health field in previous decades, but now they are much more accessible and available to help support individuals within that community and the impact of how others treat LGBTQ+ individuals. Given the current state of our world and the need for increased awareness in social justice and equality among race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., there will likely continue to be new therapeutic strategies and services created to support these causes and individuals.

What challenges do you face as a counselor?

There is a negative stigma at times around mental health, such as viewing it as weakness or embarrassing to receive therapy or mental health support. This stigma directly impacts many of my clients’ and their families’ ability to willingly engage or trust therapeutic services and recommendations given. A lot of my job at times can simply be working to build rapport and trust with clients to establish and break down stereotypes and misperceptions about mental illness and therapy both within my clients and within the community/schools of these individuals.

Although these are barriers and have at times hindered the progress of my clients, it is very important that attempts are made to provide education and awareness regarding mental health and treatment. For example, depression, anxiety, and suicidality is a common concern among many adolescents in schools, but the warning signs and symptoms often go overlooked due to students’ fear to admit they are struggling or others’ lack of knowledge of these symptoms and signs. Therefore, I and many counseling professionals provide suicide prevention awareness presentations and assessments to schools and communities as needed to help increase their awareness and normalize these symptoms and mental health concerns for any individuals that may have or currently are experiencing them, in hope that they would be more comfortable to seek out support and treatment.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is building relationships with my clients/parents that result in their trust and ability to try strategies and take on challenges that they may have struggled to face in the past. For example, when a child is able to utilize healthy coping skills and emotional expression such as facing a difficult relationship with their parent and expressing their thoughts and feelings face-to-face in session, there is a major positive shift that can occur in that family dynamic that results in both the child and the parent’s ability to understand and support each other.

I also am very proud of students that are able to admit and express when they feel unsafe or are having unsafe thoughts—which seems like that would be negative, but that shows me that they are starting to advocate bravely for their needs, which could result in potentially saving their life and building their long-term trust to open up when they are in need. I can work with students for months and months with minimal expression of their issues, and then one day they admit a history of abuse they may have been experiencing, and it helps me as a therapist understand their behavior and emotional needs so much clearer and allows me to advocate for them when they may have not believed this was possible and validates their experience.

What personality traits are important to have to succeed at this job?

Empathy and being able to understand an individual’s experience more authentically is very important to truly connect and help your clients. If you only see the behaviors at face value and don’t work to understand and connect with the individual, you will be very limited in your ability to affect change and provide adequate support for their needs.

Additionally, having a flexible, patient, and open-minded personality is very crucial to work within the counseling profession. There are more high-stress types of counseling jobs that would require more flexibility, patience, and open-mindedness than others. But within any counseling profession, you will encounter unpredictable behaviors, responses, and outcomes that require you to change course and adapt treatment and your approach to how you serve that particular client’s needs.

Lastly, I find it very valuable to be able to remain humble and take accountability if my approach is not helping that client, so they can view the counselor as a partner and equal in this journey and likely increase their willingness to be more accountable for themselves as well. If you try to approach each client as you are the professional and the client is only there to learn, then you hinder that client’s ability to feel equal or willing to advocate for their needs throughout the therapeutic process. These strategies work well for also engaging with colleagues and within the community to increase partnerships and collaboration.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing this career?

Along with the personality traits mentioned above, it is important to find the career path and population you find yourself most inspired within. When you feel inspired by the clients you work with, you are more motivated and passionate to advocate and support their needs while reducing the likelihood or rate of burnout. In regard to burnout, it is also important to frequently assess the organization and environment you work within and how that impacts your stress, emotions, and quality of life. If you do not feel supported and that you are unable to maintain healthy coping and quality of life within your job, then you not only suffer but you are limited in your ability to effectively treat and support your clients and colleagues. Therefore, make that a priority within the jobs you choose and don’t be afraid to adjust positions or jobs as needed to meet those needs.

Also, be sure to seek out practicums, shadowing opportunities, interviews with professionals, and internships early on in your academic and professional career to ensure you are truly learning a diverse perspective of the field and various client populations and treatment settings you can work within. This opens up your possibilities rather than being limited to only what you learn in textbooks and the classroom.  The counseling field is diverse and can be very rewarding when these personality traits and strategies are applied.

Counselor Associations and Job Resources

In any job, it’s important to have a solid group of likeminded individuals to have your back as you embark upon and progress throughout your career. In counseling, it’s even more important, as the work can be emotionally draining. That’s one reason why joining a professional organization could greatly improve your life and career – by providing you with a network of people who understand you and can relate to your experiences. Many organizations also provide a wealth of knowledge, research, and other professional resources.

Additionally, it can be daunting to try to find jobs that are suited to your counseling skills. While you can find listings on major job marketplaces like Indeed or LinkedIn, more specialized sites may be especially helpful. The following list of job boards and websites are all geared towards helping counselors like you find their ideal placement.

Job Boards for Counselor Jobs

General Counseling Organizations

Counseling Organizations by Specialization or Treatment Approach