Online Master’s Degree in Counseling

If you’re interested in a career where you can help people improve their lives and mental health, becoming a counselor may be right for you. The master of counseling degree is the most direct educational path to becoming a licensed counselor in your state.

In this guide, you’ll learn about different types of master’s degrees for counseling, career possibilities, what to expect during the application and attending your master’s program, and how to choose the best school for you.

What Is a Master’s in Counseling Degree?

A master’s in counseling degree focuses on preparing students to provide guidance to individuals, families, or groups experiencing issues impacting their mental health or overall well-being. There are multiple types of master’s in counseling degree programs.

Depending on the school you attend or the career you want to pursue, you might consider one of the following types of master’s programs. This includes both master’s programs that are normally considered “master’s in counseling” degrees and master’s programs that are highly related.

What Is an Accredited Online Master’s in Counseling Program?

An accredited online master’s in counseling program is one that has been reviewed and approved by a recognized accrediting body. Accreditation is a critical factor to consider when selecting a master’s program, as it ensures that the educational course of study meets or exceeds the national standards set for the counseling profession. This seal of approval signifies that the curriculum is rigorous and relevant, the faculty are qualified, and the program is designed to prepare students effectively for their future careers in counseling.

Who Accredits Online Master’s of Counseling Degree Programs?

Accreditation can come from various agencies, with the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) being one of the most prominent for counseling degrees. A CACREP-accredited program, for instance, has undergone a thorough evaluation process that assesses the program’s content, quality, and efficacy.

How Do I Know If a Master’s of Counseling Program Is Accredited?

Attending an accredited program is often required for licensure in many states and assures prospective employers and clients that you have a quality education grounded in the core competencies needed for the practice.

Furthermore, an accredited online program provides assurances that the degree will be recognized by employers, professional associations, and other educational institutions, should you decide to pursue further education. It also often opens doors to federal financial aid and scholarships, which may not be available to students in non-accredited programs. In essence, enrolling in an accredited online master’s in counseling program is pivotal in laying a solid foundation for a robust and ethical practice, ensuring that you are well-equipped to handle the complexities of the counseling profession.

Am I a Licensed Counselor After Graduating with a Master’s in Counseling?

Graduating with a master’s in counseling is a significant achievement and a crucial step towards becoming a licensed counselor. However, obtaining a master’s degree alone does not automatically confer licensure. The path to licensure involves several additional steps post-graduation:

  • Accrued Supervised Experience: Most states require a certain number of supervised clinical hours post-graduation. This involves working under the supervision of a licensed counselor, providing direct counseling services to clients. The required hours vary by state but typically range from 2,000 to 4,000 hours.
  • Passing Licensure Examinations: After completing the supervised experience, candidates must pass a state-recognized examination. The most common is the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), depending on the state and specialization.
  • Applying for Licensure: Once the supervised hours and examination requirements are met, candidates can apply for licensure through their state’s counseling board. This process often includes background checks and submission of all relevant documentation, including transcripts, proof of supervised experience, and examination scores.
  • Ongoing Education: Licensed counselors are required to engage in continuing education to maintain their licensure. This ensures that they stay current with best practices and developments in the field.
  • State-Specific Requirements: It’s important to note that licensure requirements can vary significantly from state to state. Prospective counselors should familiarize themselves with the specific requirements of the state where they intend to practice.

In summary, while a master’s in counseling is a fundamental requirement for licensure, it is part of a larger process that includes supervised clinical experience, successful completion of licensure exams, and adherence to state-specific requirements. This comprehensive process ensures that licensed counselors are well-prepared to provide effective, ethical, and professional counseling services.

Why Get a Master of Counseling Degree?

Pursuing a Master of Counseling degree offers numerous benefits that extend beyond the foundational knowledge of the field. This degree is designed not just to educate but also to transform students into skilled, empathetic, and ethical counselors who can make a significant impact in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Here are some key benefits of obtaining a Master of Counseling degree:

  • Professional Competence and Specialization: A Master of Counseling degree provides in-depth knowledge and training in counseling theories, techniques, and best practices. It allows students to specialize in areas such as mental health, school counseling, or marriage and family therapy, aligning their education with their career aspirations.
  • Increased Employment Opportunities: With a growing awareness of mental health importance, there is an increasing demand for qualified counselors. Holding a master’s degree opens doors to various employment opportunities in hospitals, schools, private practices, and community agencies.
  • Licensure and Certification: A master’s degree is a prerequisite for licensure in most states. This licensure is essential for practicing as a professional counselor, allowing graduates to work independently and in more advanced roles.
  • Higher Earning Potential: Typically, professionals with a master’s degree have a higher earning potential compared to those with only an undergraduate degree. The specialized skills and qualifications of a Master of Counseling can lead to more lucrative and senior positions.
  • Personal Growth and Satisfaction: The journey to becoming a counselor involves considerable personal growth. The skills and insights gained during the program can be life-changing, enhancing one’s interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and understanding of human behavior.
  • Making a Difference: Perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of a career in counseling is the opportunity to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Whether it’s helping individuals overcome mental health challenges, supporting families through difficult times, or guiding students in their educational and career paths, the impact of a skilled counselor is profound and rewarding.
  • Continual Learning and Professional Development: The field of counseling is ever-evolving, and a Master of Counseling degree equips graduates with a mindset of lifelong learning. It provides a strong foundation for further professional development, research, and contribution to the field.

In conclusion, a Master of Counseling degree is more than an academic achievement; it’s a pathway to a meaningful and impactful career that benefits both the counselor and the community they serve.

Types of Master’s in Counseling Degrees

The field of counseling offers a diverse range of specializations, each catering to specific areas of interest and societal needs. Pursuing a Master’s degree in counseling allows students to focus on a particular niche, equipping them with specialized skills and knowledge pertinent to their chosen field. Here are some of the common types of Master’s in Counseling degrees:

  1. Master’s in Mental Health Counseling: This program focuses on diagnosing and treating mental and emotional disorders. Students learn about various therapeutic techniques, crisis intervention, and how to provide counseling to individuals, groups, and families. Graduates often work in mental health centers, private practices, or hospitals.
  2. Master’s in School Counseling: Tailored for those interested in working within educational settings, this degree covers topics like educational psychology, student development, and academic counseling. School counselors play a vital role in guiding students through academic, career, social, and emotional challenges.
  3. Master’s in Addiction Counseling: This specialization trains students in the treatment of substance abuse, addiction, and related disorders. It includes instruction in intervention strategies, recovery processes, and the impact of addiction on individuals and families. Graduates typically work in rehabilitation centers, hospitals, or community agencies.
  4. Master’s in Career Counseling: Focusing on helping individuals make informed educational and career decisions, this program includes subjects like career development theories, assessment techniques, and counseling methods. Career counselors work in schools, colleges, career centers, and private practice.
  5. Master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling: This degree specializes in family dynamics and relationships. It covers techniques for counseling couples and families, addressing issues like communication problems, marital conflicts, and child-parent relationships.
  6. Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling: This program is designed for those looking to assist individuals with disabilities. It covers areas such as disability studies, vocational rehabilitation, and strategies for helping clients achieve personal and professional goals.
  7. Master’s in Clinical Counseling: A broader program, it encompasses various aspects of mental health counseling, preparing students for clinical roles. It often includes substantial clinical training and preparation for licensure.

Each type of Master’s in Counseling degree is tailored to meet specific societal and individual needs, offering a rich array of career paths for those aspiring to make a difference in the mental health and well-being of others. These specializations not only define the counselor’s future work environment but also shape the impact they have on their clients and communities.

Degrees Similar to a Masters in Counseling

There are different types of counseling degrees that are similar to a master’s in counseling. Some of these include:

  • Masters in education
  • Masters in theology
  • Masters in community planning

Master of Arts in Counseling or Master of Science in Counseling

Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) in counseling programs focus on therapies, testing, and behavioral techniques that help you learn to become a licensed counselor. The curriculum varies based on the school and program you select, but most M.A. or M.S. programs are offered through schools’ psychology or education departments.

Master of Education in Counseling (M.Ed.)

Master of Education in counseling programs are usually offered through a university’s education department. Students who choose to pursue an M.Ed. degree often go on to work in schools or universities as a teacher or counselor, though some work in an outside practice.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology

Master’s in counseling psychology degrees—which are usually M.A. or M.S. degrees—prepare you to administer a wide range of diagnostic tests, provide treatment for mental health and behavior problems, and participate in research. This type of degree differs from a master’s in counseling degree because the latter largely focuses on therapy alone.

In some states, students holding a master’s in counseling psychology can become licensed practitioners, but those in other locations may be required to practice under a licensed psychologist.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

A Master of Social Work degree focuses on providing mental health counseling services as social workers, advocates, community organizers, administrators, or a combination of several roles. Though an MSW degree is not considered a “master’s in counseling,” social workers who meet their state’s licensure requirements are able to provide counseling in a clinical setting. Students who enjoy the research aspect may later earn a Ph.D. in social work to become teachers or researchers.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

Before pursuing your master’s degree in counseling, you may be wondering about your job options. The career you pursue depends on your interests, if you specialized during your degree, and whether you’re eligible to obtain licensure in your state.

With a master’s degree in counseling, you may be prepared to work in a K-12 school, university, career coaching center, mental health clinic or treatment center, hospital, government, or private practice.

Here are a few of the most common career choices for counselors:

School Counselors
In this career, you could help K-12 students navigate the challenges they face at home, school, or with the world at large. You may also assist students in preparing for college, applying for scholarships, and succeeding in academics.

University Counselors
As a university counselor, you’d be expected to assist postsecondary students navigate the transformation from high school student to adulthood. You may also offer treatment for mental health issues, perform diagnostic tests, and help with academic decisions.

Substance Abuse Counselors
These professionals work to help people with substance abuse challenges or addictions navigate recovery. You may work in a clinic, in- or out-patient recovery program, government facility, school, or private practice.

Mental Health Counselors
This is what most imagine when they think of “therapists” and “counselors.” They strive to help those struggling with mental health issues achieve emotional and social wellness. You may work in schools, mental health facilities, or private practice.

Family or Marriage Counselor
These counselors work with groups and couples to help them navigate family relationships. This may include diagnosing or treating mental health issues, substance abuse, or other challenges that impact family relationships. It also often involves helping families through crises like divorce or death.

Career Counseling

Career counselors work with a number of different types of people. From college students looking to find a career in their chosen field. High school students looking to join the workforce immediately and current professionals looking to change careers. These counselors can help to point people in the right direction and to find the best career to fit their mindset and skills.

College Counseling

As a college counselor, you will work with college students in a number of ways. From helping them to pick classes to best meet their major requirements to providing guidance regarding how to get the best results from what the school has to offer. This includes providing information on extracurriculars, clubs, sports, as well as just in general aiding a student through their academic life while attending.

Grief Counselor

A grief counselor provides emotional support for people to allow them to be able to get over any number of types of tragedies. Whether it is for the loss of a loved one, getting through a personal loss, or a tragedy of any type. This career allows you to provide help and relief for anyone dealing with anything that can bring emotional distress.

After graduating with your master’s in counseling, you need to pass your state’s licensure exams and satisfy other state requirements. Check with your state’s relevant government department to discover not only what educational requirements you need to satisfy but also what exams and other requirements you need to satisfy for the particular type of counselor you would like to be.

Salary and Job Outlook for Counselors: Insights from the BLS

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

According to the BLS, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors had a median annual wage of $49,710 as of May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The employment in this field is projected to grow 18 percent from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is expected to generate about 42,000 job openings each year over the decade. The demand for these counselors is driven by a need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force​​.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and Family Therapists had a median annual wage of $56,570 in May 2022, according to the BLS. The field is projected to grow by 15% from 2022 to 2032, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is attributed to the increasing use of integrated care and the ongoing need to replace workers moving to different occupations or retiring​​.

Rehabilitation Counselors

For rehabilitation counselors, the BLS reports a median annual wage of $39,990 as of May 2022, according to the BLS. The field is projected to experience a growth of 2% from 2022 to 2032, which aligns with the average growth rate for all occupations. This growth is driven partly by the increasing needs of the elderly population and the ongoing rehabilitation requirements of other groups such as veterans and individuals with disabilities. About 6,700 job openings for rehabilitation counselors are projected annually over the decade, primarily due to workforce replacements​​.

School and Career Counselors and Advisors

The median annual wage for school and career counselors and advisors was $60,140 as of May 2022, according to the BLS. The job market for these professionals is expected to grow by 5% between 2022 and 2032, which is faster than the average across all occupations. This growth will likely create around 26,600 job openings each year over the decade, mainly due to the need to replace workers who change occupations or retire. The demand is driven by the need for counselors in schools to address students’ developmental, academic, and career-planning needs, and in career centers to assist job seekers and individuals changing careers​​.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s in Counseling?

The amount of time it takes to earn your master’s in counseling varies based on the program you choose, location, and the format of the program.

In general, master’s in counseling programs require between 50 and 60 hours of coursework. Most students complete the program in two years if they attend school full time or in three years if enrolled part-time.

Master’s in Counseling Requirements

The requirements for admissions to a master’s program vary based on the school and program you attend. In general, you need:

  • A bachelor’s degree, ideally in a related field, like psychology or education
    • If you don’t have a degree in the field, they may look for relevant coursework or work experience.
  • Competitive GRE scores
  • A high GPA in your undergraduate courses
  • A personal essay
  • Three references from professors or those you’ve worked with professionally

Master’s in Counseling Coursework

The courses you take during your master’s program can vary drastically based on the program you select. In general, however, you can expect to take foundational classes in several specialties and learn how to diagnose and develop treatment plans for your patients.

Curriculums may include classes like:

  • Case Management
  • Counseling Theories and Applications
  • Developmental Counseling over the lifespan
  • Group Counseling: Theory and Practice
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Professional Identity and Ethics in Counseling
  • Research and Evaluation in Behavior Sciences
  • Trauma and Crisis Intervention

In addition to the in-class or online learning, most counseling degrees require in-person clinical practice or an internship. The internship and practice requirements vary by state.

Five Types of Counseling Degree Concentrations

In addition to the general courses above, you may choose to specialize in a specific counseling area. For example, you might decide to work with teenagers or focus specifically on patients with substance abuse disorders. In those cases, you’ll likely take additional courses focusing on those areas.

Here a few common specialty concentrations and courses you might take in those programs:

Mental Health Counselor
Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, psychological tests and measurements, abnormal psychology, and theories of personality

Substance Abuse Counselor
Substance abuse counseling, assessment in substance abuse counseling, pharmacological factors in substance use treatment, case management, and group counseling

Family and Marriage Counselor
Theories of personality, couples and family counseling, psychological tests and measurements, and diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders

Child and Adolescents Counselor
Applied neuroscience and psychopharmacology, treatment of child and adolescent disorders, and human sexuality

Trauma and Crisis Intervention Counselor
Crisis, trauma, and disaster response, theories of crisis counseling, crisis management, and vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue

How Much Does a Master’s in Counseling Cost?

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the average cost of a master’s degree is approximately $20,000. NCES data shows an average of about $12,000 for public schools, and $28,000 for non-profit private institutions. Keep in mind, the rate can vary widely based on the school. Private institutions may cost considerably more than public, state-run schools, and out-of-state students often pay more than state residents.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Counseling

A master’s degree can help open the door to a successful new career. But how will you pay for it?

Start by researching the cost at the institution you plan to attend. Once you understand how much money you need, consider the following financial aid options:

Federally backed student loans are one of the most affordable ways to finance your education. Fill out the FASFA form to find out how much you may be eligible to borrow.

Unlike loans, scholarships don’t have to be paid back. Look for scholarships related to social work, working with children, or for historically underrepresented groups you may be a member of.

Grants don’t have to be paid back. They can help pay for internships, schooling, books, and even living expenses. Check with the school you’re considering attending to see if they offer grants for counseling master’s programs.

As a counselor, you may be eligible for student loan forgiveness through service in the National Health Services Corps or the federal government’s forgiveness programs. The requirements for forgiveness can be strict, so be sure to research the stipulations carefully.

Master’s in Counseling Prerequisites

When considering a master’s in counseling, you will need to consider the prerequisites for admission. Many times the master’s in counseling prerequisites may include the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field
  • Minimum GPA in undergraduate coursework
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Interview with program faculty

These, as well as other requirements outlined by the program you choose, will determine where you can go to get your master’s in counseling degree.

How to Choose a Master’s in Counseling Program

Choosing the right master’s program is the first step towards a fulfilling career as a counselor – and one of the most important decisions you’ll make. Below you’ll learn how to compare programs critically and select the right one for you.

Be Sure It’s Accredited

Accreditation is a status programs earn by showing an approved organization that they meet strict standards of excellence. Graduating from an accredited program shows prospective employers that you have received a quality education. Without accreditation, your degree might be more or less useless, at least for satisfying licensure requirements.

There are three types of accreditation – regional, national, and program level. Regional or national accreditation covers an entire school, while program-level accreditation, like the CACREP, accredits degrees in specific subjects. Most states require that you graduate from a CACREP-accredited program as one of the main requirements for earning counseling licensure.

Determine What Specialty You Want – And Make Sure They Offer It

Does the school you’re considering offer a specialization in the area you want to pursue? Specializations provide additional training to prepare you for roles with specific groups. For example, if you wish to work as an addiction counselor, make sure the schools you consider offer that specialization. Otherwise, you may end up having to switch schools in the middle of your program, which can be costly.

Check the Program’s Reputation with Future Employers

Not all programs are created equal. Before committing to a specific program, take the time to contact former students and ask them about their experience at the school.

Ask questions such as: Did they feel prepared for their career? Does the school offer programs to help students find internships or clinical practice?

Additionally, research professors on sites like Rate My Professors to understand how they teach and what students liked (or disliked) about the program and teachers.

Finally, if you have contacts in the field, ask them about hiring procedures at their workplace. How is your program viewed?

Talk to the Professors Before Enrolling

If possible, reach out to professors in the program. If they seem hesitant or take too long to respond (unless it’s finals time!), it may not be the right program for you. Speaking to your future teachers can show how enthusiastic they are about the program and what type of interaction you can expect once you enroll.

Consider Online Master’s in Counseling Programs

If you need an online option, be sure the school offers an online master’s in counseling program that meets your needs. Keep in mind that some online programs are hybrid, which often requires several in-person classes or hours. In addition, you’ll likely have to complete internships or clinicals in person.

Typical Master’s in Counseling Salary

Upon earning your Master’s in Counseling, you’ll be eager to dive into your chosen field. Your career options and potential salary can vary depending on several factors, such as your specialization within counseling, geographic location, and the type of organization you work for. For instance, salaries may differ if you’re employed as a school counselor in a public versus a private institution. The median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is close to $50,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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