If you hope to become a counselor, there are many paths you can take. One of these is a career as a licensed professional counselor (LPC). This page will explain what an LPC does, the steps you must take to obtain your counseling license, and a bit about what to expect after earning your right to work as an LPC.
What is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)?
A licensed professional counselor is a mental health care provider trained to work with individuals and groups to provide care related to mental, behavioral, and emotional issues, including diagnosing and treating disorders.
As a licensed professional counselor, you’ll work with individuals, families, or groups to address issues like substance abuse, learning disabilities, mood disorders, and other mental health disorders, as well as the struggles that come with daily life.
Depending on your education and specialization, you might work in a mental health center, hospital, government agency, residential treatment facility, school, or for a community-based organization. You may also establish a private practice offering counseling services.
Like most other types of counselors, LPCs are highly educated, usually holding a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or counseling. The state you plan to practice in sets the requirements for entering the career.
What Are Other Terms for a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)?
LPCs go by different titles in some states, which can be a bit confusing. These titles may sound similar but can have different education, testing, and supervised experience requirements.
Other common titles for this role include:
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
- Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
So, what is the difference between these titles?
For starters, licensed and educational requirements can vary by state. In general, titles that include terms like “mental health” or “clinical” are licensed to diagnose and treat mental illnesses and disorders, while the others may not. However, licensed professional counselors may provide a broader range of counseling in areas like career counseling or domestic violence.
What Is an LPC License?
LPC stands for both licensed professional counselors and the license that certifies these professionals. The license is issued at the state level, so the specific requirements vary. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits master’s degree programs in related fields to help students prepare for the licensing process.
What Does an LPC Do?
The exact tasks you may perform in your job as a licensed professional counselor vary based on where you work, your education, and whether you specialize in any specific area. However, most LPCs work with groups or individuals to diagnose mental health disorders and provide personalized treatment plans for recovery.
Many work in schools, governmental buildings, on military bases, or at rehabilitation centers. LPCs can provide counseling for children, teenagers, college students, and adults on a variety of mental, emotional, or social issues.
For example, an LPC might work with patients in a drug-addiction facility to help them understand the underlying issues contributing to their addictions and develop a plan to help them learn to live successful, fulfilling lives.
As with other types of counselors, LPCs can provide therapy and counseling but are not licensed to prescribe or recommend medications. In some states, they can diagnose issues as well.
In addition to counseling and diagnosis, day-to-day duties might include administrative tasks such as scheduling appointments and updating patient files.
Can an LPC Prescribe Medication?
While there are many related licensed mental health counseling positions, it’s important to understand the differences between related roles. An LPC is not licensed to prescribe medication or make professional recommendations on a particular medication. In order to prescribe medication, an LPC must receive medical training. Any necessary medication must be prescribed by a doctor, psychiatrist, or licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner.
Once you decide to become an LPC, you can choose from a range of specializations. The American Counseling Association (ACA) has approximately 18 divisions representing specializations in the field. Here are a few common options to consider:
- Grief counselor
- Mental health counselor
- Rehabilitation counselor
- Child counselor
- Substance abuse counselor
Can You Be a Counselor Without a License?
The requirements for serving as a counselor vary by state. In general, if you wish to work with patients who live with mental health disorders, you must obtain licensure as an LPC or the equivalent in your state.
However, the mental health field offers a wide range of career options. Depending on your state, a few counselor positions that may not require licensure include career counselors, school counselors, peer counselors, and alcohol and drug counselors.
Unlicensed counselors may work in a variety of settings, including courtrooms, schools, drug treatment facilities, and domestic violence shelters.
How to Become an LPC
As a licensed professional counselor, you may take on a variety of roles related to helping people overcome obstacles and cope with mental disorders. However, preparing for the position requires several steps, including education, hands-on experience, and passing an exam to obtain licensure.
This section focuses on the steps toward getting your LPC license. The specific steps vary by state, so be sure to research the requirements in your state.
1. Meet Educational Requirements for LPCs: Master’s or Doctoral Degree
The first step to working as an LPC is to obtain a bachelor’s degree—ideally in the field, though that is not necessary. A relevant master’s or doctoral degree is required to be an LPC, so you’ll need to attend a master’s in counseling online program. and possibly a doctoral degree in mental health counseling or psychology from an accredited program.
Several specializations may be available, depending on the state where you plan to practice and the school you select. Common specializations include addiction, marriage, trauma, and forensic counseling.
Courses in a master’s or doctoral program cover various topics, including counseling theory, substance abuse, mental health diagnosis (in states where LPC can provide diagnoses), mental health therapy, and group therapy practices. If you plan to work in private practice, consider taking business courses to help prepare you to run a successful practice.
Receiving a master’s degree in counseling doesn’t automatically qualify you to become an LPC. Instead, you must complete supervised practice and pass the examination. There are also steps for out-of-state applications that may apply to your situation.
2. Complete Hands-On Practice to Meet LPC Requirements
In addition to completing a master’s or doctoral degree, LPCs must complete hands-on practice under a licensed practitioner’s supervision. You’ll likely work under a licensed psychiatrist, social worker, or clinical psychologist during your supervised practice to evaluate and treat patients.
Hands-on practice is required before taking the exam to become licensed to practice, and the number of hours required varies by state. If you plan to earn your master’s degree online, talk to the school about your options.
Expect to work with your supervisor to understand how to work with different types of patients, what treatments are most successful, and how to navigate difficult counseling situations.
3. Take LPC Examinations
After completing your required supervised practice and classroom training, the next step is to apply and take one of the two exams required for licensure: the National Mental Health Counselor Examination (NMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE).
If your state requires the NMHCE, expect to be tested using ten clinical simulations designed to ensure your competency in various situations. The simulations look at several areas, including diagnostic skills, counseling experience, administration skills, and supervision abilities. This exam is offered twice a year—spring and fall—and costs $275. You’ll take it on a computer.
Some states require LPCs to pass the NCE, a 200-question, multiple-choice test taken on paper. Out of the 200 questions, 160 are scored 40 questions are unscored questions used to evaluate potential questions for future versions of the test. The NCE exam’s topics include ethics, assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, counseling skills, and interventions. The cost to register and take the NCE exam is $275.
4. Review Steps for Out-of-State Licensure Applications for LPCs
LPC education requirements vary drastically by state. Therefore, it’s best to obtain your education and licensure in the state you plan to practice in. If you choose to move to a new state or practice in a neighboring state, there are several out-of-state licensure options.
Several states offer licensure reciprocity, though LPCs may find their new states have different requirements than their previous homes did.
This doesn’t mean you need to retake the NMHCE or NCE; in most cases, you can ask the board to send your test results to the state you wish to practice in. However, you may be required to show you meet all their other requirements and apply and pay for licensure in that state.
What is the Difference Between Counselor Board Certification and Licensure?
Board certification helps employers and potential patients recognize mental health professionals who meet the counseling profession’s standards. Licensure, on the other hand, is a legal requirement to use specific titles and provide treatment in a particular state.
Licensure requires meeting specific education requirements, completing supervised practice, and passing the National Mental Health Counselor Examination. Board certification requires completing a master’s degree (or higher), 3,000 hours of counseling experience, and 100 hours of supervised work over two years.
LCSW vs. LPC
A related career to an LPC is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). This professional role works with communities and organizations in both hands-on and administrative roles. To become an LCSW, you must earn a master’s in social work, complete supervised clinical practice hours, and pass the relevant examination.
Both LPCs and LCSWs require a graduate degree and license. LPCs, however, focus more on the psychological state of individuals, whereas LCSWs are more likely to work in administrative roles and focus on the societal issues of a situation.
LPC vs. LCSW Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned median pay of $50,390 in 2021. This is comparable to the median pay of LPCs working as mental health counselors, which was $48,520 in 2021, according to BLS.
LPCs earn a wide range of salaries depending on their location, years of experience, and other factors. According to BLS data, the median annual wage for counselors was $45,160 in 2021. The 90th percentile of counselors earned $76,780. Review specific counseling roles to learn more about LPC salary expectations.
Rehabilitation Counselor Salary
A rehabilitation counselor works with individuals to restore their emotional, developmental, physical, and developmental independence. The median annual wage for this career path was $38,560 in 2021, with a job growth expectation of about 10%. This means that the BLS estimates there will be about 10,800 new rehabilitation counselors between 2020 and 2030.
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Salary
Another potential set of roles for LPCs includes behavioral disorders counselors, substance abuse counselors, and mental health counselors. As a group, these careers work with individuals to overcome drug addiction, mental health issues, behavioral problems, or alcoholism. The median pay of these positions was $48,520 in 2021, according to BLS data, with a significant job outlook between 2020 and 2030. The roles are expected to grow by 23% throughout the decade.
Elementary and High School Counselor Salary
Licensed counselors who work in public or private schools can help individuals succeed in school and in their careers. The 2021 median pay for these counselors was $60,510, according to BLS. There will be an estimated 37,000 additional positions by 2030, which represents an 11% increase.
Continuing Education Requirements for LPCs
Even once you’ve finished your formal education, you’ll likely be expected to keep learning via continuing education (CE) to maintain your licensure. The number of CE hours required varies by state, and some have different requirements for first renewals versus later ones. A few examples include:
- California: 36 hours for renewal, with six in law and ethics; depending on your exact license, other requirements may exist
- Kansas: 30 credit hours per two-year renewal, with three in ethics and six in diagnosis and treatment
- Louisiana: 40 hours per renewal period, with three in ethics and six in diagnosis; board-approved supervisors need three in supervision, and those engaging in telehealth need three in that area
- New York: 36 hours per three-year renewal period
- Wisconsin: 30 credit hours per renewal, with four in ethics and professional boundaries
The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) can help find places to earn these credits, and many state sites also list accepted continuing education options.