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 benefits of considering LPC online programs, the steps to obtain your counseling license after earning your LPC degree, and a bit about what to expect after earning your right to work as an LPC.
What Is an LPC Degree Program?
As the name implies, an LPC degree is a graduate-level course that provides aspiring counselors with the education required to become licensed and practice as professional counselors. The curriculum in an LPC degree program is comprehensive and covers various topics relevant to counseling and psychotherapy. Some common areas of study include:
- Counseling theories and approaches
- Psychopathology and diagnosis
- Assessment and testing
- Human development and lifespan issues
- Cultural diversity and multicultural counseling
- Legal and ethical issues in counseling
- Group counseling and dynamics
- Family and couples counseling
- Substance abuse and addiction counseling
- Trauma and crisis intervention
- Research methods and evidence-based practices
LPC degree programs typically take between two to three years to complete if pursued on a full-time basis.
Importance of an LPC Degree Program
Enrolling in an LPC degree program is extremely important for aspiring counselors. One of the main reasons why this degree program is important is to obtain licensure to practice counseling. In many states in the U.S., only individuals who have completed a recognized LPC program and meet other licensing requirements are legally allowed to offer counseling services. This is because LPC programs provide comprehensive training in counseling theory, assessment, and practical skills. This formal qualification ensures that clients receive services from counselors who have undergone rigorous training.
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 mental, behavioral, and emotional care, 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 and 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 a community-based organization. You may also establish a private practice offering counseling services.
Like most other types of counselors, LPCs are highly educated through licensed professional counselor programs, 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 require different education, testing, and supervised experience.
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 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 licensed professional counselor 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, military bases, or 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 LPC specializations in the field. Here are a few common options to consider:
- Grief counselor
- Mental health counselor
- Rehabilitation counselor
- Child counselor
- Substance abuse counselor
- School Counselor
- Career Counselor
- Couples Counselors
- Trauma 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.
Obtain an Undergraduate Degree
The undergrad degree program you pursue is the most important step in becoming an LPC. This is because some universities and colleges may require you to have studied specific degree programs before admitting you to study a master’s program. Therefore, it’s best to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or a related field.
Enroll in an LPC Degree Program
Once you’ve completed your undergrad and are sure that you want to become an LPC, you should enroll in an accredited master’s program. All the U.S. states require candidates to obtain an LPC degree before they provide a license, so this step is very important. Before you enroll for a program, ensure that it is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This is because the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes CACREP for accrediting counseling programs.
Complete Practicum and Internship
CACREP-accredited master’s programs include a 100-hour clinical practicum and a 600-hour supervised counseling internship. Both the practicum and internship include direct service provided to clients of 40 and 240 hours, respectively. This is essential because it provides students with hands-on training in a counseling setting. During this time, some states will require you to get a provisional license when dealing with clients.
Pass Licensing Exams
When you successfully complete the practicum and internship, you can then register for the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) exams—the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
Apply and Maintain LPC Licensure
After passing the exams, the NBCC will notify your state board, giving you leeway to apply for the license. This application typically includes documentation of your education, supervised experience, exam scores, and any additional requirements specified by your state. You’ll also need to pay an application fee for this to be processed.
This license is, however, not a lifetime one. You must renew your license every year. For it to be renewed, most states require you to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year.
Common LPC Degree Specializations
When searching for the right LPC online programs for you, it’s important to consider what you’d like for your future career. Specialization in different types of counseling can provide you with the education you need to support clients in your area of interest.
Common specializations offered by licensed professional counselor programs include:
- Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling–A clinical mental healthcare provider typically works in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or clinic. This specialization can be a great fit for practitioners who want to work with people with various mental health issues.
- Online Master’s in Family Counseling–Family counseling requires LPCs to consider several dynamics, including relationships, age, gender, family history, mental health issues, and more. A specialization in family counseling prepares LPCs to support clients as they work towards happier, healthier relationships with one another.
- Online Master’s in Counseling–Earning a general counseling degree can be a perfect fit for those who want to keep their practice options open, or who want to get a general counseling education before focusing on a specialty area during their doctorate study.
Counseling Certification Paths
Some counseling programs that offer a general course of study also allow for elective options, allowing therapists to concentrate in a particular area that can help them provide specialized services to clients.
Common counseling concentrations include:
- Gerontology counseling–This type of counseling focuses on helping older adults through mental health issues, including thriving in retirement, relating to adult children, and dealing with past traumas that are impacting their current quality of life.
- Rehabilitation counseling–Drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselors help clients work toward sobriety. While many drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselors are people who are working through the recovery process themselves, this is not a requirement to be a successful rehabilitation counselor.
- Disorder-specific counseling–Some LPCs choose to focus their practice on helping people with a specific disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
6 Online Programs for LPC Degrees
1. New York University (NYU): Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness
This program prepares students to work in private practice, medical settings, rehabilitation clinics, and more. In addition to classwork, students must also complete a lab course, practicum, and internship.
Tuition: $121,200 (full program)
Program Length: Two years
Credits Required: 60
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. Admissions are accepted on a rolling basis. The program does not have a GRE requirement.
2. University of Pennsylvania: Master of Philosophy in Professional Counseling
UPenn’s Master of Philosophy in Professional Counseling program emphasizes social justice and prepares students to become either LPCs or certified school counselors. In addition to coursework, students must spend 20 hours per week completing an internship during the second year of their program.
Program Length: Two years
Credits Required: 20
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. The program does not have a GRE requirement. Students may be required to attend an online or in-person interview as a part of the admission process.
3. Columbia University: Master of Education in Psychological Counseling
This program also emphasizes social justice and prepares students to work as licensed counselors in several settings, including nursing homes, outpatient mental health settings, and inpatient facilities.
Program Length: 2 to 3 years
Credits Required: 60
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. The program does not have a GRE requirement. Students are also required to submit a resume, statement of purpose, and two letters of recommendation.
4. Boston College: Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling
Boston College’s M.A. in Mental Health Counseling prepares students both for work and further graduate study. In addition to teaching students the skills necessary to support their clients’ mental health, the program also focuses on systemic injustices in mental healthcare systems.
Program Length: Two years
Credits Required: 60
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. The program does not have a GRE requirement, but students are permitted to submit scores if they so choose. Students are also required to submit a writing sample, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a resume.
5. University of Texas at Austin: Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
At U of T, counseling graduate students prepare to work as academic advisers, student affairs associates, and career counselors at the college level. Students also have the option to pursue an LPC or certified school counselor pathway.
Tuition: $25,300 for in-state residents, $50,700 for out-of-state residents
Program Length: Two years
Credits Required: 60 credits
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. The program does not have a GRE requirement. Students are required to attend an interview and submit letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and demonstrate readiness to participate in research.
6. Vanderbilt University: Master of Education in Human Development Counseling
Students in Vanderbilt’s counseling program emerge ready to help clients through the complexities of human systems. The program focuses heavily on allowing students to develop the skills necessary to help their clients maximize their potential.
Program Length: 2 years
Credits Required: 48-60
Admission Requirements: Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is required for admission consideration. GRE score submission is required. Students are required to submit letters of recommendation and a personal statement.
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 master’s and doctoral LPC online programs 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 LPC degree 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.
Post-Master’s or Doctorate Requirements
1. 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.
2. Take LPC Examinations
After completing your required supervised practice and your LPC degree coursework, 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, and 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.
3. 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 one of your state’s licensed professional counselor programs at a master’s level (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 a 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.
LPC Career Options
With an LPC license, your LPC career can be as unique as you are. You don’t have to follow the traditional path if you have a passion for a specific area or population. You can combine your interests and skills to create a fulfilling career that helps people in meaningful ways. These LPC career options include:
This is like having your own counseling business. You set your own hours, choose your clients, and decide on your counseling approach.
With technology, you can counsel people online through video chats or phone calls. It’s handy for clients who can’t come to your office, and it allows you to reach people from all over.
If you’re curious and enjoy studying human behavior, you can become a research counselor. You’ll work on research projects to better understand mental health and develop new therapies and techniques to help people.
Counselors who specialize in consultation work with organizations or schools. You’ll provide guidance on improving workplace dynamics, employee well-being, or school counseling programs.
Advocacy counselors are passionate about social justice and change. You’ll work with organizations or communities to advocate for better mental health policies, raise awareness about mental health issues, and fight stigma.
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
Other potential set of roles for LPCs include 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.
Take the Next Step into Your Future With an LPC Degree
Are you passionate about helping and supporting people? Then, an LPC degree is the first step towards getting an LPC license and a fulfilling career. Consider pursuing an LPC degree today and make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.