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Complete Guide to the Master of Counseling Degree

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 applying to and attending your master’s program, and how to choose the best school for you.

Master of Counseling Degree at a Glance

  • In 2017, 10,269 degrees in counseling psychology were awarded.
  • The average worker in the counseling field is 41.2 years old
  • The median wage for those in the counseling field is $49,950
  • The highest paying locations for counselors are Lewiston, ID-WA, Salt Lake City, UT, Reno, NV, Mankato-North Mankato, MN, and Hanford-Corcoran, CA.
  • The most common degree awarded to students studying counseling is a master’s degree.

Sources: Data USA, BLS.gov

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 wellbeing. 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.

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.

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 what exams and other requirements you need to satisfy for the particular type of counselor you would like to do.

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 course work. Most students complete the program in two years if they attend school full time or in three years if enrolled part-time.

Admission Requirements for Master’s in Counseling Programs

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.

Specialty 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, the average cost of a master’s degree was $18,416 per year for the 2016 to 2107 school year. 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 represented 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 program.

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 make to research the stipulations carefully.

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. (Try LinkedIn or the school’s alumni association to be put in contact with them.)

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 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’s 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 a master’s in counseling program online that meets your needs. Keep in mind that some online programs are hybrid, which often requires several in-person classes or in-person hours. In addition, you’ll likely have to complete internships or clinicals in person.