How to Become a Professional Counselor: The Ultimate Guide
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How to Become a Professional Counselor: The Ultimate Guide


There are hundreds of thousands of counselors working in the U.S., there’s still a shortage of professionals who are qualified to treat conditions like anxiety and depression.


According to the American Psychological Association, nearly one-third of therapists are seeing more patients than ever. They’re even turning patients away because their schedules are so full.


The counseling industry needs qualified individuals who can help to support those who are struggling with their mental health. Not everyone is cut out for this career path, though.


Explained below are the basics that anyone who’s thinking about becoming a counselor, psychologist, or therapist needs to know.




What Type of People Become Counselors?


Counselors come in all shapes and sizes and from a wide range of backgrounds. There’s not one specific type of person who makes a good counselor because all kinds of people go to and need counseling.


That being said, certain personality traits and skills may make some people a better fit for a career in counseling than others. The following are some of the most well-known ones:



Good counselors are empathetic. They have compassion for others and can look at issues from their clients’ perspectives.


Listening Skills

The ability to actively list is crucial for counselors. They must be able to hear what their clients are saying and make them feel seen and valued.


Creative Problem-Solving Skills

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to counseling. Counselors must be able to look at problems from different angles and figure out treatment plans that are tailored to each client’s unique needs.


Emotion and Logic

Counselors need to be in touch with their hearts and their heads, so to speak.

They must be empathetic and connected to their emotions. They must also be logical and able to approach situations in a practical way.



Finally, counselors must be self-aware. They need to understand their own biases and preferences so they can work to overcome them and ensure they’re putting their clients first.




How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?


The specific amount of time that it takes to become a counselor varies depending on the type of counseling one decides to do. There are lots of different roads that one can take to start working in the counseling profession, and each road has different education requirements and time commitments.


For example, if someone decides they want to become a social worker, they’ll likely need a master’s degree, which takes about 6 years (on average) to earn. That includes 4 years for undergraduate, and two years for a master’s degree.



If someone wants to become a psychologist, though, they may need a doctoral degree, which takes about 8-10 years (on average) to earn. That includes 4 years for an undergraduate degree, and 4-6 years of graduate school.


Below is a chart to explain how long it will take to become a counselor.

  • Clinical Counselor/Mental Health Counselor: 6 years.
  • Marriage & Family Therapist: 6 years.
  • School Counselor: 6 years.
  • Social Worker: 4 years, 6 years if wanting to practice mental health counseling.
  • Psychologist: 8-10 years.


What Classes Should I Take in College to Become a Therapist?

The majority of classes that one must take to become a therapist are related to psychology and human development. The following are some examples of classes a student may take in their undergraduate education when they start their journey toward becoming a therapist:

  • Communications
  • Cultural studies
  • Human physiology and lifespan development
  • Neurodevelopment and neuropsychology
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Family Studies
  • Human Services

As they continue in their education, students who are working toward a counseling career will also take more specialized classes.


For example, they may take classes in child and adolescent psychology. This is especially likely if they plan to pursue a career in school counseling (elementary, jr. high, or high school), or as a child psychologist or social worker.


They may also take classes in cultural psychology or gender psychology if they plan to work with a specific population and want to learn more about the unique needs and challenges members of that group face.




What Kind of Graduate School Do I Attend to Become a Therapist?


Most therapists and counselors working in the United States have at least a master’s degree in counseling psychology, marriage & family therapy, social work, etc.


To earn a master’s degree, students typically need to complete an additional 30-60 credit hours (around 2-4 semesters). Every school’s requirements are slightly different, though, so students need to consult their own school and career counselors to find out exactly what’s required of them.


It’s important to note that different states require different levels of education, too. In some states, it may be fine to practice as a counselor with just a bachelor’s degree. Others may require a master’s degree along with additional licensing through the state.


In order to become a practicing Psychologist, typically one needs to complete a doctoral degree in either Counseling Psychology or Clinical Psychology.




How to Become a Social Worker?


Social workers provide specialized care to help their clients overcome specific obstacles.


A school social worker, for example, will partner with students, teachers, parents, and administrators to help students improve their academic performance, social development, etc.


Mental health and healthcare social workers, on the other hand, work in hospitals and clinics, as well as in patients’ homes. They provide support and help clients transition back to regular life after receiving treatment.


Degree Requirements


The first step to becoming a licensed social worker is earning a degree.


At a minimum, social workers must have a bachelor’s degree in social work. Many positions also require (or at least strongly prefer) a master’s degree in social work, though.


Whether it’s a bachelor’s or a master’s, all of a social worker’s degrees must come from accredited programs to be considered legitimate.


Social workers also must complete supervised clinic hours (450 hours for bachelor’s degrees and 900 hours for master’s degrees) to gain hands-on experience and training.


Licensing Requirements


After earning their degree, social workers-to-be must also get licensed to work in their specific state. Each state has different licensing requirements, but most require the candidate to take and pass a standardized exam and pay registration fees.


Social workers must also renew their licenses regularly (typically every 2 years).




Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor


A mental health counselor combines their knowledge of psychotherapy with creative problem-solving skills. They can work with individuals, couples, families, and groups to overcome a wide range of mental health issues.


Some mental health counselors work with very specific populations, too. For example, they may work only with elderly clients or military personnel.



Education Requirements


Aspiring mental health counselors must first complete a bachelor’s degree. They typically earn their degree in a field like psychology or sociology.


Some courses students should be sure to take if they plan to pursue a career as a mental health counselor include courses in psychology, human development, and foundational counseling skills.


After earning a bachelor’s degree, students will need to go on and pursue a master’s degree. They should seek out a university for their master’s degree that is CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs)-accredited if possible, as CACREP is the preferred accreditor for mental health counseling programs.


Mental health counselors must complete internships/supervised clinical hours, too. Like social workers, most states require around 900 hours.



Licensing Requirements


Like social workers, mental health counselors must meet additional licensing requirements after they complete their master’s degree. They may need to pass a written exam, for example, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).


Mental health counselors also need to keep their licenses current and participate in continuing education programs approved by organizations like the National Board for Certified Counselors.


Counseling Women


How to Become a Marriage & Family Therapist?


Marriage and family therapists (also known as MFTs or marriage counselors) work with clients to help them improve their relationships. They address a variety of issues, including challenges related to familial roles, major life changes, and mental health struggles for all family members.



They also typically work with couples and/or families rather than individuals, though MFTs do also conduct individual therapy as well.


Education Requirements


After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, most future MFTs will earn a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Depending on the school they attend, they may also earn a more general degree in Mental Health Counseling with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy.


All MFT master’s programs should be accredited by an organization like the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs, or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. The most distinguished of the three is COAMFTE.


MFTs can also go on to get a doctoral degree in MFT if they want to conduct research or teach at universities.


Licensing Requirements


Before they can become licensed, most states require future MFTs to complete a certain number of field practice hours (anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000, depending on the state) and then pass a licensing exam.


Most states use the MFT National Examination, which was developed by the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.





Path to Become a Psychologist


Psychologists provide counseling and therapy to a wide range of patients, from children to the elderly. They also work with a wide variety of mental health issues from severe psychosis to more common issues such as anxiety.


Psychologists can also provide testing and recommend treatment for mental disorders. They are not medical doctors, though, and are not allowed to prescribe medications. They may work with a patient’s medical doctor to create a more holistic treatment plan.


Education Requirements


Psychologists must, at a minimum, earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology or a related field before they can start practicing.


After earning these degrees, most students go on to earn a doctoral degree as well. This can be a PsyD, which is a practical degree that one must earn to become a counselor, or a PhD, which is geared toward those who are more interested in conducting research.


Some psychologists earn an EdD, too, which is a Doctor of Education. For those who want to work as school psychologists, this is a more common path to take.


It is important for anyone considering becoming a psychologist that they familiarize themselves with the various specialties. An Experimental Psychologist and a Clinical Psychologist are quite different and require different education paths.


The American Psychological Association is the governing body for Psychologists. For a list of APA-Approved programs, click here.



Licensing Requirements


After they complete their degrees, psychologists-to-be must complete an internship or postdoctoral program. This gives them an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in their chosen field.


In most states, 1,500-2,000 hours of practical experience are required, along with 1-2 years of supervised professional training. From here, psychologists can take the state licensing exam (the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology), which is administered by the  Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.




What’s the Average Salary of a Counselor?


The average salary of a counselor in the United States is $59,585. The average salary range starts at $52,909 per year and ends at $67,483 per year.


A counselor’s exact salary depends on a lot of factors, including education and additional certifications. The number of years they’ve spent practicing and the cost of living in their state contribute to their salary and earning potential, too.




Is it Difficult to Find a Job as a Counselor?


Right now, there’s a shortage of counselors, therapists, rehabilitation counselors, and other mental health professionals. Because of this shortage and the growing need for therapy throughout the country (and the world), many new counselors may have a relatively easy time finding a job once their schooling is complete and they’ve obtained their license.


That being said, it’s not as though anyone can just walk into a therapy practice and get hired on the spot. There are still rules and regulations upheld by the National Board for Certified Counselors and other organizations.


From mental health practices to schools in need of counselors, applicants will still need to go through the job interview process before they can start working with clients. They’ll need to present a resume and letters of recommendation, too, and they may have to go through a supervision period before they can start seeing clients on their own.




Are Counselors Happy in Their Careers?


The majority of full-time counselors report feeling happy and satisfied in their careers. According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, 93 percent are either “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied.”


When the results of the survey were broken down, they showed that counselors and therapists were most happy with the following aspects of their jobs:

  • Degree of independence
  • Contribution to society
  • Intellectual challenge



There are lots of advantages to a career in mental health counseling, whether the counselor is working with children or helping couples solve problems in their marriages. It takes a lot of work to get there, but most people are very satisfied with the results that come from that hard work.




Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

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