Welcome! If you’re interested in a career as a counselor, you’re in the right place. We’ve gathered all the information you’ll need to know, and organized it into an easy-to-understand guide. It can be fascinating to learn how the human mind works, and to understand why people do the things they do—and it can be deeply satisfying to help others in their time of need. If you decide to become a counselor, we wish you all the best and we’d love to help.
On this page, we’ll explain three topics: 1–the most popular types of counseling, 2–the steps you’ll need to take and education that you’ll need complete to become a counselor, and 3–the salary and income that different kinds of counselors earn. By the time you reach the bottom of this page, you’ll know (almost) everything you need to know on how to become a counselor!
Different Types of Counselors
First, we’ll start with a quick definition: a counselor (also called a therapist) is a licensed professional who enable others to overcome problematic issues and achieve personal goals. They are extensively trained, and they use techniques that help clients to lead happier, more satisfying lives.
There are many ways that counselors provide therapy for their clients: some work with families, and help strengthen relationships; others assist individuals who are struggling with a specific issue, such as a mental health disorder, an addiction, or a behavioral problems; some choose to work with a specific age group, and counsel children or adults or senior citizens. The career options for people who are interested in counseling are broad, and many therapists change their focus a few times over the course of their careers.
In general, though, most counselors fall into the following categories:
School Counselors. Sometimes called guidance counselors or educational counselors, school counselors work with students in an elementary or high school setting. They have a wide range of responsibilities, and help kids and young adults with:
Academic achievement: Counselors help find tutors and get the in-class resources students need to excel scholastically;
Social issues: Educational therapists ensure that students are getting along with each other, and help classmates form positive bonds; and
Family or personal issues: School counselors offer private, one-on-one sessions so that students can discuss their interactions with peers and family members.
School counselors interact with their clients in a variety of ways—perhaps moreso than any other type of counselor—and can make truly a meaningful difference in a child or young adult’s life. We’ve included posts on the steps to become a counselor in schools (as well as all other environments) in our blog and in our sidebar, so feel free to learn more!
University Counselors. College students face a unique set of issues: many are living away from home for the first time and experiencing a level of independence that is new to them; some feel exasperated by the intensity of their classes, and the responsibility of being a student; and all of them are meeting new people and dealing with social situations that may be intimidating. College life can be difficult, and a college counselor is tasked with helping students maintain a healthy and positive lifestyle. It is worth noting that whereas grammar school counselors and high school counselors may also focus on a student’s academic and professional career, college counselors usually focus only on traditional counseling, and help with the student with personal issues.
Marriage and Family Counselors. Families come in all shapes and sizes, but every family faces issues that can make life difficult. Even the most stable and loving people will eventually experience dilemmas that undermine and harm relationships. A marriage and family counselor focuses on interventions to help resolve conflicts between family members, and promote a happy, health family unit. They are trained to assist with concerns related to relationship dynamics, communication problems, parenting skills, financial difficulties, and the bonds between family members.
While the work can be difficult, many practitioners find working with couples and families very rewarding. Families who «do the work» and embrace a new style of interacting with each other often grow closer and more loving, and for a counselor, being part of the process can be a very satisfying career experience.
Substance Abuse/Addiction Counselors. People who have a dependence on drugs or alcohol often find their lives are spinning out of control. They may lose their jobs, find themselves in financial trouble, or destroy their most valuable personal relationships and harm the people they love. Many attempt to control their behavior on their own, but find their efforts ineffective. A substance abuse counselor helps people with addictive behaviors to retain control of their lives, and repair the damage done to their relationships. Much of a substance abuse counselor’s work is done one-on-one with the client, but they also use group therapy to provide support and develop an addict’s accountability, as well as family therapy to help those who have been impacted by the primary client’s behaviors.
Behavioral counseling is a related field of work, where therapists specialize their focus and work with people who want to discontinue a destructive or maladaptive activity. Behavioral counselors may work with people who suffer from eating disorder, gambling problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and other self-harming actions.
Our scientific understanding of what makes a person become repeat a self-damaging behavior is limited, and we do not yet comprehend the neurological processes that cause people to become addicted or act in self-harming ways. But despite the lack of scientific insight, substance counselors and behavioral counselors successfully counsel clients to discontinue unhealthy activities and dependencies, so that they can repair their lives and create fulfilling relationships.
Mental Health Counselors. Many people suffer from conditions that they do not understand. They may feel depressed, and not understand why, or they may feel tremendous anxiety, even though there is nothing in particular that should worry them. Some others may experience paranoia or delusions, and have no one to share their concerns with. Mental health counselors work with people who suffer from a variety of disorders, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and trauma.
Therapists who provide mental health support engage in one-on-one counseling appointments, arrange group sessions so that clients have community support, and work with families of the primary client to promote healthy relationships and communication. Very often, mental health counselors are a part of a «treatment team» comprised of physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals who convene to provide the most in-depth care possible.
Just as we do not understand the physical and chemical nature of addiction, our understanding of mental illness is also in its infancy. However, researchers have developed powerful medications that provide support and an «emotional base» for those suffering from the mental health conditions. With the help of medication and counseling, a very high number of people are able to lead satisfying and happy lives.
Private Practice Counselors. Instead of working at a school or a hospital or a mental health clinic, many counselors «open their own shop» and provide therapy for people who live in the community. Private counselors (sometimes called «private practitioners») help people with a wide range of problems, and may help clients with relationship problems, family concerns, drug addiction, personal growth, or whatever else the client wants to discuss. Because they are self-employed, private practitioners may charge their clients cash for each visit, or accept insurance payments from health insurance companies.