Multi-purpose Counseling. It is worth noting that while many counselors focus on working with a group of people who have a specific problem, most therapists will work with people who have any number of the problems listed above.
A marriage and family therapist may work with a client who has been addicted to drugs, and help him or her to redevelop family bonds; a substance abuse counselor may serve as a marriage counselor and enhance communication between two spouses; or a mental health counselor working with someone with severe depression may also provide support that helps that client overcome an eating disorder. While therapists often choose a specific branch of counseling to practice, they usually find themselves helping clients face issues that are outside their field of focus. Therefore, most counseling degrees train a therapist to work with clients who face any number of issues.
Career Steps: How to Become A Licensed Therapist
So how do you become employed as a therapist? In the U. S., each state has different requirements that determine how to become a counselor—but they all require that counselors receive a certain level of education and attain certain licenses. Here are the requirements for education and licensing that are common to most states:
Education. Most states will require a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. Each of those master’s programs teach techniques that therapists use with patients, but each has a slightly different focus. A counseling degree is the broadest course of study, and focuses on counseling interventions and family interactions. A psychology degree is a broader program that teaches counseling techniques, but it also trains students to do psychological research in a laboratory setting. A social work degree also instructs students on how to counsel people, but it has more of an emphasis on social justice and the political/social factors that affect clients’ lives. For more information about the different types of education counselors receive, we’ve written a detailed post about types of counseling degrees.
It is important to note that some counselor’s continue on after their master’s degree and get a doctorate degree (PhD), but obtaining a doctorate degree is not necessary in order to become a counselor.
Licensing. Each state has a specific set of licenses that a counselor must attain. For the most part, the requirements to get a state counseling license consist of a certain number of supervised hours at a job site counseling patients (which usually takes two years to complete), and successful completion a state exam. Each state has different licensing requirements for each field of counseling, so a psychologist will have the get a psychologist’s license, a social worker will have to get a social worker’s license, and so on.
For an excellent resource about each state’s educational and licensing requirements, you can check your state’s homepage. They will usually list the educational degrees needed, the licenses that need to be attain, and any other state-specific requirements.
One last note: it is important to remember that you can get your master’s degree from any accredited program in any state. However, in order to be a counselor in a specific state, you will have to attain counseling licenses in the state you wish to practice. So, for example, if you wish to work as a counselor in Washington state, you can go to school in Oregon, but you must attain the a Washington state license in order to practice in Washington.
An Example: How Nicole Became a Counselor
Sometimes it’s easier to understand how to become a therapist when all the steps are laid out. Here’s an example of someone—let’s call her Nicole—who wants to become a counselor in the state of New York. According to the requirements of New York, Nicole would need to:
Graduate from high school;
Attain a bachelor’s degree, usually in psychology, counseling, or social work—although some master’s programs (such as a social work master’s program) will admit applicants who have bachelor’s degree in other fields of study, such as political science, sociology, English literature, or finance;
Attain a master’s degree—in Nicole’s case, she decides to get a master’s degree in social work (called an «MSW»), and complete the two internships that are a part of a master’s in social work;
Obtain her first New York state license right after she graduates from her master’s program, and become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), by passing an examination. Nicole is now allowed to counsel patients, but she must do so under a supervisor’s guidance; and, finally, Nicole can
Obtain her second New York state license, and become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), by completing three years of counseling people with the help of a supervisor, and passing an exam.
It is important to note that Nicole is able to counsel (and get paid!) while she gets her master’s degree, and while she completes the three years of supervised counseling. HOWEVER, during those three years, she must have a supervisor who gives her feedback. (Supervision is a very important part of a counselor’s training and licensing, because it is where counselors get feedback from training and licensed counselors). After completing the three years of supervised training, Nicole would be a fully-licensed counselor, and would have a number of professional opportunities, including the opportunity to open up her own practice.
How Much Do Counselors Make? Salary and Income Information
So how much do different types of counselors make? Here is a breakdown, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Marriage and Family Therapists earned different salaries, depending on where they worked. Those who worked for…
State government made $56, 320 per year;
Local government made $54, 340 per year;
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers made $47, 480 per year;
Offices of mental health practitioners made $46, 800 per year; and those who worked for
Individual and family services made $42, 150 per year.
The lowest-paid 10% of marriage and family therapists earned less than $24, 180 per year, but the top 10% of marriage and family therapists made more than $63, 630.
Mental Health Counselors also made different salaries depending on where they worked. Those who worked for…
Local government made $46, 590 per year;
Hospitals made $41, 930 per year;
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers made $38, 840 per year;
Individual and family services made $37, 700 per year; and those who worked at
Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities made $30, 260 per year.
10% of mental health counselors earned less than $24, 180 a year, while the top 10% earned more than $63, 630 a year.
School and Career Counselors earned the following:
Counselors in elementary and grammar schools earned $60, 000 a year;
Counselors in junior colleges and community colleges made $51, 050 per year;
Counselors in colleges and universities earned $44, 610 a year; and
Counselors in vocational rehabilitation centers made $35, 210 per year.
The bottom 10% of school and career counselors made less than $31, 630 a year, and the top 10% earned more than $86, 250.
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors had the following earning statistics. Those who worked in…
Hospitals earned $45, 160 a year;
Local government made $44, 280 per year;
Individual and family services earned $37, 020 per year;
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers earned $35, 670 in a year; and those who worked in
Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities made $33, 570 per year.
For substance abuse counselors, the lowest-paid 10% earned $24, 690 or less, and the highest-paid 10% made more than $60, 400.
Psychologists are among the highest paid counselors. The latest salary research determined that psychologists who work as…
industrial-organizational psychologists earned $87, 330 a year;
clinical, counseling, or school psychologists earned $66, 810 per year; and psychologists who worked in…
«all other fields» made $89, 900 per year.
The bottom 10% of psychologists made less than $39, 200 per year, and the highest-paid psychologists earned more than $111, 810 per year.
(Quick note: If you’ve read the salaries above, you probably want to know what a «industrial-organizational psychologist» is. An industrial-organizational psychologist focuses on workplace behavior, and concentrates on the «psychology of the workplace.» S/he will develop strategies and tools to come up with programs to enable workers to be more productive, tests on how to hire «the right person for the job», and may also be involved with «product psychology»—that is, the processes by which people decide they do or do not like a product. Here is an example of a I/O psychologist course of study at NYU. A career as an industrial-organizational psychologist isn’t a good fit for someone who wants to be a counselor, but it’s great for people who are interested in how business and psychology interact).
Final Thoughts About a Career as a Therapist
Hopefully the information about gives you a clearer idea on how to become a counselor. Therapists provide a valuable service to the community, and can make a huge difference in the lives of the people they work with. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to explore the site. We’ve included interviews with psychologists, social workers, and counseling grads; we’ve detailed different career options; and we’ve listed some of most rewarding (and some of the most challenging) aspects of the profession.
If you decide that a career as a counselor is right for you, we wish you all the best—and we want you to succeed. The world needs more people who want to help others, and you can be one of them!