Which Counseling Degree is Right for You?

Counselors provide clients with social, emotional, and mental support in a variety of ways. The nature of this support varies depending upon a client’s needs. When considering a career in counseling, it is worth thinking about what types of support you are hoping to administer and to which types of clientele.

The requirements for becoming a counselor vary by state and specialization. That said, most counseling positions require graduate-level degrees as well as over a thousand hours of supervised field experience. This means you must plan carefully when choosing a counseling degree program so as not to waste your time and money in the pursuit.

Types of Counseling Degrees

There are many types of degrees in counseling. Some are highly specialized – focused on specific conditions or populations. Others pave the way for broader, more general practice. While counseling degrees are available at all post-secondary levels, the most common are those offered at the graduate level.

Associate’s Degree in Counseling

There are very few options when it comes to a true counseling associate’s degree. Of the handful that do exist, many focus on addiction and/or substance abuse counseling. For would-be counselors looking to advance in the counseling profession, an Associate of Psychology degree might be a more advantageous choice to help you along your career.

Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Similar to its associate’s degree counterpart, a Bachelor of Counseling degree is limited in its usefulness. Only certain fields like addiction, human relations, and some youth and family services allow for those with bachelor’s degrees to practice. Most counseling positions require professionals to complete additional education as well as supervised practicum work prior to licensure.

Master’s Degree in Counseling

A Master of Counseling degree is the essential credential for most counseling careers. Beyond just the standard counseling master’s degree, there are numerous specializations and additional certifications that are available at the graduate level; these programs are designed to prepare counselors for specific populations, disorders, and/or environments.

Doctorate in Counseling

A Doctor of Counseling degree is offered as either a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. The Psy.D. path is ideal for students seeking to delve into clinical practice, while the Ph.D. is better suited for psychological researchers. Either way, a doctoral counseling degree is the only pathway to becoming a licensed psychologist. While some counseling careers do not require a doctoral degree, candidates that possess them have a notable competitive advantage over applicants that do not.

Counseling Specialties Guide

There are a wide variety of counseling specialties, all with their own unique qualifications and clientele. Determining which types of counseling degrees are most appropriate for you comes down to the type of counselor you wish to be:

  • Mental health counselors are counseling generalists trained in supporting the mental and emotional health of their patients. They can provide assistance with issues relating to family, stress, addiction, self-esteem, relationships, and aging. As such, licensure as a mental health counselor requires a minimum of a master’s degree and thousands of hours of supervised clinical work.
  • School counselors support students with issues related to academic success, career readiness, and adolescent socialization. To become one requires a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling (or another relevant graduate degree) as well as state-issued license.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs), sometimes called marriage or family counselors, use goal-oriented cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients manage and improve their relationships. Each prospective MFT must complete a graduate-level degree in the field, complete a supervised internship experience, and obtain a license in the state(s) where he or she wishes to practice.
  • Addiction / Substance abuse counselors are the rare exception in the counseling world that do not require a graduate-level degree to practice. These professionals provide counsel for those directly or indirectly affected by addiction. Depending upon the state and specific position, it is possible to become an addiction counselor with either a high school diploma and associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree.
  • Rehabilitation counselors specialize in helping patients with various physical, mental, emotional, and/or developmental disabilities effectively navigate the challenges of daily life. A master’s degree is the typical educational requirement.
  • Suicide counselors aim to save lives by working with those contemplating their own. They also work to support clients directly impacted by acts of suicide. This demanding and rewarding profession requires specialized training, typically at the graduate level.
  • Grief / Bereavement counselors help clients deal with the mental and emotional effects of loss – typically the death of a friend or loved one. However, grief counseling also exists to support those suffering from other types of losses such as abandonment issues or debilitating health issues. It is possible to perform this work with a master’s degree, however many in the field continue their education to the doctoral level.

Grants and Scholarships for Counseling Degrees

By now, it should be apparent that most counseling disciplines require graduate degrees. However, post baccalaureate credits can be expensive. Add to that the fact that most licenses in the counseling field also require supervised internship experiences and the costs can escalate quickly.

There are multiple options for defraying the expenses associated with a counseling degree. For one, there are scholarships available for graduate students, however they are not as prevalent as undergraduate awards. For this reason, receiving one can be a very competitive challenge. For would-be counselors, some of the most popular options are those offered by major counseling-related organizations like the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Foundation, the American Mental Health Counselors Association, and the U.S. Department of Education. Some states and local counseling organizations may also offer scholarships for master’s degrees in counseling, particularly for high-demand specializations.

Then there are school-based awards. In addition to need-based aid offered based upon the information submitted on a student’s FAFSA application, many schools also offer merit-based awards and grants. In many cases these funds come from specific endowments and scholarship funds established for students on specific career paths and/or with specific backgrounds. When exploring your options for counseling programs, be sure to inquire about the availability of any of these types of grants or scholarships you could apply for.

FInally, there are also student loan repayment grants that counselors can apply for depending upon their field, type of employment, and clientele. For example, some federal student loans are eligible for cancellation if the counselor works for a specified period of time in a high-need school district. Be aware, that many of these types of programs are government-based and therefore subject to change. They can be a nice bonus for those with lingering student loan debt, but counting on them could prove to be risky.