Careers in Counseling Pathways, Salaries & Job Outlooks

People in counseling careers are on the front lines of mental health, dealing with patients who face problems ranging from marital troubles to substance abuse. Counselors offer help when people need it most, drawing on a mix of clinical knowledge, communications skills and creativity, with the ultimate goal of helping people find ways to make their lives better. In this guide, readers will get a glimpse of what the counseling profession entails, including the different types of counseling jobs, the salaries that professionals earn, and the projected job growth for the field.

Career Paths in Counseling

The reasons one may seek the help of a counselor are many, whether they be for personal or familial help, or to gain an edge in their careers. Whatever the reasons leading to seeking assistance, these people may be grappling with the most challenging times of their lives – and it’s a counselor’s job to help them through it. Because everyone faces different problems, there are a variety of specialties in the field for counselors to further develop their expertise:

Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling focuses on helping people who are going through emotional and mental health challenges. Counselors who work in this area may provide treatment to those who suffer from conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as to patients who are suicidal.

  • Mental Health Counselor

    Mental health counselors provide treatment for those dealing with a host of issues like stress, grief, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They also diagnose mental disorders, teach patients how to make healthier lifestyle choices, and refer patients to other appropriate professionals, such as social workers, as needed.

  • Clinical Social Worker

    Clinical social workers take on the dual responsibility of helping people cope with the stress factors in their lives and assisting them in gaining access to the services they need, such as child care or food stamps. They also intervene on behalf of children who have been neglected or abused, and work to reunite fractured families.

  • Computer Systems Manager

    Computer systems managers are responsible for planning, coordinating and directing an organization’s computer systems and activities. Tasks include overseeing the installation and upgrading of systems, supervising the work of other computer and IT professionals, and keeping abreast of new systems and technologies.

Marriage and Family Counseling

Building healthy relationships with other people can be challenging even in the best of circumstances, and it gets even harder when life’s stresses complicate things. This discipline focuses on helping couples and families navigate the problems that they encounter, often emphasizing the importance of learning healthy communication skills.

  • Mental Health Counselor

    Mental health counselors provide treatment for those dealing with a host of issues like stress, grief, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They also diagnose mental disorders, teach patients how to make healthier lifestyle choices, and refer patients to other appropriate professionals, such as social workers, as needed.

  • Marriage and Family Counselor

    Marriage and family counselors apply counseling techniques and theories in the context of relationship problems experienced by couples and families. They work to understand family dynamics—and change them when needed—and to identify how individual mental health problems may contribute to relationship dysfunctions.

  • Domestic Violence Counselor

    Domestic violence counselors help victims of abuse deal with the emotional turmoil that results, as well as point them to the tools they need to end these destructive relationships. In addition to providing individual counseling, domestic violence counselors may facilitate support groups.

School Counseling

Those who choose careers in school counseling help children, adolescents and young adults with the problems that are specific to these age groups. From dealing with online bullying to handling a learning disability, school counseling is concerned with assisting young people as they deal with mental, emotional and social issues.

  • School Counselor

    School counselors help children cope with the challenges they face in school, or that may affect their behavior and performance in school. This may include conflict with their peers, family problems, or academic difficulties. In addition, they give students advice on how to communicate effectively, develop good study skills, and choose and apply for colleges.

  • School Principal

    School principals are responsible for creating a community within their school that fosters a safe, productive learning environment. Their job duties include hiring and supervising staff, creating and implementing school policies and academic calendars, and disciplining students when necessary.

Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counseling deals with strategies for helping those addicted to alcohol or drugs live a clean and sober lifestyle, while also addressing the underlying issues that led to the addiction. Additionally, this area of the field provides assistance to friends and family members of addicts by helping them with problems like codependency and engaging in enabling behavior.

  • Mental Health Counselor

    Mental health counselors provide treatment for those dealing with a host of issues like stress, grief, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They also diagnose mental disorders, teach patients how to make healthier lifestyle choices, and refer patients to other appropriate professionals, such as social workers, as needed.

  • Substance Abuse Counselor

    Substance abuse counselors work with clients who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, suffer from eating disorders, or struggle with other destructive behavioral patterns. They evaluate patients to determine what type of treatment would be most effective, set counseling goals and monitor progress, and teach families how to relate to a loved one with an addiction.

Career Counseling

With so much at stake, making career decisions can be a difficult—and often anxiety-inducing—process. Career counselors guide people in understanding themselves better, helping them to identify personality traits, strengths and weaknesses in order to choose the type of profession that best suits them.

  • Career Counselor

    Career counselors help people make work-related decisions at various stages of their careers. This job entails administering personality tests to help clients find the right career fit, providing advice on improving their current job situations, and offering guidance on how to enter a new profession. In some cases, these professionals may work in colleges to advise students on choosing a major and selecting careers that match their academic interests.

  • Life Coach

    From romantic relationships to careers to finances, life coaches provide assistance to people who are facing challenges in a particular area of their lives. They help clients build confidence, make good choices, and manage their emotions so they can take the steps needed to accomplish their goals.

Outlook & Salary Potential in Counseling

The counseling field is growing, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the reasons are manifold. First and foremost, more people are able to seek counseling due to changes in federal legislation that has increased access to healthcare coverage. Additionally, these laws mandate that insurance companies treat mental health and physical health issues the same, thus allowing people to obtain counseling that may have been unaffordable in the past. Also, as more and more veterans of recent conflicts struggle with the mental effects of war, they are seeking counseling to cope with their emotions.

As a result, some subsections of the mental health fields are expected to see steady growth, in some cases outpacing the national average across all professions. Following is an outlook of some of these careers, with salaries reflecting 2014 data and growth projections from 2014-2024.

Mental Health Counselors Average salary $40,850 Growth outlook 20 percent
Marriage and Family Counselors Average salary $48,040 Growth outlook 15 percent
School Counselors Average salary $53,370 Growth outlook 8 percent
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors Average salary $39,270 Growth outlook 22 percent
Career Counselors Average salary $51,050 Growth outlook $51,050
Rehabilitation Counselors Average salary $34,390 Growth outlook 9 percent

Counseling Salary by State

The salary of mental health counselors depends on what state they practice in and what specific organization they work for. These figures show the top ten states by salary according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • 1Alaska: $58,800
  • 2Oregon: $53,330
  • 3Wyoming: $52,840
  • 4Hawaii: $50,630
  • 5New Jersey: $49,670
  • 6Arkansas: $48,700
  • 7Utah: $48,620
  • 8Nevada: $48,610
  • 9New Hampshire: $48,490
  • 10Maine: $48,200

Top Skills for a Career in Counseling

Having a profound impact on people’s lives is both a privilege and a responsibility – one that requires a great deal of training. Textbook learning is not enough for counselors to be effective in their work; they also need to develop a specialized set of skills that allows them to perform work that is often mentally grueling and carries significant ramifications. The following are examples of the skills that successful counselors employ:

Discretion

People share their deepest secrets and greatest challenges with counselors. Counselors must keep these confidences, ensuring that they don’t breach ethical standards or lose the trust of their patients.

Instruction

Counselors may need to teach their patients how to do something that will improve their lives; these could involve relaxation techniques to help them deal with anxiety, for example, or communication skills that can improve their relationships. Like teachers, counselors need to have strong instruction skills to explain things in ways people can understand.

Negotiation

When working with more than one person at a time, such as multiple members of a family or several patients in a support group, counselors may need to help them overcome the differences between them. This requires negotiation skills that allow them to defuse conflict and help patients see each other’s points of view.

Persuasion

People who seek counseling are often dealing with the ramifications of poor choices. Counselors must find ways to show people that their behaviors are contributing to their mental health problems, and then persuade them to adopt different strategies that will help their lives improve.

Written communication

Counselors need to document what is going on with their patients; good written communication skills are vital to outlining what patients’ problems are, and what counseling methods are being used. In addition, these professionals may need to write reports and other communications that are shared with their colleagues.

Certifications & Licenses

Because counselors provide a service that is often government-regulated, they may be required to obtain a license in order to practice. Counselors may also choose to pursue voluntary certifications that aid in career advancement. The following are examples of the licenses and certifications that counselors can earn:

Top 5 Certifications or Licenses for a Career in Counseling

  • State licensure

    Mental health counselors are required to undergo a state licensure process in order to practice. The specific criteria to obtain a license vary by state; in all cases mental health counselors are required to sit for the licensing examination administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Similarly, marriage and family counselors must get a state license through the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB); public school counselors are licensed by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA); and substance abuse counselors receive their licenses through the NBCC.

    In some cases, career counselors are also expected to receive a license. This requirement depends on what state they work in and whether they are in private practice. Licenses for these professionals are also obtained through the NBCC.

  • The National Certified Counselor (NCC)

    Offered through the National Board for Certified Counselors, the NCC is a voluntary credential that not only allows counselors to demonstrate their expertise, but also gives them a discounted liability insurance rate. In order to qualify for this certification, counselors must have a master’s degree and a certain amount of work experience. In addition, they must adhere to the profession’s ethical standards and pass an examination.

  • Board Certified Professional Counselor

    The Board Certified Professional Counselor (BCPC) credential is issued by the American Psychotherapy Association on a voluntary basis. The organization requires that candidates have a master’s degree and at least three years of professional experience.

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor

    Addiction counselors can demonstrate their commitment to delivering quality care to their patients by receiving this certification from the Association for Addiction Professionals; it’s earned by passing a written exam.

  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)

    School counselors can earn this certification, available through the NBCC, by completing a master’s degree, obtaining three years of work experience, and passing a credentialing examination.

Emerging Careers in Counseling

Experts predict that technology will play a significant role in the future of the counseling profession. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), counselors and patients will increasingly connect with each other through technology, significantly reducing the need for office-based sessions.

Just as new methods, treatments and technologies are continually being integrated into the profession of counseling, the field itself is undergoing change as distinct areas of practice emerge. The following are examples of some of the subsections that are gaining popularity.

Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare

Outdoor behavioral healthcare, also known as wilderness treatment, is designed for adolescents who have psychological, emotional and addiction issues. This type of counseling immerses young people in an outdoor setting, such as a youth camp or ranch, in order for them to develop a sense of responsibility, learn new skills and coping strategies, and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their behavior. This type of counseling also demands that patients learn communication and relationship skills, as they live with their peers and participate in group therapy sessions and other activities together.

Forensic Counseling

Forensic counseling is where the mental health and criminal justice fields intersect. Forensic counselors work with prisoners and parolees to provide therapy, and then report the status of patients’ mental health to attorneys, parole officers, or other law enforcement personnel. These workers may also provide group counseling, which is often a requirement for obtaining and maintaining parole.

Genetic Counseling

Genetic counseling focuses on the risks of people passing on genetic disorders and other inherited conditions. People in this field look at a couple’s medical history to determine the probability that they will pass on a disorder, and provide information to help them make informed reproductive choices. They also work with pregnant women to assess the likelihood that their children will have diseases like cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome. Genetic counselors also work with adults who are concerned about developing a hereditary disease in the future.