How to Become A Licensed Counselor

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For licensed counselor careers in most states, candidates usually need at least a master’s degree in a counseling-related field. Offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels, counseling-related degrees prepare enrollees for research, education, or licensed counseling careers. Counseling programs feature core coursework in counseling theory, ethics, and practice. Most counselor degrees offer specializations in popular counseling fields such as mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, family counseling, or school counseling.

Most counseling programs require clinical internships that cultivate key counseling qualities and skills. Good counselors possess compassion, patience, and advanced interpersonal and listening skills. Counselors also need to observe, analyze, and speak carefully.

Counseling offers the opportunity to play a meaningful, constructive role in other people’s lives by supporting them during times of vulnerability. Acquiring counseling-related skills and knowledge can also improve self-confidence, effectiveness, and personal and professional relationships. Counseling professionals often get to collaborate with interdisciplinary teams of supportive wellness and social services professionals. Additional information about licensed counselor careers, specializations, and educational requirements appears below.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Counseling


  • Q. Is a licensed professional counselor a therapist?

    Licensed professional counselors possess the same clinical scope as master’s-level therapists. LPCs and therapists provide many of the same services, although counselors sometimes focus on shorter-term and more targeted treatment.


  • Q. How much does a licensed counselor make?

    May 2021 PayScale salary data indicates that licensed professional counselors average about $49,080 annually. However, salaries depend heavily on education, experience, employer, and location.


  • Q. Do I need a master's degree to be a counselor?

    Some substance abuse counselors qualify for entry-level counseling-related roles through personal experience with addiction and recovery. However, licensed counselor careers demand at least a master’s degree in a related field.


  • Q. What certifications are required to be a licensed counselor?

    Licensed counselors must apply for and maintain professional licensure from the counseling board in their state of practice. Requirements vary. Some counselors hold the national certified counselor certification.


How to Become a Licensed Counselor

Educational requirements for counselors vary widely, particularly for substance abuse counselors, who may qualify through certification programs or personal experience. However, licensed counselor careers require possession of relevant, advanced degrees and state licenses. Consequently, the journey to a licensed counselor career usually begins with a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or human services.

Aspiring licensed counselors typically proceed to master’s programs, which help learners accumulate research skills and clinical experience serving clients. After graduating, aspiring counselors complete a year-long, supervised postgraduate internship and take the counseling licensure examination. Counselors then apply for professional counseling licensure from the state board. Some licensed counselors pursue doctoral degrees and/or specialized certifications, which can advance their career and salary potential.

Counselor Specializations



Many counselor degrees offer diverse curriculum concentrations, tracks, emphases, or specializations. These courses of study prepare enrollees for work in a particular field, role, population, or setting. Common counseling specializations include addiction counseling, clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, and family counseling. Some schools offer additional specializations in counselor education and supervision, counseling research, child or youth counseling, and crisis counseling.

Specializations may require specific degrees, speciality certifications, or licenses beyond the standard licensed professional counselor credential. Students interested in becoming a licensed counselor should research the standard educational expectations for their field of interest. See below to learn about three of the many counseling specialties available.


  • Addiction Counseling

    This in-demand specialty focuses on understanding and treating the increasing numbers of people struggling with compulsive substance abuse or behavioral or process addictions. Substance addictions include alcoholism and harmful drugs. Behavioral addictions typically entail compulsive, destructive use of food, sex, gambling, or work. Addiction counseling concentrations prepare enrollees to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat these addictive conditions. Addiction counseling programs feature courses that cover prevention strategies, assessment methods, recovery approaches, and treatment planning.


  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling

    This specialization builds core clinical skills for serving clients with various emotional and mental disorders. Clinical mental health counseling programs include courses on psychopathology, trauma, psychological assessment, and group therapy. Enrollees also learn how to consult and collaborate with community partners and interdisciplinary teams of health and social work professionals. Clinical mental health counseling concentrations emphasize supervised clinical practicum and internship experiences that build key skills for various clinical settings.


  • Counselor Education and Supervision

    This specialization cultivates competencies in research, clinical counseling, supervision, and teaching. Common course topics include counseling and psychotherapy theories, counselor education and supervision pedagogy, and legal and ethical issues in counselor education. Clinical supervision experiences provide advanced clinical practice and training. This graduate-level curriculum tends to attract aspiring academics or administrators. Counselor education and supervision program graduates often find work as counseling professors, researchers, or supervisors.


What Are the Education Requirements for Counselors?



Aspiring counselors usually begin their career journey with an associate or bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology, or social services. Licensed counselors typically also need counseling-related graduate degrees. Learn more below about curricula and career paths for associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in counseling.


  • Associate

    Associate degrees in counseling usually comprise around 60 credits of general education coursework, core counseling coursework, and electives. Enrollees gain familiarity with the counseling discipline through key courses such as counseling foundations, human behavior and development, and counseling ethics.

    Associate degree graduates may qualify for entry-level support positions in various contexts. Common associate-level counseling careers include counseling assistant, mental health technician, child and youth advocate, and social services assistant. Some substance abuse counseling positions accept associate degree-holders with relevant experience. Aspiring licensed counselors typically use their associate degree to qualify for bachelor’s programs in related fields.


  • Bachelor's

    Counseling bachelor’s degrees traditionally comprise 120 credits, including around 60 associate degree credits. Enrollees complete core courses such as counseling theory, counseling diversity, and research methods.

    Many counseling programs also feature electives and curriculum specializations in mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, school counseling, and marriage and family therapy. A counseling bachelor’s degree meets minimum degree requirements for some entry-level counseling credentials such as certified addictions counselor or initial-license school counselor.


  • Master's

    Master’s degrees usually entail at least 60 credits of core and specialized counseling courses. Common course offerings include group counseling, grief therapy, and individual counseling. Master’s-level curriculum specializations prepare graduates well for fields such as mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, counseling research, or counseling education and supervision.

    Enrollees complete internships that cultivate research or clinical counseling skills. Many master’s programs require a capstone research project or thesis. A master’s in counseling can help aspiring licensed counselors meet licensure requirements for various counseling fields.


  • Doctorate

    Doctoral programs usually require about 48-72 credits, depending on prior graduate coursework. Participants complete advanced research courses and specialized coursework in a chosen field. Doctoral students conduct original research and write a dissertation to graduate.

    Candidates seeking counseling education or research careers usually earn a Ph.D. in counseling. Licensed professional counselors typically need doctoral degrees to work in private practice.


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Career and Salary Outlook for Licensed Counselor



Depending on their specialization field, licensed professional counselors enjoy diverse career opportunities. Common professional routes for counselors include mental health counseling, school counseling, and family counseling. Some counselors specialize in addictions and behavioral disorders, while other professionals help clients facing developmental, intellectual, emotional, or physical disabilities. The following four career tracks often attract counseling students and professionals. Some of these careers require specialized licensure or certification.


  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor

    These professionals assess and treat clients suffering from various mental health and behavioral disorders, including alcohol and drug problems or behavioral addictions. These professionals often collaborate with healthcare and social work professionals in creating and implementing treatment plans.


  • School and Career Counselor

    Usually employed at public or private educational institutions, school and career counselors help students overcome learning obstacles and plan for the future. School counselors also provide emotional support and mental health counsel as needed. Most licensed school counselors hold master’s or doctoral degrees.


  • Rehabilitation Counselor

    These professionals assist people with disabilities to improve their independence and quality of life. Rehabilitation counselors also help people cope with psychological challenges that can accompany mental, emotional, or physical disabilities. These counselors evaluate clients’ abilities and needs, plan treatments, monitor progress, and advocate for their clients’ rights.


  • Marriage and Family Therapist

    This career path helps couples and families navigate difficult life events, decisions, conflicts, and issues. MFTs can provide emotional support, mediation, communication tips, and consultation. These professionals may refer clients to additional resources such as treatment facilities or support groups. MFTs usually hold at least a master’s degree in a related field and complete targeted MFT coursework.


Career Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2019-2029)
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor $47,660 25%
School and Career Counselor $58,120 8%
Rehabilitation Counselor $37,530 10%
Marriage and Family Therapist $51,340 22%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Certifications and Licensure for Counselors



Becoming a licensed counselor requires completing educational and experience requirements and taking licensure exams. Depending on their interests and expertise, counselors may choose between several possible licenses and certifications. Common general counseling licenses include licensed professional counselor, licensed mental health practitioner, and licensed clinical supervisor. Some counselors become licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed social workers, or national certified school counselors.

Licensed Professional Counselor


The counseling profession endorses the LPC title, although, titles for this standard license vary by state. LPCs usually serve clients directly, helping them navigate situational crises or ongoing mental health, relational, and behavioral issues. These professionals need a graduate degree and at least 3,000 hours of relevant professional experience. LPCs must also pass a licensure examination.

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Licensed Clinical Supervisor


Counseling supervisors usually need LCS licensure. LCS prerequisites include possessing another counseling license or certification, an advanced degree, and supervised counseling supervision experience.

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National Certified School Counselor


Many aspiring school counselors seek this specialized certification. NCSC candidates need national certified counselor certification, several foundation courses, and at least 100 post-graduate supervised school counseling experience hours. They also need professional endorsement from a qualified colleague and at least two years of experience as a school counselor.

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Resources for Licensed Counselor




  • American Counseling Association This nonprofit professional association provides counseling education to professionals and the public, runs an annual conference, and maintains professional-development and career centers.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association This grassroots membership organization works to advance the profession and support mental health counselors. AMHCA establishes professional standards, administers online forums and communities, and provides various professional development resources.
  • National Certified Counselor The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards this professional credential to candidates who meet NCC education and experience requirements, adhere to NBCC's ethical code, and pass the national counselor or the national clinical mental health counseling examination.
  • APA-Accredited Programs The primary American psychology research and professional organization, APA accredits high-quality counseling and psychology programs. Attending APA-accredited programs helps enrollees meet education requirements for professional licensure.

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