How to Become a Counselor and Why | Best Graduate Schools

Many counseling offices have lengthy waitlists, which underscores a tremendous need for counselors during difficult times. For those thinking of pursuing a career in counseling, here are some things to consider.

Professional Counselors: Who They Are and What They Do

Professional counselors are trained health care providers who give emotional support to people in distress. They can interact with one client at a time via private sessions or help multiple clients at once via group sessions, such as those designed for individuals who are grieving the loss of a loved one, dealing with an addiction or struggling to cope with a disability or illness. Some counselors assist couples and families and can choose to concentrate on a particular population, such as children or older people.

In the U.S., professional counseling is a career path that typically requires a master’s degree and a legal credential such as certification, endorsement or licensure to practice within a given jurisdiction, according to the American Counseling Association. Requirements vary by state or territory.

Counseling differs from psychiatry, an area of medicine practiced by physicians who can prescribe medications, and is also distinct from psychology, since most psychologists have doctorates in their field. Counselors’ day-to-day work lives are often similar to those of clinical social workers, who also have master’s-level training, but one important distinction is that clinical social work requires a specific academic credential: the master’s in social work, or MSW.

The words “counselor” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably, as are the terms “counseling” and “therapy.”

What it Takes to Be a Counselor

Being a good counselor requires compassion and discretion, but those aren’t the only qualities that count. The ability to remain objective and calm during upsetting circumstances is vital, according to licensed counselors, as is the capacity to prevent someone else’s bad mood from dampening your morale.

Introspection and self-discipline are also essential. “You really have to understand what your own background is and how it is going to influence your ability to help others,” explains W. Bryce Hagedorn, professor and program director of counseling education at the University of Central Florida.

To provide useful guidance to people who are hurting, he says, it is imperative to understand the sources of pain in your own life.

“We all have wounds in various degrees, so the self-awareness piece comes into understanding how – not if, but how – your own wounding, family of origin, upbringing, previous experiences will impact your working with people.”

Counselors who do not adequately know themselves sometimes unintentionally “take out” their unresolved issues on clients during counseling sessions, Hagedorn warns.

Having a talent for emotional compartmentalization is a must within the counseling profession, says Myisha Jackson, a Louisiana-based licensed professional counselor and founder of the Healing Journey Counseling Center.

“Someone who has trouble with boundaries” might absorb the sadness of others, feel overwhelmed, take that feeling home after work hours and struggle with “letting it go,” whereas a person well-suited for work as a counselor understands how to establish an appropriate amount of emotional distance, Jackson explains.

“I would recommend it for someone who’s really, really good with boundaries, someone who’s really, really good with masking their feelings,” she says, adding that a counselor’s emotions should never “take over” a counseling session.

The Pros and Cons of Counseling Careers

“There is so much variety in this field that I don’t think you could ever get bored if … this is the field that you truly belong in,” says Kaileen McMickle, a Wisconsin-based licensed professional counselor and owner of Inner Ascent Counseling.

There are often unpleasant moments in a counselor’s workday – clients tell graphic stories that are hard to hear, or they struggle in ways that are difficult to witness. Counselors may lose touch with clients facing major hardships, which can be distressing.

“Sometimes it is really rewarding. You can literally watch people change their lives and get better, so there’s a balance,” McMickle says. “It’s not always rewarding.”

Pay Within Counseling Jobs

Counselors’ paychecks depend partly on their area of specialization. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal significant discrepancies in counselor salaries within distinct segments of the field.

For instance, while the median annual salary among U.S. rehabilitation counselors who coached people with disabilities was less than $38,000 in 2020, the median compensation for school and career counselors that year was more than $58,000.

Steps to Take if You Want to Be a Professional Counselor

To become as marketable as possible for counseling jobs, it’s wise to earn a counseling master’s degree from a school accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or CACREP. A directory of CACREP-approved schools is available online.

Master’s programs in counseling vary in length but generally require at least two years of full-time study. These programs pair theoretical lessons about counseling with hands-on training during which students collaborate with experienced clinicians who can offer advice.

After earning a master’s in counseling, a person will typically need to rack up hours of supervised work experience and pass a qualification exam in order to earn a state counseling credential and practice independently. Rules vary by state and depend on the kind of counseling someone focuses on. Counselors may choose to pursue board certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Reasons to Choose a Counseling Career

As a general rule, a counselor is someone “whose calling is to help other human beings find the best version of (themselves) that they can find” and “to do good for the world,” says Tom Kersting, a retired public school counselor who is now a licensed psychotherapist, author and television personality.

“Pursue that profession because you love people… and you genuinely want to help people live the best lives they can,” he says.

Confidence and optimism are helpful within counseling jobs, Kersting says. “There’s a philosophy that I have adopted after 25, 26 years of doing this. I never look at an individual in front of me as having problems. And instead, I look at them as having solutions we are going to discover.”

A myth about counseling is that it’s about teaching people how to live or telling others what to do in order to “fix” their lives, says Hagedorn of UCF. “Lots of people come into the counseling profession wanting to be fixers, and then we have to help them understand that they’re going to be facilitators, not fixers,” he says. “It’s not about advice-giving or that golden nugget of truth.”

Relationship-building is an essential part of counseling.

“In some settings, you have more time to do that than others,” Hagedorn explains. “Like when I used to work in emergency rooms, I’d have 10 minutes to develop as much of a therapeutic relationship as I could with a person to find out how can I best be of service and where do they need placement within the community, whereas in private practice, I have months to establish that relationship.”

He warns that counseling isn’t a cure-all for a client’s unhappiness, since a person facing adversity may also need psychiatric medication, social support or “systemic change” in their circumstances.

“It’s not just about changing the person,” he says. “It’s also about changing the system in which they are living and operating. There isn’t a quick fix.”

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