Career Path Series: Counseling

Counselor speaking to a patient

With so much attention on mental wellbeing, counseling has experienced growing acceptance as a form of healing and personal growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for mental health counselors will grow by 25% over the next decade. There are many other types of counseling specialties that are also in demand.   

What does a counselor do?

Overall, the primary role of a counselor is to assist clients in reaching their optimal level of psychological or social functioning through resolving negative patterns, prevention, rehabilitation, and improving their quality of life. Counselors utilize skills to address a broad range of challenges related to mental health, relationships, work, school, maladaptive behavior, addictions, and more. The focus is on determining actionable steps and solutions to specific and manageable issues. A counselor focuses on working through a client's problems to help them explore potential strategies to address and overcome them. Through proper assessment, diagnosis, and treatment, counselors provide insight and support for people struggling with life challenges.

Counselors vs. Therapists vs. Psychologists

There are similarities and overlap between related professions of therapists, counselors, and psychologists in that they all deal with psychological issues of mental wellbeing. Counselors and therapists are required to complete a master's degree along with specialty certifications or licenses. Psychologists have a doctorate, typically a PhD or PsyD, followed by professional licensure. Although counseling for mental health issues is standard, counselors commonly refer a client with severe cases to a psychologist.

Two Branches of Counseling (Counseling Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology)

Psychology is the primary domain of the profession and consists of two main branches, without clear delineation. On one side of the continuum is counseling psychology and on the other is clinical psychology.

Counseling psychology focuses on working with healthy individuals with fewer pathological problems but who experience everyday emotional and social concerns or typical life stressors involving work, school, and relationships. The aim may consist of setting goals, alleviating distress, resolving crises, and improving a patient's general wellbeing. Counseling psychology focuses on a humanistic approach, dealing directly with more readily resolvable behavioral or personal problems.

Clinical psychology is for those with more serious diagnosable mental illnesses and psychopathologies. That includes disorders such as, but not limited to, anxiety, bipolar, depression, and personality. Clinical counselors utilize their understanding of psychopathologies and psychological theory to assess and diagnose patients and craft, implement, and monitor treatment plans.

Characteristics of Counselors

Unique traits, life experiences, attributes, and interests guide counselors to specific specialties. However, common characteristics found in counselors veer toward empathy, compassion, and a desire to positively impact others' lives, particularly those experiencing challenging situations, life transitions, and mental illness. Counselors find fulfillment working with ideas and utilize critical thinking as they synthesize information gathered to determine interventions. People in this field are typically interested in human behavior, personality differences, and understanding what makes a person tick.

Counseling Types

Along with the different branches of counseling (counseling vs. clinical), there are numerous types of counselors. While mental health or personal counselors may be the most well-known, counselors and therapists specialize in a wide variety of topics, for example:

  • Addictions
  • Anger Management 
  • Behavior Modification
  • Career
  • College
  • Crisis
  • Depression
  • Domestic Violence
  • Eating Disorders
  • Grief
  • Marriage & Family
  • Military
  • Rehabilitation
  • School
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Trauma
  • Trauma Counselor 
  • Transition
  • Vocational
  • Wellness
  • Youth 

Work Environments

Counselors work in various environments such as schools, universities, medical and mental health clinics, rehabilitation facilities, juvenile detention facilities, jails, social service agencies, community centers, government agencies, and corporations. Some counselors choose to pursue private practice.

Required Education

The profession of counseling and related specialties usually requires a 60-credit master's degree, including both a practicum and internship. In choosing a program, it's essential to identify those that offer one's specialty area of interest at a regionally accredited university. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Programs (CACREP) is the primary programmatic accreditation for master's and doctorate counseling degree programs.

Counseling Coursework

A master's degree in counseling teaches general patterns in human behavior, psychology, and culture. The degree incorporates required courses such as counseling theories, individual and group counseling techniques, multicultural counseling, legal and ethical issues, group dynamics, lifespan development, etc. Each specialization will also have its own set of course requirements directly related to the specialty. Counseling and clinical studies have some overlap; however, each branch also has additional areas of focus. Clinical psychology emphasizes psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, and behavioral issues, whereas counseling psychology emphasizes cognitive, client-centered, and humanistic theories. 

Internship and Practicum

Most master's counseling programs include two additional components beyond coursework: a practicum and an internship. Both require students to work in a supervised setting providing the opportunity to gain valuable practical experience. The internship involves 300 - 600 hours over one or two semesters of direct contact with clients in settings such as hospitals, treatment centers, and schools. Practicums are usually 100 – 200 hours over one or two semesters and provide discussion, evaluation, and advice from a college professor related to direct counseling contact with clients.

Licensure and Certification

Beyond completing the master's degree, each state has specific requirements to become a licensed professional counselor. States typically require completing at least 3,000 hours of post-degree supervised experience and passing the national counselor exam for certification.

Professional Counseling Association & Sources of Information.

To learn additional information about the field, you may want to check out the American Counseling Association and/or CareerOneStop

Written by: Barbara Van Dyk

September 17, 2021

About the Author

Barbara Van Dyk headshot

Barbara is an experienced career counselor with a Master’s Degree in Counseling & Guidance from New York University, an undergraduate degree in Business Administration, and more than 20 years’ experience in the academic and corporate worlds.