Counselor Salaries: How Much Does a Counselor Make?

Counselors have a critical role in helping clients improve their mental health, which is central to their overall well-being and happiness. From everyday issues like work-related stress to severe problems such as suicidal ideation, a counselor can make life-long impacts on their clients.

In addition to being personally fulfilling, counseling can also be a financially rewarding area of employment. Before embarking on a journey toward a career as a counselor, it's natural to consider how much a counselor makes and whether their careers are stable and secure. Generally speaking, counseling careers pay competitive salaries and are expected to experience significant growth over the next several years. However, the specific earnings and opportunities for counselors depend on their practice areas.

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Different Types of Counselors

The general category of counselors can be broken into many different specializations. Each type of counselor is trained to address specific challenges and disorders.

Mental Health Counselors

With extensive knowledge of different conditions, mental health counselors provide diagnosis and therapy to individuals and groups. They conduct assessments and evaluate patient behaviors and patterns to identify potential mental health problems. They also develop treatment plans and monitor a client's progress over time.

School and Career Counselors

Counselors who specialize in school or career counseling typically focus on social and behavioral challenges, goal setting, and planning rather than mental health conditions. They administer aptitude assessments, educate clients about essential skills, and address issues such as bullying, child abuse, and substance abuse.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Addiction Counselors

Counselors who specialize in substance abuse or addiction often work in community health centers, substance abuse centers, and hospitals. They support clients who are facing challenges caused by drugs, alcohol, and addictive behaviors. They also assist clients with modifying their behaviors so that recovery is feasible.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Rather than working with individuals, marriage and family therapists provide services to multiple members of relationships or families. They address problems such as divorce, domestic abuse, and substance abuse. They also help clients develop better conflict-resolution skills.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Clients with mental, physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities often receive support from rehabilitation counselors. These counselors help clients gain access to necessary services, develop critical life skills, and adapt to their limitations.

Genetic Counselors

The work of genetic counselors typically centers around inherited conditions. They evaluate patients' medical histories and family backgrounds and evaluate their genetic risks for conditions such as birth defects. With this information in hand, they help clients make decisions about their future plans and health.

Salary and Job Outlook for Various Types of Counselors

Salaries and job growth are strong for counselors of every kind. There are some areas of counseling that offer higher earnings or more accelerated growth.

Salary Comparisons for Different Counseling Roles

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the median annual salaries for specific counseling positions:

  • Genetic counselors, $80,150
  • School and career counselors, $60,510
  • Marriage and family therapists, $49,880
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, $48,520
  • Rehabilitation counselors, $38,560

Keep in mind that these salaries are not guaranteed and differ significantly based on your employer, education, experience, and location. For example, BLS data shows that marriage and family therapists who work in outpatient care centers have median annual salaries of $57,930, whereas those employed by state governments earn $77,960 per year.

Additionally, some roles require a higher level of education than others. Mental health counselor positions may be available for job candidates with bachelor's degrees, while the highest-paying counseling jobs typically require a master's degree or doctorate.

Job Outlook and Growth Rate

Due to the growing demand for mental health treatment, most areas of counseling are expected to have ample job opportunities over the next several years. The BLS reports these projected growth rates for counseling positions between 2022 and 2023:

With the exception of psychologists, all of these job growth rates are much faster than the average for all occupations, which is 3%. This means that thousands of counseling jobs will likely be available in the coming years.

How to Become a Counselor

Counseling is rewarding and fulfilling work, but it requires several years of academic and professional preparation. The specific steps depend on your area of expertise and career aspirations, but most professional counselors follow similar paths.

Educational Pathways

The journey toward a career as a counselor begins with a bachelor's degree. Students who know that they intend to become counselors often complete degrees in psychology.

After completing their undergraduate studies, the next phase for many future counselors is a master's program. Although a bachelor's degree in psychology or counseling may be necessary to enroll in some programs, others are willing to accept applicants from any major as long as they have met certain prerequisites or GPA requirements.

In many states, a master's degree is sufficient for licensure, but some mental health professionals pursue a doctorate so that they can enhance their skills and narrow their specializations. A PhD also gives students the opportunity to participate in more extensive practical experiences.

Gaining Practical Experience

In addition to taking classes, counseling students take part in internships, residencies, and supervised hours as part of their degree programs. Practical experience is an essential requirement for licensure, and it also helps students identify where they might want to work and what area of counseling they prefer.

Navigating the Licensure Process

Every state has a unique set of licensure requirements that individuals must meet before opening a private practice or working as licensed counselors. In most cases, they include:

  • Passing a comprehensive exam
  • Providing evidence of supervised professional experience
  • Submitting official transcripts from a graduate program
  • Passing a background check

After granting licensure, states usually require professional counselors to participate in ongoing training or education.

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Degree Options for Prospective Counselors

Education is a critical component of establishing a career as a counselor. Depending on what type of work you want to do, you can choose from several different degree levels and programs.

Bachelor's Degree in Counseling or Related Fields

A bachelor's degree is the foundation for a career in counseling. Students who are interested in this field typically enroll in degree programs related to human behavior, such as:

While these are popular degree options for prospective counselors, most master's programs will accept students from any major as long as they have demonstrated their academic abilities.

Licensure generally isn't an option for students who have only completed a bachelor's degree. However, some employers hire graduates of bachelor's programs as substance abuse counselors, social workers, youth counselors, and case managers.

Master's Degree in Counseling

To become eligible for state licensure and qualify for opportunities with a broader pool of employers, it's usually necessary to obtain a master's degree in counseling. Graduate schools offer degrees focused on a range of concentrations, including:

  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Mental health and wellness
  • Child and adolescent therapy
  • Addiction counseling
  • School counseling

If you attend graduate school full-time, you can expect to complete a master's degree in counseling in around two years.

Doctoral Degrees in Counseling

Pursuing a doctorate is an ideal opportunity to specialize in a certain area of the field, develop original research, and gain practical experience. Common specializations for counseling doctorate degrees include:

  • School counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling

If you choose to enroll in a doctoral program, you will have to choose between a PhD and a PsyD. Both degree programs are related to mental health counseling, treatment, and diagnosis. However, PhD programs typically place more emphasis on research, while PsyD programs involve more intensive clinical training and lengthier internships or residencies.

Doctoral degrees are a requirement for most clinical work, laboratory research, and tenured academic roles. They may also help you qualify for a position as a healthcare administrator in a hospital or mental health facility.

What Skills Do Counselors Need?

Successful counselors have a balance of soft, technical, and professional skills. During their academic and professional experiences, they become adept at connecting with clients, managing sensitive situations, and upholding high ethical standards.

Soft Skills

Many counselors have an innate ability to empathize with others. This is crucial because it enables them to understand their clients' problems, fears, and anxieties.

However, empathy alone isn't enough to serve as a counselor. Active listening and communication skills are equally important. Counselors must be able to focus on their clients during assessments and therapy sessions and respond to their statements and questions clearly.

Technical Skills

Much of the training for students in mental health counseling degree programs focuses on technical expertise. The responsibilities of a counselor include:

  • Assessment: Counselors administer a variety of assessments to clients and interpret the results.
  • Diagnosis: Based on a patient's history, assessment outcomes, and interview responses, a counselor diagnoses conditions and obstacles to wellness.
  • Treatment planning: After diagnosis is complete, a counselor develops a detailed plan for treatment, which may include therapy, medical care, and access to additional support services.

Counselors who excel in these areas are able to provide well-rounded care to patients with different backgrounds and needs.

Ethical and Professional Skills

Working as a counselor carries a high level of responsibility. As a result, a counselor's ability to provide appropriate services to clients rests on certain ethical and professional skills, such as:

  • Confidentiality: When clients meet with counselors, they reveal sensitive information that legally and ethically cannot be shared with any outside parties. Counselors must know how to keep this information to themselves and securely store client records.
  • Professional boundaries: When sharing deep emotions and experiences, the lines between clients and counselors can become blurred. Effective counselors know how to establish and maintain firm boundaries so that the client's treatment isn't compromised.
  • Ethical dilemmas: In the course of treating a client, a counselor may encounter challenging situations, such as discussions of violent or dangerous behavior. Knowing how to navigate these issues is vital to the safety and comfort of the client and the counselor.

If a counselor violates their ethical or professional obligations, they can face serious consequences, including losing a job or license to practice.

Licensing Associated With Counseling Roles

The licensing process is a stressful and sometimes confusing aspect of becoming a counselor. Although not all counseling positions require licenses, many roles are only open to individuals who have met the criteria set by state licensure boards.

State Counseling Licenses

A state counseling license is necessary for many careers and makes it possible to open a private practice. Some states use different titles for licensed counselors, such as:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Associate Professional Counselor (LAPC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP)

Although states may refer to their licenses in different ways, they typically grant the same permissions in terms of providing care. However, some licenses indicate higher levels of training or education. For example, an LAPC is a counselor who has not yet met the requirements for full licensure. In contrast, an LCPC often has more experience and is qualified for supervisory or management roles.

Specialty Certifications

Counselors who want to provide specialized services to certain client populations can obtain certifications in their areas of interest. Common certifications include:

  • Master Addictions Counselor
  • National Certified School Counselor
  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • National Certified Counselor

The certification process generally involves passing an exam issued by a certification body, such as the National Board for Certified Counselors.

The Importance of License Renewal and Continuing Education

Counseling licensure isn’t issued on a permanent basis. Practicing counselors must periodically renew their licenses to continue providing service to clients. Although the frequency differs by state, most counselors have to apply for license renewal every two to three years.

In most cases, the renewal process is contingent on a counselor participating in continuing education or professional development. This may include taking a certain number of graduate-level courses or attending training sessions. Taking additional courses is necessary to ensure that your license remains in good standing. It also helps you stay up-to-date on new counseling theories, practices, and strategies, which empowers you to offer the best possible service to your clients.

Counseling Career Guide

Still Looking for a Counseling Degree?

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