Counselors - Job Descriptions and Education for Counseling Careers

Counselors work in many settings to provide guidance, rehabilitation, and support services to clients. They help people reach good decisions and overcome physical and mental obstacles so that their quality of life is improved.

Posted 2010

Counseling is a comprehensive field that involves many different services to various groups of people. Subfields include school counselors, vocational counselors or career counselors, rehabilitation counselors, mental health counselors, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, and marriage and family therapists.

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Counselors often see clients in relation a specific problem; however, many of the adults, adolescents, children, and families they work with actually have multiple issues. In order to serve these clients with appropriate support and counseling, counselors must identify every element of the problem.


  • A strong desire to help others and the ability to inspire confidence, trust, and respect are required for those interested in counseling careers.
  • A master’s degree is required to become a licensed counselor; training requirements and education vary by state and specialty.
  • Job openings are expected to outnumber graduates from counseling programs, so job opportunities should be favorable.

Work Environment for Counselors

Counselors work in various settings within the community. Some work in schools, helping students with problems by teaching them the life skills they need to deal with issues. Vocational counselors or career counselors usually work outside of the school setting, helping individuals with career goals and decisions. After evaluating the person’s education, interests, personality traits, and training, they guide the client towards appropriate jobs. A rehabilitation counselor helps those with disabilities by evaluating the person’s strengths and limitations and by directing clients toward training and job placement.

Mental health counselors use various therapeutic techniques to help clients suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction, grief, trauma, stress, suicidal tendencies, or low self-esteem. Those with eating disorders or with addictions to drugs, alcohol, or gambling are generally helped by a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor. Couples, families, individuals, and groups are typically counseled by marriage or family therapists, who examine their clients’ symptoms and relation to their environment.

Counselors in private practice usually have their own office. Others work in hospitals, community health organizations, schools, or in day-treatment programs. In addition, services are often provided out in the community by many counselors.

Education, Training, and Licensing

A master’s degree is usually required to become a licensed counselor. Training requirements and education vary by specialty and state, so prospective counselors should check with their state and local governments, national voluntary certification organizations, and prospective employers to learn which requirements apply.

In colleges or universities, counselor education programs can be found in departments of human services, education, or a degree in psychology. Core areas of study include counseling degree programs like, techniques, program evaluation, professional ethics, and others. Between 48 and 60 semester hours of graduate study are usually required for a master's degree in counseling, including supervised clinical experience in counseling. Newly hired counselors are sometimes given tuition assistance and time off to finish a graduate degree.

To maintain their counseling certificates and licenses, counselors must often complete continuing education programs. Licensing requirements vary by state, work setting, and occupational specialty. In schools, counselors are usually required to have a master’s degree, and some states require public school counselors to have some teaching experience in addition to both counseling and teaching certificates. For counseling outside of a school environment, 49 states and the District of Columbia have specific licensure requirements. All states and the District of Columbia have licensure requirements for marriage and family therapists, who must have two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience in addition to a master’s degree in counseling or in marriage and family therapy. Various counseling organizations offer certification in specialties. This certification is often voluntary, and it may help the counselor in obtaining a job.

Dealing with the problems encountered while counseling others can cause stress for the counselor, so the candidate must have the physical and emotional energy to handle problems. Prospective counselors should be able to inspire trust, respect, and confidence in others, and they should have a strong desire to help people.

Advancement in the counseling field may vary according to the specialty. School counselors may become supervisors of guidance, counseling, or pupil personnel services, or they may become school administrators, counseling psychologists, or counselor educators. Advancement may also be possible within the state’s department of education. Those with doctorates in family therapy may become supervisors or administrators in their agencies, or they may move into research, college teaching, or group or private practice.

Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook, and Earnings

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), counselors held about 665,500 jobs in 2008. Employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations. Job opportunities should be favorable, because the number of graduates from counseling programs is less than the number of job openings, especially in rural areas. An average increase of 18% is expected for counselor jobs between 2008 and 2018.

BLS figures for May 2009 indicate that the average income for counselors depends on their area of specialization:

Type of Counselor Median Annual Wage Low (10th Percentile) to High (90th Percentile) Annual Wages
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors $36,160 $24,050 to $56,230
Educational, Vocational, and School Counselors $34,980 $21,230 to $61,350
Marriage and Family Therapists $42,370 $27,040 to $69,140
Mental Health Counselors $36,920 $23,720 to $61,050
Rehabilitation Counselors $28,940 $19,700 to $48,350
All Other Counselors $33,910 $21,710 to $61,340

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