Master’s Degree in Counseling

Using their unique expertise, counselors help individuals, families and groups to address challenges stemming from life changes, emotional turmoil, behavioral disorders, trauma, addiction and more. A master’s degree in counseling, offered at a number of counseling schools, prepares students to do just that. Graduates may work in a variety of roles and settings, including community mental health centers, schools, residential treatment facilities, private practices and more. 

Students interested in pursuing a master’s in counseling may choose from programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).  Though CACREP is the widely preferred accreditor, a CACREP-accredited degree is not required in every state. Be sure to check with your state board for more information. 

Depending on post-education career goals, certain counseling programs may be better equipped to help graduates reach those objectives than others. It’s also wise to select a program that’s designed to adequately prepare graduates for licensing exams as well as any state or federal requirements. 

What Is Counseling?

A counselor definition consists of many components. Generally speaking, professional counselors are people who guide and advise clients through several different areas and stages of their life. The job specifics vary based on the demographics and needs of those receiving counseling services, but a counselor almost always collaborates with clients to identify goals and solutions to problems.

For example, some counselors work in schools with children facing bullying while others focus on resolving conflicts within marital or family relationships. Others work with individuals battling alcohol and drug addictions. Counselors use a non-judgemental approach to listen to their clients and develop individualized strategies to deal with their problems. 

Career Paths with a Master’s in Counseling

There are a number of options for counseling careers. When determining what type of counseling to pursue, consider your personal values, passions, the population you would like to support and your ideal work environment. 

Do you have a heart for children who are struggling? Do you feel you have a gift for helping individuals deal with anxiety, depression or grief? Or do you feel like your talents and compassion would better apply to adults dealing with problems in the workplace? Would you be open to traveling to clients, or do you feel more comfortable working from an office of your own? 

Let’s explore a few potential counseling career paths below.

Mental health counselors are experts on a wide array of issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, substance abuse and even phobias. Depending on the work setting, mental health counselors may operate under different job titles, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. But generally, they work with clients struggling with ongoing mental health issues or experiencing distress. Mental health counselors may also work as a part of an individual’s treatment team.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders or other mental or behavioral problems. Operating from private offices, inpatient facilities and other settings, they provide treatment and support to help clients recover from addiction or modify problem behaviors. 

Some counselors work as advocates in the workplace to intervene when there is a short-term problem affecting the employee’s performance. This type of counseling is often free for employees through an Employee Assistance Program and helps them manage a crisis, navigate workplace conflicts and even deal with personal issues such as marital strife. 

What Is the Employment and Salary Outlook for a Counselor?

Counseling careers are varied and include counselors who work in private practice, in outpatient treatment centers and for government agencies. Counselor pay varies depending on specialty, employer, location, job title and other factors.

Let’s take mental health counselors as an example. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned a median salary of $47,660 in May 2020, with the highest 10% earning more than $78,700 and the lowest 10% earning less than $29,520. The BLS does not separate out salary date for the three types of counselors. 

Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is projected to grow 25%  from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. In recent years, the criminal justice system has recognized that drug and other substance abuse addicts are less likely to offend again if they get treatment for their addiction, so the need for substance abuse counselors is especially acute. 

Careers in Social Work Versus Counseling

What Does a Social Worker Do?

The professional realms of social work and counseling often overlap. Generally speaking, becoming a social worker means committing to a career in which you’ll direct clients to find services within the community to help them solve a specific problem or issue. 

For example, social workers might help a client get a job by working with an employment office or navigate the complicated bureaucracy involved in child custody. Social workers work in private practice, as well as for medical centers and nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping particular populations. 

They also help individuals adjust to unexpected changes in their lives, such as illness, divorce or unemployment, and they intervene in situations including child or spousal abuse, poverty or substance abuse. 

Social workers first assess a client’s needs, strengths and situation. They then look for support networks to help clients achieve their goals or get the help they need. They may also work on a larger scale to create programs that address issues specific to certain demographics or research what types of aid might benefit a community.

When it comes to salary, the median annual pay for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760, according to the BLS. 

What Does a Counselor Do?

While counselors and social workers may work with similar populations, their work differs in a number of ways. Counselors are usually responsible for helping people understand emotional or personal issues while social workers focus more on connecting clients with tangible resources to solve a problem. 

For example, counselors might work with married couples to help sort out issues and establish better communication. They might also work with people who have mental health disorders or who are recovering addicts. Though a counselor and social worker may both work with unemployed individuals, the counselor might focus more on the emotional aspects of a traumatic layoff while the social worker would help the client navigate an unemployment office.

People with a passion for improving the lives of others and offering assistance to those in need may be interested in both of these fields—whether they’re helping individuals to navigate a complicated governmental process or working one-on-one with individuals to improve relationships. Both of these occupations allow professionals to work with people who are at risk. The key is deciding how you would like to help people and in what capacity you will be of the most value.


Individuals may seek a counseling career because they possess relevant qualities for the job—perhaps  they’re good listeners with a desire to help others or they’re strong communicators.

Before pursuing the education necessary to become a mental health, school, employee or substance abuse counselor, you probably have some questions. Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about the profession. 

How long does it take to get a master’s in counseling?

If you’re considering a career in mental health or in school or substance abuse counseling, know that it generally takes two to three years of full-time study to earn the necessary master’s degree. The length of time depends on whether a program requires an internship or practicum to complete the degree, as well as your enrollment status. If you want to become a school counselor in P–12 schools, you may need to earn a master’s in school counseling plus a school counseling certification or licensure

While licensing requirements vary by state, all professional counselors must have a master’s degree and some supervised experience. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in particular are required to log between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, according to the BLS. In addition, counselors must pass a state-issued exam and complete continuing education every year. 

Is a master’s in counseling worth it?

If you see yourself as a professional counselor, whether in private practice or working for a school, you’ll need a master’s degree. And if you get satisfaction from helping others and achieve a sense of purpose from intervening in others’ difficulties and crises, then a counseling degree may be worth it for you. 

What can you do with a master’s in counseling?

With a master’s degree in counseling, there are a number of career paths you may pursue. You could work with individuals dealing with depression and anxiety, you could counsel couples and families in crisis or you could work with children in a school setting. 

If you have a heart for helping adults, there are myriad opportunities to help them return to work following an injury or a mental health crisis as a rehabilitation counselor. If you want to help teens and adults struggling with substance abuse, you could carve out a career as a substance abuse counselor.

Last updated April 2021.