Degrees Required for Various Counselor Certifications

To earn a certification as a counselor, the individual pursing this qualification must first meet specific educational requirements. Because of the time and financial expense and investment involved in obtaining counselor certification, interested individuals should thoroughly research all education and certification requirements to fully understand what they will need to do. These requirements will vary depending on the type of certification involved, as well as the state or county where the counselor expects to eventually work.

There are many different types of counselors, for example marriage and family counselors, school or vocational/career counselors, mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, and rehabilitation counselors. In general, virtually all prospective counselors need to obtain a minimum of a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, although some students might begin this career path by first obtaining a two-year associate’s degree in order to explore their career options. Students in bachelor’s degree programs will set the educational foundation they need by taking coursework that is relevant to the type of counselor certification they wish to obtain. At the undergraduate level, students interested in becoming counselors will major in a field that is relevant to the type of counselor certification they wish to obtain.

Because most states require a graduate degree to become licensed to practice as a professional counselor, many students who have obtained their bachelor’s degree in a relevant major continue for another two to three years studying the specialized courses and performing the necessary supervised clinical work to obtain their master’s degree. In some cases, these professionals go even further to obtain their doctorate degree.

Once the student has completed the required coursework, examinations, and clinical work, he will be eligible to earn his degree in counseling. In some cases, this may be all the counselor needs to obtain his counselor certification. In other cases, the counselor must meet additional state requirements to qualify for certification. By obtaining a graduate-level degree, completing two years of field work, and passing an examination, counselors can receive a general, national certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors. To maintain this National Certified Counselor credential, the counselor must meet continuing education requirements on a regular basis. The same requirement holds true for state certifications, although the intervals between recertification will vary by state.

Associate’s Degree

Degrees Required for Various Counselor Certifications

Virtually all types of professional counselors possess either a four-year bachelor’s or higher post- graduate degree and counselor certification. In general, social workers, mental health, and marriage counselors must spend many years studying for their chosen counseling career and performing practical work in a supervised clinical environment.

Individuals who may not be able to invest a lot of time and financial resources up-front can start their career in social work by obtaining a two-year Associate of Arts or Associate of Applied Science degree in Social Work or Human Services. For those who wish to enter the workforce after just two years of college, this degree will prepare students for entry-level social service jobs where they can work as case managers, program aides, childcare workers, mental health technicians, social service aides, and more. Students earning an associate’s degree may also be able to find an entry-level job as a substance abuse counselor; this individual, however, will not be able to obtain national certification without obtaining a master’s degree in counseling and fulfilling other prerequisites. Other students use an associate’s degree as their springboard to enter into a bachelor’s degree program.

An associate’s degree from an accredited two-year program may be all that is needed to obtain a job as a financial counselor. Some employers also require their financial counselors to obtain certification by taking a personal finance counselor program. Interested individuals should take courses that include accounting, business, and finance to gain relevant educational experience.

Bachelor’s Degree

Individuals seeking a counselor certification typically begin by obtaining a four-year bachelor’s degree. While a student does not usually major in just counseling, he can start down the path to a counseling career and counseling certification by following specific coursework that will be relevant to their chosen field. Many states and agencies that employ counseling professionals require them to have a post-graduate degree, put in several years of supervised clinical experience, and pass the necessary examinations. Some counseling careers, however, require only a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution to qualify the individual to apply for a license to practice in their state. Today, it's even possible to qualify by earning a psychology degree online .

Simply put, counselors help people. Students working toward a counseling degree and/or certification should have an idea of the people with whom they would like to work and in the type of environment in which they wish to work. Candidates should also consider different age groups, ranging from young children and teens to adults and the elderly. Do they want to assist couples and families, groups, or individuals? Are they interested in helping the disabled, people with emotional problems, or substance abusers? Once the student is decided on the type of people they want to help, finding the right counseling degree program is much easier. Many students simply choose a mental health counseling program, and then later complete an internship in the specialty that interests them.

Prospective counselors should take courses in psychology, sociology, human development, and biology, and obtain a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology, education, psychology, or social work. By taking relevant undergraduate courses, moving into a counseling program at the master’s level will be that much easier.

If, however, the individual does not wish to pursue graduate studies, but has successfully completed a bachelor’s degree program, he may be able to obtain employment as a substance abuse counselor or social worker. With the proper course of studies, a graduate of a bachelor’s program may also be able to find a job as a vocational or career counselor. Students who graduate with these types of bachelor’s degrees may wish to put their counseling skills and experience to work in other professions, such as teaching or nursing.

Master’s Degree

College graduates who wish to pursue further education to become a professional counselor will enter into a master’s degree program at an accredited college or university. Most career counselors must have at least a master’s degree in order to obtain their counselor certification. Because a student’s undergraduate degree is general in nature, perhaps focusing on sociology or psychology, the student needs to decide which type of counseling career he wishes to enter and then select the specialized master’s level coursework that will meet the training and educational requirements of their future profession.

Full-time students will need approximately two years beyond the four-year bachelor’s program to complete a master’s degree program. The student may or may not be required to write a master’s thesis for graduation, depending upon their chosen field and its graduation requirements. The degree conferred upon successful completion will be a Master of Arts, Master of Science, or Master of Education. A Master of Arts degree in counseling is probably the most common counseling psychology degree. A Master of Education degree that focuses on counseling qualifies the individual to provide educational counseling services. Lastly, a Master of Science degree can be conferred in counseling or mental health and prepares the individual to offer mental health counseling. There is also a Master of Social Work degree that qualifies an individual to provide counseling in the field of Social Work.

Individuals who have obtained their master’s degree can go on to obtain their counselor certification and state licensure that qualifies them to practice as a counselor. Career options available to these professionals include counseling in elementary and secondary schools, working in substance abuse facilities, providing marriage or family counseling, or working as a mental health counselor, to name a few. In some cases, individuals who have obtained their master’s degree continue their education to the next level to earn a Doctoral degree in counseling.

To practice counseling, the professional must meet state certification and licensing requirements. State counseling requirements vary, so it is important to know exactly what they are so that the student can follow the necessary course of studies and gain the required work experience. Individuals who obtain their master’s degree in counseling will not only meet minimal educational requirements, but they will also be greatly expanding their career options.


A doctorate degree is the highest degree a counselor can receive. This type of degree requires an additional two to four years of work, study, and education beyond a master’s degree, and typically requires the doctoral candidate to perform original research. A counselor who already possesses a master’s degree may pursue a Doctor of Philosophy degree in counseling to become even more of an authority in their specific field, or the counselor may wish to pursue a doctorate degree in order to enter a more academic career or be more involved in conducting research.

Just as the career options expand when a counselor obtains a master’s degree, they expand even more when a counselor obtains the additional qualification of doctor. Because of greater knowledge and expertise, an individual’s potential earnings increase as well. The road to receiving a doctorate degree in counseling requires written dissertation on a treatment program the candidate will have independently researched and conducted. The dissertation work can take several years to complete.

Because a doctorate degree in psychological counseling emphasizes research and prepares these professionals for careers in research and teaching, many who earn their doctorate degree in psychological counseling go on to become college professors or conduct research to develop new treatment plans. Some may open their private practice, which, depending on the number of patients they receive, can be very profitable. These individuals are regarded with high esteem both academically and from the general public’s perspective. A doctorate degree in psychological counseling qualifies the individual to provide therapy for people trying to deal with day-to-day emotional and psychological problems.

Those who obtain a doctorate degree in social work have probably had an educational focus on practicing as a social worker. This degree qualifies these professionals for very advanced jobs in the areas of administration, staff training, or supervision. Some Doctors of Social Work go on to teaching positions at the university level, while others may perform research.

Most counselors who have earned their doctorate degree typically obtained their counselor certification and licensure at the time they were in their master’s degree program to be able to practice as a professional counselor at that stage of their career. However, even those counselors with the highest levels of education, training, and experience can continue to expand their credentials by working to obtain additional certifications.

Continuing Education for Counselor Certification

Anyone interested in becoming a counselor will need to understand the many and varied educational and training requirements that are specific to each type of counseling specialty. The requirements also vary by state, as each state has specific counselor licensure and certification requirements. Prospective counselors should also check the requirements with their local government, potential employers, and any national level voluntary certification organization to determine which requirements apply specifically to their intended occupation.

Having a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in a counseling program such as elementary or secondary school counseling, clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family counseling, or rehabilitation counseling, among many others, is the starting point for earning the state licensure and certification needed to be able to practice as a counselor.

Individuals who wish to become school counselors will typically be required to have completed at least some related graduate course work, although most states require a master’s degree. Some states require school counselors to have their licensure; licensure usually requires some continuing education credits. While all states require their public school counselors to be certified, some require counselors to be certified both as teachers and as counselors and also to have between two and five years of teaching experience. In order to ensure school counselors remain up-to-date on the most recent counseling methods, these professionals are required to renew their licenses every few years, depending on the counselor’s state requirements. Renewal requirements are met by taking continuing education courses totaling approximately 18 continuing education credits or by completing approximately 180 hours of relevant coursework within a five-year period to be able to practice.

Other types of counselors must adhere to the licensing requirements of their respective state. The state’s license governs their practice. To obtain a license, the individual will most likely need to have a master’s degree in counseling, accumulate two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical counseling experience above the counseling provided at the master’s degree level, and pass a state-recognized examination.

Once the counselor has obtained his license to practice, in order to maintain his license, the individual must meet specific continuing education requirements. Similarly, professionals will also need to meet continuing education requirements to maintain whatever certification they may have obtained. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) grants a general certification of National Certified Counselor (NCC) at the national level to counselors who have earned a graduate degree and completed two years of field work. The NBCC also grants specialized certifications in fields such as addictions counseling, marriage and family counseling, and rehabilitation counseling. Mental health counselors can obtain national certifications such as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor or Licensed Mental Health Counselor through other national organizations.

In order to maintain these certifications, National Certified Counselors must complete a minimum of 100 hours of approved continuing education credits every five years. Another option for an NCC to maintain his certification is to retake and pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE).

Continuing education courses can be taken online, through home study, or by attending seminars, workshops, and classes. Many of the topics found in continuing education include coursework that is appropriate for licensed social workers, mental health workers, and marriage and family therapists. Courses cover areas such as Child Abuse and Neglect, Depression, HIV/AIDS, Job Stress, and Grief Management.

Regardless of the type of counselor, continuing education plays an important role in professional development and the ongoing ability to practice the profession. Of course, in addition to continuously enriching their education, counselors must always abide by a professional code of ethics.

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