Different Types of Counseling Degrees You Can Get

Counselors work with patients and clients to do everything from overcome addiction to deal with the strain of a chronic illness to find a better-fitting job. Counselors come to their occupations via a variety of educational paths and degrees, and they can focus on one or more of any number of potential counseling specialties.

Regardless of what it takes to become a counselor, there’s no doubt that highly trained and compassionate counselors are in high demand; in fact, substance abuse and mental health counselors are expected to see job growth of 22% over the next decade, which is more than four times higher growth than for all occupations.

Professional counseling jobs require varying levels of education in a range of specialties; here’s a look at what potential counseling students should know in deciding what types of degrees are right for them.

Counseling Degree Levels & Focus

For anybody considering becoming a professional counselor, it can be helpful to work backward to determine what level of education is needed. For instance, some jobs require a master’s degree, while others may need only an undergraduate education.

Concentration: Most people who wish to become counselors will seek degrees in one of a handful of areas: psychology, social work, mental health, education or sociology. Regardless of concentration, the degree level will largely determine what types of jobs are possible. For instance, for those who want to counsel others as licensed clinical psychologists, they will major in psychology, but they’ll need a doctorate.

Associate: A two-year associate degree can be helpful for those who aren’t exactly sure if they want to become professional counselors and who aren’t yet sold on a particular area of focus. However, some entry-level jobs in the counseling field that don’t involve one-on-one clinical work with clients may open up with an associate degree.

Bachelor’s: Almost all professional counselors will begin their educational journey at the undergraduate level with a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology, mental health, education or social work. Many counselor jobs that don’t require state licensing become available with the successful completion of a bachelor’s degree in an applicable field, but that depends both on the state where you live and work as well as the employer. Many employers don’t require counselors to have state licenses.

Master’s: The vast majority of professional counselors have earned a master’s degree in psychology, education, social work or mental health, making a master’s degree incredibly important for prospective counselors. In addition to most states requiring at least a master’s degree for licensing, earning a master’s makes a potential counselor a more attractive job candidate even if they don’t need a formal license.

Doctoral: Counselors who wish to or need to become licensed psychologists or those who wish to conduct academic research in a related field will need to earn a doctorate. Two main types of degrees apply in the mental health field — a Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, and a Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD. Generally, a PhD is more appropriate for those who wish to teach at the postsecondary level and for those who want to participate in academic research.

Medical degrees: Individuals who wish to become psychiatrists, which is a type of medical doctor, will need to attend medical school, go through a residency program and pass all applicable tests and examinations. Once they do that, they will be able to practice professionally as a psychiatrist, which gives them the authority and training not only to counsel patients but to prescribe medication as well. However, there are other types of medical degrees that may qualify an individual to work in counseling and mental health. For instance, advanced practice psychiatric nurses also can prescribe medication and counsel patients. That requires a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and successful application to become a licensed advanced practice nurse in their state.

Counseling Degree Types

Think of any mental, behavioral, family or other problems a person can have; chances are there are hundreds or thousands of counselors who specialize in dealing with those problems. Here is a look at some of the most common types of counseling roles:

  • Marriage & family: Addresses emotional or behavioral issues within the context of a couple or a family unit.
  • Career: Assists workers or job candidates with finding areas of the workforce they may be best-suited for and helps them advance up the career ladder.
  • School: Works in an educational setting, helping students achieve their academic goals and deal with any behavioral or emotional health concerns.
  • Mental health: Identifies and treats mental health disturbances, disorders or compulsive behaviors.
  • Addiction & rehab: Sometimes working with a 12-step system, helps individuals dealing with substance use disorders to stay clean and sober.
  • Personal finance: Offers individualized guidance and recommendations on money management.
  • Creative arts: Uses creative expression, such as art or music, to address clients’ emotional and behavioral health problems.
  • Social services: Often working within local government agencies, helps connect individuals and families to public and private benefits.
  • Healthcare: Works with individuals and families as they interact with a hospital or other healthcare system.
  • Sexuality: Helps individuals and couples have healthy, satisfying sexual experiences.
  • Crisis & trauma: Addresses acute mental and emotional health disturbances in people who have experienced violence or sudden loss.
  • Developmental: Works with individuals at a particular stage of mental development, such as childhood, adolescence or old age.
  • Conflict resolution: Assists families, business partners and other groups with healthy negotiation to resolve conflicts.
  • Grief: Helps provide tools for coping with the death of a loved one.
  • Religious: Helps couples, individuals and families deal with emotional and behavioral health issues within the context of a faith tradition.

Counseling Licensure & Certification

Many but not all professional counselors will have some additional steps they’ll need to manage before they can begin working.

Generally, becoming licensed to practice professionally as a counselor requires a master’s degree, up to 4,000 hours of supervised residency and passage of a certification exam, but specific rules vary by state. Similar rules apply for counselors who earn degrees in social work and wish to become licensed clinical social workers.

Rules vary by state, so it’s wise to consult your state’s rules before applying for degree programs, and it’s also important to keep in mind that renewing licenses in some states requires continuing education.

Additionally, not all employers require their counselors to gain state licensure, but for most counselors who want to practice independently, the state must generally give its stamp of approval.


A trained, qualified counselor can literally be a lifesaver for people in crisis. But even when they aren’t dealing with life-or-death issues, compassionate counselors provide a perspective that can help a person achieve their personal, relationship or professional goals in life.

Additional References