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How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

With more and more people acknowledging the need to seek help in coping with their mental and emotional issues, as well as seeking guidance in matters like educational and career pursuits, the need for trained counselors will continue to grow.

Counseling professionals are needed in a variety of settings and dealing with a huge range of population groups, including children, adolescents, families, couples, the elderly, veterans, students and more. Counseling careers may be quite diverse, but those who are drawn to them likely have one major aspect in common — they’re passionate about helping others.

The path to education and possible licensure for a counselor will depend on the type of counseling they’re hoping to do as well as the population groups for whom they want to provide these services. While each counselor’s goals may be slightly unique, there are some generalizations we can make about how long it takes to become a counselor.

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Bachelor’s Degree: 4-5 Years

Step One to becoming a counselor, regardless of whether they need a license or other certification, is to complete a bachelor’s degree. Today’s typical undergraduate requires at least five years to complete their degree, though some may take only four years and still others could take even longer.

But it’s safe to assume that future counselors should plan to spend about five years earning their bachelor’s degree. What are the best college majors for future counselors? That depends on their ideal career path.

For example, many counselors may focus on helping others cope with emotional disturbances, such as anxiety. Those individuals would be best off pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But others may be considering a career as a school counselor. In that case, an undergraduate major in education would be a better fit.

Here’s a look at the most likely undergraduate majors for future counselors:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Education
  • Biology
  • Human Development
  • Social Work
  • Management
  • Behavioral Science
  • Communications

Prospective counselors should also keep in mind that it’s possible that they may need to pursue more advanced degrees than a bachelor’s degree, depending on their eventual career goals, and so it’s not always necessary to major in a behavior- or psychology-related field in college.

Master’s Degree: 2-3 Years

Most counselors will need to obtain a master’s degree in their field, particularly those who will be pursuing state or formal licensure/certification. In general, this is the highest degree necessary for a career as a counselor, though that’s not the case for everyone, and we’ll explore that a bit more later on.

A master’s degree program will allow counselors to further narrow down the scale of their educational pursuits while learning advanced theory and practice in their chosen area of counseling. So if someone majors in, say, biology as an undergraduate but wants to become a family counselor, they might pursue a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or something similar.

Not every population group is covered in every program, so it’s important for potential students to research the educational options that apply for their particular niche interest area. Also, in doing their research, it’s helpful for students to have a handle on whether they will need to pursue a doctoral degree. If so, it’s often important to be sure their eventual doctoral school will accept and recognize their master’s degree.

Attending graduate school full-time is the best way to complete your degree quickly, and most students find that they are able to finish a master’s degree in two to three years. Those who need to work while they pursue their education will need to add time to that, though.

Doctoral Degree: 4-7 Years

Most counselors, including those working in the mental health, career and school spaces, do not need to pursue a doctoral degree in order to qualify for state licensure. Still, this is a popular choice for individuals who want to become licensed psychologists, which is a higher-level career than counselor.

For some, careers in counseling psychology require earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in the field, and the length of time this will require varies pretty dramatically. That’s because the two program types are quite different by design.

Ph.D. programs usually take closer to seven years, as they are more heavily skewed toward academics and research in the field. That means students will spend more time on research and publishing. Psy.D. programs, on the other hand, are more clinical in nature, and many students will be able to finish a Psy.D. in Counseling Psychology in as little as four years.

Formal psychologist licensure will require a doctoral degree in most cases, though for those seeking careers as a counselor, that degree is probably overkill. It’s important to note, though, that counselors’ practice may be limited, and a handful of states allow some psychologists to prescribe medication, which is not possible for counselors.

Internships & Licensing: 1-2 Years

In most cases, professional licensure for counselors requires an internship or supervised practicum experience of at least one year. School counselors may be required to hold state teaching licenses in order to become certified, while career counselors may need to obtain state licensure, though this varies.

Other counselor jobs may not explicitly require a state-issued license or certificate. For example, many counselors who work in mental health facilities may not need to obtain a state license, but this varies from job-to-job, and most employers still require supervised professional experience before they’ll consider hiring an applicant.

For jobs that do require licensure, it’s usually necessary to keep up with state requirements to maintain licensure, and this typically means completing hours of continuing education.

Online Study: 2-8 Years

Some prospective counseling students may be interested in pursuing online education, which can make it possible to attend a school in another state. These programs, regardless of the educational level, will typically take longer than traditional in-person learning.

So, the length of time required to complete online counselor education varies depending on the type of degree being pursued, but generally, the ratios are similar as with traditional education. For example, an online bachelor’s degree will usually take less time than an online master’s.

Conclusion

It’s reasonable to expect that a professional counselor will need to commit to at least eight years of education and internship experience, and that time goes up if the candidate will need to obtain a doctoral degree as part of their educational requirements.

Additional Resources

  • National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Time to Degree – 2016. (2016.) Retrieved from https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport11/