Choosing a Counseling Specialization: Counseling Careers and Professional Certifications

| Staff Writers

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Counselors help patients of all ages overcome various challenges in life, from kindergarteners struggling with behavioral issues to adults battling depression and/or anxiety. However, becoming a counselor requires years of schooling and training. Aspiring mental health professionals often need a graduate degree and sufficient internship or supervised clinical hours before they can legally practice. These professionals also need to choose a specialization, which prepares them to earn a certification and sets the foundation for their career.

Counselors can choose to focus on specific topics, such as sex therapy or eating disorders, or techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. Each certification comes with different requirements for education level, work experience, supervised hours, and exams.

This guide lays out the various types of counseling and information about career prospects and salaries. At the end of the page, you can find several specialty counseling certifications as well.

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Choosing a Counseling Specialization

Aspiring counselors can choose their specialization based on various factors. As a counselor, you should consider the type of population you want to work with. Do you prefer working with children or adults, for example? Think about what work settings appeal to you, employment prospects, and potential earning power.

Where Do Counselors Work?

Counselors can work in many different types of settings, helping various patient populations. School counselors can find jobs at primary and secondary schools or higher education institutions and guide children or college-aged students. Other counselors might work with adults at outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, hospitals, and residential mental health and substance abuse facilities.

When Do I Choose My Counseling Specialization?

Typically, aspiring counselors choose their specialization while in school. Some make this choice while pursuing a bachelor’s degree, but all usually know by the time they get to graduate school. Master’s candidates apply to graduate schools and structure their curriculum plans based on their specialization.

Sometimes graduate students want to change their specialization. This is possible, although they may need to lengthen their degree timelines to take additional credits or participate in extra clinical hours.

Once professionals gain some experience, they can also switch specializations by pursuing a post-graduate counseling certificate. Some professionals may even earn a doctorate. For example, a mental health counselor might pursue a degree at the doctoral level to become an educator or a leader in the field.

Which Types of Counselors Get Paid the Most?

The following table lists the top five highest-paying careers for people within the counseling and mental health field. The table lists the average annual salary. Keep in mind that these figures vary depending on factors like location and years of experience.

Job Title Annual Salary
Postsecondary Teacher $79,540
Sex Therapist $75,394
Human Resources Manager $67,381
Clinical Supervisor $58,793
School Counselor $57,040

Counseling Careers

Counseling students should choose their specialization wisely. Their focus area in school determines their counseling certification and, later on, their career. It’s unlikely, for example, that someone concentrating on primary school counseling will go on to become a substance abuse counselor.

Most of these roles require at least a master’s degree, which means students must spend a significant amount of time in a higher education institution. Certain roles lend themselves to a doctoral-level degree, which can lead to career advancement and higher salaries.

The list below outlines several careers for professionals with a counseling degree. Keep in mind that some of these job paths do not necessarily involve counseling, although they do remain adjacent to the field.

Behavioral Counselor

Behavioral counselors work with people with various mental or behavioral disorders. They might guide children with autism, for example, or help an adult with addiction.

  • Salary: $40,394
  • Degree Required: Most require at least a master’s degree.

Case Manager

Case managers don’t technically work as psychologists or counselors. However, they do work alongside healthcare providers to offer guidance to recovering addicts and other vulnerable people.

  • Salary: $40,928
  • Degree Required: Associate or bachelor’s degree

Sexuality Counselor

Sex counselors usually provide a short-term, client-centered solution to particular problems that individuals or couples encounter in their sex lives. They give clients exercises and suggest techniques to help solve these problems.

  • Salary: Varies
  • Degree Required: At least a bachelor’s degree, although a master’s degree is common

Sexuality Educator

These professionals educate people on topics like sexual health, reproductive anatomy, and other issues related to sex. They might teach children in the classroom or offer training sessions for adults.

  • Salary: Varies
  • Degree Required: At least a bachelor’s degree, although a master’s degree is common

Child Protection Case Manager

These professionals help vulnerable children living in difficult family situations. They may provide the family or children with resources or remove a child from an abusive or unsafe situation.

  • Salary: $38,972
  • Degree Required: Bachelor’s degree

Clinical Supervisor

Clinical supervisors work in more administrative than counseling roles. They manage the day-to-day operations of a clinic, overseeing staff and making sure patient care meets high standards.

  • Salary: $58,910
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree needed for certification

Eating Disorder Therapist

Counselors within this specialization guide individuals suffering from disorders like bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder. These therapists help their patients think about food intake in a healthy way in order to stop these disordered eating behaviors.

  • Salary: $42,907
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Group Therapist

Therapists within this specialization focus on offering services to a group of people rather than through one-on-one sessions. This sort of counseling can help patients with depression, social anxiety, PTSD, and other disorders.

  • Salary: $46,260
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Human Resources Manager

Although this isn’t a counseling job, counseling graduates can use their degree to manage people-related concerns at a workplace. Among their many responsibilities, HR managers make sure companies remain safe places to work, free of harassment.

  • Salary: $67,381
  • Degree Required: Bachelor’s degree

Marriage and Family Therapist

These professionals help people tackle challenges in their relationships. Many work with couples, but others guide entire families through difficult situations, such as layoffs or a family death.

  • Salary: $49,610
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors help patients dealing with a range of issues, including stress management, substance abuse, and depression. They try to help their patients reach a healthy mental and emotional state.

  • Salary: $46,050
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Rehabilitation Counselor

For individuals with mental, physical, or developmental disabilities, tackling daily tasks can seem overwhelming or even impossible. Rehabilitation counselors help these individuals adjust to and take on day-to-day life.

  • Salary: $35,950
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

School Counselor

School counselors work at primary and secondary schools. They may give special attention to children with behavioral issues or learning difficulties. These professionals also help high school students explore career paths or apply to colleges.

  • Salary: $57,040
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Sex Therapist

Many people deal with insecurities, doubts, and trauma when it comes to sex and intimacy. Sex therapists help these individuals work through these issues one-on-one, rather than giving advice to couples like sex counselors do.

  • Salary: $75,394
  • Degree Required: Master’s degree

Social Service Manager

These professionals work in administrative roles at counseling, social services, and clinical organizations. They may supervise counselors instead of working as counselors themselves.

  • Salary: $52,583
  • Degree Required: Bachelor’s degree, although some positions require a master’s degree

Postsecondary Teacher

Some counselors and psychologists prefer teaching to clinical practice. This job allows them to teach the subject as professors and faculty members at colleges and universities.

  • Salary: $79,540
  • Degree Required: Doctoral degree

Professional Certifications for Counselors

Certifications are available to applicants who have acquired a degree in counseling and go on to meet certification requirements. This usually includes supervised clinical work and passing a standardized exam. Certifications are offered at the state and national level. State certification and licensure grants permission for an individual to practice within that state. National and international certification validates levels of knowledge, training, and expertise to clients, employers, and the public.

Unless specifically identified as a state or international certification, the following are national certifications. In addition to the certifications listed, it is often possible to obtain certification as a supervisor in the specified field with additional experience.

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  • Board Certified Psychologist (ABPP)

    This certifications allows professionals to practice as psychologists. Candidates should obtain a doctoral degree, provide peer-reviewed practice samples, and pass an oral exam.

    More Info   →

  • Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS)

    Fifteen states recognize this credential, which allows professionals to work as clinical supervisors for mental health workers. Candidates need a master’s degree in a mental health field and should work as a licensed or certified mental health provider.

    More Info   →

  • American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (ASSECT) Certified Sexuality Educator

    Individuals who work in sex education may qualify for this certification. To apply, candidates should possess a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree and at least 1,000 hours of work as a sex educator.

    More Info   →

  • American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (ASSECT) Certified Sexuality Counselor

    This certification qualifies professionals to work as sex counselors. Individuals with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree may apply as long as they possess at least 1,000 hours of experiences as sex counselors.

    More Info   →

  • American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (ASSECT) Certified Sex Therapist

    To earn this certification to work as a sex therapist, candidates should have a master’s degree, with two years of clinical work experience or a doctoral degree with one year of clinical experience.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist (CCBT)

    To earn diplomate status for this credential, mental health professionals need a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field. They should also possess 10 years of post-graduate experience in cognitive behavioral therapy, submit three recommendation letters, and complete a certification program in cognitive behavioral therapy.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)

    People who earn this certification must show completion of at least 60 hours of graduate-level coursework in counseling, 100 hours of post-graduate clinical supervision, and 3,000 hours of post-graduate clinical client work experience. They must also obtain a professional endorsement and pass a national counseling examination.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Eating Disorders Specialist (CEDS)

    Counselors and therapists can specialize in treating eating disorders with this certification. To apply, candidates should hold a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or a related field, or they can apply as a nurse practitioner with a master’s, as well. Applicants should also possess at least 2,500 practice hours specific to eating disorders.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Group Psychotherapist (CGP)

    Individuals with this credential work as mental health professionals focusing on group therapy. The certification requires a master’s degree within the mental health field and supervised clinical group experience.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT)

    The Gottman Method focuses specifically on couples therapy. Counselors must pass three training levels, earn a master’s or doctoral degree, obtain professional counselor licensure, and complete a CGT certification track to earn this certification.

    More Info   →

  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)

    Rehabilitation counselors may obtain this certification if they graduate with a master’s or doctoral degree in rehabilitation and pass the CRC exam.

    More Info   →

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapist (DBT)

    DBT therapy uses talking with a cognitive behavioral approach for patients, especially those with borderline personality disorder. Applicants need a graduate degree and must pass a certification exam.

    More Info   →

  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapist (EAGALA)

    For some patients, horses can play essential roles with mental health counseling and psychotherapy. Therapists can use equine therapy in their practice if they possess a higher education degree and apply for the EAGALA certification.

    More Info   →

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

    EMDR can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder process past trauma. Counselors can earn EMDR certification if they hold licensure within their medical field and at least two years of professional experience.

    More Info   →

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

    For counselors who want to work as licensed marriage and family therapists, each state requires its own qualifications. Counselors can find these through the state’s licensing boards, but the requirements usually include a graduate degree and several supervised work hours.

    More Info   →

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

    This credential adds an extra endorsement to individuals who possess state licensure to work as mental health counselors. Candidates can choose several specializations, including developmental disability or military counseling.

    More Info   →

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

    Mental health professionals must earn this licensure from their state in order to legally practice as a counselor. States determine the requirements for themselves. Generally, candidates must obtain a graduate degree and complete supervised work hours.

    More Info   →

  • Master Addictions Counselor (MAC)

    To earn this certification, counselors must already possess the National Certified Counselor credential. They should also complete at least 12 hours of addiction counseling coursework at the graduate level and pass the Examination for Master Addictions Counseling.

    More Info   →

  • Music Therapist, Board Certified (MT-BC)

    Scientific research has found that many types of art, including music, can prove beneficial for therapeutic purposes. To qualify for certification as a music therapist, counselors must earn a graduate degree in the field and take the certification exam.

    More Info   →

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCACI)

    Candidates for this certification need a credential or license within the substance abuse and addiction field, three years or 6,000 hours of work experience, at least 270 contact hours of education and training in substance abuse disorders, and passing scores on two exams.

    More Info   →

  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCACII)

    Similar to the NCACI, the NCACII requires candidates gain more experience. In addition to many of the same requirements, applicants should earn at least 450 contact hours of education and training in substance abuse disorders and pass three exams.

    More Info   →

  • National Certified Counselor (NCC)

    For this certification, professionals need a master’s-level degree, 100 hours of post-graduate counseling supervision, 3,000 hours of work experience, a passing grade on the National Counselor Examinations or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examinations, and a professional endorsement.

    More Info   →

  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)

    This credential requires many of the same qualifications as the NCC certification, listed just above. However, NCSC candidates must take specific courses, like career counseling and lifestyle development.

    More Info   →

  • Registered Expressive Arts Therapist (REAT)

    The REAT certification allows mental health professionals to incorporate art into their therapeutic practices. Applicants should hold a master’s or doctoral degree; the required number of supervised hours is dependent on past educational experience.

    More Info   →

  • Registered Play Therapist (RPT)

    Typically offered as a type of counseling for children, RPT therapy can prove an effective way to help kids overcome trauma or other struggles. This credential requires candidates to hold a graduate degree, a license, and supervised play therapy experience.

    More Info   →

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