In every state, professional counselors must be licensed to practice by their state board of licensing. While every state may have slightly different requirements for licensure, all states require the applicant to have a master's or doctoral degree in the mental health field, a passing score on professional examinations and clinical experience according to the National Board for Certified Counselors. This clinical experience must be supervised by a licensed professional counselor in order to be considered valid for the purposes of obtaining a license to practice.
What Types of Experience Can Lead to Licensure?
Many states require approximately 3,000 contact hours of clinical experience following completion of a master's degree. This experience must include around 100 hours of direct supervision from a licensed professional counselor. For those who attended a CACREP accredited school, the postgraduate experience may be waived due to the number of supervised clinical hours required to complete a CACREP accredited clinical counseling degree.
The type of experience one seeks out is typically in the student's area of expertise or interest. For example, individuals hoping to become substance abuse counselors typically seek out internships and clinical experience in clinics that work with those fighting drug or alcohol addiction. Individuals seeking degrees in school counseling find internship positions in public school districts, preschools, private schools or colleges.
Some agencies that offer internships to recent graduates who have earned master's degrees include the following:
- Children's hospitals
- Hospitals with a mental health department
- Substance abuse clinics
- Foster care agencies
- Public schools
- Community colleges
- Rehabilitation centers
- Outpatient mental health clinics
- Programs for at-risk teens
- Homeless shelters
- Domestic violence shelters
- Group homes and residential care centers
- Child psychology practices
How Do I Secure a Position to Gain Experience?
Many universities offer students pursuing a master's degree in counseling with assistance in securing a post-graduate internship. Some schools are affiliated with local hospitals, mental health clinics or human services organizations that offer opportunities for clinical experience to recent graduates. University career centers are also often aware of local organizations that have offered internship positions to graduates in the past. Students may also approach organizations they are interested in working for once licensed and inquire about any available internship positions. Many times, an internship can open the doors to future employment with that agency.
Applying for an internship positions is very similar to applying for traditional employment. Networking can be a major first step in securing an internship. By getting to know area psychologists, counselors and human services professionals, students begin to gain contacts in the field which may lead to offers of internship positions. This networking can also happen while volunteering to assist at conferences and mental health clinics doing non-counseling activities. Networking and volunteering can demonstrate leadership skills and initiative to potential employers.
Once the applicant has a list of possible opportunities, he or she may apply for any open positions, providing references, transcripts and descriptions of previous experience and training. Interested employers may then request the applicant to come in for a series of formal interviews in order to determine whether the organization and applicant are well-matched. Once a match is made, the applicant can then begin to gain the clinical experience necessary for pursuing licensure.
Gaining the 2000 to 5000 hours of clinical experience necessary can be overwhelming at first. However, securing a post-graduate internship position can lead to gaining valuable experience, developing a network of professional contacts and paving the way to a future career as a licensed professional counselor.