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What is the Fastest Way to Become a Licensed Counselor or Therapist?

Written by: Staff Writers
Last Updated: May 2020

Becoming a therapist requires specific educational components and licensing qualifications. Our guide provides readers with the fastest way to become a counselor or therapist. Each candidate can begin the process by earning a bachelor's degree in counseling or psychology. 

Once they earn their bachelor's degree, prospective counselors can advance into a master's program. This guide explores bachelor's and master's programs in the discipline, including program length, course topics, and credit requirements.

To practice as a counselor or therapist, a professional must earn a license in their chosen area of practice. Licensing requirements can differ depending on the state, so this guide outlines some of the common processes and criteria for candidates to meet.

Undergraduate Degree Program in Counseling

Across colleges and universities, bachelor's programs feature different course offerings, admission requirements, and structures, but learners can expect to encounter some similarities. Degree-seekers typically satisfy their bachelor's requirements within four years of full-time study.

Many institutions allow learners to enroll in flexible online formats that allow them to continue working as they earn their degree. Bachelor's programs typically comprise 120 credits of coursework. Degree-seekers explore research methods in psychology, personality and social processes, and scientific reasoning in psychology.

A professional who holds a bachelor's degree can explore entry-level counseling and therapy roles. Completing an undergraduate program prepares degree-seekers to advance into master's-level education.

Graduate Degree Program in Counseling

Candidates who want to advance their education and expand their career opportunities can pursue master's in counseling programs. At the graduate level, learners typically enroll in concentrations or specializations to align their degrees with their personal interests and career goals. Common specializations include school counseling, marriage and family therapy, and addictions counseling. 

In addition to coursework, master's programs often feature clinical components to provide degree-seekers with practical training through practicums or internships. Students explore theories of counseling and psychotherapy, ethics and legal issues in counseling, and assessment of counseling. Learners typically complete master's programs in about two years of full-time study.

Some colleges and universities offer online counseling degrees or accelerated tracks that enable enrollees to take more credits during each semester to graduate sooner. Graduates can explore licensing opportunities to practice as counselors or therapists, working with specific patient populations.

Licensure Required to Become a Counselor or Therapist

Candidates interested in learning how to become a licensed therapist should explore the licensing requirements in their state to understand the process they need to follow. Before they can earn their licenses, each individual must earn a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or therapy. 

Licensure usually requires each candidate to satisfy about 1,500 hours of professional counseling experience with supervision by a licensed counselor or therapist. Once an applicant meets the educational and experience requirements, they can complete and pass a licensing exam to earn their desired credential. 

Specific requirements differ from state to state, but earning a license to practice as a counselor or therapist typically takes about 5-7 years from start to finish.

Career Options for Counselors and Therapists

School and Career Counselors: These professionals work with students to determine their abilities and understand their interests and goals through aptitude testing, individual planning, and interviews. School and career counselors also help students develop skills and create effective plans to reach their academic and career goals.

Median Salary: $57,040


Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: Counselors in this discipline work with patients who have behavioral or substance abuse issues to evaluate their mental and physical health and determine their readiness for treatment. These counselors also refer patients to other services and resources, including support groups and job placement services.

Median Salary: $46,240


Marriage and Family Therapists: Professionals pursuing careers as marriage and family therapists work with clients to discuss their experiences and emotions, helping them process and understand their reactions, along with how to best adjust to difficult changes in their lives. Marriage and family therapists also help their clients create strategies to change their behavior and cope with challenges.

Median Salary: $49,610


Rehabilitation Counselor: These counselors focus on helping people with developmental, physical, mental, or emotional disabilities to handle everyday aspects of life. They work with clients to create effective treatment plans and refer them to additional services as needed, including medical care and career training programs.

Median Salary: $35,950


Speech-Language Pathologist: In this occupation, professionals work to help children and adults with communication or swallowing disorders. Speech-language pathologists develop and strengthen the muscles used for swallowing and teach children and adults how to make different sounds to help improve their voices and speech.

Median Salary: $79,120


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are counselors and therapists the same thing? Counselors focus on helping patients or clients with specific issues, such as stress management or addiction. These professionals often focus on short-term solutions for those in need. Therapists take a more long-term approach and work with more broad issues to determine behavior patterns and how patients interact with the world.
  • Can counselors prescribe medication? Most counselors can not prescribe medication, but some areas of training allow them to prescribe, based on the area and type of training. Four states allow psychologists to prescribe medication. Some advanced practice psychiatric nurses receive prescriptive authority.
  • Are counselor jobs in demand? Counseling jobs across industries and states vary in terms of concentration of jobs and employment levels. State government boasts the highest levels of employment for counselors, while the emergency and other relief services industry features the highest concentration of jobs. 
  • How much do counselors make? Counselor salaries vary depending on the location and the experience level. The annual mean wage for counselors reached $48,800 in 2019. Counselors in New Jersey enjoy the highest salary opportunities in the nation, experiencing annual mean wages of $68,090. The religious organizations industry offers the highest salaries for counselors.

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