By Brenda Rufener
This guide is designed to assist you in the pursuit of your master's in counseling. You will discover how to embark on the application process, find the best-fit mentor, and understand the career options available to you in this highly rewarding field.
Counselors offer help and assistance to those who desire to overcome mental health, emotional, and social problems. To prepare for a career in counseling, a master's degree is required. Both general counseling positions and most sub-niches of the field require a graduate degree. Whether you want to pursue a career in school counseling or provide rehabilitation services to those overcoming addiction, a master's degree and state licensure are required.
Table of Contents
1: Going to Grad School for the Wrong Reasons
2: Applying to Graduate Schools
3: The Importance of a Mentor – Tips For Finding the Right One
4: Scholarships for Counseling Graduate Students
5: Acquiring the Proper Licensure
6: Career Options for Master's Degree in Counseling
7: Highest Paying Jobs in Counseling
8: Counseling Trends and the Workforce
Considering graduate school is the first step in moving toward a master's in counseling, but it is important to do more than ponder the possibilities. You want to stop and take a serious look at what is driving you to pursue your graduate degree. Even the most well intentioned students, allow motivating forces to lead them astray.
According to Yale University's psychology chair, Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema, "Students have many reasons for pursuing graduate degrees in psychology – some are more compelling and motivating than others." Pursuing graduate school for the wrong reasons can lead to a poor schooling experience, wrong career path, and a waste of time and money.
Here are some of the worst reasons to pursue graduate school in counseling. Use these reasons as a gauge for what is motivating you.
Wrong reason #1: It is the next logical step in your education.
Being in love with your undergraduate program does not mean you should continue on to graduate school. Psychology instructors at Portland State University report that, "many students learn the hard way and enroll in graduate school simply because they enjoy their undergraduate classes." Professors recommend interviewing counselors in the field to understand what their day-to-day life is like. Students may become blinded by academia and as a result, lack experiential knowledge.
Wrong reason #2: You cannot find a job.
In a touchy economy, graduate school may seem more attractive than it was in years past. If you are unable to find a job following graduation you may decide graduate school is a natural progression. But many graduate school students take on hefty student loans in grad school. It is best not to rush into any decision. Take time off between undergraduate and graduate school to really learn about the field of counseling and the job prospects that are available.
Wrong reason #3: You're in it for the money.
One of the worst reasons to pursue a master's in counseling is the promise of riches, fame, and prestige. While you may earn a viable salary, starting counselors do not get rich quick. Be realistic about your earnings and remember that the counseling career is a rewarding one, and for many, the benefits far outweigh the financial challenges of getting started.
Wrong reason #4: You need to find out who you are.
This is not a clichÃ©. A certain percentage of students enroll in graduate psychology and counseling programs because of the inner struggle they experience. They want to find out who they are and learn to better understand themselves. Unfortunately, going to graduate school in the hopes of finding out who you are often backfires. These types of students often inflict more harm on their clients. Pay attention to cues. If you are bursting into tears during abnormal psych class, you may need to meet with your mentor or adviser to assess your own mental health.
Right Reasons to Go
Some of the best reasons to pursue a counseling graduate degree stem from the answers to questions you may ask yourself. Do you have a burning desire for research in the field? Are you intrigued by how the brain works in solving problems or how depression may be suppressed by exercise? Perhaps there is a specific area of study you can't wait to pursue. With a strong desire for research and a deeper knowledge of the field, you may be the right fit for a graduate counseling degree program. Remember you will invest time and money, so it is important to make the right decision, especially when starting out.
Now that you've made the decision to apply to graduate school, it is important to maintain a close relationship with at least one faculty member of the counseling or psychology department. Faculty members are informed about the entire graduate study process, from application to acceptance; however, it is up to you to be assertive about consulting with your adviser or faculty member. Seek them out without being forceful, or annoying.
Letters of recommendation are critical to your graduate school application. Choose three individuals you want to write letters of recommendation and ask them early if they will do it for you. Consider the faculty members who know your academic performance and can attest to your ability and skill. Choose a faculty member who has taught you in at least two classes. Depending on the graduate program, particular forms must be used for your recommendation letters.
In your application, you will also be asked to provide a personal statement that addresses your goals and reasons for selecting a particular graduate program. Consult with your faculty advisor and ask them to review your draft of the personal statement.
Another key component of the graduate school application is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Scores on the GRE are often a determining factor in graduate school admissions. Schools and programs vary in required scores, but most determine acceptance based on the GRE General and/or the Advanced Subject Test in Psychology. Most master's in counseling programs require the specialty subject test in psychology in combination with the general test score. To perform well on the GRE, students often take a GRE Preparation course, offered for no credit from the undergraduate school's Psychology Department during their junior year.
Faculty advisers recommend applying to at least two levels of graduate programs and to maintain a realistic approach to admission. Programs are competitive and you have a better chance of admission if you increase your odds. Applying to less-competitive programs, where you will likely be admitted, is also recommended.
Ask any practicing counselor or psychologist about the value of a mentor-mentee relationship and they will agree that it is a critical predictor of future success. Even if your preference is to work alone, having a close relationship with an advisor or mentor will help prepare you for life outside of grad school.
According to the American Psychological Association, having a mentor should not be thought of as an optional part of schooling. But not having a mentor is as impactful on your grad school experience and after-school life as having a poor match. Research from the American Psychological Association reveals that after financial support, maintaining a solid relationship with a mentor is the best predictor of one's success. So, what does it take to find a good mentor and nourish the relationship? Mentoring faculty, grad students, and researchers state the following tips.
During your undergraduate career, mentors and mentees should pair up. A strong relationship during the early years of college helps lay the groundwork for graduate school and beyond. York University graduate student in psychology, Jeremy Burman, states that, "When you develop connections as an undergraduate, you will already have a community that is excited to greet you when you show up at the graduate level." The importance of networking is critical to how well you are received by the department when you arrive. But don't panic if you are unsuccessful in finding a mentor during your undergraduate years. You have plenty of time to cultivate a relationship and find the right fit during your graduate school years.
Do not force a relationship
For many undergraduates, academic advisors naturally become a mentor. However, this is not always the case. Research advisors and professors also meet the need of the mentor-mentee relationship. A mentor offers career advice and moral support. Many professors and advisors are great at pointing out methodological issues or flaws, but do not necessarily provide moral support. As a potential mentee, you should never force a relationship with someone simply for the sake of obtaining a mentor. A good fit is a must.
Know how to accept criticism
Students unwilling to take advice or accept criticism tend to be less successful in cultivating a relationship with a mentor. Consider your mentor to be your cheerleader, but one who also helps develop your weaknesses. Accept the praise and the criticism and you will succeed in your goals and your relationships.
Mind your manners
Make sure your mentors know that you appreciate them and value your relationship. A simple thank you goes a long way in developing a positive relationship. Be gracious and thankful for your mentor's time and efforts. Be on time for appointments, be upfront about progress, and always mind your manners. If your mentor has provided something for you that is special, take notice. Send them a gift card, flowers, or something they will appreciate. Good etiquette goes a long way in building a lasting relationship.
Remember it is all worth the effort
Nurturing a mentor-mentee relationship is not easy. It will pay off in the long run, even after you've earned your degree. Mentoring helps link graduate school training to the early stages of a counseling career, no matter what field you pursue. Take the advice, play by the rules, and reap the rewards of a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Paying for grad school, no matter what the field, can cause financial strain. If you are pursuing a graduate degree in counseling, consider the following scholarships to help relieve the burden of going into debt.
1. Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship – $5,000 scholarship award for graduate counseling students with a focus on work in stigma related to mental illness. Grad students must attend school full-time, show demonstrated commitment to stigma issues, and be in good academic standing.
2. Clinton E. Phillips Scholarship – $4,000 scholarship award for students who intend to study marriage and family counseling therapy. Students must demonstrate financial need and display outstanding academic performance.
3. Randy Gerson Memorial Grant – $6,000 scholarship for work in systemic understanding of couples or family dynamics. The program awards grants for graduate student projects. Students must be enrolled full-time, be in good academic standing, and demonstrate competence in their area of proposed work.
4. Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Fellowship – $25,000 fellowships for graduate students pursuing work in child psychology and counseling. Designed for students pursuing their doctorate or have completed their doctoral candidacy and demonstrate research competence and commitment to the child counseling field.
5. RSA Scholarship – The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) awards various scholarship assistance awards to students pursuing careers in rehabilitation counseling. Recipients are required to pay back their scholarship through employment in support of a particular rehabilitation program.
6. Early Graduate Student Researcher Award – $1,000 award offered by the Science Student Council, presented to an outstanding student researcher early in their graduate training. Funds may be used for direct research expenses, including conference travel.
7. Lullelia W. Harrison Scholarship in Counseling – $500 to $1,000 award for students planning to pursue a career in counseling. The scholarship is offered by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority and is administered based on the applicant's background and academic performance.
8. Nancy B. Forest and L. Michael Honaker Master's Grant – $1,000 grant named in the honor of American Psychological Association (APA) staff members for their years of service and continued growth in the field. The grant funds thesis research at the master's level and in the field of psychology and related counseling studies.
9. Scott and Paul Pearsall Scholarship – $10,000 scholarship to support the work that increases the public's understanding of stigma and psychological pain for adults living with physical disabilities. Potential recipients must be full-time graduate students and be in good academic standing with an accredited university.
10. Albert W. Dent Graduate Student Scholarship – $5,000 scholarship given to minority grad students enrolled in their final year of school and who are pursuing an administrative position in counseling, psychology, or healthcare.
Practicing counseling in the United States requires licensure or certification issued by each state. Many states have similar requirements, while others may vary. Some of the more common requirements for licensure are completion of a master's degree program and a professional internship.
Education counselors may require state teaching experience, while rehabilitation counselors may require direct work experience with patients. Mental health counselors, for example, require a master's degree plus 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work. These are called training hours.
Once eligibility requirements are met, one or more examinations must be passed. A series of tests must be passed in order to apply for the state-counseling license. Since each state is different, you must check with your school for information on the application process.
Most states require continuing education in order to maintain your license. You will renew your license on even-numbered years in most states and clock forty hours of continuing education during each two-year period. Some states require ethics training. Documentation of your continuing education must be kept, although a summary is typically required by your state. Approximately ten percent of all renewals are audited, so it is important to document your ongoing education and training.
For further information on the national certification and state licensing visit the National Board of Certified Counselors.
While there are a variety of counseling jobs available, the career pathway follows three primary genres. Within each counseling career category, there are several job titles you may pursue based on your interest.
Educational Counselors (School Counselors)
Working with children and adults with personal, educational, and social issues falls under the category of an education or guidance counselor. School counselors work at all levels of a school system, from primary to postsecondary. School counselors assist students and their parents with the pressures of handing school and life.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, educational and vocational counselors should expect a rate of growth by 12 percent over the next decade. Job titles include guidance counselors, career counselors, academic advisors, school counselors, and career services directors.
Mental Health Counselors
Deciding to go into mental health counseling means that you enjoy the pursuit of positive mental health in individuals and groups of people. Mental and emotional issues are treated, such as grief recovery, depression, self-esteem, anxiety, dependency, and addiction. An example of the insight a mental health counselor brings may include an evaluation of a patient's mental state to assess if there is a risk of suicide.
An expected 29 percent increase in job growth is expected over the next ten years, with more and more job openings as therapists, correctional counselors, behavior specialists, and mental health program specialists.
If you desire working one-on-one with disabled individuals and have a desire to help them cope with the disabilities they face, a rehabilitation counselor may be the counseling career path for you. As a rehab counselor you will advise disabled individuals on how to improve their quality of life by working with disabled clients to assess their strengths and weaknesses. The main goal of a rehab counselor is to increase the patient's independence.
The rehabilitation counselor career path may involve working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, human services specialist, or vocational services specialist. A 20 percent growth in the field is expected over the next decade, in accordance with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Salary in the counseling field depends on a variety of factors. Credentials, qualifications, experience in the field, geographic location, and education help determine what a counselor earns. With these criteria in mind, below are the highest paying jobs in the counseling field. Determining data and statistics are in accordance with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The counseling jobs listed require a Master's degree.
Mental Health Counselor
2012 Median Pay: $41,500 per year
Mental health counselors help people overcome and work through mental and emotion disorders. Often referred to as therapists, mental health counselors are required to have a master's degree and license to practice in their state. Mental health counselors typically work in private practice and mental health centers. Full time employment is the standard.
Marriage and Family Therapy Counselor
2012 Median Pay: $46,670
Marriage and family counselors work with individuals and families to help improve relationships and communication. Counselors may work in private practice or in community centers, government programs, or healthcare facilities. Personalized programs are often instituted as counselors assist clients to hone in on the problems within a relationship. A master's degree is required.
2012 Median Pay: $53,610 per year
School counselors work in public and private schools, helping students succeed in academics, personal life, and social skills. These specialty counselors provide assistance to parents and children in a school setting. Issues assessed include drug problems, peer pressure, depression and anxiety, bullying, and poor academic performance. Salary is based on experience in most school districts and a master's degree is required for entry-level opportunities.
2012 Median Pay: $56,800 per year
A genetic counselor assesses individual or family risks for inherited conditions. These highly trained specialists in the counseling field provide information and advice to families, individuals, and other healthcare providers concerned with birth defects, genetic disorders, and inherited conditions. Most genetic counselors hold a master's degree in genetic counseling or related field.
2012 Median Pay: $60,000 per year
A Gerontological counselor provides counseling services to the elderly population and their families as lifestyle changes are faced. These highly skilled counselors work closely with the elderly and their family, providing assistance with family dynamics, communication, and social service-related information. A master's degree in counseling is required, and in some states two years of supervised clinical experience may be necessary to acquire licensing. The highest ten percent of gerontological counselors earn more than $60,000 annually.
Trends and job outlook are specific to particular counseling occupations. Educational, vocational, guidance, and school counselors are projected to increase by 12 percent between the year 2012 and 2022. The rate of growth is as fast as the average of all other occupations. There are currently approximately 262,300 employed school and vocational or career counselors in the United States. By 2022, projected employment is 293,500. Rising student enrollments in all grade levels of school are expected to increase demand for counselors.
The job outlook for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists is projected to grow by nearly 30 percent from 2012 to 2022. The anticipated growth is much faster than the national average for all occupations. Growth is expected due in part by the increase in awareness and demand for treatment of mental health issues. More mental health counseling services will be covered by insurances, offering a means for treatment and payment. The increasing number of people seeking care for mental health issues is expected over the next decade.
Employment opportunities for genetic counselors are expected to grow 41 percent over the next decade, placing this field of counseling at the top for favorable job prospects. Currently there are approximately 2,100 genetic counselor positions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2022, projected employment is 3,000. Growth is expected due to innovations in technology and genetic testing, allowing genetic counselors more opportunity to conduct various types of analyses. Cancer genomics is one area of focus that will be in demand, as counselors will be able to test for specific types of cancers in patients. Between the number of types of testing will be available and the increased number of hospital patients will demand more genetic counselors be employed over the next ten years.
For additional information on job growth and trends for counselors, visit the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics
- National Board of Certified Counselors Certification
- American Psychological Foundation
- American Psychological Association
- American School Counselor Association
- National Board for Certified Counselors
About the Author
Brenda Rufener is an internationally published freelance writer and journalist living in North Carolina. She holds a graduate degree in Communications and undergraduate degrees in Biology and English.