Tips on how to become a counselor

June 5, 2018

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a counselor, or maybe you just know you want to help people

Either way, before you start down your career path, there are many steps and considerations to keep in mind. Lisa McKenna, PhD, LPC-S, Assistant Dean of Capella’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, recently provided some insight into what a counseling career entails and some of the things that prospective students should know.

Q. What type of degree and/or educational background is suitable for a counseling career?


A. For individuals interested in pursuing a master’s degree in counseling, an undergraduate bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution is a requirement.  While many applicants hold degrees in social sciences such as psychology or social work, many are career changers and enter the master’s counseling programs from very different degree fields. It is also important to know your state’s requirements for licensure/credentialing, and ensure your chosen counseling program will prepare you for applying to your state’s professional counseling board.

Q. What is the time commitment needed for a counseling education?


A. The length of schooling varies according to the type of counseling you are studying, course load, transfer credits, and other variables. School counseling master’s programs generally require 48 semester hours or 72 quarter credits, while marriage and family therapy and mental health counseling programs require a minimum of 60 semester hours or 92 quarter credits.

Q. Should I be looking at schools with particular professional accreditations? What do they mean, and why are they important?


A. Professional accreditation is the external recognition of a program’s commitment to excellence. Earning accreditation involves a rigorous process where programs self-assess their alignment to professional standards, which is then verified by external reviewers. The bottom line is that programs that are accredited have proven that they’re offering a high-quality program that has been independently verified as such. It’s a sign that these programs are offering current, rigorous education that prepares students for counseling careers.

Capella’s master’s degrees in mental health counseling and school counseling are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). The master’s degree in marriage and family therapy is  accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). The master’s in school counseling program is also accredited by  the Council of Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) Standards. 

Q. Are there any professional associations I can or should join to help me connect with others in the field?


A. Absolutely! Becoming a student member of a professional counseling association is a great step to take. Networking with other counseling students and professionals enables you to become better informed about the counseling field/specializations, stay abreast of developments and trends in the field, and explore career opportunities.

Each association has its own benefits to members, so it’s a good idea to explore what they offer and to take advantage of the resources available. Professional associations include the American Counseling Association (ACA) and/or one of their many divisions, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), and certainly state-specific professional counseling associations.

These associations provide ongoing educational events that help members stay current in their field of practice, as well as networking and professional development opportunities.

Q. Tell me more about required internships or practicums.


A. Fieldwork is a required component of professional counseling programs and is a wonderful opportunity to apply counseling theory and further develop counseling skills while under the close supervision of skilled counseling faculty and site supervisors. The fieldwork experience involves a quarter of practicum where the student completes 100 supervised clock hours, followed by a minimum of two quarters of internship where they complete an additional 600 supervised clock hours.

Students begin their fieldwork experience as a cohort and generally remain together with the same faculty supervisor while they complete their requirements working in their communities under the supervision of their individual clinical supervisor assigned at their respective sites. These sites include employment at a behavioral health site or clinic in their community. Site and faculty supervisors communicate regularly to ensure each student is receiving the support and guidance needed to foster a successful experience.

Q. How do I find a fieldwork site?


A. Early preparation is key to finding and securing a fieldwork placement. Becoming a student member of state professional counseling associations is an excellent strategy to begin networking and gaining awareness of regional opportunities. It’s also important to explore your community and visit potential sites (community counseling centers, private practice offices, schools, hospitals, churches, correctional facilities, etc.). University counseling degree programs often have faculty advisors to help with this, along with other resources.

Q. When can I get licensed?

           A. Each state has unique licensure requirements, so it’s important to connect directly with your state licensing board to learn what you will need to do to satisfy licensure requirements. Following graduation from a professional counseling program, you accrue supervised counseling hours under the supervision of a site supervisor in your community. How many hours can depend on the state requirements, and you can find more information here. States also require completion of a counseling exam, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE), the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), or the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. (AMFTRB).


Learn more about Capella University’s online counseling degrees.

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