Careers in Counseling
Nationally, over 700,000 counselors work across the major counseling practice areas.1-5 On this page you will learn about the areas of counseling, what counselors do, and how to become a counselor. Salaries and the market outlook are also addressed. A master’s degree and licensure are required for most counseling careers.
Table of Contents
- Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Counseling
- What Do Counselors Do?
- Types of Counseling Careers and Salary Information
- Best States to Be a Counselor Index and Counselor Job Outlook
- Counselor Career Interviews
- Additional Resources
- Frequently Asked Questions
Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Counseling
Are you interested in a career that lets you work with people while improving their quality of life? Here are 10 reasons that a career in counseling might be for you.
- You want a career that allows you to help people. Counselors working in all practice areas are focused on helping people understand themselves and others as well as adopting healthy behaviors.
- You’re interested in mental health but do not want to be a psychologist. Counselors are more focused on “talk therapy” for common challenges, whereas psychologists’ scope of practice includes diagnosing and assessing disorders.
- You’re not interested in earning a doctorate. While some counselors do hold doctoral degrees, most counseling licenses require a master’s degree.
- You want to work for and with the local community. Counselors have many opportunities to enrich the communities in which they work.
- You enjoy challenging work. Counselors may see both the best and the worst sides of people who are facing serious life issues and must be able to remain objective and calm during stressful conversations.
- You’re seeking a career in a growth industry. According to projections, demand for counseling services and counselors is expected to be between 9% and 22.9% through 2030, which is roughly 300% to 1000% faster than the average job growth.6
- You want a career that gives back. Even counselors who work in private practice frequently collaborate or volunteer with community agencies and nonprofits.
- You’re interested in working directly with a certain population. Often, counselors specialize in helping certain populations of people, providing opportunities to become experts in their areas of interest.
- You’re interested in the “science of the mind.” Counselors use scientifically-backed methods to help their clients and have a deep understanding of the biological basis of behavior.
- You want a career that offers flexibility. Counselors frequently set their own appointments and schedules.
What Do Counselors Do?
While counselors have broad responsibilities, counseling, at its core, helps people cope with challenges. These challenges might be mental, physical, social, or economic. Counselors primarily offer clients mental tools to cope with or overcome challenging circumstances, such as emotional regulation, stress management skills, and cognitive reframing.
In addition to mental tools, counselors help their clients learn adaptive behaviors and develop tools for communicating with and understanding others (who can be romantic partners, children, coworkers, and so on). For example, an addiction counselor may teach clients alternative ways of coping with stress–such as visiting the gym or the park–rather than using substances.
To be successful, a counselor must believe that people have the ability to change their behaviors and attitudes in positive ways. It is these kinds of positive changes that define progress in counseling and therapy. Witnessing these changes in clients largely contributes to fulfillment as a counselor.
Counselor Job Description
Careers in counseling can be exciting since no two days are likely to be the same. However, while clients and challenges change, the fundamental tasks that support a counselor’s job tend to be consistent among the different types of counseling. In a typical day or week, counselors will:
- Hold sessions with individuals and groups facing mental health challenges.
- Help clients access tools and research that will assist them in reaching their goals.
- Guide clients in analyzing their thoughts and actions, and how these impact their goals and quality of life.
- Maintain and regularly update clients’ case files.
- Refer clients to other specialists when needed, such as psychologists or doctors.
Types of Counseling Careers and Salary Information
Though there are many similarities between all types of counseling, the focus of each type of counselor is distinct. Some counselors specialize in school counseling, providing mental health, academic, and/or career counseling to school-aged children. Others specialize in mental health counseling for adults, which can be general or specialized, such as in addictions counseling or behavioral counseling. Another major area of practice is marriage and family therapy, helping couples and families adopt healthy dynamics and methods of communication.
Nationwide, job growth for each of the five major divisions of counseling (educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors; marriage and family therapists; mental health counselors; rehabilitation counselors; and substance abuse counselors) is expected to be faster than the national average for all occupations, ranging from 10% for educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors at the lower end to 22% for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors at the high end through 2031.1,3
Within the five major types of counseling, there are also sub-specialties. Addiction counselors can further specialize in gambling addiction, school counselors can further specialize in career counseling, and mental health counselors can further specialize in grief counseling. To help you learn about the major responsibilities of each category of counseling and the differences between them, we provide an overview of each specialty below. Additionally, the following table outlines the degrees commonly required for counseling licensure as well as job outlook and counselor salary information.
|Occupation||Degree Required||US Number Employed7||Avg. Annual Job Openings6,7||Avg. Annual Salary7,8||Top-Paying Industry8||Industry with Highest|
|Art Therapists||MA/MS Art Therapy or Counseling||40,800||2,400||$60,800 (median)||N.Av.||N.Av.||N.Av.|
|Counseling Psychologists||MA/MS to PhD Counseling Psychology||65,400||N.Av.||$90,130||Employment Services ($128,300)||Offices of Other Health Practitioners (25,520)||Faster than average (8-10%)|
|Counselors, All Other||MA/MS Counseling||70,300||5,700||$43,390||Insurance Carriers ($86,640)||Offices of Other Health Practitioners (10,270)||Faster than average (8-10%)|
|Educational, Guidance, School, & Vocational Counselors||MA/MS School Counseling||308,000||35,000||$64,200||Specialty Hospitals ($82,250)||Elementary & Secondary Schools (156,510)||Faster than average (8-10%)|
|Genetic Counselors||MA/MS Genetic Counseling||3,220||300||$93,120||Outpatient Care Centers ($110,800)||General Medical & Surgical Hospitals (1,310)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Health Education Specialists||BA/BS to MA/MS Health Education or Counseling||56,190||7,400||$66,710||Federal Executive Branch ($108,450)||General Medical & Surgical Hospitals (9,510)||Faster than average (8-10%)|
|Marriage & Family Therapists||MA/MS Marriage & Family Therapy||62,080||8,500||$63,300||Home Health Care Services ($121,160)||Individual & Family Services (20,240)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Mental Health Counselors||MA/MS Counseling||351,000||14,000||$49,710||Religious Organizations ($86,480)||Outpatient Care Centers (76,420)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Occupational Therapists||MA/MS Occupational Therapy||134,980||10,100||$92,800||Management of Companies and Enterprises ($117,790)||Offices of Other Health Practitioners (38,900)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Recreational Therapists||BA/BS to MA/MS Recreational Therapy||15,920||1,900||$56,310||Offices of Physicians ($84,770)||Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals (3,080)||Average (4-7%)|
|Rehabilitation Counselors||MA/MS Rehabilitation Counseling||82,420||11,200||$46,020||Agencies, Brokerages, and Other Insurance Related ($75,780)||Vocational Rehabilitation Services (27,550)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors||High School Diploma to MA/MS Counseling||344,970||41,000||$56,230||Religious Organizations ($86,480)||Outpatient Care Centers (76,420)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
|Therapists, All Other||BA/BS to MS/MA||16,920||2,400||$71,860||Home Health Care Services ($90,300)||Offices of Other Health Practitioners (3,640)||Much faster than average (11% or higher)|
Behavioral Disorder Counselors
Behavioral disorder, or behavioral health, counseling is a subfield of mental health counseling that focuses on reducing unwanted behaviors, such as addiction or self-harm, by identifying stress factors and redirecting clients to alternative behaviors, such as exercise. Behavioral health is a broad field that extends beyond substance abuse counseling, which is often considered a type of behavioral disorder. For example, a behavioral health specialist may help a client with a higher weight evaluate their relationship with food and exercise in order to build a healthier physical profile. At its core, the work is about changing behaviors for positive impact. Because of the strong degree of overlap between behavioral health, mental health, and substance abuse counseling, the BLS groups these occupations together.1,10 The median counselor salary for this occupational group is $49,710 per year as of 2022, with job growth projections showing a 22% increase in positions through 2031.10
Gambling counselors perform similar work to substance abuse counselors, except instead of treating addictions to substances, they treat addictions to gambling. This addiction is also known as problem gaming, problem gambling, or pathological gambling. Gambling counselors must learn how to identify and evaluate problem gambling habits; assess and develop treatment plans; help clients access other resources that help address the problem behaviors; and, when necessary, refer clients to inpatient treatments and other professional help. The profession of gambling counselor is usually grouped with mental health, behavioral disorder, and substance abuse counseling.1,10 However, a few states, such as Nevada, recognize gambling counseling as a separate license, which requires candidates for the Certified Problem Gambling Counselor (CPGC) license to have at least a bachelor’s degree in an acceptable field of the social sciences.
Marriage and Family Therapists
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs), also known as couples counselors, help their clients manage interpersonal relationships with romantic partners, family members, and other social groups. This includes helping clients process their emotions, reactions, and behaviors along with learning new methods of coping with issues and communicating with others. MFTs must be licensed by the state in which they work, which typically requires earning a master’s degree. Marriage and family therapists may refer clients to other mental health professionals or inpatient facilities where necessary. Most professionals in marriage and family therapy work in private practice, meaning they have at least some independence to set their own schedules and choose their clients. Common work settings for licensed marriage and family therapists are individual and family services (29%), offices of other practitioners such as doctors or psychologists (24%), self-employment (13%), and outpatient care center (11%).9Learn more in our in-depth guides:
Mental Health Counselors
When most people think of mental health counselors, they are thinking of licensed professional counselors, also known as licensed professional clinical counselors, LPCs, and LPCCs. As the title suggests, licensed professional counselors have a license from the state in which they work to practice mental health counseling, which typically requires a master’s degree. Their scope of practice allows them to perform specific interventions and diagnoses (which vary by state). Mental health counselors usually practice in a clinical setting, meaning that there is a formal relationship between them and their clients, typically with the goal of addressing specific issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression. They may work with clients one-on-one or in group settings. Mental health counselors also collaborate with other mental health professionals who have different scopes of practice, such as psychologists, doctors, and social workers. In addition to mental health counseling that aims to promote positive behaviors and ways of thinking, licensed professional counselors will help clients access community resources such as support groups and social services. LPCs commonly work for agencies and hospitals, but can also be found working in private practice, depending on the state and license requirements. Most mental health counselors (grouped with substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors by the BLS) work in outpatient centers (19%) or individual and family services (15%), followed by hospitals (10%), residential facilities (9%), and government (8%).10 Learn more in our in-depth guides:
- Mental health counselor careers
- Master’s in mental health counseling degree
- Online master’s in mental health counseling programs
Pastoral counselors, sometimes called ministerial counselors or counselor-ministers, are church-affiliated leaders who provide mental health-related counseling to members of their congregation and others. For example, church-based pre-marriage counseling is a type of pastoral counseling. Other issues that pastoral counselors may address include family illness, bereavement, grief counseling, and interpersonal problems. In some cases a pastoral counselor may also hold a leadership position inchurch; in others, especially with large congregations, the pastoral counselor may focus only on counseling. The requirements to become a pastoral counselor vary by state and by the church with which the pastor is affiliated. The leading national organization for pastoral counselors, the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), notes that the modern standard requirement for entering this career is a master’s in counseling with the associated professional counseling license.13 Select states, including Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have a specific pastoral counseling license.13 There may also be church-based requirements, such as Christian counseling certification for certain denominations, to become a Christian counselor.
Recreational therapy is an approach to counseling that engages clients through relaxing activities such as playing music, making arts and crafts, and dancing. Recreational therapists work in all types of settings, from hospitals and nursing homes to government-run programs and private clinics. They may diagnose and assess clients, plan activities designed for specific needs and populations, help patients build skills and coping mechanisms, and collaborate with other members of clients’ care teams. Adaptive activities and strength-building are crucial focus areas in recreational therapy, with activities designed to improve clients’ physical and mental well-being. Requirements for recreational therapist certification vary by state, though the entry-level degree for this field is generally a bachelor’s degree. Most (40%) recreational therapists work in hospitals, followed by 18% in government and 14% in nursing care facilities.12
Rehabilitation counselors work with clients with disabilities to help improve their quality of life. Note that this occupation is not to be confused with rehabilitation therapy, which is physical therapy for those recovering from an injury. Rehabilitation counselors’ clients may be youth, adolescents, or adults, including the elderly. In addition to helping clients cope with and adjust to their disabilities, rehabilitation counselors perform the important responsibility of helping clients identify and improve on their strengths. Rehabilitation counselors also advocate for their clients in collaboration with other professionals, including those working in living facilities, schools, and medical care. The majority of rehabilitation counselors work in community and vocational rehabilitation services (32%), with other common settings including individual and family services (17%); state government, excluding schools and hospitals (16%); and nursing and residential care facilities (14%).11 Just 1% are self-employed.11 The typical entry-level education for this career is a master’s degree. The median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors as of 2022 was $38,560 per year, and job growth in this field is expected to reach 11% through 2031.11 Learn more in our in-depth guides:
School counselors work in K-12 private and public schools providing students with mental health, career, and college counseling services. Because this job involves assessing and diagnosing students’ abilities, aptitudes, and–in some cases–mental health challenges, a master’s degree is required to work in this career. School counselors must also become licensed in order to work in public schools. Professionals in this field will work with students to outline goals (be they career, academic, performance, or abilities related) and methods of achieving those goals. They frequently work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds and must investigate, report, and refer any cases involving abuse, serious developmental or mental disorders, and/or neglect to the appropriate authorities or experts. School counselors may also lead group counseling when a crisis impacts the school population. The area of focus varies depending on the school population; in elementary schools, the focus is usually on skills development and diagnosis of special needs, whereas in high schools, the focus is on mental health, career, and college counseling. Learn more in our in-depth guides:
Substance Abuse Counselors
Substance abuse counselors, more generally known as addiction counselors, work with individuals who have an addiction that interferes with their day-to-day functioning. Counselors will work with their clients to develop new skills and behaviors aimed at reducing and typically eliminating the abused substance from their lifestyle. Addiction counselors often help their clients access support resources such as job placement agencies, support groups, and community support programs. Substance abuse counseling also involves the families of those struggling with addiction in group counseling sessions. The requirements to become a substance abuse counselor vary widely by state; in some states, addiction counselors may only need a high school diploma, whereas in others, the entry-level requirement is a master’s degree. In still other states, the requirements are somewhere in between. Learn more in our in-depth guides:
Management Careers in Counseling
In addition to these counseling careers, there are also management careers within the field of counseling. Like managers in any field, counselors in management roles tend to have higher qualifications than their peers; they may have years of experience in the field, advanced counseling education, and/or hold an advanced license or special credential. Some states, such as Kentucky, require counseling supervisors to hold a state credential (in Kentucky, the LPCC Supervisor or LPCC-S). Other states, such as Arkansas and Maryland, require counseling supervisors to be credentialed with the Center for Credentialing and Education (CCE) as Approved Clinical Supervisors (ACS). Many states, including Arizona, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, also recognize the addiction-related Clinical Supervisor (CS) credential from the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC).
The BLS reports data on two management roles related to the counseling field: social and community service managers and medical and health services managers. Social and community service managers supervise support staff as well as coordinate social service programs and community organizations. Medical and health services managers direct the medical and health services of a facility or medical practice or a specific department within a facility. Both management jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but the BLS notes that master’s degrees are commonly preferred, if not required.14,15 For social and community service managers, the median annual salary as of 2022 was $74,000 per year with projected job growth of 12% through 2031.14 For medical and health services managers, in 2022, the median annual salary was $101,340 per year with 28% job growth expected through 2031.15
Best States to Be a Counselor Index and Counselor Job Outlook
We developed the table below to help you learn about counselor salary by state, hiring outlooks, and our calculation of the best states to be a counselor. This table uses BLS data for salary and employment information for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors as a proxy for the counseling field overall. Job growth is calculated using the average growth rate of the five major counseling occupations (educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors; marriage and family therapists; rehabilitation counselors; substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors; and counselors, all other).
To calculate the cost of living relative to salary, we used the real estate value for the average home provided by Zillow as of May 2023. Using the average home value relative to the average salary provides a view of how far the salary will “stretch” in a given state. In step with job growth estimates through 2030, this can give you an overall idea of the counselor job outlook in a given area. The US average is used as a baseline for comparison.
|Rank||StateUS Average||2022 Average Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Salary1$56,230||Zillow Home Value Index (5/2023)16$346,856||% of Median Home Value Average Salary Buys|
|2020 Total Counselors (all categories) Employed6881,500||2030 Projected Total Counselors (all categories) Employed***1,021,300||10-year Growth (2030 vs 2020)616%||Best States for Counselors (Avg=1)1|
*Salary data for counselors in Rhode Island is from 2018, the most recent data available.
Counselor Career Interviews
Our interviews with licensed counselors provide insights into the challenges and rewards seen by counselors working in mental health, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation, school, and substance abuse counseling, along with expert advice for those who are just starting out as well as those who are already in the field and thinking about their next steps.
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT): Works to advance the profession of marriage and family therapy through advocacy, provides career-building resources for entry-level and professional members, and works to promote public knowledge of therapy.
- American Counseling Association (ACA): The largest professional counseling association in the world, representing professional counselors across practice settings through advocacy, networking, and professional development.
- American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA): Works to promote high standards of training and education for mental health counselors and their practice, supports professional ethics, and provides benefits such as discounted professional liability insurance, continuing education, and more.
- American Rehabilitation Counseling Association (ARCA): The leading association for rehabilitation counselors, supporting sensible public policy and legislation for counselors and their clients, providing workshops and continuing education, and connecting members with research and professional resources.
- American School Counselor Association: Supports professional development and continuing education for school counselors through seminars, conferences, and workshops as well as publications and research.
- Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE): A Department of Education-recognized provider of continuing education for spiritual care professionals that advocates for pastoral counseling services nationwide.
- National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), the Association for Addiction Professionals: Welcomes members in professional counseling services who work with all types of addictions, promoting up-to-date, science-based addictions services, providing clinical education and certification, and building relationships with legislators.
- National Career Development Association (NCDA): Supports career counseling professionals working in school and adult settings with training, a monthly magazine, professional credentialing, and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the highest-paying counseling jobs?
The highest-paying counseling jobs will vary by state and geographic area. However, nationally, the highest-paying counseling jobs are educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors ($64,200 average per year) and marriage and family therapists ($63,300 average per year).2,3
Can professional counselors diagnose?
Though it varies by state, in general, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) can give a mental health diagnosis. One of the key differences between LPCs and psychologists is the scope of practice for diagnosing and assessing mental disorders. Depending on the state, professional counselors may only be able to diagnose a narrow range of disorders, such as addiction. Other medical disorders must typically be diagnosed by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor.
What does it take to be a counselor?
To be successful in counseling, you must be able to remain calm in potentially stressful situations as clients will rely on you to provide objective advice in situations that can be extremely upsetting. You must have a calm demeanor, an ethical approach to care, and a commitment to the profession.
Is there a counselor definition that describes what counselors do?
There are almost as many counselor definitions as there are counselors! However, one commonly accepted definition for counseling comes from the American Counseling Association (ACA): “Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” Within this framework, a counselor is a person who helps diverse groups and individuals reach their mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.
Do you need a license to be a professional counselor?
Yes, in most states, you need a license to be a professional counselor. The minimum educational requirement for professional counseling licensure, including marriage and family therapy licensure, is usually a master’s degree. There may, however, be exceptions. For example, in some states, substance abuse counselors may only need a high school diploma or bachelor’s degree plus substance abuse-specific training and certification.
Where do substance abuse counselors work and how much do they make?
Substance abuse counselors can be found working in many different settings, from formal inpatient treatment facilities to more informal community-based meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Where counselors work impacts their pay; for example, in many cases, AA group counselors are unpaid volunteers. The industry with the highest concentration of employment is outpatient care centers, with an average annual salary of $54,220.1 Counselors working in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, the industry with the second highest concentration of employment in the occupation, earn an average annual salary of $54,220.1
What is the difference between counselor vs. therapist?
The terms counselor and therapist are frequently used interchangeably, making it difficult to reach a consensus or a firm definition of the differences between a counselor vs. therapist. One difference between the two is the licensure terms commonly used. “Therapist” frequently refers to someone working in marriage and family therapy, whereas “counselor” frequently refers to someone working in another field of counseling–though not always! Additionally, the scope of practice for counselors and therapists can vary, but in most states, counselors and therapists with appropriate licensure are able to diagnose and assess mental disorders.
What is the difference between psychologist vs. counselor?
The major difference between counselors and psychologists is education: a counselor must only have a master’s degree, whereas a psychologist must have a doctoral degree such as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Another difference between counselors and psychologists is the scope of practice. Psychologists can diagnose and assess a greater range of mental disorders and, in some states, may have prescribing privileges. The area of practice is another place where the difference between psychologist vs. counselor can be seen. As doctorally-trained practitioners, psychologists are often involved in research. Counselors typically work directly with patients in applied counseling.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211018.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211013.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211012.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211015.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Counselors, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211019.htm
6. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.org/Projections/LongTerm
7. O*NET OnLine: https://www.onetonline.org/
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
10. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm
11. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm
12. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Recreational Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/recreational-therapists.htm
13. Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Becoming a Pastoral Counselor/Spiritually-Integrated Psychotherapist: https://acpe.edu/
14. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social and Community Services Managers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm
15. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Medical and Health Services Managers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
16. Zillow, US Home Prices & Values (all home type composites): https://www.zillow.com/home-values/