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Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide

Earning a degree in substance abuse counseling, also known as addiction counseling, will provide you with formal training in recognizing and treating addictions. Earning a drug and alcohol counselor degree is a first step towards launching a professional career in this field, as many states require prospective counselors to have at least some formal education or training in order to become licensed (some states may require a lower or higher level of education – be sure to check your state’s requirements). Many states recognize the bachelor’s or master’s degree as the minimum requirement for a professional license in substance abuse counseling for independent (unsupervised) practice. Continue reading to learn more about degree programs in substance abuse counseling as well as career opportunities and licensing options with this degree.

Quick Facts

  • There are 363 colleges and universities with substance abuse/addiction counseling programs.1
  • 221 schools offer a certificate in substance abuse/addiction counseling.1
  • 165 schools offer an associate’s degree in substance abuse/addiction counseling.1
  • 36 schools offer a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse/addiction counseling.1
  • 75 schools offer a master’s or advanced degree in substance abuse/addiction counseling.1

*For not-for-profit schools with substance abuse/addiction counseling degree programs.

Table of Contents
Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Requirements and Coursework
Associate’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling
Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling
Master’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling
Doctorate in Substance Abuse Counseling
Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling
Professional Certifications for Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Holders
What Jobs Can You Get with a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?
Other Degrees in Counseling
Frequently Asked Questions

Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Requirements and Coursework

Associate’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

An associate’s degree typically requires 60 credit hours, which with full-time study takes most students two years to complete. Many schools also allow for part-time study, in which case a substance abuse counselor degree may take three to five years to earn depending on how many courses you take each semester. Admissions requirements typically include a high school diploma or GED. Depending on the school, you may also need to have a minimum score on the ACT or SAT.

At the associate’s degree level, addiction counselor training will combine courses in substance abuse recognition and treatment as well as general education courses in the liberal arts and sciences. This combination will help you improve your communications skills while you hone your knowledge in the field of addiction treatments and lay the groundwork for further study and substance abuse counselor training. Common courses in an associate’s in substance abuse counseling program include:

  • Addiction and the Family
  • Assessment and Case Management
  • Assessment of Substance Related and Addictive Disorders
  • Community Mental Health
  • Counseling Ethics
  • Counseling Skills and Practice
  • Counseling Theories
  • Crisis Identification and Resolution
  • Dynamics of Group Counseling
  • Understanding Addictions

Bachelor’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

The minimum requirement for admission to a bachelor’s degree in addiction counseling is a high school diploma or GED. Schools also commonly require applicants to provide ACT or SAT scores. Once admitted, a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to earn with full-time study. Depending on the school, you may be able to reduce the time it takes to earn a substance abuse counselor degree by taking more courses and/or summer semesters, or add scheduling flexibility by studying part-time over a longer period.

Compared to those who completed an associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling, bachelor’s degree holders will have completed more courses specific to addiction counselor training, especially in the areas of assessments, treatment planning, and intervention methodologies. While depending on the state they may or may not be able to provide diagnoses (a clinical privilege commonly associated with a master’s degree), the greater scope of practice typically associated with a bachelor’s-level drug counselor degree can allow for more career opportunities. Courses common in bachelor’s-level addiction studies degree programs include:

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Addiction and Substance Use Counseling Theories
  • Assessment and Diagnosis of Addiction and Substance Abuse
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in Counseling
  • Intergroup Relations
  • Methods of Counseling
  • Principles of Addictions Counseling
  • Study of Alcohol Use and Addiction
  • Study of Drug Use and Addiction
  • Substance Abuse Internship/Practicum

Master’s in Substance Abuse Counseling

To be considered for admission to a master’s in addiction counseling program, you will need to have a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s in psychology, counseling, or a related field is sometimes preferred, though many programs will consider candidates with degrees in other fields. If your undergraduate program was not in a counseling-related field, you may be required to complete certain prerequisites or have other formal addiction counselor training before being admitted into a master’s program. A minimum GPA showing academic strength, typically 3.0 or above, is another common admissions requirement, as are minimum test scores on the GRE or equivalent. Once admitted, a master’s in addiction counseling typically takes two to three years to complete.

At the master’s level, degree programs in addiction counseling typically focus on direct clinical skills and evidence-based practice following up-to-date scientific models of human psychology and behavior. This holds true for both on-campus and online addiction counseling degree programs. Typical courses in such a program include:

  • Advanced Co-Occurring Disorders & Addictions Counseling
  • Advanced Developmental Psychology
  • Advanced Skills in Counseling and Intervention
  • Biological Factors of Addiction
  • Crisis & Trauma Counseling
  • Leadership in Agency Settings
  • Psychopharmacology for Addiction Counselors
  • Recovery and Relapse
  • Research and Theories in Addiction Counseling
  • Techniques of Counseling & Psychotherapy

Doctorate in Substance Abuse Counseling

For those who are interested in careers in academia or research, earning a PhD in substance abuse may be the right path. A PhD provides you with a solid understanding of qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as a strong background in counseling theory. While you can qualify for a counseling license with a master’s degree, if you have already earned a master’s in a subject other than counseling, a counseling-related PhD may help you qualify for your license while furthering your career.

As an advanced degree, the coursework for a PhD in substance abuse counseling is academically rigorous. In addition to challenging coursework, you should also expect to write and defend a thesis – a process that typically takes at least a year, and often up to three. Doctoral programs that emphasize practice in addiction counseling will also likely include a fieldwork component. Academic courses that are typical for a doctoral-level drug and alcohol counselor degree plan include:

  • Advanced Assessment Techniques
  • Advanced Family Systems Theory
  • Advanced Research Design
  • Advanced Statistics
  • Counseling Leadership and Supervision
  • Qualitative Research
  • Theories and Methods of Counselor Education

Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling

For those who already have a degree or who are looking for a shorter program that can potentially lead to state licensure, many schools offer certificate programs in substance abuse counseling. At the undergraduate level, a high school diploma or associate degree is a common admissions prerequisite. At the graduate level, certificate programs will require prospective students to hold a bachelor’s degree.

Certificate programs typically take between 15 and 20 credit hours to complete, which equates to three to five courses (though some certificate programs will be longer). This can allow students to complete the program in as little as a semester, though a two-semester program is not uncommon. As such, certificates can provide a faster route to this career compared to a two-to-four-year drug and alcohol counselor degree program, especially if you already hold a college degree. Courses in substance abuse certificate programs tend to focus on the fundamentals of substance abuse counselor training, and will commonly have titles such as:

  • Alcohol, Drugs, and Behavior
  • Case Management and Treatment Planning
  • Contemporary Issues in Alcoholism and Substance Abuse
  • Counseling Individuals and Families
  • Group Skills in Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Interviewing and Counseling Theories
  • Relapse Prevention and Crisis Management
  • Substance Abuse Counseling Internship
  • Theories of Chemical Dependency
  • Treatment Strategies and Interventions

Professional Certifications for Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Holders

Substance abuse counselor certification varies widely by state, though it usually requires at least some formal education. An associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling is commonly the entry-level education requirement for a license in this field, as earning your associate’s in addiction or a related field may qualify you for a technician or training license while you complete supervised experience. Some states allow you to become fully licensed after completing the required supervised experience, while others require that you work under supervision until you earn a bachelor’s degree or complete equivalent substance abuse counselor training. Other states may have different requirements. Examples of possible license titles at this level include Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC) and Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC).

In many states, a bachelor’s-level addiction studies degree program will qualify you for licensure as a substance abuse counselor. Depending on the state, this may give you a range of clinical privileges including assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, and case management for those who are struggling with chemical dependencies and substance abuse. Before qualifying for a license, however, you will usually also need to complete supervised work experience and pass a professional exam in addition to holding your bachelor’s degree. With this type of drug counselor degree, you may qualify for a license as a Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC) or Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LADC), among others.

A post-graduate certificate in substance abuse counseling can also qualify you for professional certification, depending on your state’s requirements. Possible job titles will vary widely according to the level of the drug and alcohol counselor training program (undergraduate or graduate) as well as other aspects of your education and work history. Generally, a certificate program will lead to license titles similar to those opened up by a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

In addition to professional licensure at the state level, earning a master’s degree in substance abuse counseling will prepare you for professional certification. One widely-recognized option that requires a master’s degree is the Master Addiction Counselor from NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. Earning a master’s in addiction counseling may also qualify you for the National Certified Counselor certificate from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Common license titles for master’s degree holders include Licensed Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor (LCSAC) and Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LDAC).

Depending on the program you complete and your past academic history, a PhD in addiction counseling may lead to licensure as a substance abuse counselor. You may also qualify for the Master Addiction Counselor credential from NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals or the National Certified Counselor certificate from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). With a PhD, you may qualify to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC), among other titles.

The below table compares common license titles based on the substance abuse counselor degree commonly required. Be aware that earning a higher-level degree typically qualifies you for the levels of licensure below. For example, the Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC) is typically associated with an associate’s degree, but you would typically qualify to apply for the CAC with a bachelor’s degree as well. Note also that the titles and license requirements vary widely by state; the table below is only a general guideline and is not all-inclusive. Check with the appropriate licensing board in your state for full and up-to-date details on requirements for the different certifications and licenses that may be available in your state.

Counseling License TypeHS Diploma Commonly Required*Associate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Degree Commonly Required
Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC)Yes
Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC)Yes
Certified Clinical Supervisor (CCS)Yes
Certified Criminal Justice Addictions Professional (CCJAP)Yes
Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS)Yes
Certified Prevention Specialist (CPS)Yes
Certified Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS)/Certified Recovery Coach (CRC)Yes
Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC)Yes
Credentialed Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counselor-in-Training (CASAC-T)Yes
Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LADC)Yes
Licensed Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor (LCSAC)Yes
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)Yes
Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC)Yes
Substance Abuse Counselor (SAC)Yes

*While a high school diploma is the minimum educational award recognized for some credentials in some states, a certain number of hours of formal instruction beyond the high school diploma is generally required in order to qualify for a license.

What Jobs Can You Get with a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling?

Since the licensing requirements for substance abuse counselors vary from state to state, we suggest checking your state’s requirements as you evaluate substance abuse counselor programs. You may also find it helpful to check current job listings in your area to get an idea of common requirements. Note that while a certificate can qualify you for a license in some states, this varies widely by state and program. To help you begin to research, we have provided the following overview of common jobs for each drug counselor degree level.

Associate’s-trained substance abuse specialists are typically eligible for a variety of technician and assistant positions in the counseling realm. With an associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling plus completion of a practicum or internship and passing scores on an exam that meets your state’s requirements, you may be able to apply for a licensed technician or licensed substance abuse counselor credential. This may allow you to practice direct substance abuse treatment and counseling services under supervision or with a recognized treatment provider.

While each state has different requirements for licensure in substance abuse counseling, completing a bachelor’s-level substance abuse counselor program is the minimum education required in order to earn a professional license in many states. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, you will typically also need to earn supervised experience as well as pass a professional-level written exam. Be sure to become familiar with your state’s requirements prior to committing to a program.

Earning a master’s in substance abuse counseling will typically qualify you for licensure as a substance abuse counselor. At this level, a master’s degree and a license are often prerequisites for the positions available. Most jobs will focus on the clinical treatment of addiction disorders, though it is possible to find research positions with a master’s degree.

Like doctoral programs in many other fields, the PhD in substance abuse counseling is oriented towards those who are interested in research and academic careers. As a result, the job titles are less aligned with practitioner roles than with scholarly ones. However, if you qualify for a counselor’s license based on your degree program, you may find work as a licensed counselor.

Be sure to check out our guide to substance abuse counselor careers for more details on possible careers with a substance abuse degree.

Other Degrees in Counseling

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you earn a substance abuse counselor associate’s degree online?

Yes! A number of schools offer online addiction counseling degrees. You may also be interested in an online human services associate’s degree, which in some states may fulfill the education requirements for a substance abuse counseling license.

What degree is needed to be a substance abuse counselor?

To become a licensed substance abuse counselor in a paid or salaried position, you typically need to have at least an associate’s degree plus supervised work experience. Some states maintain lists of approved drug counselor degree programs and substance abuse counselor training programs. Passing scores on a professional exam focused on addiction therapy is also a common requirement. You can find detailed requirements and further information about acceptable substance abuse counselor programs through your state’s counselor licensing board.

What courses will I need to take to be a substance abuse counselor?

While the specifics of the addiction counselor training you will need to complete may vary based on your state’s requirements and your substance abuse counselor degree program, you should expect to take courses in counseling theory, case management, and treatment planning. You may also need to take a course in pharmacology. As part of an undergraduate substance abuse counselor program, you should also plan to take general education courses including communications, biology, and mathematics.

What degree do you need to be an addiction counselor?

The degree level and courses required to become an addiction counselor vary by state. Many states recognize apprentice-level or entry-level substance abuse counselors beginning at the associate’s degree level, but many others require a bachelor’s degree for licensure. A master’s in addiction counseling will allow you to practice independently (once you achieve appropriate licensure) in most states.

Do I need to go to graduate school for substance abuse counseling?

Unlike many other specialties, substance abuse counselors can typically become licensed with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. However, there can be more job opportunities for graduate-level counselors specializing in substance abuse. In addition to checking licensure requirements for your state, it’s a good idea to research current job listings to find out typical requirements in your area. If you’re already working, there are a variety of online addiction counseling degree programs that can be a good fit for a busy schedule.

Can you complete drug and alcohol counselor certification online?

States vary in their requirements for drug and alcohol counselor training. Depending on your state’s requirements and your educational background, you may be able to complete drug and alcohol counselor certification online through a certificate or degree program.

Can you get licensed with an online substance abuse counseling degree?

Absolutely! Provided that your substance abuse counselor program is appropriately accredited and meets state requirements, completing an online addiction studies program offers the same level of preparation as an on-campus program. You will likely need to complete an in-person clinical experience or practicum even if you do study online, but this can typically be completed in your local area.

Do I need a master’s to become a substance abuse counselor?

Most states offer options for certification or licensure as a substance abuse counselor at the associate’s and bachelor’s degree levels, meaning that a master’s degree is not strictly required. However, with a master’s degree, you will typically qualify for a higher level of licensure due to the higher level of substance abuse counselor training that this degree represents, which can expand your career opportunities as well as increase your earnings potential.

Can I complete a master’s in substance abuse counseling online?

Yes! There are many online addiction counseling degree programs that can prepare you for this career and the licensure process. Be sure to check your state’s requirements for addiction counselor training leading to licensure prior to committing to a program, as specific course and other requirements can vary widely.

Why get a master’s in addiction counseling?

While not always required for certain counseling careers, earning a master’s in counseling will typically qualify the graduate for higher levels of licensure. Higher levels of licensure can allow for independent practice, better salary potential, and a greater number of job opportunities overall. At the same time, a master’s program is an intensive investment of both time and money. Only you can decide whether a master’s is ultimately the best fit for your goals.

Is a PhD needed to become a counselor?

In most cases, no. A master’s degree is generally considered the terminal degree in counseling, as a master’s in counseling satisfies the education requirement for licensure in all 50 states. However, for those who have a master’s in a different subject, a doctoral substance abuse counselor program can offer the necessary specialization to qualify for licensure. Additionally, a PhD may be expected for many positions in research and academia, including tenure-track faculty in colleges and universities.

Do I need a master’s in order to earn a PhD in counseling?

The degree required for admission to a PhD program varies. Some programs only admit those who already have a master’s in a counseling-related discipline or equivalent formal substance abuse counselor training; these programs tend to focus more heavily on research and theory. Other programs will consider applicants who have a bachelor’s degree; these programs will likely include a deeper focus on counseling practice and may qualify the graduate for first-time counseling licensure.

Can a PhD in addiction counseling be completed online?

Yes! There are select online addiction counseling degree programs at the doctoral level. If your goal is to become licensed, however, you should be sure to check with your state licensing board to determine whether such a program will meet credentialing requirements.

References:
1. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/