Complete Guide to Online Counseling Degrees
An online degree in counseling can prepare graduates for careers in a variety of counseling specializations, such as mental health, rehabilitation, substance abuse, school, or marriage and family counseling. To become a counselor, however, more than just a solid education is required: a counselor must also have the ability to work well with a diverse range of age groups, cultures, and personality types; be able and willing to handle physical and emotional stress that may result from the job; maintain sincere desire to help others; and uphold standard ethical and legal standards pertaining to the mental health profession.
The accreditation of a counseling degree program or school should be a very important consideration for prospective students. Attending an accredited program will ensure you have received a quality education, help you meet the requirements to transfer credits to other accredited schools, allow you to apply for financial aid, and prepare you for a professional counseling licensing exam after you graduate. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) currently accredits master's programs. Read More
Comprehensive List of Online Colleges & Universities for a Counseling Degree
Available Online Counseling Degrees
Graduate certificates and master’s degrees are the most common counseling programs and generally prepare students for state licensure. Each state determines its own set of standards for licensed counselors, and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) contracts with all of the states to administer the licensing exam. Students should review their state's requirements in order to determine which degree program is best suited for their professional goals.
Online bachelor’s degree programs in counseling typically focus on substance abuse, addictions, or human behavior. While a bachelor's degree in counseling will provide an introduction to the field, most states require that counselors have at least a master's degree in order to become licensed.
Master’s degree programs allow prospective counselors to specialize in a particular area, such as marriage and family or mental health counseling. Coursework varies greatly depending on the specialization, but most programs that prepare graduates for direct client assessment require supervised counseling practicums, fieldwork, and internship experience.
Doctoral degrees are designed for current counselors who want to advance in their careers, either as educators, advanced practitioners, researchers, or supervisors in counseling settings. Advanced classes within the doctorate generally cover topics such as counseling assessment, group counseling, supervising, counseling diverse populations, and counseling curriculum development.
The Bachelor of Arts (BA) in counseling provides solid preparation for graduate study in counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, and other human services and helping professions. The four-year bachelor's degree may also lead to positions in substance abuse or behavioral disorder counseling or nonclinical positions in human services or helping professions, but it alone will not qualify graduates to become a licensed counselor in most states.
Students who choose to earn bachelor's degrees in counseling will study general psychology and sociology, and they will also take a broader scope of classes in math, sciences, communications, and social sciences. The classes students take as undergraduates will often mirror the courses they will take as graduate students, but the undergraduate curriculum revolves around learning existing theories rather than developing one's own ideas and techniques. Students gain a firm foundation in psychology and sociology through classes such as child development, addiction, abnormal psychology, and emotional disorders. Other courses discuss particular counseling issues, such as case management, drugs and behavior, substance abuse recovery, counseling skills, and counselor ethics. Many counseling bachelor's programs also include field experience requirements, where students observe experienced counselors and practice basic counseling skills in a supervised setting.
Online undergraduate programs in counseling follow the standard admissions protocol and require a high school diploma, SAT/ACT scores, a resume, and letters of recommendation. Online graduate counseling degree programs accept undergraduate majors in a wide variety of areas, although experience with psychology and sociology coursework is helpful.
The Master of Arts (MA) in counseling is the baseline requirement for state licensure in most professional counseling positions, including school, marriage and family, addiction, clinical mental health, and career counseling. It is also the main educational requirement for national certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors. Online graduate counseling degrees generally take two to three years to complete, and students learn how to apply an understanding of psychology and the social sciences to help people facing a variety of difficulties.
Common core requirements in the master's curriculum include human development, communication skills, ethical counseling, human sexuality, group therapy, and psychological assessment. Students must also complete a significant amount of field experience hours while practicing client interviews and counseling. Graduates of master's programs may go on to complete the additional requirements to earn a state license or national certification; these usually include completing 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience and passing an exam.
Before applying to an online graduate counseling degree program, students must first complete a bachelor's degree. Most graduate school admission boards prefer that students major in sociology or psychology, but people with diverse backgrounds may pursue graduate degrees in counseling. Some master's degree programs in school counseling and psychology require applicants to prove that they have some related experience in education or counseling, while others accept all kinds of students, provided they have a bachelor's degree and can submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement. The personal statement of purpose is essentially an admissions essay that details how a person came to be interested in the field of counseling and declares what a person's postgraduation goals are. Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores are also requested by many schools.
Master's-level counselors can pursue a doctorate, or PhD, in order to become counselor supervisors, researchers, and educators. These programs take three to five years to complete and include a large foundation of classes in the social sciences. Research techniques, psychological statistics, human learning, behavioral neuroscience, developmental psychology, and social psychology are some common course options. Along with studying psychological systems, students also undertake a large dissertation research project in an area of counseling psychology that interests them, such as vocational psychology, individual and family counseling, or diagnosis and treatment. Graduates can go on to research and teach counseling at the college level, while others oversee counselors in group practices.
Doctoral degrees require the completion of a dissertation, an extensive research paper on the topic of a student's choice. Most students who seek these degrees have a topic in mind, and they will dedicate years to finishing their work. Highly advanced coursework is also expected, and most doctoral students are already working as school counselors and psychologists, providing them with experience on which to base their learning.
A wide variety of counseling certificate programs are available to students and professionals who wish to work toward licensure, a graduate degree, or just to advance their current understanding of counseling for professional or personal reasons. The types of certificates that are available vary greatly in subject matter, duration, and requirements, but most require at least a bachelor's degree and last approximately six months to one year. For example, invididuals with a bachelor's degree may pursue a certificate in clinical mediation counseling, college admissions counseling, pastoral counseling, or drug and alcohol counseling as part of a graduate school track or simply to enhance their professional counseling skills.
A family counseling or lay counseling certificate might be a good option for community leaders and care-giving professionals with a variety of academic backgrounds, such as physicians, campus residential advisors, pastors, social workers, or nurses. Advanced or clinical mental health counseling certificates are typically designed for people with a master's degree who must meet specific educational requirements in order to earn or renew a state license.
Online graduate counseling degrees offer courses that contribute to helping students better understand how to interact with diverse populations. Psychology and sociology courses are offered with a variety of titles and will probably play a role in every class a counseling student takes. Because counselors are bound to legal parameters, graduate students will likely study ethics and the legal procedures that counselors must abide by. Some counselors will take classes in general social work and cultural studies, as well, so they can prepare for work in settings that serve populations in need. Students may also take courses that explore counseling procedures and theories, including group and individual counseling sessions.
The subjects that online students take are essentially the same as those in traditional schools: Both types of students will complete extensive reading and writing assignments, but traditional students have more opportunities for role play, group work, and discussion. Online students must be comfortable working alone, and they may need to take more responsibility for their licensure process by finding an apprenticeship in a local school, clinic, or community agency to get the hours they need.
In order to gain the hands-on experience that an expert counselor needs, all quality online graduate counseling degrees require a practicum and internship experience. Practicums put students in mock counseling settings, which allow them to work on their counseling skills in low-stakes situations. Internships in a counseling office allow students to shadow experienced counselors and practice their counseling skills under the watchful eye of a professional. The amount of fieldwork required will depend on the state in which the training takes place and the type of counseling the student specializes in.
The following list provides an example of some of the general courses covered in a online graduate counseling degree program:
- Clinical Assessment: Students learn about different tools, such as standardized questionnaires, which can be used to determine a patient's diagnosis.
- Counseling Psychology: This class discusses how personality and personal interaction can manifest in the client-counselor relationship. Students learn different methods for working with clients, depending on what the client wants to get out of counseling.
- Ethics: Since counselors have the ability to make a deep impact on their clients, both in a positive and negative way, they must be careful to abide by high ethical standards at all times.
- Evidence-Based Counseling: Students learn how to use evidence and counseling research to improve their therapy practice. Students study different interventions and findings and apply research in a clinical setting.
- Group and Family Therapy: Students practice methods for interviewing, assessing, and treating groups of individuals.
- Interviewing: This course covers methods of initial interactions with clients to determine the problems they are facing and the results they hope to achieve with therapy.
- Lifespan Development: This course discusses how people change from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood and old age. All aspects of development are covered, such as cognitive, physical, and emotional development.
Licensure refers to the set of laws and regulations that professional counselors must follow, as determined by each US state. Most states require that all mental health counselors complete an accredited master's degree program and two years of supervised training (or 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised fieldwork) in addition to passing a state licensing exam before they are allowed to work with clients. Licensing standards for counselors vary from state to state, so it is important that prospective counseling students consult with their state's regulatory board to learn about their particular requirements. The American Counseling Association provides information about the licensure requirements for each US state.
Professional certification for counselors is optional, but it serves as a way for professional organizations, employers, and clients to recognize whether a counselor is competent, educated, and adheres to a strict code of ethics. Certification may also improve job prospects and increase your salary.
The two primary certification agencies for counselors are the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). NBCC offers a national certification for the broad counseling profession (NCC, or National Certified Counselor) and specialty certifications for mental health counselors (CCMHC), school counselors (NCSC), and addictions counselors (MAC), while CRCC offers certification for rehabilitation counselors (CRC). Certification in any of these categories requires a master's degree, supervised clinical experience, and a certain number of approved continuing education courses every five years in order to remain current.
In most counseling professions, practitioners must have a state-issued license or credential in order to work with clients; to earn this license, students must graduate from an accredited master's or doctoral degree program. Accredited programs are those that are deemed to be properly established and meet the standards approved by the profession. Accredited counseling programs are the most tailored to providing you with the right skills and knowledge needed to pass a state licensing exam. Graduates of CACREP-accredited programs are also immediately qualified to acquire national certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) upon passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE).
While it is not strictly required that students attend an accredited school to obtain a master’s degree in counseling, it is strongly recommended because doing so will open up better employment opportunities, help with state licensure, and make it easier to work in a different state. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) evaluates graduate counseling programs to ensure that they meet the highest educational and professional standards. Currently, CACREP accredits master's degree programs in the following counseling disciplines: addiction; career; clinical mental health; marriage, couple, and family; school; and student affairs and college counseling.
Counseling is a broad profession that encompasses many settings and populations, so a wide variety of career specializations are available. Possible settings include community agencies, schools, universities and community colleges, hospitals, and private practice. Counselors may also travel within the community to see clients. Although a master's degree in counseling is necessary to become a licensed counselor, graduates with a high school or bachelor's degree and relevant experience may qualify for the following counseling-related positions:
- Social and Community Service Manager: Community organizations and social services departments require managers who understand complicated cultural and social dynamics and can help their employees better serve their clients.
- Social and Human Service Assistant: Counselors and social workers utilize social and human service assistants to help them find and apply for benefits and community services for their clients. These assistants may also help the patients under the guidance of a licensed counselor or social worker.
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor: Depending on the setting and the state in which they work, graduates with a bachelor's degree may qualify for a position as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. They work with individuals and groups with addictions or other behavioral disorders by providing therapy, designing treatment and recovery plans, and helping them manage stress in a healthy way.
The following specializations are just a sample of the many careers available to counseling graduates with a master's degree and a state-issued license:
- Career Counselors: Career counselors help recent graduates and mid-career professionals assess and evaluate their interests, strengths, and goals in order to select a new profession. They also advise clients regarding resumes, interviews, networking, decision-making, and general job-search skills.
- Clinical Mental Health Counselors: These counselors provide a wide range of mental health services and help clients better understand their own behavior. Counselors work with people who are experiencing mental illness, as well as people who have experienced trauma or setbacks in life, such as divorce or grief. They also provide diagnoses and treatment, as well as prevention plans.
- Marriage, Couple, and Family Counselors: These counselors evaluate individual and group dynamics within the family system and help define the roles and behaviors that contribute to difficult situations or transitions. They often provide group therapy, help clients set goals and make decisions, and create strategies to change behaviors.
- School Counselors: School counselors play a very important role within elementary, middle, and high schools. They evaluate and assist students who are experiencing difficulty with academic, social, and family issues; meet with teachers to help define classroom goals; and work with parents and caregivers who need help supporting their children. They also assist older students with college admissions, resume building, and career planning.
School counselors play an important role in the education system. While teachers are in charge of assessing students’ academic progress, counselors help them resolve emotional or mental health issues, perform better in school, and plan for the future. School counselors may specialize in a number of areas based on the age group of children they work with and the type of counseling they provide. Elementary school counselors help very young children pinpoint their academic interests and evaluate potential learning, developmental, or behavioral issues. High school counselors focus on helping students navigate their postsecondary options, such as career training or college admissions and financial aid. Other counselors work in vocational schools or career placement organizations and help clients refine their interests, determine their goals, and apply for jobs.
Most school counselors will need at least a master’s degree before they can begin their career. All states require school counselors to have a license; in most cases, licensure requires a master’s degree, a passing score on an exam, and continuing education credits to maintain the license. The American Counseling Association provides a list of state licensing agencies. Counselors can also earn voluntary professional credentials to boost their resume and employability.
Master’s programs in school counseling discuss psychological theories, cultural issues in schools, instructional techniques, and clinical techniques. These degree programs are hosted in a number of academic departments, from psychology to human services, and are divided into two types of master's degrees: the Master of Education (MEd) and the Master of Arts (MA). The MEd focuses on academic counseling, while the MA focuses more on general counseling for students.
Once accepted to a degree program, students determine which area of school counseling they would like to concentrate on; some potential areas include education counseling, student affairs, or secondary school counseling. During these degree programs, students complete coursework in subjects like psychological theory, human behavior, educational theory, and counseling techniques. Students are also required to spend time doing fieldwork observing clinical techniques in action and practicing them under the guidance of an experienced counselor.
The best way to start researching which school counseling degree is right for you is to review the licensing requirements for the career you're interested in. School counselors in high schools may need master's degrees, while counselors at community colleges and universities may need only a bachelor's degree in a relevant discipline. Students should also note that while a general master's degree in school counseling can be applied to other counseling careers, an MEd degree prepares students specifically for positions in schools. Some school counseling and psychology master's degree programs require applicants to prove that they have some related experience in education or counseling; others accept all kinds of students, provided that they have a bachelor's degree and meet the other admission requirements.
- American Counseling Association. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://www.counseling.org.
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://www.cacrep.org.
- Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm.
- National Board for Certified Counselors. Accessed May 6, 2014. www.nbcc.org.
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