Whether you hope to be a mental health counselor, marriage counselor or a school counselor, if you apply yourself to your goal, you can be practicing in four to five years. The road is not easy, but the rewards are tremendous and the need for quality counseling, in both the educational and mental health fields, is consistent and projected to grow.
What Should I Study as an Undergrad?
If you are fortunate enough to know that you want to pursue a counseling career early in life, then a psychology degree is probably the way to go. Most degree plans provide an adequate educational background to pursue master's degree level studies, even if you are late to come to your calling. If you didn't have any psychology coursework as an undergraduate, you may have to go back and do some leveling coursework. This is at the discretion of the program you apply to, so check on their requirements. Depending on the program, you may need as many as 18 hours of psychology coursework before you can be admitted to a master's program.
Yes, You Have to Go to Graduate School
To become a practicing counselor you must have, at a minimum, a master's degree in a related field, such as counseling or social work. Some go on to pursue an education at the Ph.D. level in order to become a psychologist, or to medical school to become a psychiatrist -- and be able to not only counsel but to also prescribe medication. But to become a licensed counselor, you only need a master's degree.
Choosing a Program
Choose your graduate program with care. The field can be subject to subpar diploma and accreditation programs. Ensure that any program you consider is with a reputable institution with a program that is itself accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or other reputable organization. Check with the graduate schools that you are interested in attending to find out what admission requirements they have in regards to undergraduate grade point average and entrance exams. Most schools require a certain score on the Graduate Record Exam in order to be considered for admission. Once you have applied to and been accepted at your chosen school, you spend from two to three years working toward your degree, depending on your course load.
Once I Get My Master's Degree I'm Done, Right?
Not by a long shot. Included in your degree program will be a preset number of internship hours. This work is overseen by your academic supervisor. Once the requirements for your degree have been achieved you still need approximately two years of clinical experience before you can be licensed. Check with the state you wish to practice in to ensure that you are meeting its requirements. If you're savvy, you can find a way to get paid while doing these clinical hours, but you are still under the supervision of a licensed professional and won't make the salary that you can make when you are licensed.
With your master's degree in hand and your clinical hours under your belt, you must sit for your licensure exam. This takes some study and preparation time -- how much really depends on you. The format and difficulty of the test, as well as its cost, depends on the state in which you are seeking your licensure. Usually, if you have received a quality education and applied yourself to your studies, you will be prepared for and do well on the exam. But don't take that for granted. Make sure you are as prepared as possible so all your years of hard work you have put in pay off.
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