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How to Become a Counselor: Training and Education Requirements

Majors Overview January 23, 2013

Counselors are employed in private practice or at schools and health facilities where they work with adults, adolescents and children. Typically, in the course of their duties, a counselor offers support to couples or families that face difficulties or guide young adults and adolescents in making decisions about their career and education options. Schools offer various types of programs aimed at preparing prospective counselors for different types of counseling. All areas of counseling need practitioners to possess a graduate degree and become licensed in the state in which they work. In this article, we will look at the various education and training options that aspiring counselors can choose from as they try to follow a successful career path.

To become a counselor, the minimum degree requirements are a master degree in school counseling or mental health counseling, or clinical social work or marriage and family therapy. Every state has licensure norms that need to be fulfilled by prospective counselors who seek to work there. Licensure norms include clinical practice under supervision. Candidates are required to possess communication and listening skills; they should also be able to form relationships with various types of individuals and possess the organizational skills needed to maintain detailed records of clients.

The following is a step-by-step guide that can be followed by anyone planning a career in this field.

Stage One: Earning an Undergraduate Degree

The first step in a prospective counselor’s education should begin with a bachelor degree in a related concentration area such as social work, psychology or education. Alternatively, the candidate could choose an unrelated major, but it needs to pertain to an elective in psychology. A course that includes statistics, personality psychology, psychology of adolescence, abnormal psychology or general psychology will be good preparation for a master degree program. Work experience including voluntary work in a counseling setting will help improve the career prospects of a counselor. To that end, an aspiring counselor could participate in an internship program under the supervision of a professional counselor. Such hands on experience in a real counseling setting will be good preparation for a stint in a graduation program. The decision to participate in such a program also indicates that the student is committed to the profession and is likely to make it easier for prospective counselors to get recommendation letters from professional counselors to assist in getting admission to a graduate school.

Stage Two: Earning a Graduate Degree

Completion of a master degree program is a mandatory requirement for licensure. The area of specialty chosen by the candidate will depend on their career interest, the kind of individuals they want to counsel and any other theoretical aptitude they may have. Every kind of degree will help the student qualify for a different professional position, and each type of course calls for a span of clinical practice or fieldwork under the supervision of an approved counselor. Students who seek to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers can select social work programs that focus on counseling; similarly, there are programs that focus on counseling school students for prospective candidates who seek to work in school settings. Students who seek to become Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) can choose to complete Master of Arts in Counseling programs that teach individual-centered theories. LMHCs work with groups or individuals and may choose a concentration area relating to a specific mental health disorder or population. Aspiring counselors who enroll into programs that focus on techniques to improve the relationships of couples and family members can pursue to become Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists.

Stage Three: Applying for Provisional Licensure

Many states require the completion of a specified period of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed therapist before master graduates can be licensed. However, graduates who satisfy every other condition can earn provisional certification. Once they have obtained a provisional license, a counselor can conduct clinical work under a qualified licensed counselor’s supervision. Provisional licensure can be gained through a contract with an approved supervisor. A provisional license expires after a period of time, which requires a counselor to apply for a full license.

Stage Four: Gaining Work Experience

Post-graduation supervised work experience generally spans twenty-four months and takes between 1,500 and 4,000 hours. The state and profession determine the specific requirements. Usually this step does not need to be completed by school counselors who can be awarded licensure as soon as they complete the master degree program. States have their own requirements, which require counselors structure and document their work experience including the amount of time spent under direct observation of a supervising counselor and the nature of tasks that can be counted by a provisional counselor as satisfying the hourly requirement. If the state’s standards are not complied with, full licensure can get delayed.

Stage Five: Obtaining State Licensure

State licensure is required for a professional seeking to work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, School Counselor, Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Mental Health Counselor. To obtain initial licensure they must submit evidence of holding an approved graduate program, fulfill work experience norms and pass an appropriate exam. They are commonly required to pass a national or state examination, if they want to enter any counseling field. Some states conduct their own examinations; however, several rely on exams provided by industry regulative boards such as the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards Exam.

Stage Six: Continuing Education Norms

Periodic renewal of counselor’s licenses is required, and the renewal procedures include the payment of a fee and the completion of continuing education units. The type of courses that need to be completed to meet the continuing education norms are usually stipulated by the states.

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