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Counseling Careers and Job Outlook

Written By: Holly Johnson

Published: 6/27/2022

Working toward a counseling career can make sense if you have excellent listening and communication skills and you want your life's work to focus on helping others overcome major hardships in their lives. Jobs as a counselor can vary widely, however, since they include positions in marriage counseling, substance abuse counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and school counseling — to name a few.

Before you pursue one of the best careers in counseling, you should compare available degree programs in this industry and all they have to offer. You'll also want to learn about the main skills and attributes required to begin a counseling job, as well as the level of education required to pursue various positions in this industry.

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Why Become a Counselor?

Job openings in community and social service occupations, which include jobs in counseling, are expected to increase 12% from 2020 to 2030, adding approximately 346,900 jobs in the process. This data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) proves the demand is out there for qualified mental health professionals, including counselors who are expertly trained to guide people through some of life's biggest challenges.

That said, there are plenty of personal reasons to begin a counseling career, including having a sincere desire to help others. Different types of counselors, from substance abuse counselors to marriage counselors, get the chance to listen to and advise individuals on their current actions, their outlook, and steps they can take to make a change. This puts the best counselors in the position to save marriages — and potentially even lives — and help people find ways to become happy and more comfortable in their own skin.

Is Counseling a Good Fit for Me?

Individuals who have compassion and empathy for others can make a natural fit for most jobs in counseling. Those with excellent listening skills and people who have the ability to sit still and focus for long periods of time are also made to excel in this industry.

According to the National Library of Medicine, counselors also need to have cultural awareness and a certain level of cultural sensitivity in order to work effectively with individuals with diverse backgrounds. This helps counselors remain "aware of their own cultural groups and of their values, assumptions, and biases regarding other cultural groups," they write.

Below are some other critical skills for counselors:


Authenticity in your responses

Flexibility to deal with unique individuals in different manners

Showing a genuine interest in others

If you feel like the skills and abilities described above apply to you or could apply to you with the right training and experience, there's a good chance that at least one of the jobs we highlight in this guide could work for you.

Is Counseling a Good Career?

By most measures, counseling is a rewarding career. In fact, counselors surveyed by CareerExplorer reported a high level of happiness in their careers, with an average star rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars. According to the platform, this rating is based on certain metrics, such as the annual salary that counselors earn, whether they find their jobs meaningful, and whether they are happy with the environment they work in.

These ratings, which are from professionals already working in their industry, put counseling in the top 31% of careers. However, it's worth noting that certain types of counselors rated their careers slightly higher or lower. For example, career counselors rated their jobs with 3.8 out of 5 stars, while counseling psychologists gave their jobs 3.6 stars. On the flipside, drug and alcohol counselors submitted an average rating of 3.3 stars for their job satisfaction.

While job satisfaction is important to consider, you may also be wondering how much you can earn in various counseling careers. After all, a "good" job is one that pays well and helps you live the type of lifestyle you have always wanted.

Unfortunately, this is one area where counselors are less than enthused. According to CareerExplorer, counselors ranked their happiness with their salaries an average star rating of 2.7 out of 5 stars. Compare this to counselors' star ratings for other factors they were asked about, such as whether they find their jobs meaningful (3.8 out of 5 stars), whether their personalities are suited to the work (4.1 out of 5 stars), and whether they enjoy their work environment (3.8 out of 5 stars). 

With these ratings in mind, it can help to know what kind of salary you can expect from jobs in counseling. According to the BLS, the professionals in counseling specialties below earned the following annual median salaries as of May 2021:

  • Counseling psychologists: $79,510
  • Marriage and family therapists: $49,880
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $38,560
  • School and career counselors and advisors: $60,510
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $48,520

For a more detailed guide about these career pathways, explore our article: What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?

How To Start a Career in Counseling

The first step required to begin a career in counseling is figuring out which school you want to attend while you pursue a counseling degree. That said, there are other details to keep in mind, from the level of education you want to complete to the counseling specialty you hope to find work in.

Education Requirements

A handful of jobs in this field may only require a bachelor's degree in counseling or a related field to get started. An example career is substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, who can often find work with a Bachelor's in Counseling or a Bachelor's in Psychology.

That said, the majority of jobs as a counselor begin with master's level education, which you'll discover further down in this guide when we cover the various counseling careers. However, many jobs in counseling begin with an undergraduate degree in a related field before pursuing a Master's in Counseling.

Common fields for undergraduate study include psychology, public administration, social work, and social science subjects, among others.

Curriculum for counseling degrees covers similar components of mental health and core competencies of counseling. Below are some of the core courses you can expect to take during your degree program:

Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling

Group Counseling and Psychotherapy

Lifespan Development

Multicultural Counseling

Principles of Addiction

Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Trauma Theory and Treatment

While course requirements vary widely depending on the level of education pursued, those who work toward earning a Master's in Counseling will likely need to complete an internship and/or a capstone project in order to graduate.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

The licensing and certification requirements for counselors depend on the career and specialty chosen. Licensing requirements can also vary depending on where you live.

The chart below shows the requirements for various jobs in counseling and where you can find information for licensing in your state.

Counseling Career Certification and Licensing Requirements Find State-Based Licensing Requirements
Counseling Psychologists Licensing requirements for clinical and counseling psychologists vary by state. Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards
Marriage and Family Therapists All states require marriage and family therapists to be licensed. Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
Rehabilitation Counselors Licensing requirements can vary by state and by services offered. Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification
School and Career Counselors and Advisors Public school counselors require a state-issued credential.Some states (but not all) require specific licensing for career counselors. American School Counselor Association National Board for Certified Counselors
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in private practice must be licensed, although specific requirements vary by state.Licensing requirements for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors outside of private practice vary by state. National Board for Certified Counselors Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network

How To Advance Your Counseling Career

To advance your career in counseling, you should plan on pursuing a graduate-level education, which you can do online. After all, the majority of professions in this industry require a master's degree at a minimum, and you will even need a doctoral degree if you want to become a counseling psychologist.

Other ways to advance your counseling career include participating in supervised training and working toward a specialized credential in this field. For example, selecting a specific area of counseling to focus on can help you become an expert in your chosen field of work.

Finally, you should plan on pursuing licensing and certification that applies specifically to your counseling career, whether you choose to counsel married couples or focus on career counseling instead. Since licensing and certification requirements vary by the counseling job and the state you live in, you'll have to do some research before you choose your next best steps.

Counseling Careers

All jobs in counseling require you to listen empathetically to others with the goal of helping them improve their situations and their lives. However, different jobs within this field can have you working with individuals who have different needs and goals.

The counseling career specializations highlighted below are the most common jobs in this field. We also include salary and job outlook data from the BLS:

Counseling Jobs Overview

Counseling Careers Education required Job Outlook (2020 to 2030): Median Annual Pay (May 2021):
Counseling Psychologists Doctoral degree 10% $79,510
Marriage and Family Therapists Master's degree 16% $49,880
Rehabilitation Counselors Master's degree 10% $38,560
School and Career Counselors and Advisors Master's degree 11% $60,510
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors Bachelor's degree 23% $48,520

Explore more details below to learn how to become a counselor in each of these industries, including each job's outlook over the next decade and the main areas of focus for each type of career:

Counseling Psychologists

Annual Median Salary:  $79,510
Job Outlook: 10%
Typical Qualifications: Doctoral degree

Counselors with a doctoral degree can look for work as a counseling psychologist. These workers help their patients deal with and understand various problems in their lives, which can include issues at work, challenges at home, or interpersonal problems taking place with various people in their lives. This type of counselor works with their patients to help them understand themselves and their challenges so they can resolve problems and move forward toward happier, more fulfilling lives.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Annual Median Salary:  $49,880
Job Outlook: 16%
Typical Qualifications: Master's degree

Marriage and family therapists work with couples and families to help them resolve problems and make better decisions for the future. They may counsel individuals or groups on a wide range of issues, from marriage problems to divorce or a job layoff. Marriage and family therapists strive to help their patients understand how their mental health can affect their lives as well as steps they can take to improve it. Some marriage and family therapists also offer Christian counseling to those struggling with religion or their religious identity.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Annual Median Salary:  $38,560
Job Outlook: 10%
Typical Qualifications: Master's degree

According to the BLS, rehabilitation counselors "help people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live independently." Core functions of this job include developing a treatment plan for clients that helps them take adequate care of themselves and arranging for them to receive appropriate services. Rehabilitation counselors may also work with employers to help them understand how to best meet the needs of disabled workers.

School and Career Counselors and Advisors

Annual Median Salary:  $60,510
Job Outlook: 11%
Typical Qualifications: Master's degree

After earning a Master's in School Counseling, either through an in-person or online school, school and career counselors help students in high school or college make plans for after graduation. They help middle school and high school students develop academic and social skills they'll need for college, and they advise them on the types of degrees and jobs they might want to pursue. College-level career counselors provide advice and guidance that can apply to students' lives as they move through college toward graduation and eventually enter the workforce. Some workers in this field — known as career coaches — focus on advising those in the workforce on steps they can take to switch jobs or industries.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Annual Median Salary:  $48,520
Job Outlook: 23%
Typical Qualifications: Bachelor's degree

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors typically earn a bachelor's degree or a Master's in Substance Abuse Counseling. From there, they work with people who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, mental health challenges, or other behavioral problems. They evaluate their current health and suggest treatment plans that can help them get better, and they work with clients to help identify triggers or situations that make it more difficult to recover. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors also refer their clients to other resources and services, including job placement services and support groups.

Common Work Environments for Counselors

The top industry for counselors is health care, although some work for the government or in the higher education sector. The chart below shows which work environment each type of counselor is most likely to work in based on BLS data.

Counseling Careers Most Common Work Environments
Counseling Psychologists
  • Self-employed workers: 27%
  • Elementary and secondary schools; state, local, and private: 25%
  • Ambulatory health care services: 20%
Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Individual and family services: 28%
  • Offices of other health practitioners: 22%
  • Self-employed workers: 15%
Rehabilitation Counselors
  • Community and vocational rehabilitation services: 31%
  • Individual and family services: 17%
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: 15%
School and Career Counselors and Advisors
  • Elementary and secondary schools; state, local, and private: 45%
  • Junior colleges, colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private: 35%
  • Health care and social assistance: 6%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers: 18%
  • Individual and family services: 16%
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private: 10%

Best States For Counselors to Work H3

While data can vary widely depending on the type of counseling career one decides to pursue, some states definitely treat workers in this industry better than others. This is partly based on the level of employment for counselors in each state, but it's also based on the average pay for workers in this industry.

The chart below uses data from the BLS to show which states employ the most counselors, as well as which ones paid the highest median annual salaries (as of May 2021): 

Counseling Careers States with the Highest Median Annual Pay States with the Highest Employment
Counseling Psychologists
  • New Jersey: $143,150
  • Delaware: $129,450
  • Oregon: $126,230
  • California: $122,790
  • New York: $120,350
  • California: 10,250
  • New York: 4,220
  • Illinois: 4,160
  • Texas: 3,170
  • Massachusetts: 3,120
Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Utah: $86,490
  • New Jersey: $81,330
  • Colorado: $73,040
  • Minnesota: $68,660
  • Nevada: $66,600
  • California: 25,870
  • New Jersey: 4,120
  • Illinois: 2,540
  • Minnesota: 2,310
  • Florida: 2,240
Rehabilitation Counselors
  • Maine: $80,550
  • New Jersey: $71,570
  • Rhode Island: $60,230
  • Alaska: $55,100
  • Massachusetts: $52,200
  • California: 11,430
  • Massachusetts: 5,280
  • Pennsylvania: 5,020
  • Washington: 4,480
  • Oregon: 4,420
School and Career Counselors and Advisors
  • California: $81,590
  • New Jersey: $76,040
  • Massachusetts: $75,660
  • Washington: $75,160
  • Maryland: $72,730
  • California: 29,670
  • Texas: 27,780
  • New York: 23,610
  • Florida: 15,830
  • Illinois: 14,430
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
  • Utah: $66,190
  • Alaska: $65,090
  • District of Columbia: $64,920
  • Rhode Island: $64,640
  • New Jersey: $63,430
  • California: 34,820
  • New York: 20,010
  • Pennsylvania: 18,240
  • Massachusetts: 17,020
  • Texas: 16,970

FAQs About Counseling Careers

What Are the 3 Types of Counseling?

The three main types of counseling include (1) school and career counseling, (2) mental health counseling, and (3) substance abuse counseling. However, there are other areas of specialty that branch off from there.

For example, rehabilitation counselors focus specifically on helping disabled people cope with disabilities and succeed in their lives despite any limitations they have. Marriage and family therapists also work in their own niche within the industry, which involves guiding couples and families through their issues so they can live happier, healthier lives.

What Is the Career Path for a Counselor?

Getting started in this dynamic field requires students to pick a counseling degree program and a school for their education, which can include a traditional brick-and-mortar institution or an online school that offers counseling degrees. From there, most counseling careers require a master's degree and licensing/certification that varies by state.

Individuals who have empathy for others and an ear for listening can begin studying counseling in their chosen degree program without a specialty at first. However, it's common for students to figure out their specific areas of interest as they learn more about mental health and the psychology involved in counseling others.

What Are the Best Jobs for a Counselor?

The best job for a counselor depends on the type of work they want to do and the type of patients they want to work with. For example, a career in school and career counseling can be ideal for someone who wants to help guide students through college and toward a career that suits their skills and interests. At the same time, a marriage or family therapist career can be best for students who are deeply interested in family dynamics and helping families and couples heal after traumatic or troubling experiences.

Meanwhile, becoming a substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor typically works best for those who want to work with people who are suffering from addiction, behavioral disorders, eating challenges, and/or mental health issues.

How Much Do Counselors Make?

How much counselors earn can vary depending on where they live and the specialty they choose to focus on. 

The chart below shows how much counselors in the most common positions earned nationally as of May 2021:

Counseling Careers Median Annual Pay
Counseling Psychologists $79,510
Marriage and Family Therapists $49,880
Rehabilitation Counselors $38,560
School and Career Counselors and Advisors $60,510
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $48,520

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