Counseling psychology involves the use of a broad range of practices and theory to treat patients. General counselors work with their patient population to resolve maladjustment, handle crises, enhance overall well-being, and function highly in society. Counseling psychology differs from clinical psychology in approach and patient base: general counselors treat the average populace using a wide range of methodologies, while clinical counselors focus on patients with severe mental illness.

Why a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

All states require licensure to practice general counseling. Though individual states vary the licensing examination may only be taken by graduates of a master’s degree program, and in some states a doctoral program. A master’s degree in general counseling prepares students for work in residential treatment centers, family service agencies, community mental health centers, and other social services; these positions are usually supervised by psychologists who hold a doctorate. Potential PhD candidates in psychology are generally required to have completed a master’s degree program first.

Getting into a Counseling Master’s Degree Program

Entrance requirements for an online counseling master’s degree vary by school; however, admissions departments typically expect the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. (Some, but not all, degree programs require an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related social services field.)
  • A cumulative GPA of at least 2.5
  • A composite GRE score of 950 or higher
  • An essay stating professional background and personal interests that led to pursuit of a master’s in counseling
  • Two letters of recommendation from an academic or professional source

Inside a Counseling Master’s Degree Program

Master’s programs in traditional universities usually take two years to complete, but online counseling degrees allow greater flexibility. Generally, an online master’s in counseling takes between two and three years. Building on the foundation established by a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a typical master’s counseling program delves more deeply into the foundation beneath human relationships and practical applications in face-to-face counseling. Development of practice skills is emphasized. Core courses that can be found in all general counseling master’s programs include:

  • Crisis Intervention
  • Group Psychotherapy
  • Personality Theory
  • Psychopathology Principles
  • Research Methodology and Metrics
  • Professional Ethics

A key component of many advanced psychology programs is the examination of the student’s psychological health. This personal introspection is not required for licensure, but many therapists agree that the self-knowledge and perspective gained through the therapeutic process enhances patient experience in later private practice. master’s degree candidates may also choose to specialize within general counseling in subspecialties like addiction behavior, child and adolescent therapy, or human sexuality.

All counseling master’s programs have a supervised training component, variously referred to as a practicum, internship or residency. This clinical experience involves observation and patient interaction in the counseling environment; standard requirements are 100 practicum hours and 600-900 internship/residency hours. Students in online master’s degree programs complete this requirement under the supervision of a licensed therapist; accountability reviews by the degree program must verify all clinical hours.

What’s Next for Counseling Master’s Degree Holders?

The job market for counselors with a master’s degree is rosy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. General mental health counselors can expect a 36% increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020; this growth rate is much higher than the national average. Counselors with a master’s degree charge lower hourly rates than do those with a doctorate, and insurance companies are more likely to reimburse lower-cost healthcare providers.

About half of all counselors work in private practice, and the rest are scattered throughout other medical and psychiatric facilities or work for government agencies. In 2010, the median annual wage for general counselors was $38,150; the highest-paying employer was local government, followed closely by hospitals.

Students who wish to further their education in counseling have two options: a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. A Ph.D. is a typical doctoral program that heavily emphasizes theory and practice in the counseling environment. The Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) is focused mainly on the practical application of knowledge, with minimal attention given to new research. A master’s degree in general counseling qualifies an aspiring counselor for either doctoral program.