Associate degrees in counseling can prepare you for entry level assistant positions in different arenas, such as substance abuse, criminal justice, student affairs, rehabilitation or career counseling. Associate degrees can also provide the foundation to continue for a higher degree, which is required by most states to become a licensed counselor.
Earning associate degrees in counseling
In addition to general education classes, associate degrees in counseling may cover basic and group counseling; crisis intervention; research; ethics; social and cultural diversity; psychology and sociology; intake, assessment, reporting, and record-keeping; and referral and consultation with other professionals.
At the bachelor's and master's levels, you generally find more specialized education. Bachelor's degrees in counseling are rare; most aspiring counselors major in psychology, education, social work or sociology. Some colleges offer combined bachelor's to master's degree programs in counseling psychology.
The American Counseling Association considers the master's degree to be "entry level preparation for qualification as a professional practitioner," so this degree offers the best opportunities for licensed counselors. Master's and doctoral specializations reflect your career objectives -- mental health counseling or school counseling, for example.
Different doctoral degrees are available for careers in leadership, supervision, training, research or teaching. The Doctor of Philosophy in counseling or psychology emphasizes research and clinical training; Doctor of Psychology has an emphasis on clinical practice; and a Doctor of Education in counseling psychology focuses on the practical application of research to the counseling practice.
Counseling career options, outlook and salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 21 percent overall for counseling careers, 2010-2020, with an increase of 34.4 percent in the health care and social assistance sector. The BLS reports a wide range of median annual salaries for 2010, as shown here:
- Educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors: $53,000
- Mental health therapists or substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors: $38,000
- Social and human service assistants: $28,000
Qualifications for social and human service assistants vary, according to the BLS, and some employers prefer an associate degree or a bachelor's degree. The Department of Labor notes that 45.9 percent of substance abuse counselors have a master's degree, with other counseling careers showing similar statistics. Although master's degrees generally require supervised in-person training, you can do much of the academic work online as you start your journey toward a career in counseling.