What Can I Expect from an Online Master’s Counseling Program?

Counseling is a fulfilling and challenging field that continues to grow much faster than other careers. While professionals with an undergraduate degree in counseling can find some entry-level positions with their current credentials, most counseling jobs require individuals to have earned a master’s degree. An online master’s in counseling enables students to continue working in their current career field by offering the time and geographic flexibility to complete their studies. Most master’s in counseling degrees require hands-on in-person internships before a student can graduate and then sit for professional credentialing exams. Those experiences typically run parallel to course studies through the master’s program. Online degree-conferring schools often help students find local internship placement opportunities, adding even more flexibility to this degree. Students already working in the counseling field may even be able to complete their internship requirements within their current workplace.

Concentrations Offered for an Online Master’s in Counseling

Marriage & Family Counseling Marriage and family counseling classes expose students to unique issues related to counseling patients of various ages through interpersonal conflicts as well as individual concerns. Marriage and family counselor, social worker
Clinical Mental Health Counseling The clinical mental health counseling concentration equips future professionals with the knowledge necessary to diagnose and treat mental health diseases in a clinical or behavioral health settings. Clinical mental health counselor, social worker
Substance Abuse Counseling Classes for students concentrating on substance abuse counseling enable studies and experience with addiction issues, rehabilitation and comorbid medical issues. Substance abuse counselor, addiction counselor, rehabilitation counselor, social worker
School Counseling Classes related to a concentration in school counseling help prepare individuals to work with children and adolescents from their earliest learning exposure through their college years. These classes prepare counselors to address issues that are related to personal concerns, academic areas and future career preparation. School counselor, guidance counselor, career counselor

Curriculum for an Online Master’s in Counseling

Schools that confer master’s degrees in counseling do so in two different ways. Some schools offer a master’s in counseling that includes a concentration or additional certification. Others have degrees in a specific specialty area, such as a master’s in school counseling or a master’s in mental health counseling. Both approaches offer similar base studies that teach broad counseling topics plus classes specific to a particular specialty. At the end of class-based studies, most programs require students to fulfill practicums and internships, often matching the number of hours required to state licensing requirements. Students interested in pursuing PhD studies in the future may also complete thesis requirements at the master’s level.

Some of the classes you’ll encounter during your master’s in counseling studies may include:

Introduction to Counseling A foundational course that introduces core terminology and paradigms unique to a future career in counseling.
Mental Health Counseling Approaches and Interventions Identifying mental health concerns, exploring their extent and nature and designing optimal therapy.
Foundations of Family, Marital and Couples Counseling Establishing a baseline understanding of theories, skills and approaches to develop suitable therapy types.
Theory and Technique of Substance Abuse Examines addiction, its relation to other mental health issues, the impact and depth of substance abuse and best practices for counselors to use in aiding recovery.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Master’s Degree in Counseling?

Colleges that offer an online master’s in counseling vary widely in the number of courses or credits required to earn that degree. In programs where the student aspires to achieve state licensure, the credit hours required typically begin at 48 and may range to 60 or higher depending on specialty. Part-time students in programs that prepare for licensure typically achieve their degree in four years or less. Students who do not wish to become licensed can enroll in shorter programs that average 36 credits. In addition to classroom credits, schools may require practicums and internships adding up to 1000 hours or greater, the same as the hours of experience necessary for state licensing applicants.

Pursuing more than one specialization or choosing thesis-track programs may add additional semesters necessary before graduation. Finally, for students without a background or degree in counseling or psychology, some schools offer a bridge program so students can take foundational courses first before beginning their master’s level courses. This can also add one or more semesters. After graduation, students pursuing licensure may need to complete more hours in residencies or internships, as required by their home states.

Certifications and Licenses an Online Master’s in Counseling Prepares For

Licensed Professional Counselor Graduates can pursue this most common counseling certification upon fulfillment of educational requirements, a supervised post-grad internship plus counseling and jurisprudence exams as required by differing states.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor Degreed counselors who have fulfilled practicum, internship and supervised residency programs both during and after their completed coursework can apply for this certification, which comprises an exam plus additional state requirements for continued learning and background checks.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Students who complete their master’s in counseling with additional courses in social work can apply for this certification after passing the licensing and jurisprudence exams required by most states and completing post-grad supervised counseling.

Accreditation for Online Master’s in Counseling Degrees

Before choosing a school to attend and earn a master’s in counseling, potential students should research the accreditations that institution has earned. In addition to the regional types of accreditation a school holds, most counseling programs also tout accreditation by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Many schools also hold accreditation from the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Regional accreditation schools may have earned in addition to those specific for counseling include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Some state counseling licensure boards require degrees from schools with specific accreditations. Prospective students can research their own home state’s requirements to ensure they select a school that conforms to those requirements.

Employment Outlook for Master’s in Counseling Graduates

Job Placement: Master’s v. Bachelor’s

A minority of jobs within the counseling field require only a bachelor’s degree to attain entry-level positions. Most counseling jobs, including mental health counselors, marriage and family counselors, school counselors and substance abuse counselors, require at least a master’s degree in counseling to obtain. Higher level counseling positions, including those who oversee the counseling performed by others, may require a PhD in counseling. Additionally, most states require counselors to obtain licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Growth in mental health counseling positions averages 23 percent throughout the country, far higher than the average 9 percent growth among all professions.

Expected Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most counseling positions require at least a master’s degree. Salaries can vary significantly depending on the industry type in which a degreed and licensed counselor practices, with local government agencies on the high end of the pay range and residential facilities falling far lower.

Earning a master’s in counseling plus appropriate state licensure enables students to fill many different roles, including independent practice, outpatient centers, residential facilities, schools and government agencies. Specializations and concentrations pursued during master’s level coursework enable graduates to fill key positions necessary to address counseling and therapy needs in the community.

Salaries can vary based upon geographic location. The map below, displays mean wages for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, illustrates the variation in salary.

Career Opportunities

Graduates with a master’s in counseling can fulfill positions in many different settings. Private practices and outpatient centers provide the highest numbers of positions in the mental health field, while the other leading health settings include residential programs, local government agencies and offices associated with other healthcare practitioners.

Marriage and Family Counselor Marriage and Family Counselors work with individuals, couples and groups to provide therapy services appropriate to life, relationship and family-related needs. $48,790 per year 23%
Mental Health Counselor Mental Health Counselors work with individuals to determine and diagnose mental health issues and needs and design appropriate therapeutic practices to address them. $43,300 per year 23%
Substance Abuse Counselors Substance Abuse Counselors work with individuals struggling with addictions and comorbid mental health afflictions to provide treatment and therapy necessary for recovery. $43,300 per year 23%

Professional Organizations

Counseling is an ever-changing field, which makes continuing education both a licensure requirement and a necessity to ensure appropriate diagnoses and therapy. Counselors can benefit from networking with others in the field as well as attending national and regional conferences. Many professional organizations support those in the mental health field, serving as an avenue for both learning and knowledge sharing.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists: The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists enables counselors in this concentration to access a broad learning library, a robust networking platform and nationwide job openings.

American Counseling Association: The American Counseling Association is both the oldest organization of its type and one of the larger organizations for counselors in the United States. It offers continuing education opportunities, networking and access to open jobs.

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors: The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors offers two online publications plus additional learning opportunities, job board access and networking at annual conferences.

Financing Your Online Master’s in Counseling Degree

Online degrees are the best option for many aspiring counselors due to the flexibility they offer students who work full-time or do not have access to degree programs near their residence. Additionally, online degrees are of benefit to many students due to the relatively lower price tag versus traditional programs. Nevertheless, a master’s in counseling can come with a hefty price tag, especially because of the higher number of credits, practicums, internships and residencies required for both graduation and licensure. Many loans, grants and scholarships are available to offset or absorb the cost of your master’s degree. Before you begin looking at specific financial aid resources, take the time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You’ll need to fill this out annually during your time working toward your degree. Once your FAFSA is completed and submitted, you’ll be able to check out resources offered by the federal government to put toward your schooling. Next, investigate scholarships and discounts offered by the schools you are considering. If you already work in the counseling field, look into whether your employer might offer money towards your education. Finally, many other organizations also offer scholarships and grants to help pay for your degree.



Scholarships Details
Future Counselors of America Scholarship Award: $1,000

Deadline: June 30

Eligibility: Students must have a 3.5 GPA, intend upon a career in relationship counseling and write an essay entitled “The Psychology of Online Dating.”

ACA Graduate Student Awards of Excellence Award: Varies

Deadline: Fall

Eligibility: Students in graduate school can apply for awards related to school counseling, ethics and other types of counseling. An essay related to annual themes must be submitted.

Melanie Merola O’Donnell Memorial Scholarship Award: $2,500

Deadline: Rolling

Eligibility: This scholarship requires current enrollment in a recognized degree program, past extracurricular involvement, letters of reference and an essay..

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.