How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

A counselor and a client sitting in chairs next to a window in a room.

The need for counselors is on the rise, but the supply of available professionals is not keeping up with the demand. The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis estimates that, by 2036, the U.S. will have only enough behavioral health professionals to serve 53% of the people who require their vital services.

For anyone seeking meaningful work, now is a good time to explore a career as a counselor. Those who are just beginning that process likely have some questions. For instance, what are the different kinds of counselors? And how long does it take to become a counselor? It’s beneficial for anyone considering enrolling in a counseling degree program to learn more about the role first. 

The Work That Counselors Perform

Along with how long it takes to become a counselor, many individuals interested in the field want to learn about the work they do. The general goal of all counselors is to help people improve how they function in life, enhance their well-being, and address the challenges they face. Most types of counselors must be licensed in the state where they practice. Examples of specific types of counselors include the following: 

Clinical Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors are licensed professional counselors (LPCs) who help individuals deal with a range of emotional and mental health conditions. For example, they can provide counseling services to help clients address issues related to anxiety or depression. They also can assist their clients in dealing with concerns related to their careers, their health, or significant transitions in their lives.

Addiction and Substance Abuse Counselors

Addiction and substance abuse counselors assist people who are being treated for alcoholism or addiction. They help their clients establish new behaviors and implement strategies that can help them in their recovery from addiction. Addiction and substance abuse counselors also help their clients face the emotional issues that accompany their substance abuse challenges and introduce their clients to life skills that can help them maintain their sobriety. These counselors typically need state specialist licensure, such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) credential.

Marital, Couples, and Family Counselors

Marital, couples, and family counselors help clients deal with mental and emotional issues that are associated with their relationships. They assist clients with issues in areas such as marital relationships, child-parent relationships, or child conduct. Marital, couples, and family counselors treat individuals,  couples, and entire families. These counselors are often known as licensed marital and family therapists (LMFTs).

Applied Behavioral Science Professionals

Individuals who have applied behavioral science expertise but who have not completed the requirements to work as licensed counselors can use their knowledge in leadership positions in settings such as schools, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, youth-oriented programs, or hospitals.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

Those looking into how long it takes to become a counselor will find that it varies based on the specific licensure requirements related to education and work experience. These requirements include the following:

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

To become a licensed professional counselor, licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or licensed marital and family counselor, an individual needs to first earn a bachelor’s degree. Earning a bachelor’s degree generally takes about four years for students who attend full time. Enrolling in an accelerated program or receiving credits for life experience could reduce that time, but attending school part time could increase that time. 

Earning a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology is helpful, but individuals don’t necessarily need to have an undergraduate degree that is directly related to counseling.

Earn a Master’s Degree

After earning a bachelor’s degree, an aspiring LPC, LADC, or LMFT needs to earn a master’s degree in counseling. This entails completing at least 60 graduate credit hours, which usually takes approximately two to three years. As with earning a bachelor’s degree, enrolling in an accelerated program or receiving credits for life experience could reduce that time, while attending school part time could increase that time.

Earning a master’s degree in counseling typically requires completing an internship. The internship length can differ across types of counseling and across states, so it’s important to research the requirements in the state where you want to practice. In Oklahoma, for example, individuals must complete an internship of at least 300 hours to become an LPC, an LADC, or an LMFT.

Gain Supervised Work Experience

After earning a master’s degree, individuals need to pass the required licensure exam to work as a counselor. To be able to work independently as a counselor, individuals also need to gain the required amount of supervised, on-the-job work experience. Requirements for that experience vary across types of counseling and across states. For example, requirements in Oklahoma are as follows:

  • To work independently as a clinical mental health counselor with an LPC credential, an individual needs to gain three years of supervised, on-the-job work experience.
  • To work independently as a substance abuse counselor with an LADC credential, an individual needs to gain one year of supervised, on-the-job work experience.
  • To work independently as a marital, couples, and family therapist with an LMFT credential, an individual needs to gain two years of supervised, on-the-job work experience.

The Benefits of Working as a Counselor

Devoting the time it takes to launch a counseling career enables individuals to realize several benefits of working in the field, including the following:

  • Counselors enjoy fulfilling, rewarding, and meaningful work. Each day, counselors have the opportunity to know that they are making a positive difference in the lives of their clients.
  • Counselors’ employment prospects are bright. From 2022 to 2032, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 18% job growth for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors and 15% job growth for marriage and family therapists. Those growth rates significantly exceed the BLS’s projected 3% average job growth across all occupations.
  • Counselors can work in a wide range of settings. Counselors can find employment at private practices, outpatient centers, hospitals, residential facilities, and government agencies. They also can work remotely.
  • Counselors can specialize in particular client populations. Counselors can choose to work primarily with children, adults, veterans, teenagers, or individuals with disabilities.

Taking the Time to Become a Counselor Can Be a Rewarding Career Move

People who put in the time it takes to become a counselor can enter a field that affords them a true sense of purpose. Helping clients address their challenges and improve their lives enables counselors to make a lasting difference. 

If you have an interest in becoming a counselor, consider the benefits of Mid-America Christian University’s Master of Science in Counseling degree program. With four emphasis areas to choose from — Licensed Professional Counseling; Addiction and Substance Abuse Counseling; Marital, Couples, and Family Counseling; and Applied Behavioral Science — the program can help you set the stage for a successful career in counseling. Start pursuing your counseling career goals today.