How to Choose the Right Counseling Degree

Interested in pursuing a degree in counseling but not sure which program to choose? This helpful guide will assist in deciding which specialization is best to meet your career goals.

September 11, 2023

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It can be daunting to narrow down what area of counseling you want to specialize in when the options are vast. From school counseling to rehabilitation counseling to clinical mental health counseling, there’s no shortage of ways to provide social, emotional, and mental support. For some, you may already know the path you want to pursue. For others, it may be the idea of helping others that draws you to the field.

Regardless of your area of interest, there’s one thing for certain: most counseling positions require graduate-level degrees as a first step toward obtaining a credentialed license.

So how can you choose the right counseling degree for you?

Start by considering the population or demographic you want to serve. Do you want to work with children? Veterans? Individuals struggling with substance use? A master’s degree is the entry-level degree for almost every counseling discipline.

If your desire is to become a psychologist who can conduct assessments such as a fitness for duty, learning disability, etc., a doctorate-level degree is a fundamental requirement — most commonly, a Psy.D. If your interest is in teaching, research, scholarship, and/or leadership, a Ph.D. is the best pathway to pursue.

If you want to treat mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders generally, pursuing a licensed professional counselor (LPC) certification after completing a master’s degree and hours of supervised clinical work may be the way to go. (Depending on your state, the LPC may also be known as an LCPC or LMHC — more on that below.)

Also ask yourself: “In what kind of setting do I want to work?” For example, it is rare to see an LPC in a hospital setting. Most clinicians in a hospital setting are social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and/or nurse practitioners focused on mental health. However, if you’re drawn to community mental health, private practice, K-12 schools, or counseling centers, an LPC can give you the training and accreditation to work in these spaces.

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It is important to do your homework to understand the difference between social work, counseling, marriage and family therapy, and psychology, with their different frameworks and licensures,” shares Dr. Delishia Pittman, an associate professor of counseling at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Understanding your motivation, your desires, and your ideal work setting will go a long way to helping you determine what degree to pursue.

With that said, there’s no shortage of counseling specialties or graduate programs. Here are some of the more common counseling programs:

Clinical Mental Health Counseling

This is a broad master’s in counseling that provides a clinical foundation for serving individuals facing physical, mental, emotional, or social challenges. Practitioners provide personal support and guidance to enhance one’s quality of life by offering hope and empowerment. Graduates of clinical mental health counseling masters take an integrated approach to counseling research and practice, often working in social service agencies, employment centers, and more. 

Rehabilitation Counseling

Becoming a rehabilitation counselor goes hand-in-hand with services addressing employment and independent living to offer an enhanced quality of life. Graduates of rehabilitation counseling graduate programs often go on to work for community-based rehabilitation programs, private rehabilitation companies, and state vocational rehabilitation agencies. Many practitioners go on to pursue Certification as a Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), or an LPC.

School Counseling

School counseling master’s programs prepare practitioners to address the psycho-social, academic, and career well-being of K-12 students to help them achieve academic success and career readiness. These positions are largely in school-based settings but can also lead to career paths as an LPC with a specialty in children and adolescents or as a registered play therapist.

Ph.D. in Counseling

For individuals who wish to expand on their clinical, administration, management, advocacy, and leadership skills, a Ph.D. in counseling is often the way to go. As scholar-practitioners, graduates of Ph.D. counseling programs are contributing leaders to mental health topics such as PTSD and veteran well-being to depression mediation for survivors of sexual abuse while working in a variety of settings.

Counseling Certificate Programs

These allow counselors to elevate their skills with additional knowledge in a particular area of practice. A counseling certificate can focus on a particular demographic or population, such as culturally and linguistically diverse persons, or an area such as family or career counseling.

Licensure and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC)

An LPC is someone who has successfully completed a master’s in counseling, passed a national licensure exam, and has met state practice and licensing requirements. In some states, there may be additional exams required to achieve this licensure. For more information on how to become an LPC in your state, visit the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) State Board Directory.

At the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, our programs are designed to prepare students on their path toward becoming a practitioner, researcher, scholar, and leader in the counseling profession. Learn more about our programs and reach out to an admissions coach.