Starting a Career in Counseling

What Do You Need to Start a Career in Counseling Psychology

Starting a Career in Counseling

Counseling psychology encompasses a broad range of practices that help clients of all ages alleviate stress, improve their well-being, resolve crises and increase their ability to function in a healthful manner.

Counseling psychologists specialize in counseling patients whose issues are related to social, vocational, emotional, health, developmental or organizational concerns.

Counseling psychologists normally focus upon patients who have life issues, adjusting to changes in career or marital status. These professionals often help people deal with everyday problems.

While clinical psychologists deal mainly with patients suffering from serious mental and emotional disorders, counseling psychologists primarily deal with patients who have issues that are less severe in terms of external symptoms, though perhaps are no less important internally. There is, however, some overlap between clinical and counseling psychology, because counseling psychologists do sometimes treat psychological disorders.

Some of the most common problems counseling psychologists commonly deal with include:

  • Adjustments to a new job
  • Disabilities
  • Stress management
  • Family problems
  • Marital issues
  • Drug abuse
  • Adjustments to a new social situation
  • Personality dysfunction
  • Organizational problems
  • Retirement
  • Coping

Counseling Techniques

Counseling psychologists use any of over a hundred types of therapy to aid their patients. Some of the most common therapies are psychotherapy, behavioral interventions, crisis intervention, trauma management, organizational consulting, family counseling, group therapy and systemic counseling.

Important Personal Qualities

Counseling psychologists must enjoy working with people, and must gain great satisfaction in helping patients. They have to be excellent listeners and communicators with their patients, especially those counselors who have private practices. All counselors must be able to communicate and work effectively with other professionals on a daily basis.

Counselors need good observational skills in order to read facial expressions and body language, because patients often communicate more with gestures than with words.

Counselors need to be trustworthy, because patients don’t fully open up to a counselor they don’t fully trust. Counselors also need to be delicate in dealing with their patients’ sensitive issues. They must be compassionate to the needs of their patients, and yet dispassionate and objective when having to face a patient’s tantrum or outburst.


Candidates need to start by getting a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be in psychology. A Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in psychology is preferred over a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in psychology, because the latter requires several additional research classes that a counseling psychologist doesn’t really need.

The normal coursework for a B.A. in psychology consists of classes in neuroscience and in several types of psychology, social, clinical, developmental and cognitive. Recommended courses include biology, statistics, sociology, anthropology, communication and ethics. If you plan to open your own counseling practice, you might consider taking basic business classes.

There are few jobs available in psychology with only a bachelor’s degree; most of them are in business administration, advertising, sales or education.

Admission into psychology graduate school is extremely competitive, so getting excellent grades and gaining volunteer experience in a psychology-related field is highly recommended. In most cases, graduate schools require at least a 3.0 grade average, if not higher.

Counseling psychologists must acquire a doctoral degree; if you’re content with a lesser job position, you might be able to find work with just a master’s degree.

Possible employers might include local or state governments, corporations, advertising agencies, educational institutions and human services agencies.

Obtaining a doctorate normally requires at least five years of graduate school (including the master’s program). And once you’ve gotten a doctorate, you’ll need to enter a one-year internship program.

Doctoral coursework includes core classes in psychology, along with specialized courses in counseling, human lifespan development, vocational psychology, psychopathology, psychological assessment, statistics, consultation, supervision, professional ethics, etc.

You can choose from among three types of doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Education (DEd or EdD), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). The DEd is only intended for aspiring school psychologists or for counselors who work for a school system.

The PhD requires extra research classes that a counseling psychologist doesn’t really need, so a PsyD is the preferred degree for most counselors. The PsyD is usually based more upon practical work and exams rather than a dissertation.

Because the PsyD in counseling psychology is a relatively new degree, it’s hard to find schools that offer it.

Employment Opportunities

Counseling psychologists commonly find work in health care institutions, mental health centers, private clinics, rehab centers, hospitals or school systems. Other settings might include large corporations, local governments, organizational consulting groups or community services centers.

Many psychologists open their own private practice, though usually only after they’ve wet their feet in the field for a few years. Others work as part of a team of care providers that might include physicians, psychiatrists and social workers.

Further Reading


The Practice of Therapy

Starting a Career in Counseling

When I went into the mental health field about 15 years ago, it was after spending nearly 20 years in another career.   so many people in our profession, many of us are second career therapists.  And many of us have been in totally unrelated fields.  For me, I was a funeral director for nearly 20 years. (Lots of great stories about that, but won’t go into that here!)

It is an interesting thing and seems to happen a lot, in the counseling and psychotherapy field. There a lot of people who go into mental health counseling as a second career.  As a result of this phenomenon there are a lot of people over the age of 40 that have made that transition.  When you think about it, it does make a lot of sense.

Changing Priorities

As we age our priorities and values tend to change.  We do things have children and family tends to become much more important.  For many, the 9-5 grind just gets old.  Work-life balance becomes much more of a priority.  Also, with age and experience, we develop skills and a proficiency with our jobs so they just feel less challenging.

For many people in their 40’s, the recognize that it is going to be around 20 plus years before they retire.  Then they ask themselves if they want to keep doing what they are doing now until then.  I know that was true for me which is what prompted me to go back to school and get my graduate degree in counseling.

One source said, “ Almost a third (29%) of pre-retirees plan to change careers in the next five years, a new survey reveals. Their top reasons for making a switch: less stress and more work-life balance, according to a survey of 1,006 people, ages 40-59…” (USA Today)

Its Not About The Money

Another thing that I think tends to happen for people who go into the counseling and therapy fields as a second career, is that people recognize the value of helping others.  The importance of giving to others somehow clicks more later in life.  It becomes a more prominent core value.

One theme that seems to be true for many people changing careers and going into the mental health field is that it is NOT about the money.  In fact there are many people who give up high paying jobs.

 Financial analysts, bankers, attorneys and any number of other professionals have made the leap to become professional counselors or therapists.

 It is about quality of life and rather than “quantity” that these people value most.

Going back to school to get the degrees and skills to become a licensed counselor or therapist has a way of challenging a person in such a positive way.  Older students might feel a bit out-of-place in the middle of a younger crowd. But they usually do very well in school because they are there because they want to be.  Their motivation is there with the end in mind; having a second career.

Older and Wiser

Going into private practice as a counselor/therapist is a great second career option.  Regardless of previous careers, a person with those previous life experiences can bring so much to the table.  This is especially true for those who have worked in business or in serving the public in other ways.  A lot of those skills translate well in private practice.

Going into private practice as a second career has many advantages. And as was mentioned before, a lot of it has to do with life/work balance. Being self-employed and in private practice gives one a lot of freedom and the ability to spend their time and energy how they want to.

You get to set your own schedule and decide on the number of clients you want to see. Private practice essentially allows a person to virtually be in complete control of how and when they work.  Also there is more earning potential in that you can grow as large as you want to.

 For example, starting a group practice would allow you to duplicate your efforts.

The downside of being in private practice is that, at least in the beginning stages, you do not have the security of a steady paycheck and benefits you have with traditional employment.  And you do need allow yourself time to grow.

 Second career therapists are usually at an advantage here because they have already established themselves financially in their previous careers.  When making a career change there is a lot less pressure when you have some reserves.

When changing careers or even changing career paths, it makes sense to do it in a way that does not bring a lot of financial hardship.  In other words, keep your day job and build your private practice as a sideline.  That is unless you already have some cash reserves to get you through the growth stages of private practice.

One way to dig in a little deeper with this is to sign-up for the e-course, “Love the Work, Hate the Job” that was created with second career therapists in mind; specifically those people transitioning from agency work into private practice.  The course will also be helpful for those making total career changes.

If you are reading this article, you are probably either thinking about making a career change, or in the process of making those changes, or you have already jumped in and made the change.  Moving into private practice as a counselor/therapist is absolutely doable!  

Here is a list of tips and things to think about in that journey:

  • Know your “why”.  Have a clear understanding of your personal motivation for moving into this field.
  • Be prepared for having a growth period in the beginning stages of going into private practice.
  • Research and think “outside the box” in looking for opportunities.  For example is there an already established group practice with a good referral and client base you could join..
  • Consider starting your private practice as a “sideline”.  It will put you under less financial strain as things grow.
  • Weight out the pros and cons of private practice vs. staying where you are and “blooming where you are planted”.
  • Learn as much as you can about private practice and being a therapist. Find a mentor and someone to help coach you through the process of changing careers or taking on a second career.
  • Draw on supports in your community to help you in making the switch. Community colleges and universities usually have a lot of resources on career changes.
  • Learn from others that have not only made the move into private practice, but also people who have started second careers in other fields
  • Get involved in your local professional and  business groups ACA, AAMFT, APA, NASW, or Chambers of Commerce, etc.  It will help provide motivation and resources to help you in your transition.
  • Get involved online and through social media.  The Practice of Therapy page is here.  There are also tons of other and LinkedIn Groups for private practice.  
  • Also listen to podcasts and watch videos to learn even more about private practice and making career changes.

The thing that is wonderful about second career therapist is that they bring so much to the profession.  Their life experience and wisdom makes them truly awesome therapists.

By L. Gordon Brewer, Jr., MEd. LMFT  – Gordon is the President and Founder of Kingsport Counseling Associates, PLLC. He is also a consultant and business mentor at The Practice of Therapy. Follow us on @therapistlearn.  “” us on .

More Resources:


Thinking of a career in therapy? Here are your options

Starting a Career in Counseling

The route towards a career in counselling or therapy is baffling.

When I began my journey eight years ago, I was struck by the jargon and lack of clear, streamlined advice: would I need a PhD, masters or diploma? Should I specialise or generalise? Work with adults or children, individuals or groups, families or couples? Pursue humanistic, psychoanalytic or cognitive behavioural training?

I couldn’t even comprehend the difference between a counsellor, psychotherapist and psychologist, let alone the difference between a psychoanalyst and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

The process is convoluted and can quickly become overwhelming. But after many years of self-funded study, training, therapy, work experience and personal investigation I have developed a good understanding of the various routes into the profession. If you are thinking of a career in counselling or therapy, here’s a guide to getting started.

Pick your route

There are five main established paths into this career. In order of the minimum time it takes to qualify, they are: counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), clinical or counselling psychology, and psychiatry.

Psychiatry requires training as a medical doctor first, which you can find out more about here.

Clinical and counselling psychology are legally protected terms that cannot be used by anyone who is not officially trained in these.

It is unethical to call yourself a counsellor, psychotherapist or CBT therapist without appropriate training – and recruiters will not consider you unless you are a registered member of a recognised regulatory body.

Each route has its own leading body: for counselling it is the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; for psychotherapy it is the UK Council for Psychotherapy; for CBT it is the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP); and for clinical or counselling psychology it is the British Psychological Society. Each of these bodies accredits courses, so save time by choosing an accredited one. While there are other accrediting bodies, not all are recognised by recruiters.

Getting into counselling

Professional counsellor training takes three to five years and can be diploma or degree level. Qualification requires a minimum number of client hours acquired through a work placement.

The training begins with an introduction to counselling. This takes up to three months, but it can be waived if you have some previous experience. You then apply for a certificate in counselling skills (one year), followed by a diploma in counselling (two to three years). Alternatively, you can train through a university counselling degree.

Every course is rooted in an academic theory that informs the way counselling is conducted in practice.

There are numerous counselling theories, and all courses list their theoretical approach in advance – once trained, you become a counsellor of your chosen approach, which has an impact on your style of counselling and the way you work with clients.

The courses are also intense and emotionally triggering, which is important to know before undergoing training

These can be broadly placed into five categories: psychoanalytic/psychodynamic , which takes the view that a person’s issues are rooted in the past; humanistic , which takes the view that a person’s issues are rooted in their environment; transpersonal, which is more spiritually focused; cognitive, behavioural and cognitive-behavioural, which are more practically-focused, goal-orientated and concerned with the interrelationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour; and integrative, which is a mix of them all what works best for the client.

How does this differ from psychotherapy training?

Psychotherapy is a post-graduate qualification, but your first degree does not have to be in a related field. The training is more academically rooted and can take around five years or more, leading to at least a masters degree.

As with counselling, there are different practices that reflect the different theories. The main difference between a counsellor and psychotherapist is in the academic training.

In theory, counsellors work shorter term with life issues, such as bereavement and relationships, while a psychotherapist works over a longer period of time with more complicated or enduring mental health issues.

In reality, there is a huge overlap and in practice you will see counsellors and psychotherapists doing both.

What’s involved in cognitive behavioural therapy training?

CBT training is also at post-graduate level but requires a previous degree in a mental health-related field in addition to some experience.

There are two ways into this: through a post-graduate diploma in CBT (listed on the BABCP website), or via the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), an initiative to help improve access to mental healthcare within the NHS.

This is a cost-effective way to train as it is funded by the government and trainees earn a salary.

If you don’t already have a prior qualification in a mental health related field, your professional experience may still count for something if you work in a setting where counselling skills are used, or if you have volunteered, for example, for a helpline.

You can either train to be a low intensity/psychological wellbeing practitioner, working with mild anxiety and depression or a high intensity CBT therapist, working with people with more complex symptoms.

Mental health workers struggle with stigma about their own issues

What is clinical/counselling psychology?

A clinical or counselling psychologist acquires a PhD and registration with the Health and Care Professions Council. You must have a degree in psychology first, though you can do a conversion course to obtain one.

The job involves research, coordinating teams, formulating treatment plans, as much as it does working directly with clients and patients.

The psychologists typically work alongside psychiatrists, who are the only ones allowed to make diagnoses or prescribe drugs, when assessing clients.

Be prepared for intensive training

Whichever route you choose, the financial and emotional investment is substantial. For some courses you may have to attend therapy throughout your training.

Additionally, you need to pay extra for disclosure checks, indemnity insurance and supervision. The courses are also intense and emotionally triggering, which is important to know before making a decision to undergo training.

It isn’t an easy journey to make but it’s a fulfilling career and the rewards are worthwhile.

Looking for a job? Browse Guardian Jobs for your next career step.

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