Can I Become a Counselor With a Bachelor's Degree?

by Anna Berardi, PhD, OR LPC; CA LMFT

If you’re considering a career as a counselor, your first step is to understand the different types of counseling jobs out there and whether you need a graduate degree to pursue your goal.

Can I be a counselor with a bachelor’s degree?

Given the wide use of this term, the answer is yes: You can be a counselor with only a bachelor’s degree, but it may not be the kind of counseling you’re thinking of. The term “counselor” can be used to describe a variety of jobs that may or may not require specialized skills or credentials. So let’s start by clarifying how the term is used.

In some states, the word "counselor" can refer to a type of service that is not provided by a professionally trained person. Some states don't allow businesses to use the term "counselor" for their employees unless they have professional training. Other states encourage people to check whether someone calling themselves a counselor is professionally trained and licensed.

It's important to note that there's a difference between being a counselor and being a licensed professional counselor (LPC). The word "counselor" can also be used in job titles in professional organizations, but it doesn't necessarily mean the person has earned a specific professional credential.

Licensed mental health professionals, including licensed professional counselors, have earned specific professional credentials that describe their skills and abilities. This title allows them to provide services as a counselor or therapist, and it also gives them the legal right to start their own counseling or therapy business.

What counseling jobs can I get with just a bachelor’s degree?

Social service agencies commonly hire bachelors-level individuals to provide a very specific range of counseling-related services. Most of these opportunities require on-the-job training or additional coursework. Sample job titles include social skills counselor, emotional support counselor, or behavioral intervention counselor.

Similar positions that do not use the word “counseling” include home health or support aides, youth advocacy positions, and substance abuse or gambling support service providers, to name a few.

While a social service professional with a bachelor’s degree might be permitted to work with clients or patients with various mental health disorders, their range of job tasks is limited and prescribed by the employer. This restricts job opportunities and salary potentials.

What degree does a counselor need?

The word "counselor" is used in many different job titles, and each title represents a different profession. A school counselor is not the same as a professional counselor, and both are different from an addictions counselor, guidance counselor, or rehabilitation counselor.

These professions all require specialized graduate school training. What you’re legally allowed to do (what licensing boards call “scope of practice”) depends on the type of graduate degree you have earned, and the way that degree is recognized by your state’s licensing boards.

To work as a licensed professional counselor (LPC), you’ll need to earn a graduate (master’s) degree that fulfills all of your state’s requirements to pursue that license. Some states specify the degree must have a specific title, such as a master’s in professional counseling, while others aren’t as concerned about the title as long as the degree complies with that state’s specified courses and clinical training for the LPC license.

A graduate with a state-approved master’s degree can then begin the licensure process that usually consists of two years of postgraduate supervised work as a professional counselor associate. Once all post-graduate supervised hours are complete and the graduate passes a licensing exam, they are a licensed professional counselor.

This license allows the person to assess, diagnose, and treat mental disorders. This skillset is only permitted by a few designated licensed mental health care providers such as LPCs, licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs), licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), licensed clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists.

As a licensed provider, you’ll have the greatest employment prospects – including establishing your own practice – and income opportunities. Without specialized graduate training, and eventually a license, you’re limited to social service positions that offer a narrow range of services, with a limited ability to earn income beyond that setting’s entry-level hourly wage or salary. 

Counselor sitting and listening to a client

What kinds of counseling and/or therapy jobs require a graduate degree?

Most counseling or therapeutic positions require the employee to hold a graduate degree in counseling or a related profession. A graduate degree is also most often required for career advancement within most social service settings. 

Any social service position requiring the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a mental health disorder will require the provider to hold an independent mental health practitioner license, such as an LPC. To qualify for that license, you’ll need to earn a graduate degree leading to that particular license.

If you want to open your own counseling business, you’ll need to earn a qualifying graduate degree in order to become licensed as a professional counselor, and thereby permitted to work as an independent mental health care provider.

What are the most common types of counseling graduate degrees?

Many mental health professions require graduate degrees. But the most flexible professions with the greatest employment options are graduate degrees that allow you to earn an independent practitioner license, with all the rights and responsibilities described previously. 

Of the most commonly acknowledged professions whose primary focus is the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, four professions require non-medical counseling/psychotherapeutic degrees:

Each of these licenses are represented by professional organizations and state licensing bodies that indicate what type of graduate degree or what type of coursework, regardless of a degree’s title, lead to the ability to pursue a particular license. 

For example, a state LPC or LMFT licensing board may provide a pathway to licensure via a graduate degree in professional counseling; clinical mental health counseling; marriage, couple, and family counseling; marriage and family therapy; school counseling or counseling psychology. 

LCSW graduate degree pathways are commonly titled master’s in social work or clinical social work. Licensed Clinical Psychology graduate degree pathways are commonly masters or doctoral programs called “psychology” or “clinical psychology.”

How do I know if the degree will meet my needs for my professional goals?

The best way to be sure you’re choosing a graduate degree that leads to licensure as an independent practitioner is to read the university’s literature on the nature of that graduate degree and verify it meets your state’s standards to become licensed in the profession.

If the university’s graduate degree is accredited by that profession’s academic credentialing association, you can be confident the degree complies with the licensing standards for that profession. In fact, an added benefit of earning a graduate degree accredited by a national professional organization is the assurance that your degree will be recognized by licensing boards in all states, not just the state in which the university is located. 

For example, CACREP (Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accredits graduate degrees that ensure compliance with state LPC licensing laws. CACREP, as well as COAMFTE (Council on the Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education) both accredit graduate degrees leading to LMFT licensure.

APA (American Psychological Association) accredits graduate programs in psychology, and the NASW (National Association of Social Workers) accredits graduate programs in social work. 

These professional accreditations remove the guesswork from determining whether your chosen graduate degree will lead to post-graduate licensure.

Beyond the degree, what are other requirements to becoming a counselor?

Once you’ve earned a qualifying graduate degree to become a licensed professional counselor or other licensed independent mental health practitioner, you’ll be required to complete a variety of supervised work tasks, as well as a licensing exam, in order to become a licensed professional. 

On a positive note, you can begin working (with pay) as soon as you enter graduate school, as many work settings offer entry-level paid positions if you’re enrolled in an appropriate graduate program. Once you earn the qualifying graduate degree, you can immediately become employed as a counselor or therapist within the profession you are seeking licensure.

Typically, post-graduate professionals earn higher wages than student professionals, and licensed professionals earn more and have greater job opportunities than non-licensed post-graduate professionals. 

How long does it take to become a counselor?

To become an LPC, most qualifying master’s degree programs can be completed in two years if attending full time throughout the entire year. This is manageable for those with limited family and/or financial responsibilities. Look for education programs that offer flexibility in length of time and course scheduling to accommodate your schedule needs.

Some students prefer completing a two-year program at a slower pace, finishing in three or four years. While obtaining work as a counselor as a graduate student is often possible, you can most easily secure a full-time professional counseling position upon graduation. Completing licensure requirements takes an additional two years after graduation, allowing access to better job opportunities.

What should I major in to pursue a career as a counselor? Is there such a thing as a bachelor’s in counseling?

At present, bachelor’s degrees in counseling do not exist. However, undergraduate degrees in sociology, social work, psychology, human growth and development, and related social and behavioral science programs all prepare you for graduate work in counseling or other independent practitioner graduate programs. 

It's important to know that you don't need a bachelor's degree in the social and behavioral sciences to be accepted into a graduate program for professional counseling (clinical mental health counseling). Instead, universities are looking for candidates who have strong academic abilities, personal integrity, and a desire to help others deal with life challenges, personal struggles, and/or mental health issues that require advanced training. So, if you have the passion and willingness to learn, you may be a good fit for a counseling program.

Anna Berardi, PhD, OR LPC; CA LMFT, is chair of the Graduate School of Counseling at George Fox University in Oregon, home to three counseling professional degrees:

All three degrees are CACREP accredited and fulfill the educational requirements for post-graduate licensure congruent with the degree earned.