Usually, people who want to be counselors or “do counseling” are interested in talking with people to help them resolve personal or emotional conflicts or problems. Professionals who work as counselors provide services in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, social service agencies, prisons and juvenile detention centers, and private practices. Occupationally speaking, the term “counselor” is very broad and is associated with a number of different specific careers. Some jobs in the counseling field require Master’s degree or Doctorates but others require Bachelor’s degrees or, in a few cases, high school diplomas. State licensure is usually a requirement for professional counselors and, to be eligible for licensure, professionals must meet specific educational and work experience requirements. Supervised field work (often called internship) is often a required part of the education and training in the counseling professions.
This section will help you sort out the different options and decide which may be right for you.
Important career terms related to counseling
Psychotherapist: This is a general term that encompasses several different professional titles. Sometimes just called a therapist, this role involves working with individuals, families, couples, and/or groups on mental health and emotional difficulties. In most states, psychotherapists must have Master’s degrees or higher and are subject to strict licensing regulations. Professionals who practice psychotherapy include social workers, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, specially trained nurses and nurse practitioners, mental health counselors, and marriage and family counselors. A psychotherapist may work in a private practice, public, or nonprofit agency settings and services are generally covered by insurance plans.
Mental Health Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor: Specific professional licensing titles vary by state but these two titles refer to professionals with Master’s degrees or high in counseling and have been licensed in the state(s) in which they practice. According to the New York State Education Department’s Office of Professions, “mental health counselors address mental health, human relationship, education and career concerns within ethical, developmental, preventive and treatment contexts. Mental health counselors demonstrate a concern for the short-term and long-term well-being of individuals, couples, families, groups and organizations.”
Social Worker: Many professionals who provide counseling services are social workers, however, social workers also work in a wider variety of roles and settings such as advocacy, policy, and administration. To practice counseling as a social worker (also referred to as clinical social work) in most states, one must complete a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and obtain state licensure. Individuals may obtain a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) and deliver some social work services under supervision but is not eligible for licensure. New York State has two levels of licensure: a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) may practice all social work services under supervision and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) may practice independently.
School counselors or guidance counselor: These professionals hold a minimum of a Masters degree and “qualified to address all students’ academic, personal/social and career development needs” (American School Counselor Association). School counselors work with students in elementary, middle/junior high school, and high schools. Completion of a graduate degree in school counseling and state licensure is required for employment.
Psychologist: When we hear the term psychologist, we typically think of a psychotherapist but this is actually only one of the roles that psychologists play. Clinical psychologists have completed doctorates in psychology and state licensure practice psychotherapy in a variety of mental health settings. Psychologists are also trained at the doctoral level to research human and/or animal behavior in research institutions or universities or apply psychological principles to various real world problems in businesses or government settings. Doctoral degrees in psychology include PhDs and PsyDs.
School Psychologist: School psychologists provide assessment and counseling services to improve children’s academic, social, and emotional well-being. School psychologists do less academic and occupational planning with students than guidance counselors and often conduct educational, intelligence, and psychological testing. To become a school psychologist, one must have a doctorate in school psychology and obtain a state license.
Substance Abuse Counselor: People who provide treatment services to those dealing with alcohol or drug problems often have the job title of substance abuse counselor. These professionals may have licensing and education in a variety of fields including mental health counseling or social work. But there are also ways to become a substance abuse counselor with a high school diploma (or GED) or a Bachelor’s degree only. In New York State, individuals are eligible to become a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) if they have a high school diploma or GED, 350 hours of education and training in substance abuse treatment, and 6,000 hours of supervised work experience providing substance abuse services. See the link below to the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) for more details on requirements.
Caseworker: The term caseworker is often confused with the position of social worker but they are not one-in-the-same. A professional social worker must have a Master’s degree and license, as described above. A caseworker may be a licensed social worker but the term describes the activities that the worker does more than the professional title. Casework typically involves working closely with an individual or a family to provide them with advocacy, resources, support, and information. It is not a counseling profession in the typical sense, though caseworkers are likely to use some of the same supportive and communication skills used by counselors. Caseworkers often are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in a human service field but it is important to read job descriptions carefully to understand the requirements for a particular position.
Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with special training in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. To become a psychiatrist, one must complete a Bachelor’s degree that meets pre-med requirements, four years of medical school, and at least four years of residency and other specialized training in psychiatry. For the most part, modern psychiatry focuses on the treatment of mental health disorders through medication and other medical interventions. Very few psychiatrists practice psychotherapy today.