Undergraduate vs. Graduate Counseling Degrees

Determining whether or not to pursue an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in counseling boils down to one question:  What job do you want to have? The question is not how much money you will need for school or how much time the degree will take, because money is available for those who are determined, and time passes whether you are in school or not. The only thing you really need to decide is:  What job will evolve into a desired career for you? What work can you do and be happy?

Associate Degree in Counseling

Associate degrees in counseling are available through community colleges and some online programs; the typical time required for completion is 2 years. The jobs available with an associate degree are limited; the degree is most often used for segueing to the bachelor’s degree. Available emphasis-related job positions include addiction counseling, career counseling and “life coaching.” Other possibilities include work as a psychiatric technician in a state mental hospital, and some institutions will hire rehabilitation workers as long as they have the necessary social science credit hours.

Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Bachelors’ degrees in counseling are conferred by colleges, universities, and online institutions. Although the years required for completion vary according to the school and attendance options, a B.A. program typically take 4 years.

Jobs that are available to graduates with a bachelor’s degree in counseling are varied and plentiful. Degree holders need not stay in the counseling field; many business entities hire those with counseling degrees to work in a variety of departments. Entry-level positions in the business world include: human resource assistant, insurance sales, advertising representative, travel and hospitality liaison, communications facilitator and client advocate; in short, anything that involves the complexities of human interaction.

Degree related placements can include: psychiatric technician, mental health technician, social work technician, human service worker, life-skills instructor, case management assistant, vocational rehabilitation assistant, government social services worker and non-profit worker.

The list is far from exhaustive, and each hiring entity will have its own title for available positions. With a B.A. in counseling, the graduate is well served by taking a creative approach to securing employment. Volunteering or interning for a desired employer is always a wise move to make during the undergraduate years.

Robert C. Smith B.A. was an undergraduate at U.C.S.B. when he decided to begin working on his career possibilities. He dreamed of living in New York, working for a world-famous hotel in guest relations. Living in Santa Barbara afforded him the chance to become acquainted with the hotel industry and he started off as a bell-hop. Thirty years later he is living in New York working in his dream job for a prominent hotel.

“I have always wanted to work with people in a problem-solving capacity. During my studies I found out that I wasn’t really interested in focusing on issues that were internal and complicated. I realized that I communicated especially well and found great satisfaction in finding answers to situations which ultimately made folks very happy. I began early to pursue my career. It worked out fabulously!” -Robert C. Smith B.A.

Master's Degree in Counseling

A master’s degree in counseling can be obtained from a college, university, or online program. The time period necessary is typically 2-3 years but can vary according to the policies of the school’s graduate counseling program.

Many of the jobs commonly associated with a counseling degree are available with a master’s degree and proper licensure:  school counselor, marriage (family) counselor, mental health counselor, career guidance/vocational counselor, rehabilitation counselor and social worker, just to name a few. Both private and public entities are in need of persons with masters’ degrees in counseling, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

Josh Woodward M.S., M.F.T., is a marriage and family counselor in private practice. He surprised himself with his choices but is ultimately a very happy individual.

“I used to picture myself somewhere in a third-world country helping people to build homes and plant gardens. Somehow I discovered that what I really wanted to do was have my own counseling practice in my home town. Not what I expected, but well worth the journey. My life is fulfilling and always transforming—just like I like it!” -Josh Woodward M.S., M.F.T.

Doctorate in Counseling

Doctoral degrees are conferred by colleges, universities, and online programs. The time required to receive a doctorate varies according to the program offered by the institution. Some programs allow for the completion of a doctorate simultaneously with the master’s degree; others do not. Not including internships, doctorate programs can take between 2-5 years to complete. Students considering a doctorate in counseling are wise to consult with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website. The APA is implementing new restrictions on internship candidates; they must have attended an APA accredited institution. A list of such approved colleges is available at their website and is a serious issue to consider for anyone deciding which college to attend for their doctorate.

A doctoral degree in counseling prepares one to be a professor, administrator, researcher, advanced clinician, and supervisor of high-level academic programs and projects. Typically a doctorate in counseling will lead the candidate to a career working with ideas, concepts, and their implications, while a master’s degree leads to working more directly with people. Some doctoral graduates intend to work in private practice with clients/patients, although that is a possible career path with a master’s degree.

Mary Theresa Phillips Ph.D. has been in private practice as a counselor for over 10 years. She remembers the decision making process she went through as a student;

“I always knew I wanted to be a counselor. When I was an undergraduate in a 4-year bachelor’s program I was unsure of whether I wanted to get my master’s or doctorate. I ultimately decided upon a doctorate because I thought that at some point I might want to be a professor at a university. I am actually thinking now about entering the university system, and I am glad I have the necessary credentials.” -M.T. Phillips Ph.D.

In Conclusion...

It goes without saying that one of the biggest challenges facing any student majoring in counseling or psychology is the reality of what jobs will be obtainable after graduation. The question definitely begs an answer long before the tassel is turned. Although the job market is not a surety, one thing is:  Careers do not come to you. Careers are built on focused dedication to knowing what you want and how to get it. Going to school is not enough. A degree gives you the chance to walk through certain doors, but the only person who will be opening those doors is you.

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