Becoming a Career Counselor

Close up of business handshake in the officeWhat Is Career Counseling?

While growing up, some people want to be astronauts, police officers, race car drivers, teachers, doctors, nurses, or even cowboys. Me? I wanted to be an FBI profiler. Of course, our first career choices don't always work out. We either grow out of them or later find that they aren't suitable for us. The career tests that I took in high school pinned me as the brainy, quiet, creative type - perfect for a writer, but not so much for an FBI agent. While what I do may not be as exciting as chasing down scary, crazy bad guys every day, it really is the perfect career for me.

Of course, I'm one of the lucky ones. Some aren't so lucky. You've probably heard it a thousand times or more…

  • "I hate my job!"
  • "I don't make enough money."
  • "My career isn't challenging enough."
  • "My job is too difficult for me."
  • "I'm bored with my career."

These are the laments are uttered by countless people each and every day. In fact, recent studies show that over half of Americans are unhappy with their jobs and careers.

Career counseling offers a way to change this. This is a type of counseling that focuses on helping people make the best of their careers, whether they're just starting out in the work force or they've been in it longer than they care to admit.

One of the first major books written on the subject of career counseling and guidance was Choosing a Vocation by Frank Parson in 1909. Katharine Briggs came up with the idea of different personality types in the early 20th century. Together with her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, she later helped create the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This test was originally used during World War II to help place women in positions in the industrial workforce, depending on their personality types.

Today, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is still widely used for the same purpose, along with a number of other tests. In recent years, many people have finally started to realize the importance of being satisfied with their careers. This realization will most likely make for more opportunities for career counselors.

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Why Do We Need Career Counselors?

People work in order to be able to afford to live the lives that they desire. Careers and working are essential necessities in life for the majority of adults in the world. Most people will spend at least a quarter of their adult lives working.

Career counseling can help point people in the right direction when it comes to choosing careers that they will excel at and be happy with. Being happy with a career can lead to a happier home life and a greater sense of accomplishment.

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What Does a Career Counselor Do?

Career counselors work with all sorts of people, from all walks of life, of all ages, with all different education and experience levels. These professionals might offer guidance and advice, for instance, to powerful businessmen or even just high school kids just starting out in the world.

The main goal of a career counselor is to help their clients find careers that suit them and careers that they are suitable for. There are a number of things that career counselors might want to consider when trying to accomplish this task.

  • Aptitude and Skills A person's aptitude and skills refer to his ability to do something. Career counselors will often interview and test clients to determine where his strengths lie, and therefore, which careers he would be good at.
  • Education Career counselors will also usually take in a client's education level - or desired education level - when attempting to help his find the right career, since many careers require a certain amount of education. These counselors might also consider whether or not a client continuing his education is possible or advisable.
  • Personality A person's personality will also usually play a role in determining the best career for him, since different personality types usually excel at different types of careers.
  • Interests Career counselors also take their clients interests into account when advising them on the best career options for them.

To determine some of these factors, career counselors will often ask their clients to take a number of tests and surveys. For instance, clients might take IQ and aptitude tests, as well as fill out questionnaires on their interests and skills. S mentioned above, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is still one of the most common tests that career counselors use. This test reveals a person's personality traits, which can be used to determine that might be a good fit for them.

Career counselors will also usually help their clients research and get started in their new careers. This might involve helping them search for jobs along with writing resumes and cover letters.

Along with helping some clients find the right careers, career counselors will also help others improve their existing careers. They may offer advice and guidance on how to get a promotion, for instance, or just how to have a more enjoyable experience while at work.

Where Do Career Counselors Work?

Career counselors work in high schools and colleges to help students get ready for their chosen careers. They might also work in social services offices, employment and staffing agencies, and private practices.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Career Counselor?

 Counseling Educational Track
Education Requirements Education Length Available Programs
Undergraduate Work Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling 4 Years Online or Campus
Graduate Work Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling 5-6 Years Online or Campus
PHD or Doctoral Work Earn a Doctorate in Counseling  7-8 Years Online or Campus

Most career counseling careers start with bachelor's degrees in areas such as psychology, counseling, or vocational psychology. Many schools also offer graduate degree programs in career counseling, which can lead to more job opportunities with higher salaries.

Generally, career counselors should also be licensed, particularly if they choose to open private practice. Along with completing several strict education requirements, you will also usually need to complete about 3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork, depending on what state you choose to practice in. Be sure to check with your state's licensing board.

Find additional information about programs that offer psychology degrees in your area at the Find a School Page.

What Is the Annual Average Salary of a Career Counselor?

For salary data purposes, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumps career counselors in as a part of "educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors" category. According to the BLS, as of May of 2014, career counselors made an annual average salary of $56,040 with the top 10 percent of the profession making an average salary of $86,610. As one might imagine, schools and universities are the largest employers of career counselors and elementary schools pay the most of that group.

Influences on Career Counseling
  • Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which can be used to determine a person's dominant traits. This information is used by career counselors to determine what careers their clients would be best at.
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Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Career Counselors

In the January 2014 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that the predicted increase in jobs for entry-level career counselors holding a Master’s Degree would be 12% over the next eight years. The statistics targeted counselors new to the field, with neither work experience nor on-the-job training. The projected increase would lead to an additional 31,200 employment opportunities by the year 2022. The report also indicated that in 2012 the average annual salary for an entry-level counselor with a Master’s Degree was $53,610 per year or $25.77 per hour.
Although the statistics recognized the inevitable increase in student populations at all levels; it factored in the possible decrease in funding for career counselors from both state and local governments due to fiscal cut-backs.

Where Are Career Counselors Most Likely to Find Employment?

The Department of Labor recently disclosed that almost half of all career counselors work in elementary and secondary schools. The next largest employers were colleges and universities with 19%; junior colleges accounted for 8%. The remaining 6% were employed in the sector comprising of vocational rehabilitation services. Notably, the Bureau of Labor’s statistics did not encompass the aspect of private practice as an avenue of employment for career counselors; that is however, a viable option for those who meet the requirements mandated by the state in which they reside.

Career Counselors: Elementary Schools

Typically referred to as “school counselors,” elementary career counselors are concerned primarily with assisting children to expand their abilities with regards to making decisions as well as implementing into their routine essential and productive study habits. Most importantly, elementary school counselors are responsible for aiding children acquire a comprehensive understanding of how present behaviors directly affect future goals and aspirations. The counselor works with the child’s parents, other teachers and administrators to effectively incorporate the abilities of the child with the school’s curriculum.

  After 35 years as an elementary school counselor/teacher, I would have to say that one of the most rewarding aspects of the job was witnessing a child have the experience of knowing they could control their behaviors; that they were indeed responsible. Once they realized they could change certain things about themselves with help and support, they progressed to taking charge and changing their lives. This was an amazing process of which to be a part.  

Darlene Houston M.A, M.S.
Sacramento, California

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Career Counselors: Middle Schools

In the middle school setting, career counselors (often referred to as “guidance counselors”) work with students on a one-to-one basis for the purpose of helping students discover their strengths, weaknesses, talents and goals. An integral part of this process is assessing the child’s sense of self-esteem/self-confidence and their ability to function in the school, at home or within an extracurricular context. Guidance counselors assist school administrators in scheduling the student in appropriate classes as well as coordinate communications between parents and school officials.  

Career Counselors: High School

At the high school level, career counselors have a pivotal role in assessing a student’s academic strengths, weaknesses, and how they relate to any career toward which the student has shown interest. If the student is preparing for college, the counselor assists with the entire process; from obtaining admission to financial aid concerns. The main role the career counselor plays is to fully prepare the student for life after graduation; whatever that would entail.

For today’s career counselor it is imperative to act as a “bridge” connecting the high school student with the outside world. The job requires that the counselor have a broad knowledge of existing professions and their potentials relative to the socio-economic climate. It’s a forward looking position that mandates strong skills in communication; a holistic approach to the child’s well-being and the ability to assimilate the child’s present skills with the future in terms of opportunity.” - Marilyn Smith M.Ed, M.A  Rhode Island Educator

Career Counselors: Junior College

The roles and requirements of career counseling at the community college level vary according to the Department of Education requirements in the prospective states. In the spring of 2007, the American College Counseling Association formed a Community College Task Force supervised by Amy Lenhart, Chair of ACCA Community College Task Force. The purpose of the task force was to conduct a national survey to acquire data regarding common practices of community/2 year colleges and specifically assess their prospective career counseling programs. The data revealed:

  • 78% of community colleges have trained career counselors.
  • Across the board, the community colleges that did not provide career counseling services referred students to providers which were located off-campus.
  • 78% of the counselors held Master’s Degrees.
  • 58% of the counselors were not required to maintain “independent state licensure.”

Career Counselors: University / College

At the university-level, the role of the career counselor varies greatly from that of counselors working at the primary and secondary levels. Career counselors who deal with the student in the earlier years of their development have the responsibility of both academic counseling and career counseling. At the university-level the two are divided. Dr. Jennifer Bloom (University of Illinois) compiled a series of seven articles regarding university-level career counseling entitled; “Developmental Academic Advising in Higher Education.” The gravamen of the compilation was the need for further clarification as to how the career counseling paradigm differs from that which is present in the academic counseling sphere. The working definition they utilized was:

“Career counselors help students find careers that fit their values and goals.”

Although quite simple; a similar definition was purported in a recent statement published by National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Career Counselor in the Field of Vocational Rehabilitation

The career counselor in a vocational rehabilitation setting is working with persons who suffer from various mental and physical challenges. According to Dayna Chochran, director of a vocational rehabilitation center in Poteau, Oklahoma; the job of the career counselor in this capacity is as follows:

  • The career counselor must make an assessment of what capabilities and limitations the client may have.
  • The career counselor must work at assisting the client with setting goals with regards to job placement and independent living.
  • The career counselor must procure the required training and facilitate any specific therapies necessary to meet the client’s goals.
  • The career counselor assists in all aspects of training for the target vocation and is finally the client’s primary resource for assistance in placement.

What Characteristics and Personality Traits Assist the Career Counselor in Being Successful?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor there are four traits a career counselor has or must acquire in order to be successful. They are:

  1. Compassion: Students and clients may frequently feel overwhelmed by stress and peripheral challenges. The successful career counselor demonstrates a compassionate nature and seeks to empathize with those they are counseling.
  2. Interpersonal Skills: A successful counselor is able to navigate the various aspects of human relationships. Because they often play the role of mediator, it is vital that the counselor be able to disengage emotionally and objectively seek the well-being of the student/client.
  3. Listening Skills: The ability to focus on the students’/client’s expressions of need are vital to being a successful career counselor. The counselor must hear as well as listen.
  4. Speaking Skills: The career counselor must excel in the ability to communicate with all persons; students/clients, teachers, parents, school administrators and other members of the community through which their counselee’s needs are met.

Nurturing of the abovementioned four skills will ensure that a career counselor is in the right field. The qualities apply to all forms of career counseling: school counselor, guidance counselor, college career counselor and those counselors in vocational rehabilitation services.

How Can I Increase My Earnings as a Career Counselor?

Traditionally, an increase in salary for a career counselor will be based on the number of years the counselor has been working in the field and what degrees they hold. Each year the counselor is given a raise (amounts vary according to location.) If a career counselor seeks to advance to another pay grade they must acquire additional credentials. A counselor with a Ph.D. will progress yearly on a higher scale than a counselor with a Master’s Degree.

Recognizing an increase in the monetary value of their position; career counselors employed in any of the following positions; Primary School Career Counselors; Secondary School Career Counselor or High School Career Counselor, typically look to the American Federation of Teachers. The American Federation of Teachers basically sets the standards in a report published periodically. The report defines the appropriate salaries for each state in the nation based on the cost of living index. Counselors use this guide to assess whether their salaries are on par with the industry norm in their area. Each surveyed area sets its own rate of pay; a career counselor in New York City would be advancing on an entirely different pay scale than that of one working in a small town school in Arkansas.

The standards for Junior College Career Counselors; University/College Career Counselors and Vocational Rehabilitation Career Counselors vary according to the ownership nature of the institution (public or private) and all other above mentioned factors; cost of living in the geographical location, years employed and educational merits.

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