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What Does a Counselor Do?

A counselor is a mental health professional who helps individuals work through issues in all stages of life. Their specific role can vary depending on where they work and who they work with as clients.
A counselor doing his job, speaking with a client he’s sitting across from.

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At SNHU, we want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions about your education and your future—no matter where you choose to go to school. That's why our informational articles may reference careers for which we do not offer academic programs, along with salary data for those careers. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Life is full of obstacles, transitions and times of conflict. Counselors can help make navigating these challenges a little easier. If you want to spend your career improving the lives of others, then becoming a counselor could be a great fit. So, what does a counselor do day to day?

Counselors can work in a variety of capacities. They may help their clients manage mental health conditions, adjust to parenthood, overcome addiction or even handle a change in career.

If you’re interested in becoming a counselor, it’s important to understand the main role of a counselor, where they can work and how to become one.

What is the Role of a Counselor?

A counselor is a mental health professional who helps individuals work through issues in all stages of life. Depending on where a counselor works, their daily work may differ. But the primary job of a counselor remains the same.

Dr. Abby Dougherty, a clinical faculty member at SNHU.

“On a basic level, counselors support their clients to develop goals around wellness,” said Dr. Abby Dougherty, PhD NCC LPC (Pa), a clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) with a small private supervision practice, supporting counselors in training toward receiving their Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) certifications. “That might be around emotional health, behavioral challenges or career issues. We can work in a lot of different capacities.”

As a counselor, you might help a teenager struggling with OCD learn coping mechanisms to improve their daily life. Or, you might help a couple develop better communication skills to improve their relationship.

Your specific role can vary depending on where you work and who you work with as clients.

What Are the Duties of a Counselor?

While every job is unique, most counselors are responsible for several common tasks throughout the day, said Dougherty.

These include:

  • Client Assessments: Assessments help counselors gather background information from new clients to learn more about the issue that led them to seek counseling.
  • Continuation of Care: Counselors also often connect with a client’s other healthcare providers to ensure they are receiving the care they require to support their goals.
  • Crisis Intervention: Counselors also help clients dealing with a mental health crisis, such as self-harm, an addiction relapse or a divorce.
  • Individual or Group Counseling Sessions: Counselors work with individuals, couples, families and groups to listen with empathy and set goals related to each client’s concerns.

What’s the Difference Between a Counselor and a Therapist? 

A counselor and a therapist are similar jobs, said Dougherty, and the terms are often used interchangeably. But there is a difference between counselors and therapists.

The primary difference, said Dougherty, is the education and credentials required to become a counselor, which can vary by state.

Learn more about how to become a therapist.

Counselor, on the other hand, is a protected title, and you must meet specific state requirements to practice.

Counselors typically need a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), said Dougherty. Counselors must also meet state-specific work experience requirements and complete ongoing continuing education training in order to get and maintain a license to practice in their area.

Where Can a Counselor Work?

As a licensed counselor, you could have a variety of career opportunities available to you in many different settings.

“Counselors can really work anywhere,” Dougherty said. “That’s one of the really awesome parts about being a counselor. You can really make this career what you want it to be … Once you have that license, you can do all kinds of things.”

According to Dougherty, some of the common places counselors work include:

  • Community health organizations
  • Hospitals and other medical offices
  • Human resource departments
  • Mental health and rehab facilities
  • Schools and universities

There are also great opportunities to be your own boss with a career in counseling. You could open a private practice or even create online courses for clients or other counselors.

“Gone are the days when you had to do just straight one-on-one clinical hours,” Dougherty said. “You can work in consulting, teaching and developing courses."

What Are the Types of Counseling?

An icon of two hands holding a heart.

Just like the places you could work as a counselor are varied, so are the types of counseling you could focus on.

Some counselors may work with individual adults, couples, families or children. Others may specialize in group counseling or even virtual counseling.

There are also a variety of counseling specialties in which you could build a career. According to Dougherty, these specialties include:

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Family Counseling
  • School Counseling

Other counselors may choose to focus their work on a specific condition or issue they support their clients through, such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, OCD, relationships and more.

How to Become a Counselor

If you’re ready to explore a career in counseling, it’s important to understand the steps you’ll have to take before you can work in the field. No matter what kind of counseling you hope to pursue, the first step is education.

1Earn Your Bachelor's

Your first step toward becoming a counselor is earning your bachelor's degree in a related field, like psychology.

Dr. William La Valle, a licensed psychologist and psychology instructor at SNHU.

According to Dr. William La Valle, a licensed psychologist and instructor of psychology programs at SNHU, a psychology degree teaches you about how the mind works, including how mental, social and physical health impact each other.

"You will explore mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as what treatment looks like for each disorder," La Valle said. "Additionally, you will discover how research impacts the field of psychology."

A bachelor's in psychology can prepare you for an advanced degree or entry-level psychology jobs, including certain non-clinical positions.

"A non-clinical counselor can often work to provide general support or engage in non-clinical roles, but isn't allowed to deliver treatment directly to individuals," La Valle said.

2Get a Master's Degree

To become a licensed counselor, you’ll have to complete a master’s degree in counseling (Note: SNHU's master's in clinical mental health counseling is not currently accepting applicants).

When choosing a master’s degree program, make sure it is CACREP-accredited, Dougherty said. Graduating from an accredited program is required if you want to seek certification and licensure later.

A typical counseling master’s degree includes 1-2 years of traditional in-person or online classes, said Dougherty. During the program, you’ll learn a variety of technical and soft skills needed for success in the field, including:

  • Assessment and treatment techniques
  • Client consultation, treatment, intervention and prevention
  • Evidence-based therapy approaches
  • Socially and culturally appropriate skills
  • Strategies for client support and advocacy

But if you're interested in a non-clinical counseling role, you might consider a different master's program. La Valle noted that some non-clinical roles include working as an administrator, as an industrial-organizational psychologist providing consulting services, as a forensic consultant to the police or as a mental health business owner.

Depending on your interests and goals, you might decide to pursue a master's in organizational psychology or a master's in forensic psychology.

Find Your Program

3Get Professional Experience

Getting hands-on professional experience is also a key part of becoming a counselor. Counseling master’s degree programs typically include real-world learning and internships so you can start applying your knowledge to the field right away.

After you’ve earned your counseling graduate degree, additional professional experience is required before you can get licensed. While requirements vary by state, most states require at least 3,000 hours of practice supervised by a licensed counselor before you can apply for licensure yourself, said Dougherty.

4Seek a Counseling Certification

Before you’ve completed the professional experience required to be licensed, you can apply to become a National Certified Counselor (NCC) from the National Board of Certified Counselors.

Dougherty said this is typically the first certification counselors receive since you can even apply for it while you’re still in graduate school. If you want to work in a specialized area of counseling, like career counseling or school counseling, additional certifications will be required.

5Become a Licensed Counselor

An icon of a certificate with a star.Once you have earned a master’s degree and completed your state’s required professional hours, you will be eligible to apply for a license. Licensure allows you to accept insurance reimbursement and is a recognized title by your state, opening up additional professional opportunities.

Requirements and specific licensed titles vary by state. Your state may require the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE). Some states require both tests in order to get licensed. Be sure to review your state’s specific requirements before beginning your journey to becoming a counselor.

What Are the Qualities of a Good Counselor?

While a state license may be the credential you need to work as a counselor, you’ll also have to build some critical soft skills if you want to be successful in the field, said Dougherty.

“Some folks think being a good counselor is just about being a good listener, but it’s really more than that,” she said.

Counselors must understand how to work within the mental health and healthcare systems to find resources for their clients, Dougherty said. They also need cultural competence and empathy to help them work with clients who are different from them.

Communication skills, leadership skills and conflict resolution skills are also critical, said Dougherty, especially when you’re working in a group setting or working with couples and families.

Career Opportunities for Counselors

Once you’re a licensed counselor, there are many opportunities to grow your career and your income, said Dougherty.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors was $53,710 in May 2023.* The median wage for school and career counselors was $61,710 the same year, BLS reported.*

Job opportunities for counselors are also on the rise. Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is projected to rise 18% between 2022 and 2032, according to BLS data.* Jobs for school and career counselors are expected to grow 5% during the same time period, BLS said.*

Demand for counselors is expected to grow even more in the coming years, said Dougherty, as telehealth counseling services expand and many long-time clinicians retire.*

“Even with the rise in the amount of counselors graduating, that won’t come anywhere near meeting the need,” Dougherty said.* “The students who are choosing to get into the field now have made a good decision.”

Discover more about SNHU’s bachelor's in psychology. Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. She started her career working as an education reporter for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she reported on local schools and education policy. Gagnon served as the communications manager for a private school in Boston, MA before later starting her freelance writing career. Today, she continues to share her passion for education as a writer for Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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