Counselors-in-training often ask me how much money a counselor can expect to make in a year. In many fields — education, for example — that is a fairly simple question. But not so for counselors.
Counselors basically have to work for free until they complete their graduate work. Then, depending on where they land employment, they must work from the bottom up until they are fully licensed. As a general rule, I tell my students to plan on five years post-bachelor’s degree before they really start making a decent living and can focus on their preferred areas of practice. That is a long time and, even then, annual incomes vary tremendously. So, here are some considerations for counselors who are just starting out in the field.
The easiest path: By far the easiest path for therapists is to be hired by an established practice or hospital. Here counselors might make a little less than they would on their own, but they don’t have to bother messing with insurance companies (other than documentation), paying the light bill or scheduling. In private group practice or hospitals, you show up, put in your hours and go home. Working 20-30 hours a week is not uncommon in such circumstances, but your hours are set for you, and you may have zero flexibility.
Expect no-competition contracts in these practices. This means that you can’t leave the practice and take your clients with you. In some cases, you also won’t be able to open a private practice within a certain number of miles of the place you worked should you decide to leave.
Subleasing: A nuance on the “easy path” is joining an existing practice by subleasing office space. Here you may have to pay your own light bill and cover expenses, and you will do your own scheduling and billing. In this scenario, you might make more money per clinical hour, but with billing and paperwork, 20 hours per week is a very busy practice. One advantage of this option is that you will have the built-in benefit of the reputation and advertising of the existing practice (assuming that reputation is good, of course).
Opening your own practice: Starting your own practice provides maximum flexibility and freedom, but this path requires you to start from the ground up in creating your client base. Plus, you will be doing all of your own advertising, web building, billing and scheduling. This approach takes energy and commitment.
Teaching: Once you complete a master’s degree, you are qualified to teach at the undergraduate level. Many counselors teach college courses in-seat or online as an additional revenue stream and for variety in work experience. Online courses usually pay around $1,500 per course ,and traditional in-seat courses usually pay around $3,000 per course. This experience also provides you with potential referrals from students. Contact the department chair of a college or university where you might like to teach for more information. Have your vita and transcripts ready.
Consulting: Consulting with schools, businesses, churches, law enforcement, lawyers and other public agencies not only provides additional income but can also put your name out there with other agencies.
Working for free: Generally, I want to get paid for my work, but doing pro bono work as a consultant might put you in position to make more money later. I worked for one worldwide company for almost 10 years and never charged them a dime, but I made tens of thousands of dollars from referrals because of my affiliation with that company. I knew that was possible, which is why I agreed at the onset to provide free services for them.
CEs and presentations: As with teaching or consulting, providing continuing education workshops and presenting at professional meetings can help get your name out there to a wider audience. In this type of networking, it is critical that you polish your “act.” A poorly presented seminar can earn you more name recognition, but not in a good way. When I started teaching at the FBI Academy many years ago, the director at the time told me, “I opened the door for you, but you had to keep it open.” That’s important advice.
Specializations, licensing and certifications: In combination with maintaining your license(s) and involvement with local and national organizations such as the American Counseling Association, specializations can help you build your practice. Receiving training in marriage and family therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, play therapy, dialectical behavior therapy or other specializations can serve to set you apart from others in the field and bring in clients. Achieving specialty certifications can also give you the option of charging a higher per hour rate.
I can’t be exhaustive in discussing all revenue streams in a short column, but depending on where you live and which of these routes you pursue, a counselor in full-time practice can make a very healthy living. You just have to work for it.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.