Some careers offer a limited number of pathways and opportunities after a person graduates. The good news is that counseling is not one of those careers. Counselors can work in agencies, community health centers or hospitals. They can start a private practice. They can run a clinic. They can work in or with schools. They can teach or do consultant work. They can get a doctorate and move into counselor education. They can pursue licensure and specialty certifications. They can even use the skills they have developed to work in positions outside of the field.
The bad news is that these myriad options can leave many counselors feeling overwhelmed and unsure about their next professional steps. What follows are a dozen common questions that beginning counselors (and even, on occasion, established counselors) ask about possible career paths. The insights offered by several different American Counseling Association members with varied backgrounds can provide some guidance on deciding which path might be right for you.
With so many options, where do I even start?
Start with the end in mind. To put career goals into perspective, Norm Dasenbrook, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) and owner of the private practice Dasenbrook & Johnson in Rockford, Illinois, as well as the consultant agency Dasenbrook Consulting, recommends that counselors ask themselves, “Where do I want to end up?” Or, as he sometimes phrases it, “What do I want on my tombstone?”
Do beginning counselors ultimately want to teach or do research? Do they want to treat clients? Do they want to own their own practice? These questions can help people figure out their priorities and chart their own path toward that long-term goal, he explains.
Shannon Hodges, a professor of clinical mental health counseling at Niagara University in New York, says determining a long-term goal and thinking through the steps needed to get there requires that counselors engage in self-reflection: What is their true passion? Do they want to be a professor, run a clinic, work in an agency, be a consultant or open their own practice? Furthermore, what do they know about the responsibilities involved with that career path? What are the steps required to make that career happen?
LeTea Perry, an LCPC at the Bridges Wellness Group, a counseling practice with offices in Washington, D.C., and Hyattsville, Maryland, recommends that counselors first figure out what is important to them. Do they mind working in the evenings or on the weekends? What are their personal obligations? Do they like conducting research, teaching, consulting or public speaking? Do they like working with clients? If so, what populations do they want to work with? Do they want to open a counseling office in multiple locations? Do they want to become known as the expert in a particular knowledge area?
No matter how counselors answer these questions, the important thing is that they choose a path that makes them happy both personally and professionally, Perry adds.
How do I learn more about my career options?
Hodges, a licensed mental health counselor and approved clinical supervisor, advises counselors to interview others in the field to learn about the responsibilities and realities associated with a particular job. Running a clinic or becoming a professor may sound like a great idea, but unless you talk to others who are actually doing the work, you won’t really know if it is a good fit for you and your lifestyle, he says. For instance, Hodges finds that counseling students who say they want to be professors have often neglected to talk with faculty members about what’s involved in that role. Many of these students don’t realize that professors are often promoted more for their research and writing; it’s not just about their teaching skills.
Judith Wambui Preston, a licensed professional counselor and owner of the private practice Centered Counseling Services in Chesapeake, Virginia, says that leaders in the profession can be great career resources. For example, a counseling student could contact the director of a mental health agency and ask how that person wound up in that position and what they do on a daily basis.
Mentorship provides another way for counselors to learn about career options. Perry stresses the importance of finding good mentors because beginning counselors don’t know what they don’t know. In her experience, professionals in the field are typically willing and even excited to share their backgrounds and wisdom. But beginning counselors have to take the initiative and ask.
Counselors should also strive to get involved with local and national professional organizations, where they are more likely to find mentors and be exposed to other professionals who have done what they want to do. Perry says most of her career opportunities have stemmed from connections she made by being a member of the Maryland Counseling Association and ACA and by being an alumna of Bowie State University and Argosy University.
Dasenbrook, a past president of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association, agrees that joining a professional association is worth the money. Twenty years ago, a colleague at a conference asked if Dasenbrook would host a workshop on starting a private practice because of his experience. Today, Dasenbrook presents this workshop at both the state and national levels. He advises counselors to get involved with their professional organizations by volunteering to be on a committee or volunteering at their annual conferences.
Supervisors also serve as career support, Preston notes. “The supervisor is the bridge between being a master’s student and entering the world of being licensed,” she says. Several supervisors have guided her through her career journey, and now, in turn, she serves as this bridge for new professionals.
Should I get a job if I don’t know what I want to do yet?
Yes. In fact, gaining practical experience often helps you figure out what you want to do.
Community mental health centers and state-funded or federally funded agencies are great places to learn more about the type of client populations and diagnoses that you want to work with, says Dasenbrook, author of After 40 Years in Therapy, What Have I Learned? and The Complete Guide to Counseling Private Practice.
Perry recommends that counselors make a career list and pick three counseling pathways that sound interesting to them. “You never know what you like or what’s your superpower until you try it out,” she says.
While getting her master’s degree, Perry worked with clients with severe mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as a case manager at a group home. To make a more informed decision about her career path, she decided to work with other populations before deciding between mental health and school counseling. So, she volunteered as a Girl Scout troop leader at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter. The children in the shelter were the members of her troop, and this outlet allowed the girls to have fun and engage with one another. After being drained by work and school, Perry found herself excited to see this group of girls. That’s when she realized that she wanted to work with children. She went on to be a school counselor in southern Maryland for more than a decade.
By trying out different jobs, “You’ll find the populations you thrive at working with,” Perry says. “You’ll see how much [money] you can make doing that and if you want to get further certified to move up in the ranks.”
What can I do with a master’s degree in counseling?
Many graduate counseling students come out of undergraduate psychology programs assuming that they’ll need to obtain a doctorate to have a successful career in the counseling profession, but that’s not the case, Hodges says. To reinforce this point with his students, he shows them that master’s counseling students at his university have a 100% placement rate and only around 10% pursue doctoral degrees. So, unless a student wants to be a full-time professor, they don’t have to earn a doctorate, adds Hodges, who has written several publications, including The Professional Counselor: Challenges and Opportunities and The Counseling Practicum and Internship Manual: A Resource for Graduate Counseling Students.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the journey from master’s degree to counselor licensure is an easy one, Preston points out. In fact, it is often a long and costly process. In Virginia where Preston practices, counselors have to accumulate 3,400 supervised hours before they can take their exams and become licensed.
But counselors who are working toward licensure still have lots of career options. They can work in mental health agencies, community mental health agencies, detox faculties, hospitals, residential facilities (e.g., psychiatric inpatient facilities), correctional facilities, schools and university counseling centers, Preston says. They can also find places to work that will pay for them to get supervision, she adds.
“The great thing about a training program like counseling is that the skills go well beyond the profession,” Hodges points out. He’s had several students who have used their counseling skills in professions outside of the field. For example, one student decided counseling was not for her, so she became a professional coach. Another former student served as the assistant director of human resources at a university and used counseling skills to handle sexual harassment claims, mediate disputes and talk with employees who were being fired.
Hodges has noticed that many colleagues working in student affairs (e.g., residence life, the office of the dean of students, student activities) also hold counseling degrees. “In this era of severe mental health concerns among college students, a counseling background is very helpful,” he adds.
Dasenbrook found a niche applying counseling skills such as “I” language, reflective listening and empathy to business and industry. For example, he has coached highly technical people who lacked the communication and people skills needed in their positions as directors or supervisors.
What are the benefits and challenges of getting a doctoral degree?
After Perry finished her master’s in school counseling, she got a job in a school system. That same year, she received notification that because of budget cuts, she might lose her job.
She was upset and angry because she had thought a job in public education was safe.
Perry took one day to cry about it, and then she made a plan to never be in that situation again. She decided to return to school and get her doctorate to increase her versatility and stability and to have more control over her future earning potential. With a doctorate, more opportunities have opened up for her, she says. She teaches as an adjunct in a counseling program, works in a clinical practice, and provides trainings on social-emotional intelligence, ethics and other counseling topics for community organizations and universities. The knowledge and expertise she acquired during her doctoral program have also put her in position to earn more money.
Hodges acknowledges that getting a doctorate can open up more job possibilities, but counselors should first weigh the benefits with the cost, he says. That cost can be high, involving several additional years in graduate school and a large financial commitment.
If someone is considering pursuing a doctorate, Hodges advises them to seriously consider the following questions: Will a doctorate help you achieve your career vision? Do you have a support system (e.g., family, friends, an active self-care plan) to assist you in this pursuit? What value will the doctoral degree add? What is the return on the investment? Given the high cost of education today, manageable debt is one of the first things that people need to consider, he adds.
Perry recommends that counselors figure out their motivation — their “why” — before investing time and money in pursuit of a doctoral degree. For her, that “why” boiled down to anger, fear and uncertainty at the possibility of losing her job to budget cuts and the desire to diversify her career options.
For Preston, the decision to get a doctorate was a long time coming. She had entertained the idea more than once over the years, but the timing never felt right. Her kids were young, or she was busy with her own clinical practice. Plus, after taking out school loans for her master’s-degree program, she had promised herself that she would not pursue a doctorate unless she had financial help. (For more on Preston’s career decisions after graduation, see her contribution to Julius Austin and Jude Austin’s Surviving and Thriving in Your Counseling Program, published by ACA.)
Now, 15 years after earning her master’s degree, Preston says it is finally the right time for her. She just finished her first year as a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at Old Dominion University in Virginia — with a tuition stipend.
What if I want to teach but don’t want to research?
There are ways to teach without having to research and publish. One option is to teach as an adjunct. Larger universities often require more research and publications, whereas adjunct faculty and some community college faculty positions don’t.
Conducting workshops is another way to teach others. Dasenbrook always wanted to teach, but because he didn’t have a doctorate, he knew it would be difficult for him to do so at a major university. Instead, he discovered that he could teach other counseling professionals how to improve their own skills and businesses through workshops. He has taught mediation skills for business and industry, and now he teaches workshops on how to start and build successful private practices.
Hodges has noticed some universities are hiring clinical professors, which is a faculty position that focuses more on teaching and supervision. One of his colleagues at Niagara University was hired to oversee clinical placements and teach part time. She was drawn to the position because she doesn’t have any desire to do research. Hodges predicts there will be more options for clinical-type faculty in other university counseling programs in the future.
Should I get some work experience either before or during my doctoral program?
Preston thinks there is some value in having clinical experience before getting a doctoral degree. “When a professor is talking about a theory or technique in class, you’re coming in with another lens. You have familiarity with what that professor is talking about … because you have actually experienced it,” she explains.
But there is also a benefit in going directly from a master’s program to a doctoral program, especially because it can be challenging to readjust to academic life once you leave, she adds.
When Hodges was in graduate school, he wanted to get as much practical experience as he could. He did internships while also working at agencies and career centers. He also took two years after earning his master’s degree in counseling to work in the field. Then, when he started his doctoral program, he worked part time at an agency during the school year and full time during the summer.
This experience allows him to speak from a real-life knowledge base, not just a theoretical one, when he teaches. Students appreciate the practical examples he provides, he says.
Several of Hodges’ students have also chosen to work in the counseling field for a few years before returning to school to earn a doctorate. They say those experiences can help counseling students determine whether a doctoral degree is the right path to pursue.
Hodges believes that is a good plan. He often advises counseling students who aren’t sure whether they want a doctorate to get a job in a clinic and get licensed first. Then, they can teach part time in a counseling program and decide what the next steps for their career should be.
Do I need practical experience as an educator?
“Academics [often] have very little professional practice because they tend to be separate careers,” Hodges points out. “But it’s really an advantage to have several years of experience working in direct services or maybe even running programs because you understand practical, day-to-day issues.”
Dasenbrook thinks that counselor educators should be licensed in the field in which they are teaching, and Preston says that some universities prefer employing educators who are licensed. Having practical experience in the settings they are teaching about allows educators to discuss real-world examples, which benefits students who want to become clinical counselors,
Being licensed also provides counselor educators with more diverse career options, Preston continues. Even with a doctoral degree, they need a license to practice independently; otherwise, they can see clients only under supervision, she points out.
Of course, having practical experience is not required to make someone a better professor. Preston says she has had plenty of professors without clinical experience who were wonderful teachers because they found other ways to increase their clinical knowledge, such as interviewing clinicians in the field and regularly attending trainings and conferences.
How do I balance being both a clinician and an educator?
Trying to juggle multiple professional roles at once can be challenging. For their own well-being, counselors must establish boundaries, and if they have too much on their plates, they have to be willing to let something go, Perry says.
Counselors should take on new projects in small doses to avoid overwhelming themselves, Perry continues. For example, if a clinician is working full time in an agency, they could choose to teach just one class on the side, or a full-time professor could start by taking on only a limited number of clients to see how that goes.
Although working in multiple roles undoubtedly expands the potential of increasing a counselor’s earnings, experience and expertise, counselors should take into account the possibility of a learning curve for each new role or project, she adds.
Hodges knows the struggle of shouldering too many roles at once. During his doctoral program, he was a teaching assistant for both the psychology and counseling departments, plus he worked part time in an agency off campus. This schedule didn’t give him a day off and pushed him toward burnout, so he eventually had to quit one of his jobs.
“Part of why [counseling] exists is to help people have balanced, healthy, rewarding lives. We have to make sure we’re doing that ourselves,” Hodges says.
At another point in his career, he realized that he wasn’t meeting that goal. He was driving an hour each way to work at an agency that he loved while also teaching, writing, researching and serving on journal boards. So, he made the decision to adjust his career plan. He stopped working at the agency and focused his energy on researching, writing, and taking international service trips to Africa and to remote parts of Australia during the summers when he wasn’t teaching.
What nonclinical skills do I need as a mental health professional?
When Hodges was in his master’s program, an alumnus came to talk to his class about careers. The man asked them, “Who wants to be a counselor?” Hodges remembers that all 30 hands went up.
Then the man asked, “Who wants to be an administrator?” Only five students raised their hands, but the alumnus predicted that in five years, most of the class would be administrators of some kind.
In Hodges’ case, that prediction came true. In his career, he has served as director of a university counseling center and as the clinical director of a county mental health clinic.
After getting some clinical experience, counselors often move up the career ladder to management and administrative positions. At that point, “Your management experience actually starts to supersede your clinical experience,” Hodges says. In these positions, counselors can find themselves negotiating with unions and outside agencies such as family services, jails or hospitals. And they often have to interact with vice presidents and CEOs of organizations.
When Hodges ran a clinic in rural eastern Oregon, he had to interact with the state hospital, testify in court, handle frustrated county deputies, oversee prison contracts and deal with a counselor who had an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. Such administrative skills aren’t covered in most counselor education programs, Hodges says, so he had to learn them the hard way — on the job.
Hodges is thankful for one supervisor who pushed him to develop those skills by posing hypothetical situations. One time, the supervisor asked Hodges to write a correction plan for how to handle a therapist who was not doing a good job at work. The exercise forced Hodges to consider how he would help the employee improve their job performance, how much time he would give the employee to get better, and what reasons he would recommend for retaining or firing them.
Is private practice a viable option? How do I learn the business side of it?
“There’s this urban myth in a lot of counseling programs that you can’t make it in private practice,” says Dasenbrook, who, along with Robert Walsh, helped launch ACA’s Private Practice Initiative many years ago. “But if you’re good at what you do and you can get yourself out there, you’re going to do just fine.”
Counselors have the clinical skill set needed to open a private practice, he emphasizes. The problem often lies with the business aspect — marketing and billing, for example. Dasenbrook’s advice is to get a mentor and learn the business side of running a practice. That mentor doesn’t have to be another counselor; they can simply be someone who has started their own business, he says.
Workshops, trainings and college classes are also great ways to learn these skills. As an undergraduate, Perry got a concentration in business, but if she were to do it all over again, she says, she would minor in business or double major in business and a study field related to counseling.
“Business majors have a personality and mindset that counselors can acquire,” she says. “We are the helping profession and givers by nature, but we also need to be business minded. It is important for us to brand ourselves and look at things from a business perspective to monetize our gifts and talents effectively.”
What is the likelihood that my career plans will change?
Be prepared for career plans to change. Counseling students often start graduate school with preset plans, Hodges notes. He once had a student who said she would never work in the area of addictions. When her first choice for practicum didn’t work out, she had to go with a backup plan — a substance use treatment facility. She ended up loving the job so much that she continued to work with the agency after she finished her master’s.
“Perhaps tolerance for ambiguity is a real career asset,” Hodges notes. “You never really know how you will feel about a job or career until you embrace it.”
Dasenbrook’s own career journey has taken several turns. He dreamed of opening a clinic for sex therapy after graduating. While he was working in a community mental health center, he put together a small team — a counselor, a psychologist, a gynecologist and a neurologist — and made his dream a reality. But because there wasn’t a high demand for sex therapy in Rockford, Illinois, at the time, the practice lasted only six months.
Even though that career path didn’t work out as Dasenbrook had envisioned, he made professional connections through the venture, and the other doctors began referring clients to him.
“You never wind up where you start,” Dasenbrook points out. For that reason, he advises counselors to “be open to possibilities, to be open to something new.”
Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives (2017): “A path well chosen”
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.