If you have a strong sense of empathy, desire to help and the ability to listen thoughtfully to other people, you might consider a career in counseling. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for qualified counselors is strong and expected to grow up to 23 percent by 2026, depending on the specialization.

The American Counseling Association recently agreed to a unified definition of counseling:

Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.”

Counselors aim to provide nonjudgmental and compassionate care for clients, whether they are individuals, families, couples or groups. They work with clients to provide support, resources and guidance as they work toward mental health, wellness, education and career goals. They work with established mental health principles, methods, procedures and ethics.

Most counseling positions require a master’s degree and state certification. While much of the coursework would be broadly related to psychology, sociology, research and counseling, you’ll also work in your area of specialization.

Who Counselors Serve


On TV and in movies, the stereotype of mental health counseling involves a client stretched back on a couch, revealing his or her deepest secrets or a counselor displaying inkblots and interpreting a troubled client’s response.

But in reality, there are many different ways that counselors serve individuals. Some clients need long, goal-oriented relationships with a counselor; some just need a periodic check-in. Individuals may see a counselor for mental health and wellness therapy, family or social problems, addiction issues or even academic or career planning.

Counselors may also help individuals in groups.

Couples and Families

Couples typically seek counseling when their relationship reaches a rocky point. The counselor then serves as mediator to help them work through their concerns and conflicts. But many couples engage a counselor preemptively and use therapy as a tool to maintain a healthy  marriage.

Family therapy focuses primarily on the family environment and interaction. Depending on the situation, family members may meet with a counselor as individuals or as a group, or some combination thereof.

Teens and Children

There are counselors in private practice that focus solely on teens and children. Schools also employ counselors who not only deal with the mental health wellness of the students, but also have other responsibilities. Those may include working with teachers to solve disciplinary issues, evaluating and supporting students with special needs or learning differences, providing the school with programs including drug and alcohol prevention programs and conflict resolution classes.

School counselors may also work with students on academics, college or vocational prep and life skills.

Counseling Careers Guide

UWA’s Guide to Counseling Careers is a free resource that can help you navigate this in-demand field. Take a closer look at some of the most popular counseling careers.

Access the Guide

Where Counselors Work

Counselors can be found all over the private and public sectors, performing a wide variety of jobs. Here are just a few potential workplaces.

Private Practice

You can’t just hang out your shingle, as the saying goes, and start a practice. As with many specialized professions, counselors need to earn a license before they are legally allowed to practice. Usually this means that you must reach a certain level of academic attainment and you must pass a comprehensive exam administered by the licensing body. This license will likely need to be renewed on a regular basis.


While counselors cannot prescribe medication to patients unless they go to medical school and earn their MD, there are still roles for them at hospitals. Rehabilitation counselors work with people on the personal, social and vocational effects of disabilities. Counselors also work with individuals and families on emotional and mental health when they have experienced loss, are facing imminent loss, or are undergoing a prolonged treatment for an illness or injury.

Community Agencies

Community agencies may be public agencies, set up by the government to provide support services to certain communities or they may be non-profit agencies. Counselors at these agencies typically work with marginalized or underserved populations. Places like homeless shelters, refugee agencies, veterans’ organizations and children and women’s support agencies may have counselors on staff to help clients work through trauma and mental health issues.

Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Substance abuse counselors work with people who face drug, alcohol, gambling and food-related addictions. Centers can be non-profits, public agencies, faith-based, and even for-profit. They could be located in a church facility or a swanky retreat center where celebrities seek addiction recovery.

Some substance abuse centers treat people on an individual basis, others employ group therapy and sometimes there’s a combination of both. Most substance abuse therapy involves the family and loved ones of the person who is experiencing addiction, at least to some degree. Counselors are trained to design individual recovery plans for clients.

Your Future as a Counselor

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for counselors in 2017 was $43,300 a year, but pay varies widely depending on the specialty you choose. Educational requirements can vary from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, a master’s degree and an internship is typically required to become a mental health counselor.

The University of West Alabama Online offers several degree programs that will enable you to pursue a career in counseling. Develop the skills and knowledge needed to help people, all in a convenient, fully online format from one of Alabama’s oldest and most prestigious universities.