How long does it take to become a counselor?

2010-07-20 Black windup alarm clock faceIf you are planning to become a counselor, it is important to give thought to the time and money it will take to work your way to licensure. The timing of steps along the way could impact your choices for when to get married, have children, or maintain employment in another field.

Presented here are the typical steps to a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) license and some common timeframes. [Note: Specific license titles vary by state. LPCC and LCPC are also common, with the first “C” in each standing for “Clinical.”]

The steps and timeframes listed here do not account for individual circumstances or the state-to-state differences in licensure laws. You should check the web site of your state licensing board (the American Counseling Association offers a handy directory of state licensing boards) to learn the specific requirements of the state where you want to license.

Note that a “typical timeframe” here means a common amount of time needed for those who are accomplishing that step through full-time work or study. If you build your career as a counselor through part-time work or study, to allow you to balance family responsibilities, maintain outside employment, or for any other reason, naturally your timeframe will be longer.

Progression to licensure as a mental health counselor usually follows these steps:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. Many schools will be OK with a major in a different field if you can demonstrate adequate base knowledge in psychology, through specific prerequisite classes, GRE subject test scores, or other means. Typical timeframe: 4 years.
  2. Complete a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related field. Note that some states have specific requirements for what degree content will make you eligible for licensure. In most states, you will need to demonstrate that your master’s degree program was accredited by CACREP (the accrediting body for counselor programs), or is equivalent to CACREP standards. If you ultimately want to teach at the graduate level, you might want to consider a doctorate in counselor education, which would naturally take a few years longer. Typical timeframe (masters degree): 2-3 years.
  3. Complete additional supervised experience under a licensed counselor or therapist. In some states, including California, other licensed mental health professionals can supervise you; check with your state to see what their supervision standards are. During the time between graduation and licensure, while you are working under supervision, your state may call you an “intern,” an “associate,” or something else, depending on the state. Most states require a total of two years of full-time, supervised experience for you to be eligible to sit for licensing exams; there is some variability here, too, however. Some states operationalize this as a 3,000 hour (or similar) requirement to account for those who may be working part-time or otherwise need to take longer. Typical timeframe: 2-4 years.
  4. Pass your state’s licensing exam(s). Throughout the US, states use either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE) as the major exam for counselor licensure. Though there are exceptions, the NCE is commonly used for states that have a broad counselor license, while the NCMHCE is used in those states that focus licensure more specifically on mental health care. Many states require a state law and ethics exam in addition to the national exam, since state laws vary in key areas like child abuse reporting requirements. While an exam itself is over in a day, the licensing board needs time to process your exam eligibility application, you need time to prepare, and you will need to schedule an appointment with a nearby testing facility. Typical timeframe: 6 months – 1 year. Longer if you need multiple attempts to pass.

Once you make it through that last step, congratulations! You have become a counselor. The state can now make you fully licensed, which typically means you are able to work independently in a private practice if you choose.

Overall, it’s good to plan for a total of at least 4-5 years from the start of your master’s degree all the way through to licensure. Your time may be longer based on your circumstances; it would be possible, but unusual, for your time to be any shorter.

Obviously, the steps above reflect a fairly average process. Requirements and processes vary by state and can vary based on additional factors. You should of course check with the licensing board in your state to learn the specific requirements there.

Comparing career paths? See our earlier post on how long it takes to become a marriage and family therapist.