In order to practice as a counselor, most states require professionals to hold a master's degree in the field and, as well as the appropriate licensure or certifications. While earning a graduate degree may seem intimidating for non-traditional, adult, or working students, online learning provides the flexibility for degree-seekers to complete coursework when it suits their schedule. Read on to learn more about earning an online master's degree in counseling, including the types of courses offered, the time to completion, and the range of careers graduates can pursue.

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What to Expect in an Online Master's in Counseling Program

An online master's in counseling program typically builds upon an undergraduate degree through high-level courses and internships or supervised work experiences. Specific requirements vary based on the school and program, so read below to learn more about some common features among curricula.

Sample Courses for an Online Master's in Counseling

Students learn about advanced topics such as psychological assessment, counseling philosophies, and theories of psychotherapy. Moreover, many schools also offer concentrations that allow students to complete courses within an emphasis area. For example, someone specializing in trauma and crisis counseling might take courses that are otherwise not available in a general curriculum, such as crisis management and vicarious trauma. Finally, most counseling master's programs require students to complete an internship or practicum.

Psychological Assessment

Students learn different theories and methods of assessing patients. The course covers commonly used counseling assessment strategies, like interpretation, rationale, and administration. It also examines psychological illnesses such as cognitive, behavioral, or developmental disorders. Students also consider multicultural factors that may complicate different assessments.

Career Counseling

Students in this course develop skills for career and vocational assessment. They learn to administer tests that can help people identify their interests, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as where to find career information through the internet and other resources.

Family Systems and Domestic Violence

This course covers the psychodynamics of families, specifically spousal abuse. Students learn strategies to detect abuse and ways to prevent it or intervene. Learners also explore how to help victims escape from abuse by developing safety plans and providing victims with community resources.

Group Counseling

Group counseling follows a different process than individual counseling where the counselor facilitates discussion and patients interact with each other. Students learn how to lead group counseling sessions through different group work methods or activities, as well as how group work can lead to therapeutic release and resilience.

Lifespan Development

Counselors may work with patients of various ages, so they must understand how different developmental stages affect people across the lifespan. The course covers emotional, cognitive, and social issues, and learners explore how socioeconomic status or cultural differences can affect lifespan development. The course may also delve into the science of psychopathy and abnormal psychological development.

Online Master's in Counseling Completion Time

The length of an online counseling master's can vary depending on several factors: credit requirements, internship length, and whether students take courses on a part- or full-time basis. Most programs require students to complete 48-60 credits, which can take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Some schools allow students to transfer credits from previous graduate study, which can reduce program time.

Online degrees usually offer more flexible options than their on-campus counterparts.

Online degrees usually offer more flexible options than their on-campus counterparts. This means students who work full-time or care for families can enroll in one or two courses a term, although this means they may take longer to finish the program. Other students might take accelerated courses, letting them graduate more quickly. Online programs may also feature cohort learning, which means students take courses alongside their classmates, and they follow a fixed schedule. In this case, the school predetermines the program length.

Skills Gained in an Online Master's in Counseling Program

Counselors must possess an expert understanding of therapeutic techniques and methodologies, as well as soft skills like communication, listening, compassion, and patience. While coursework provides a theoretical introduction, students practice and develop these skills during internships and supervised work experiences.

  • Interpersonal skills

    Counselors encounter people with different disabilities, traumas, and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Counseling professionals must develop empathetic relationships with all of their clients.

  • Communication skills

    A large part of a counselor's day involves listening with their full attention, and responding to clients. Miscommunication or lapses in communication can inhibit a client's process.

  • Analytical skills

    When patients tell counselors their problems, counselors must construct possible solutions and take into account any multicultural factors or threatening situations. This requires counseling professionals to think analytically to make useful assessments.

Online vs. On-Campus Programs: What's the Difference?

Online programs typically offer the same curriculum as on-campus programs; however, the schedule may be different. For instance, on-campus students attend lectures or classes at specific times in person, while online students watch lectures or follow along with classes through a digital system. Asynchronous courses allow distance learners to log on at their convenience, although sometimes synchronous courses require students to watch lectures at specific times.

Additionally, both online and on-campus counseling programs require students to complete internships. Distance learners can accomplish this by finding an internship in their local vicinity. The instructor or department head usually reviews and approves the internship.

Career and Salary Outlook for Online Master's in Counseling Graduates

Graduates can pursue counseling careers in several different fields, including substance abuse, rehabilitation, and marriage and family therapy. In fact, students may find counseling degrees with a specific focus or specialization to prepare for these careers -- for example, an online master's in school counseling or a master's in mental health counseling online. The table below outlines potential jobs with a brief description, education requirements, and the median annual salary. For more in-depth information on counseling careers, visit this page.

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors

These counselors work with patients struggling with addiction. These professionals help people recover from their addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. They can work in a crisis or non-crisis intervention capacity. Some states require these counselors to hold a master's degree; typically, employers prefer job candidates with graduate degrees.

Median Annual Salary: $44,630

Mental health counselor

Mental health counselors guide clients wrestling with any number of mental conditions, like anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal impulses, or grief. They work with clients to identify the reasons for their mental health struggles, and develop treatment goals. Employers favor professionals with master's degrees, and some states require mental health counselors to hold master's degrees as well.

Median Annual Salary: $44,630

School and career counselor

School counselors help children succeed academically in elementary, middle, and high school. They help younger children with special needs or behavioral issues, while counselors in high schools often help students apply for college or determine a career path. Career counselors help people looking for jobs by evaluating clients' job skills and identifying potential jobs. Almost all states require school and career counselors to hold master's degrees.

Median Annual Salary: $56,310

Marriage and family therapist

Marriage and family therapists provide guidance for couples and family systems. Typically clients go to marriage and family therapists when they encounter problems within their relationships. Therapists help clients work through their problems by developing strategies to cope with conflict. These professionals need at least a master's degree and licensure to practice.

Median Annual Salary: $48,790

Rehabilitation counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work with clients to overcome disabilities. This may include physical, emotional, mental, or developmental disabilities which hinder people from living independently. Rehabilitation counselors create treatment plans for their clients, and help them locate resources that can aid their recovery. These counselors need a master's degree, although licensure requirements vary by state.

Median Annual Salary: $35,630

Education and Training Beyond a Master's in Counseling

Certain fields within counseling require professionals to possess specific licensure or certification in addition to a master's degree. Nearly every state requires school and career counselors -- as well as marriage and family therapists -- to hold licensure in their area. Some states also require rehabilitation, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to practice with licensure.

Gaining licensure usually involves completing a certain number of internships or supervised clinical experience. States may require counselors to complete anywhere from 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised work experience. In addition, counselors need to pass an exam issued or approved by the state. Usually practicing counselors must participate in continuing education opportunities throughout their careers to keep licensure.

Counselors may also opt to earn their doctorate degrees in counseling. Professionals who love teaching and research may earn their Ph.D., which allows them to work as faculty members at colleges and universities. Doctoral students can also earn a Psy.D., which prepares graduates to work as licensed psychologists. Psychologists usually work with people with more serious mental illnesses.