Deciding to pursue a master’s degree is a big decision, and a smart one. You will increase your earning power and career options in a just a few years. For counselors, graduate study is often a necessary prerequisite for jobs in the field. Employers look for candidates with advanced academic and clinical training.
Choosing the right school is paramount for your professional success. In order to qualify for higher-paying, more prestigious job opportunities, you want to make sure the college or university you choose will provide the training and certifications you need to secure employment. The information below will guide you through the process and help you evaluate your options.
- What area of specialty is right for me?
- How do I choose the right school?
- Is an online program a good fit for me?
What area of specialty is right for me?
You can specialize in any number of areas in the counseling field. Once you’ve chosen an area of specialty, make sure the schools on your list offer this program. You may want to focus on school counseling, mental health counseling, addiction counseling, marriage and family therapy, or any other area. Each specialty is a viable career path. Just make sure the area you choose fits with your interests and career goals.
At this point in your academic and professional career, there is a good chance you already know what specific area of counseling is your passion. However, if you’re still deciding what specialty to pursue, the following questions will guide you towards your desired position.
- Clientele: What type of population do you want to work with? (e.g., young children, inner-city students, people with specific issues such as addictions or eating disorders, families, etc.)
- Locale: What type of agency or work environment interests you most? (e.g., hospitals, private practice, university counseling centers, schools, community mental health agencies)
- Service: Are you interested in developmental counseling, crisis counseling, or working with families?
How do I choose the right school?
Now that you’ve narrowed your focus, other criteria should not be overlooked. Each school offers unique programs, varied learning environments, and exclusive financial aid opportunities that will impact your decision so make sure to consider the following:
- The ratio of teacher to student
- Financial aid options and scholarship opportunities
- Time line of graduation in accordance with your personal goals and possible job offers
- Notable alumni in your field
- Online programs offered
- Ranking among other colleges
- Safety (if school is a brick-and-mortar)
Finding this information is relatively easy; visit the school’s website or speak to an admissions representative. Also, Google the school and see what else you find. Graduate school is expensive so you want to learn as possible about the school and that all your questions are answered before enrolling.
Location of School
Location can also play a role in your decision on where to attend school. Certain parts of the country employ more counselors for various reasons. For example, densely populated states often need more school counselors and other mental health support services. Notice in the graph below, the location quotient of rehabilitation counselors in the United States this past year:
Knowing which states have the highest employment level for each specialty area might influence your decision on where to attend school. Also, consider how close the school is to home and how much time you’ll spend commuting to and from campus.
Is an online program a good fit for me?
Now that you’ve likely narrowed your options significantly, you might have determined that distance learning might be a good option for you. If you need to continue working or maintain other obligations, an online program offers the flexibility and self-pace that traditional schools do not.
It’s important to find a program that fits with your lifestyle and learning preferences, but how do you know if online learning is right for you? Consider the following as you decide between on campus or online classes:
- Do you prefer face-to-face interaction with other students and professors?
- Do you rely on explanations to help you understand assignment requirements and reading materials?
- Do you learn best in a more structured environment with regular hours in one location?
- Do you prefer to have concepts explained on a blackboard or whiteboard?
- Do you enjoy working on a computer and learning new applications?
- Are you comfortable with computer technology?
- Do you want the flexibility of being able to participate in a particular class on days and at times and places that are convenient for you?
- Are you independent and self-motivated?
If both traditional and online learning sound appealing, a hybrid or “blended” model of instruction might be an option:
- Does your schedule allow for on-site courses after work or on the weekends?
- How do you feel about incorporating both online and face-to-face elements throughout the program?
Once you’ve answered these questions, identify those schools that best fit your individual needs and interests. If you think an online program might be a viable option for you, consider the criteria below:
- Does the program require a clinical internship or rotation hours?
- How long will it take to complete the program?
- Are courses taught by licensed professionals in the field?
- Does the school offer assistance with clinical and internship placement?
- How versatile is the degree and will it be recognized in multiple states?
- What is the school’s success rate with licensing exams and job placement?
- Can I customize the program if I want to focus on a particular or multiple areas of mental health?
Your Final Decision
Now that you’ve weighed all the factors, are you ready to move forward with your education? Remember, going back to school is a big financial decision. You want to make sure you’ve chosen a school that can adequately meet your individual needs and goals. Being a licensed counselor requires intensive study and commitment, and as previously stated, most employers now require applicants to have a master’s degree. Just keep the following in mind:
- Degrees Offered
- Job Placement Success
- Location (online, onsite, or both)
Now that you’ve considered all possible factors in selecting a graduate school, you’re well on your way towards a challenging and very rewarding future in counseling. Check out our list of accredited schools below to help you find the right program based on your career objectives.