MS vs MA in Counseling – What’s the Difference?

Students trying to pick the best master’s in counseling degree can have a hard time deciding between a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in counseling: both degrees cover one subject, but they do so in very different ways.

In addition, choosing between graduate counseling programs can also mean deciding on a particular career path even before starting graduate school. Below are a factors to consider when deciding on which path to take:

Educational Background

Traditionally, an MS in counseling is best suited for students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, while a master of arts in counseling is ideal for students with a general bachelor’s degree, such as English.

One advantage in choosing to pursue an MS in counseling is those students can start on their specialization early: For example, a student planning to become a school counselor can focus on educational/learning psychology in school while a student who wants to become a hospital counselor can specialize in mental health topics and grief counseling.

Conversely, students earning an MA in counseling do not choose a focus; instead, those students take general counseling courses. MA students are also required to complete a thesis or research project to graduate. Once the student’s master’s degree, whether it’s an MS or an MA, has been completed, they are then eligible to begin the counselor licensing process.


Usually an MS or an MA in counseling takes about two years to complete; however, the length of time students are in school depends on their particular program and whether or not they’re attending part-time or full-time.

For the student who’s eager to begin in his or her chosen counseling field, some colleges offer an accelerated program that allows students to complete their bachelor’s and master’s degree in counseling in five years rather than six.

Career Goals

Because of the specialized experience gained while earning an MS in counseling degree, those counseling students usually go on to be counselors in the specified area they have chosen after earning their counseling license. Areas of specialization for licensed counselors include mental health, addiction, family/marriage and education.

Students with an MA in counseling can also go on to earn their counselor’s license, but a license is not required to pursue what most MA in counseling students go on to do: teach or research counseling. Graduates with an MA in counseling can also continue their counseling education at the doctorate level, no licensing required.

Graduates of both master’s degrees must complete a certain amount of clinical hours in order to receive their counseling license. The actual number of clinical hours and other requirements differ from state to state. It’s important for students completing their MA or MS in counseling degrees online to make sure their chosen school has a partnership with a local hospital or other facility in order to earn the real-world experience needed for a license.

Educational, Vocational and School counselors

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for educational, vocational, and school counselors is $53,380.

Substance Abuse and Behavior Disorder counselors

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors is $38,120.

Mental Health counselors

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for mental health counselors is $38,150.

Rehabilitation counselors

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for rehabilitation counselors is $32,350.

Marriage and Family therapists

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for marriage and family therapists is $45,720.

Counseling psychologists

  • According to O*NET, the average annual wage for counseling psychologists is $66.810.

What MA/MS in Counseling programs are available?

Whether you’re considering enrolling at traditional brick-and-mortar institution or at an online university, you should look at every degree program with a critical eye. It is crucial to know if the program is accredited by a National Accreditation Agency, if it properly prepares students for licensure and certification exams, and if it offers a specialization/focus aligns with your career goals.

The following featured programs fulfill these criteria and might make excellent options:


Liberty University

  • SACS

Grand Canyon University

  • HLC

University of the Rockies

  • HLC
  • NCA

Northcentral University

  • HLC
  • NCA

You can also click here to search a database of 100+ accredited degree programs (both campus and online).

Employment Outlook

In addition to counselors’ salary information, the government has also projected that counseling careers will continue to grow faster than the average career through 2018. This projected growth will vary by specialty, but job opportunities should be favorable because job openings are expected to exceed the number of graduates from counseling programs, especially in rural areas.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that overall employment of counselors is expected to increase by 31 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is faster than the average for all occupations in the United States.

Employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is expected to grow 31 percent from 2012 to 2022 because:

  • More people suffering from addiction will seek out treatment.
  • More drug offenders are sent to treatment programs instead of jail.

Employment of educational, vocational, and school counselors is expected to grow by 12 percent from 2012 to 2022. Employment of vocational counselors will increase because:

  • More people will undergo multiple job and career changes.
  • More people will become aware of vocation counseling services.

Employment of educational and school counselors will increase because:

  • Elementary schools are required by state law to employ counselors.
  • School counselor responsibilities are expected to expand, including crisis and preventative counseling as well as helping students deal with issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to death and suicide.

Employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow by 29 percent from 2012 to 2022 because:

  • More insurance companies are providing for the reimbursement of counselors as a less costly alternative to psychiatrists and psychologists.
  • More individuals are willing to seek help from mental health professionals.

Employment of rehabilitation counselors is expected to grow by 20 percent from 2012 to 2022 because:

  • As the elderly population grows, the need for treatment for will grow because that age group becomes injured or disabled at a higher rate than other age groups.

Employment of marriage and family therapists is expected to grow by 29 percent from 2012 to 2022 because:

  • More people are seeking help for their marital and family problems than they were in the past.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has outlined its job outlook findings in the table below.

Making the Choice

While an MS in counseling is generally better for students who eventually want to practice in the field and an MA in counseling is best for students wanting to research or teach, either option is a possibility no matter which counseling graduate degree has been completed.

Before making a final choice, students should make sure to research a variety of graduate schools, both traditional and online. For more information about counseling graduate programs, visit the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs’ website or the American Psychology Association’s website for a list of accredited graduate programs.

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