So You Want To Be a Counsellor?

I’m very touched when folks approach me and ask what they need to do to become a counsellor; I thank them for their trust.

It affirms my faith in humanity knowing that there are people who want to make a difference in the world. Choosing counselling as a profession, IMHO, can be a sincere way of expressing that.

And I feel for anyone new to the counselling career question, wondering how to best proceed. There are numerous options! 

And I want to be clear: there could be options that I’m not aware of, and while this article is long, and likely of interest only to those interested in the counselling field, it is not intended to be a definitive tome on the subject. Please research multiple sources of information when trying to get answers to your counselling career questions, particularly direct information from the schools that you are considering!

My Biases

As many of you know, my counselling office is in Vancouver, I’m a registered clinical social worker, licensed in British Columbia, and I’m educated in Canada, so I’m going to be writing from these perspectives. Some of what I write may be applicable to your situation and geography, although again, you would need to do your own research to be sure.

While I am not endorsing a particular counselling education path, however I can say that I do not support a DIY, or no-training approach; I consider this unethical and dangerous to the public. I am also biased towards the legal regulation of counselling—or, counselling-related professions that are legally bound to practice in a manner that is accountable to the public, following established ethical principles and professional standards.

Counselling in British Columbia

As I’ve written about previously, the title “counsellor” is unregulated in the province of BC, despite longstanding (and ongoing efforts) to change this. Anyone with any, or even no training, can call themselves a counsellor in BC without violating any laws. It is up to the (often unsuspecting) public to do their research about counsellors’ training and registration. The BC Health Regulators Association publishes a list, which also includes general information about regulated health professions—i.e. professional colleges which have legally binding practice standards that their members must comply with.

And not all registered counselling professionals are actually legislated in the way they can practice; some are mandated by professional associations that have practice requirements for their members, or registrants, but these associations are not bound by legislation in the same way the professional colleges are (although their members must maintain the association’s ethical and practice standards in order to remain registered, unless the association is unaware that any breeches have occurred).

And as I’ve noted above, some counsellors have no professional college or professional association at all.

Counselling Education Options

There are several educational options when it comes to pursuing a counselling education.

Counselling Certificates or Diplomas

Certificates are typically shorter than diplomas. Certificates in counselling are generally less than a year, while diplomas may range from 1-2 years. Certificates and diplomas in counselling may be general, covering a broad range of counselling areas and skills or specific to a particular client population/skill set (for example, addictions counselling, career counselling, child and youth counselling).

Bachelor’s Degrees

I am currently unaware of any bachelor degree university programs specifically in counselling psychology. If readers know of any, please let me know!

Generally, a bachelor’s degree is the first stage before applying for a master’s program in a counselling-related field. Common (but not exclusive) degrees at this level are a bachelor of arts in psychology (BA), a bachelor of science in psychology (BSc), or a Bachelor or Social Work (BSW).

Typical bachelor degrees in BC are 4 years, with an additional year to graduate with honours.

Bachelor’s degrees are often known for their focus on theory, as opposed to learning practical counselling skills, although this is not necessarily so, particularly it the student is enrolled in a co-op education program or in what is sometimes called a ‘professional program’ such as the BSW. It is good to do your research!

Master’s Degrees

This is a popular option when it comes to training counsellors, as it combines and deepens theoretical counselling knowledge, often acquired in undergraduate studies, with counselling skills acquisition and development. Graduate counselling students will also choose a focus of more intense study which is often the basis for a thesis, if chosen by the student. They have previously completed a bachelor’s degree.

It is important to research schools and determine what the school’s theoretical orientation is and the coursework being offered, as this can vary from school to school.

Time to complete is often 2-3.5 years, depending on the school. This is in addition to the time it took to complete a bachelor’s degree.

The most common counselling-related masters-level graduate degrees include the Master of Arts (MA) in psychology or counselling psychology, the Master of Social Work (MSW) LINK, the Master of Education (M.Ed) and the Master of Counselling (MC). This however, is not a complete list.

PhDs and PsyDs

While it’s important to note that many folks who have PhDs in social work or PhDs / PsyDs in psychology, provide counselling and psychotherapy as part of their work, most professionals at a doctorate level would not generally refer to themselves as counsellors.

Some of the key questions listed under Master’s Degrees, above, will also apply to doctorate programs. I have also have written about psychology training in a previous article.

Questions to Ask When Considering a Counselling Program

Some questions will be universal, regardless of whether you are considering a counselling certificate, a counselling diploma, an undergraduate degree or a graduate program, while other questions will be more relevant to some counselling education options than others.

  1. What schools have programs that interest you? What features of the programs are appealing and why? Can you identify any factors that could be problematic or be a poor fit for you?
  2. Particularly relevant for those pursuing graduate education, what is the school’s theoretical orientation? Stated values?
  3. What education, training and counselling experience do the instructors have? Particularly in universities, who is on faculty and what are their research interests? What practical experience do faculty members have practicing counselling?
  4. What is the cost of the program or degree? What are your funding options?
  5. Is the school publicly funded or private? Private is typically costlier and does not necessarily mean “better.” What is the school’s reputation in your community?
  6. What are the course offerings and do they match your learning needs and interests?
  7. Does the school have a part-time option if important to you?
  8. Does the program have a practicum/internship or co-op program?  What is the length? Are students responsible for finding their own practicum placement or does the school have a practicum coordinator who does this for you? Is there a representative from the school who mediates if the practicum placement is not working well? How is student performance in practicum placements/internships evaluated?
  9. What is the ratio of academic study to practical skills training? How are practical skills taught?
  10. For graduate students, what thesis options does the school offer? Thesis only? Thesis proposal + additional coursework/practicum? What would work best for your learning needs?
  11. Is the program on campus or online? If online, how is skills practice achieved?
  12. Would potential employers recognize a certificate, diploma or degree from the school you are considering? What is the minimum education level that they require for their counselling staff? Have they previously hired grads from the school(s) you’re interested in?
  13. Credentialing: What professional college or associations are you eligible for and would your education from the school you are interested in meet their requirements?

Some General Points and Questions to Keep in Mind When Considering a Counselling Career

Again, this list is not exhaustive but rather, is designed to help spur questions relevant to your needs.

  1. What is your motivation to go into the field?
  2. What does self-awareness mean to you and how would you rate your level of self-awareness? How do you cultivate it? I belabour this point because I consider elf awareness is a key component in ethical counselling practice.
  3. Have you participated in counselling as a client? It is a valuable experience to be “on the counselling couch”, both in terms of building empathy but also with regard to sharpening self awareness.
  4. I strongly recommend extensive clinical supervision and counselling experience before working independently as a private practitioner. Ideally, private practice counsellors are comfortable with multiple clinical counselling challenges, can think independently, are rooted in ethical decision making, are familiar with their professional standards of practice and have a breadth of experience to help guide them. Therapists, both new and experienced, should hire or maintain regular contact with a clinical supervisor to ensure ethical, safe and accountable counselling practices. I do myself!
  5. Join a professional college or association, once you have completed training, to heighten accountability to the public and help ensure public safety.
  6. Choose a reputable school or university to complete one’s training; what is the institution’s reputation in the field and in your community? How well are graduates received by potential employers? Call employers to find out! What is the curriculum and does it align with your values and your educational and career goals?
  7. Costly does not necessarily mean better! While private schooling options should be researched and considered, public universities and colleges—which tend to be more affordable—may, in some cases, have a better reputation and/or curriculum.
  8. Does the school you’re interested in have an information session where you can see the campus, meet the people and ask questions? Is there the opportunity to meet and talk with recent graduates?
  9. Do you have the time, energy and finances to commit to the program? What is the timeline required to complete the program? Are full and part time options available? Are there funding options available?
  10. Does the school have a practicum component? How many hours a week is it and for how long? Are students responsible for finding their own placement or does the school arrange this? Sometimes it can be challenging to find an agency willing to take graduate students…also does the agency have experience training graduate students? What is the school’s process if students have difficulty with their placement?
  11. In choosing a school, how are counselling skills taught? Book learning? Practicum placements? In-vivo class experiences? etc.
  12. How is the program delivered? On campus, online, a mix of both? If online, how are counselling skills taught?
  13. For those considering a career in private practice, many clients rely on third party insurance to enable them to afford to attend counselling. Insurance companies typically only cover counselling professionals belonging to a professional college or association, although insurance plans vary according to which category(ies) or counselling professionals that they will cover. Some insurers will even ask for a copy of the counsellor’s degree.
  14. While I wholeheartedly suggest that you choose a school with a solid reputation, I have avoided the use of the term “accredited”, because Canada does not have a national or regional accreditation program for post-secondary institutions; rather, each province has quality assurance processes. This webpage will help get you started on this complex topic.

My best thoughts and wishes to all who are interested in considering this distinctly rewarding career! I remind myself regularly of what a great honour it is for me to do this work.