Earning a Master's in Counseling Online

What You’ll Learn & What You Can Do After Graduation

Should I Pursue a Master's in Counseling Online?

Counselors often take a holistic approach to treating their clients, addressing emotional issues and helping people regain a sense of peace in their lives. The value of emotional and mental wellbeing continues to be recognized by healthcare providers, regulatory agencies, and insurance providers. Professional master's degrees in counseling online programs offer students practical skills to work in general practice, or specialize in fields such as child counseling, family and marriage counseling, addiction counseling, or trauma counseling.

Overall, the mental health counseling profession continues to grow at a rapid pace, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 23% increase in jobs through 2026, especially in rural or underserved communities. All states require mental health counselors to obtain a license before treating patients, and accredited master's in counseling programs often meet educational requirements for licensure through rigorous curricula, hands-on internships, and supervised work experiences. The guide below offers information on potential career opportunities and common coursework for individuals seeking this degree.

Employment Outlook for Master's in Counseling Graduates

Master's in Counseling Salary

Salaries for mental health counselors range from less than $27,310 to upward of $70,840, with a mean wage of $46,050 across the United States. Several factors impact pay, such as years of experience, professional credentials, areas of specialization, chosen industry, employer, and geographical location. Online counseling master's degrees often prepare graduates for professional credentials that enhance their resumes and demonstrate expertise in a particular practice area. Jobs with government agencies report a mean wage of $55,880, while individual and family services pay a mean salary of $44,580 per year. California offers the highest earning potential for mental health counselors, $47,070, while West Virginia, for example, pays an average of $33,570.

Top Paying States for Mental Health Counselors

State Employment Annual Mean Wage
California 15,300 $47,070
Pennsylvania 13,020 $43,480
Virginia 8,980 $48,310
New York 6,970 $42,070
Massachusetts 6,830 $45,030
United States 139,820 $46,050

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Pay by Experience Level for Mental Health Counselors

  • Entry-Level (0-5 Years):
    $38,000
  • Mid-Career (5-10 Years):
    $41,000
  • Experienced (10-20 Years):
    $44,000
  • Late-Career (20+ Years):
    $46,000

Source: PayScale

Master's in Counseling Careers

Counseling offers many opportunities to help others, with all areas of the profession experiencing strong job growth ranging from 16%-23% through 2026. Counselors have the option to open a practice, establishing the clients they will serve and setting their hours. They might also work through government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public or private schools, or healthcare providers. While counseling often focuses on clients' mental health needs, social work careers require individuals to collaborate across organizations to meet a variety of needs. Communication, empathy, and attention to detail serve anyone entering a counseling profession.

Mental Health Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $40,354

Some mental health counselors serve as generalists, treating a variety of conditions among diverse populations. Others may specialize in specific client populations, such as the elderly, families, or children, or in treating particular conditions, such as anxiety, stress, or suicidal impulses. Any counselor treating patients must obtain a state license that includes earning a master's in counseling, online or on campus, completing a year or more of supervised work, and passing licensing exams.

Trauma Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $41,630

Trauma counselors work with individuals who have experienced trauma, such as childhood abuse, surviving a violent crime, or serving in combat zones. The counselors may work with clients one-on-one or with groups of people with similar experiences. These mental health professionals may work in private practice, through government agencies or schools, or with medical or mental health providers. Some jobs require specialized certification following completion of an online master's in counseling and supervised work experience.

Addiction Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $39,527

Individuals overcoming substance abuse and addiction need help learning to live substance-free, and to address any underlying mental health issues that may have contributed to their drug or alcohol abuse. Addiction counselors may lead group therapy sessions, facilitate 12-step meetings, or work with clients individually. Many states rely on professional certification to ensure addiction counselors effectively treat clients and adhere to professional standards. Certification requires a combination of education, supervised work experience, and passing national credentialing exams.

Clinical Social Worker

Annual Median Salary: $53,157

Clinical social workers not only provide mental health diagnosis and treatment, but also help clients with other needs, such as finding safe and affordable housing, accessing medical services, or applying for government aid or entitlement programs. Social workers may help patients coordinate medical care and cope with the emotional toll of a serious illness.

Adolescent Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $40,629

These counselors specialize in treating children age 12 through adulthood. They may provide mentoring and coaching to make healthy choices, assist clients in adjusting to life changes, such as divorce or death in the family, or work with youth experiencing behavioral issues either in consultation with parents or as part of court-ordered treatment and rehabilitation.

What Can I Expect From an Online Master's in Counseling Program?

Accredited online master's in counseling programs require 48-60 credits, including coursework in counseling theory, treatment methods, and psychopathology, combined with intensive internships under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Students may complete their degree in 2-3 years, depending on the time they dedicate to school. The exact courses you will take may vary depending on school and area of specialization, but the list below offers a sample of standard classes.

Curriculum for an Online Master's Degree in Counseling

  1. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theory: Students review the theories that form the foundation of various methods of counseling and psychotherapy. The course may include role-playing exercises, discussion of concepts guiding clinical assessments and evaluations, and development of intervention techniques. Students also discuss the role of clients and patients in the counseling relationship.
  2. Group Counseling and Psychotherapy: Students delve into the theories supporting the use of group counseling sessions in mental health settings. They learn how to lead sessions to ensure productive conversations that help all clients. The curriculum includes the principles of group dynamics, the roles and behaviors of group members, and criteria to use when determining if group counseling may be useful for your client.
  3. Family, Marital, and Couples Counseling: Many clients seek counseling when they experience difficulties in their marriage or family relationships. In this course, students learn about the family development process and lifecycle, basic family therapy skills, and assessment and treatment planning for family units. Assignments may include research papers, role-playing exercises, and discussion questions.
  4. Substance Abuse Theory: Students discuss the scope of addiction and substance abuse counseling, along with common treatment methods. The curriculum includes discussion of chemical dependency and the effect of substance abuse on normal brain function and mental health. Students practice interviewing clients, assessing their needs, and developing effective treatment plans to include individual and group therapy and referral to medically assisted treatment when necessary.
  5. Professional Ethics and Legal Issues: Clients entrust their deepest secrets to their counselors. In this course, students learn about their professional, ethical, and legal obligations when treating individuals or facilitating group therapy sessions. Many schools rely on the American Counseling Association's ethical standards to help guide students in their discussions. Students also discuss required record keeping and documentation.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Counseling Prepares For

  • Licensed Professional Counselor: This state-issued license is required for counselors to treat patients for emotional issues, though states often preclude counselors from diagnosing patients with specific mental illnesses. Many states require applicants to complete at least a master's degree in counseling or a related field, plus two years of supervised professional experience. Consult your state licensing board for specific requirements.
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor: This professional credential represents the highest standards of practice as defined by the National Board for Certified Counselors. It does not replace the need for state licensing. Counselors must already hold National Certified Counselor designation and complete advanced coursework in areas of clinical counseling, trauma counseling, family and couples counseling, and addiction counseling; meet professional work experience requirements; and pass the national exam.