There are few different degree options for students interested in pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. Throughout your search, you’ve likely come across Master of Science (MS) in counseling programs AND Master of Arts (MA) in counseling programs—two degrees with similar requirements, but slightly different outcomes.
To learn more about both degrees, as well as other graduate-level counseling programs, click on the links below:
- What Is A Master Of Arts (MA) In Counseling?
- What Is A Master Of Science (MS) In Counseling?
- What Is The Difference Between The Two Degrees?
- Other Degree Types To Consider: M.Ed. In Counseling, Masters In Counseling Psychology, And Masters In Social Work
- Can I Earn An MS Or An MA In Counseling Online?
Online counseling programs are incredibly popular due to their versatility in the professional world. Counseling degrees come in all shapes and sizes, and you can specialize in a number of different areas. The accredited degree programs below will help you find the right one that meets both your profession and educational goals.
What Is A Master Of Arts (MA) In Counseling?
A Master of Arts (MA) in counseling is a humanities-based postgraduate degree. MA degrees are often interdisciplinary, incorporating skills and knowledge from subjects like history, philosophy, literature, ethics, and psychology.
Many MA programs require students to complete a thesis or a research project to graduate. A thesis project or research papers are not always required, but both involve crafting an argument on a specific topic. Research projects, required or elective, are a great way to bolster your resume.
MA in counseling programs offer a unique set of courses and seminars designed to prepare students to work as trained clinicians. While enrolled in an MA in counseling program, you can expect to take a variety of different courses that cover topics such as:
- Foundations of Counseling
- Social and Cultural Foundations of Counseling
- Theories of Counseling
- Techniques of Group Counseling
- Professional Orientation and Ethical Practice
These are just a few of the many classes you’ll take. You’ll also take classes that cover areas of specialty, counseling techniques, human growth and development, and many others.
You’ll likely have to choose an area of specialty while enrolled in an MA program. This isn’t always the case, but it’s something to consider before applying to a program. If you know which area you’d like to specialize in, make sure the school you wish to attend offers that concentration. There are over 20 different specialties in the counseling field.
Below are few of the many areas of specialization from which to choose:
- Substance abuse
- Marriage and family therapy
- School counseling
- Career counseling
- Child/Adolescent therapy
- Mental health
- Spiritual counseling
Again, not all MA programs require students to choose an area of interest. But if you want to practice as a licensed counselor, you’ll likely need to consider the population you wish to serve. If you want to work with children, you’ll need to take courses in child psychology. If you want to work with individuals with substance-related problems, courses in addiction counseling and treatment methods will be required by your state’s licensing board. Your level of education will also determine what jobs you qualify for.
What Is A Master Of Science (MS) In Counseling?
A Master of Science (MS) in counseling is a postgraduate degree often based on scientific learning. These programs are largely research-based and provide a more scientific and evidence-based overview of the field.
Some programs are uniquely designed to prepare graduates for post-doctoral training as either researchers or professors. If you want to continue your studies even further, a school with an existing PhD-degree program, might be worth looking into. Students planning to continue in a doctoral program are often encouraged to complete a thesis or to take the lead in research projects during their master’s program. This helps with applying to doctoral programs.
while enrolled in an MS in counseling program, you can expect to take a variety of different courses that cover topics such as:
- Research Methods and Techniques
- Psychological Measurement and Evaluation
- Research Problems in Adult Education
An MS in Counseling program often requires students to choose an area of specialty. There are many areas of specialty in this field, some of which include the following:
- Substance abuse
- Marriage and family therapy
- School counseling
- Career counseling
- Child/Adolescent therapy
- Mental health
- Spiritual counseling
Many states require you to earn a master’s degree from a CACREP-accredited program. This is part of the licensing process, and an important consideration when researching schools. This accreditation confirms that the program has voluntarily undergone a rigorous review process.
To verify accreditation, visit the school’s website as well as the counseling department’s website. If you plan to choose an area of specialty, verify that the required courses will fulfill the qualifications necessary to practice in your state. Each state has its own licensing criteria. This information can be found by contacting your state’s professional counseling licensure board.
Counselors also voluntarily seek out national credentials and membership in professional organizations. These organizations often include the following:
- The American Mental Health Counseling Association: The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) is the leading national organization for licensed clinical mental health counselors.
- The American Counseling Association: The American Counseling Association is a not-for-profit, professional and educational organization that is dedicated to the growth and enhancement of the counseling profession.
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is the professional association for the field of marriage and family therapy. They represent the professional interests of more than 50,000 marriage and family therapists throughout the United States, Canada, and abroad.
- The American School Counselor Association: The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) supports school counselors’ efforts to help students focus on academic, career, and social/emotional development so they achieve success in school, and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society.
What Is The Difference Between The Two Degrees?
Each school has its own set of required coursework. However, while no two programs are the same, you can expect some overlap when it comes to the core courses and some electives. But in order to choose the right degree, we’ve outlined a few notable differences to consider:
An MS degree 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. These programs are designed to incorporate lab work, scientific research, analysis, and evaluation. Students with strong logical and mathematical skills are best suited for this type of degree.
If you’re leaning towards an MA degree, you likely have a bachelor’s degree in the humanities. The humanities include, but are not limited to, history, literature, philosophy and ethics, foreign languages and cultures, linguistics, and archaeology. While this not always the case, MA programs typically focus on research and advanced educational experiences that include workshops and research projects.
Again, both an MS and an MA require students to conduct research, complete a clinical component, and study the laws and regulations that govern this field. Counselors in BOTH a theoretical and an applied manner must be knowledgeable about treatment and support options.
For students who earn an MS in Counseling, the same accreditation standards apply. To practice in your state, you’ll need to earn your degree from a CACREP-accredited program. You’ll also need to verify your state’s licensing requirements for counselors.
Both programs often take 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.
Some schools offer an accelerated program that allows students to complete their bachelor’s and master’s degree in counseling in five years rather than six. Accelerated programs are typically designed for full-time working adults. These programs are structured for minimal commitment of in-class/on-campus time but require full-time attendance. Accelerated programs also move at a much faster pace. This may not be ideal for all students. Those enrolled in accelerated programs are comfortable learning at a quicker rate.
Other Degree Types To Consider: M.Ed. In Counseling, Masters In Counseling Psychology, And Masters In Social Work
Your degree options are not limited to an MS or an MA. There are a few other degree options worth researching. The more you know about your interests and the program options available to you, the better.
Let’s take a look at other graduate-level programs in counseling. These degree programs are similar to an MA or an MS in counseling, but with a slightly different scope.
- M.Ed. In Counseling: This degree is designed for practitioners who wish to work in education as a researcher or a school counselor. If you want to work as a school counselor, make sure the program offers the necessary coursework to do so. Not all M.E.d. programs are designed to prepare graduates to work as school counselors. However, if you’re interested in education and education research, an M.E.d. might be worth pursuing.
- Masters In Counseling Psychology: This degree is similar to an MA or an MS in counseling in that graduates are prepared to work as a licensed counselor. The difference lies in the curriculum. Counseling psychology programs require students to take courses in the core areas of psychological science. These courses may cover such topics as the psychology of aging, psychopathology, applied psychological research, psychodynamic models of counseling, just to name a few.
- Masters In Social Work (MSW): While not a counseling degree, an MSW allows graduates to provide counseling services. Social workers are employed in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, nonprofit agencies, and government offices.
If you want to work as a licensed counselor, you’ll need to find a program designed to prepare graduates for licensure. If you don’t want to work as a counselor, but instead, as a researcher or an educator, an M.E.d. program might be better fit. It’s a good idea to know your career goals in advance to ensure your degree is worth your time and resources. Professional counselors are licensed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
While there is overlap between counseling and psychology programs, they are not the same. If you want to study psychology and work as a licensed psychologist, a degree in counseling is not the right fit. Counselors and psychologists are not the same. A psychologist is a health professional with specific training based on clinical psychological research.
Similar to a counselor, a psychologist must regularly receive continuing education and maintain licensure, but these requirements are different and are regulated by different governing bodies.
Can I Earn An MS Or An MA In Counseling Online?
Many schools now offer online degree programs in counseling, at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. Online programs are great options for students who need scheduling flexibility to accommodate family, work, or other responsibilities. What’s unique about online programs is the flexibility. Some programs allow students to complete their studies without set deadlines. This gives working students the freedom to progress at their own pace.
Not all online programs provide scheduling flexibility. Each school has its own program structure. Some online programs do require students to attend a few classes on-site. If you’re interested in taking classes online, make sure to inquire about attendance requirements.
Most programs require students to complete a clinical component. In fact, if a program does not include a clinical component, you might want to investigate the school further. Students must be approved for field placement by an advisor. Approval often requires the completion in courses that comprise the counseling core.
Students must complete a certain amount of clinical hours in order to receive their counseling license. The number of hours differs 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 complete their clinical training.
Clinicals are a critical part of the counseling education. Here’s what you should know about clinicals:
- Clinical training typically requires students to complete a set amount of hours in order to graduate.
- A portion of your clinical training will include working face-to-face with clients while supervised by a licensed counselor.
- Clinical training requires on-site supervision and must be completed in specified amount of time, as determined by the degree program and your advisor.
- Online students must allow complete clinical training. Each online program is different and will have its own requirements and plan for completion.
When researching degree programs, it’s also helpful to consider what areas with the highest concentration of jobs and location quotients in this occupation. If you’re able to move, you might want to research degree programs in metropolitan areas with more counseling jobs available. This way you’re trained AND licensed in the state you wish to practice. Let’s have a look at the areas with the highest concentration of jobs and location quotients for counselors. (Source: BLS.gov: Occupational Employment And Wages: Nursing Assistants, data as of May 2017.)
The BLS annually publishes updated job statistics for my occupations, including counseling. It’s helpful to know where you skills are needed most, in case it’s difficult to find work where you currently reside. If you want to go into private practice, this information might be more useful, you’ll need to assess the local market and raise awareness of your services.
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.