As a Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, you’ll have the skills to help people transform their lives and relationships. Here’s what you need to know about the requirements that will prepare you for a career in counseling.

Get a master’s degree

Look for a program with a mission and philosophy that fit you; you’ll be spending 60 hours in the classroom, and the educational philosophy will likely shape how you practice as a counselor. Do you want a degree that emphasizes research? A flexible schedule? Classes taught by clinicians who are currently practicing in the field? 

Be sure to confirm that the program offers a simulation center, in which students practice counseling techniques by role-playing in rooms outfitted with unobtrusive cameras and microphones. The sessions are recorded — and sometimes watched by fellow students and instructors — so that everyone gets feedback.

Complete your practicum

While you’re a student, you’ll participate in one or more practicum courses, in which you’ll work in a mental health setting to get hands-on experience. This is a chance to try on different counseling environments, learn about populations you want to serve, and prepare for your internship. 

Take the exam

After completing your coursework and graduating from your program, you’ll sit for the national LPC or LMFT exam. (Ask about the school’s passing rate when you research master’s programs.) You’ll also apply for a temporary license with the relevant board.

Find an internship

Once you’ve passed the exam and obtained your temporary license, you’ll complete an additional 3,000-hour internship in a counseling setting. As a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern or a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate, you’ll work directly with clients while under the supervision of an experienced therapist, whom you’ll meet with on at least a weekly basis.

Some interns complete the hours at a full-time job in a mental health setting, which allows them to finish the internship and get licensed in about two years. Others, who might have continued to work at a different job while in school, schedule volunteer internship hours around their existing position. In these situations it takes a bit longer to get licensed.

Get valuable experience

Many students enter a master’s program with the dream of opening their own practice, but that’s not the best — or most practical — option right after school, experts from St. Edward’s University say. For one thing, it takes time to build up a client base, particularly in a city like Austin, which has many counselors already in private practice. For another, the best therapists have spent time in the trenches first, learning about different populations and working with experienced mentors. The more settings you work in, the more you’ll learn, the more you’ll network, and the better private practice therapist you’ll eventually be. So hang out your shingle — but plan to get several years of work experience first.

The Master of Arts in Counseling at St. Edward’s University helps students gain a deeper understanding of what drives peoples’ behavior through an experiential curriculum, accomplished faculty and innovative electives. This degree program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Relation Educational Programs (CACREP).

Robyn Ross is a freelance writer.