How to Become a Counselor in California

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What is Counseling?


In recent years, the increased awareness of the importance of maintaining proper mental health has meant an increase in demand for well trained and effective counselors. Many times, factors that negatively impact mental health arise due to factors that are inherently outside of one’s control. Indeed, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, qualified counselors and therapists have seen spikes in demand for their services as people are stuck and home and reevaluating their life choices. Many have also opened up tele-health services to help accommodate the needs of different patients. It’s important to note that, while there may be a general uptick in the demand for counseling services at large, not all counseling degrees and careers are created equal. This is because demand for certain types of counseling services, particularly if patients are dealing with career or industry-driven stressors, can vary significantly on a state-by-state business. As such, when a student is looking to build a career as a counselor, it’s important to consider the types of counseling degrees that will be most useful locally, unless they plan to work in another state. Counselors who are acquainted with the main sectors and industries of employment within their state will be better equipped to help with the specific challenges that their clients are faced with daily.

For students who are looking to become counselors in California, the following are some of the top industries of employment within the state. The top industry by employment in California is the real estate rental and leasing business, which accounts for $504 billion in revenue annually. Given the high costs of housing in many parts of the state, it makes sense for many to be working in this field. Counselors who are well-versed in real estate terminology and stressors, like landlord-tenant relationships, can be well-poised to help clients who work in this field. The second-largest field of employment in California is the professional and business services industry, which generates around $400 billion in revenue annually. Counselors who can understand and relate to workplace stressors like long commutes, difficult managers, hitting minimum work quotas, as well as performance rankings, are better equipped to help clients with this type of background. The third-largest sector by employment in California is the manufacturing sector, which generates around $320 billion in revenue per year. Counselors who know how the manufacturing sector works, where tight deadlines, potentially dangerous machinery, and supply chain disruptions can lead to high amounts of stress and anxiety, can be best equipped to help clients employed in these areas.


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Counseling Education in California


Counselors are professionals who are trained in helping others overcome emotional distress and mental health ailments. In particular, counselors will need to be excellent listeners and empathetic individuals who can work with clients without judging them negatively for their life circumstances. Instead, counselors will work closely with patients to understand their mental health conditions, follow up with them consistently, develop treatment plans, and elucidate coping strategies that their clients can use daily to improve their overall well-being.

In school, future counselors are trained to adhere to a strict ethical code and master evidence-based practices, which are important measures of whether an individual can achieve a professional counseling license and join the American Counseling Association. The day-to-day tasks and patients that counselors work with will depend on their specific field of counseling, which can range from school counseling to clinical mental health counseling to rehabilitation counseling to highly demanding fields like suicide prevention counseling.

Associate Degree in Counseling (AS)

Due to the highly sensitive nature of the work that counselors undertake, degree and licensing requirements for this field of work are very high. Sometimes, a counselor’s work might be the difference between life and death for patients who are in negative mental and emotional states, so each state has its own set of regulations for the educational backgrounds and licensing procedures necessary to become a full-fledged counselor.

In California, attaining an associate degree in counseling will only be enough to gain support roles in the counseling field and students will need to obtain further education before they can gain licensure to become a fully-fledged counselor. Substance abuse counseling is the only exception, where gaining an associate degree is enough to begin the process of attaining any of four levels of certification in the state. Entry-level support roles are typically available to students in areas ranging from mental health, community, and human service areas, with common job titles spanning caseworker, child and youth advocate, family mediator, human service assistant, outreach specialist, program assistant, and social services assistant.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for social and human service assistants was $35,960 in 2020. These types of entry-level supporting positions offer great opportunities for students interested in pursuing counseling as a long-term career to gain an understanding of the typical responsibilities held by professionals working in the behavioral health field. This work experience, combined with achieving an associate degree in counseling, provides a strong foundation for students to return to school and work towards their counselor license.

Bachelor's Degree in Counseling (BS)

Similar to students who choose to obtain their associate degree in counseling, California students should be aware that they will not be eligible for licensure as counselors in the majority of counseling fields if they only finish their bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate students will, however, be able to apply for the Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor Associate certification.

Undergraduate students who decide against pursuing their master’s degree or decide to postpone graduate school until a later date will be eligible for the same types of supporting jobs in the field that are open to students with only their associate’s degree. In California, students with their bachelor’s degree in counseling or social work can be eligible for positions like mental health specialist, social worker, mental health rehabilitation specialist, child life specialist, mental health technician, and mental health services data specialist.

Typically, undergraduate students with a counseling background in behavioral health, counseling, health sciences, and psychiatry will be seen as preferred candidates compared to those who only have an associate degree. Additionally, according to Indeed, California organizations will pay between $47,500-$63,400 a year for mental health specialists and $62,000-$67,000 for social workers. Candidates with an undergraduate degree can expect to be paid higher than candidates with only an associate degree, though they should still work towards a master’s degree if they wish to become licensed counselors.

Master's Degree in Counseling (MS or MC)

To become a licensed counseling professional in the state of California, students will typically be required to have completed a master’s degree in either counseling or psychotherapy. Depending on one’s area of focus, one’s graduate studies may also need to be specifically targeted towards the counseling sub-field in which they hope to build their careers. For instance, in California, graduate students who are looking to become marriage and family therapists must specifically attain a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, while school counselors must have gone to graduate school for school counseling or a closely related area.

Specific responsibilities and pay may vary between different subfields of counseling, and popular areas include school counseling, clinical mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, child-centered play therapy, school psychology, and substance abuse counseling. Despite the different areas of counseling focus for graduate studies, every student must still undertake the same rigorous licensing process and obtain enough hours of supervised work experience before they can officially become fully licensed in California. According to Indeed, the average base salary for a licensed professional counselor who works in California is $60,400, though certain positions can pay up to $106,000.

PhD Degree in Counseling (PhD)

While some students may choose to pursue a doctorate in the counseling field, this level of education is usually not a prerequisite for becoming a licensed counseling professional. Instead, students often choose to complete their Ph.D. in counselor education so that they can become professors who are capable of training the next generation of counselors.

Doctorate degrees in the field of counseling are often geared towards helping educators gain advanced clinical and supervision skills so that they can correctly guide those with less training than them in the field. Additionally, doctorate degrees in the counseling field stand out because participants must typically have already completed their master’s degree in the field before they are eligible for their Ph.D. program and there are many options for currently licensed counselors to return to school for further education. According to Payscale, those who have completed their doctorate in counselor education can expect to earn an average annual salary of $73,300.

Become a Counselor in California


Counselors must go through a rigorous education and certification process, which includes examinations and supervised on-the-job training, before they can become licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCC) in the state of California. The state has updated its licensing procedures for students who began graduate studies after 2012, and since the licensing process includes California-specific content, students are advised to only attend graduate programs that have already been pre-approved by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. Candidates who obtain online degrees will need to apply as out-of-state applicants regardless of where they were residing and, as of January 2020, California has passed AB679, which has begun the process of simplifying license portability for masters-level mental health licensees to transfer their certification from other states to California’s LPC process.

For most fields in the counseling profession, California requires LPCC applicants to have completed a 60-semester-unit master's or doctoral degree from an accredited institution. This educational program must also include 6-semester units of supervised field work with at least 280 face-to-face hours and at least 3-semester units of coursework in 10 of 13 core content areas.

For education to be approved, applicants must complete all 13 core content areas, which are:

  • Counseling and psychotherapeutic theories and techniques
  • Human growth and development across the lifespan
  • Career development theories and techniques
  • Group counseling theories and techniques
  • Assessment, appraisal, and testing
  • Multicultural counseling theories and techniques
  • Principles of diagnosis, treatment planning, and prevention of mental and emotional disorders and dysfunctional behavior
  • Research and evaluation
  • Professional orientation, ethics, and law in counseling
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Addictions counseling
  • Crisis/Trauma counseling
  • Advanced counseling and psychotherapeutic theories and techniques

Applicants must also include 15-semester units of advanced coursework geared towards helping treat specific mental and emotional health issues or working with special populations, which include cases like child abuse assessment and reporting. California-specific course content includes learning to understand various cultures found in California and becoming attuned to psychological impacts due to socioeconomic positions.

Licensed professionals must also complete a minimum of 3,000 hours of post-degree supervised mentorship under an LPCC, LMFT, LCSW, licensed psychologist, or licensed physician certified in psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This must all be completed in no less than two years and they must also have at least 1,750 hours of direct counseling with individuals or groups focused on clinical mental health counseling, with 150 hours completed in a hospital or community mental health setting. In addition to all the educational coursework and on-the-job experience, students must also achieve a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination and the California Law and Ethics Exam.

The only exception to this process is for individuals who wish to work in substance abuse counseling in California. It is possible to achieve certification in this area even with only an associate degree, and students are expected to pass the ICRC written examination to attain any of four certification levels in this field. It’s possible to achieve the highest level of Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor (LAADC) with a mix of lower educational background and more supervised training. For instance, for associate degree holders, it’s possible to attain a LAADC license with 6,000 hours of supervised training, while students with bachelor’s degrees only need 4,000 hours of supervised training.

Careers for Counseling Graduates


  • Career Counselor:
    Career counselors have the important role of helping students evaluate their interests and strengths while providing students with a list of potential career paths that they can consider. Other tasks include advising students on the educational programs they will need to complete for certain careers, helping them select the correct schools for their needs, or advising on career changes. Students may also choose to practice interviewing, resume writing, and networking skills with career counselors.
  • Psychiatrist:
    Psychiatrists help screen patients for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders through psychiatric evaluations. After they receive results, psychiatrists work with patients to develop effective treatment plans for managing disorders, prescribe necessary medications, and evaluate treatment results.

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