It's never too early to start building the education and experience necessary for a successful counseling career. An associate degree in counseling can introduce some fundamental concepts of the discipline and help aspiring counselors way to get started on the path.
Counselors typically need at least a bachelor's degree before they can find work that involves much autonomous responsibility, but associate degrees in counseling can help you get valuable first-hand insight into the demands and opportunities of human service professions. A two-year degree in counseling or psychology can also provide a practical foundation for some entry-level jobs related to counseling, particularly at inpatient care facilities or mobile emergency units,
Courses and Skills
Most associate degree programs in counseling require around 60 credits, which typically take four semesters of full-time study to complete. At many schools, Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees in psychology take the place of associate degrees in counseling, offering many of the same introductory courses.
Here's a quick list of classroom subjects in that may be available at the associate level of psychology and counseling degrees, depending on the institution:
- Social psychology
- Interpersonal relationships
- Individual counseling
- Group and family counseling
- Developmental psychology
- Introduction to human services
- Psychology of personality
- Case management
Dr. Mary Read, director of clinical training at the Cal State Fullerton counseling department, stressed the importance of extracurricular work during early education in counseling. "Helping elders in residential care or working with a youth sports team offers chances to develop counseling (aka 'listening') skills," Dr. Read said. "Any position that reinforces listening and helping skills, from a social justice standpoint, will be useful in a counseling career."
Associate degrees in psychology and counseling can also be earned online at many institutions, which can allow students to take a number of counseling courses and general education core credits without making the full commitment of time and money necessary for a traditional campus-based degree program.
Careers with an Associate Degree in Counseling
Dr. Emily Yowell, director of training in the counseling psychology master's program at the University of Southern Mississippi, pointed out that future counselors can gain career experience in some unexpected places. "Aspiring counselors should not discount what they learn working in customer service fields or positions that expose them to crisis management (e.g., EMT). Some inpatient mental health facilities have jobs broadly referred to as direct care staff that are available to individuals with an associate degree."
Here's a table of some careers relevant to a counseling education, along with some salary and job outlook data reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
|Career title||Annual salary (2014 average)||Education level required||Projected job growth (2012-2022)|
|Substance abuse or behavior disorder counselor||$41,870||Diploma, associate degree, bachelor's degree or master's degree||21 percent|
|EMT or paramedic||$35,110||Associate degree or career training||23 percent|
|Social worker||$58,410||Bachelor's or master's degree||19 percent|
|Mental health counselor||$43,990||Master's degree||29 percent|
|Rehabilitation counselor||$37,890||Master's degree||20 percent|
|School or career counselor||$56,040||Master's degree||
Employers of social workers and substance abuse counselors may set a range of educational requirements, depending on the level of responsibility required for each open position. Counseling psychologists and other independently practicing members of the counseling profession typically have post-graduate education and hold Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degrees.
Choosing the Right Schools
If you've found a school that offers an attractive associate degree in counseling, don't jump in without doing adequate research. You'll likely need to transfer the credits from that program into one that leads to a bachelor's degree and beyond, and colleges and universities are far less likely to accept transfer credits if the institution where you did your early study isn't accredited by a regional or national accrediting board.
It's also helpful to check and make sure that your chosen program provides options for extracurricular and volunteer activity that will support the development of strong counseling skills. Students applying to the counseling psychology Master of Science (M.S.) program at the University of Southern Mississippi, according to Dr. Yowell, "have often engaged in volunteer opportunities with people in the mental health community (e.g., crisis hotline; autism camp counselor) or have been active in relevant clubs at the undergraduate level (e.g., psychology club, Psi Chi)."
Dr. Mary Read had some additional words of wisdom for students considering taking the path to a counseling career. "The glory of walking a healing path is that you are immersed in healing - you can't keep it off of you. So the counselor is continually growing into becoming their best self, even as they help their clients do the same." With the right education and a dedicated attitude, your associate degree in counseling could be the first step on a path to a rewarding career working with those who need it most.
1. Interview, Dr. Mary Read, August 21, 2015, Interview, Dr. Emily Yowell, August 21, 2015
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, accessed August 22, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/: Social Workers, School and Career Counselors, Psychologists, Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, EMTs and Paramedics, Rehabilitation Counselors, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors
3. Associate of Arts in Psychology - Christian Counseling, Liberty University Online, accessed August 22, 2015, http://www.liberty.edu/media/1270/PYCC-AA-D_1415.pdf
4. Associate of Science: Psychology, Colorado Christian University, accessed August 22, 2015, http://catalog.ccu.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=19&poid=4101
5. Associate of Science in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling, National University, accessed August 22, 2015, http://www.nu.edu/OurPrograms/CollegeOfLettersAndSciences/Psychology/Programs/AssociateofScienceinAlcoholandDrugAbuseCounseling.html
6. How to Get an Associate's Degree, City College of San Francisco, accessed August 22, 2015, https://www.ccsf.edu/Info/How_to_Get_An_Associates_Degree/
7. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed August 22, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm