How to Choose a Master’s Program in Counseling
Does the program provide you with all the credits you need to obtain certification or licensure?
Licensure or certification in each state often requires a given number of credits as well as coverage of specific content areas. In Pennsylvania, for example, to become a Licensed Professional Counselor one must accrue 60 graduate credits, at least 48 of which must be within a master’s program. If you choose to complete a master’s program of only 48 credits, be sure to have a plan on how to accrue the remaining credits needed for licensure. Some programs use these remaining credits to provide you with specific coursework to develop a specialty area.
Does the program offer a variety of concentrations/emphases?
Even if you think you know the population you might want to work with, during graduate school you will encounter people and topics that will spark your interest. A program that offers a number of concentrations or emphases will offer you the opportunity to explore and potentially obtain further specialization in emerging areas of interest. Find a program that can grow with you!
Does the program allow you to complete it both full-time and part-time?
No two students entering graduate school arrive with the same set of life experiences and circumstances. Be sure to look for a program that can take into account whether you are working, have a family to care for, or simply must balance multiple roles in your day to day life. The ability to complete a program full-time or part-time (and to potentially switch after you begin if life throws you a curve ball!) could mean the difference between being able to complete the degree or not.
Does the program expose you to a range of theoretical orientations?
Some counseling programs may offer specialized training within a given theoretical orientation, while others may take a more integrative approach and expose students to a number of theoretical perspectives. While the specialized approach may be appealing, effectively implementing evidence-based practice often calls for a strong foundation in generalist skills. You might consider a program that is evidence-based in its philosophy, but broad in its counseling approach.
Does the program infuse multicultural and evidence-based practices in its training?
Counselors are asked to be accountable to outside agencies for the treatment plans they employ with clients, as well as to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population. Evidence-based and multicultural practices are some of the most central and cutting edge trends in the counseling field. You may want to look for a program that clearly addresses these two areas not simply in an isolated course, but truly throughout the curriculum. It’s easy to pay lip service to both of these areas. Look for faculty who are actively engaged in these areas (e.g., through research, teaching, involvement in professional organizations) to ensure thorough exposure to each.
Does the program provide systematic avenues for advising?
Graduate school, especially in a field like counseling, is a time of great growth, both personally and professionally. Mentoring throughout that process can make a considerable difference in your ability to make the most of your graduate program and opportunities in the fields. Look for a program that offers advising and mentoring that goes beyond simply identifying a class
schedule, and caters to your development as a professional both within and outside of the actual program.
Does the program provide you with an opportunity to interview prior to admission?
Selecting a graduate program is one of the most important career decisions you will make. The opportunity to interview with potential programs can be immensely helpful (and rewarding) for all parties. Faculty and staff can get to know a candidate much better when they are able to meet face to face during the interview process. Students also benefit from “interviewing” a program and its faculty and staff, so that they can experience what it might be like to be in the program. It’s as important for a program to match your professional goals as it is for it to fit your learning style (e.g., small vs. large classes, close mentoring relationship with faculty vs. independent work, discussion based classes vs. lecture courses).
What is the faculty/student ratio in the program?
Class size and faculty/student ratios become even more important with a counseling program that requires the careful and deliberate process of teaching counseling skills. You might ask yourself questions such as “Will I have the opportunity to discuss what I am learning and to practice skill development while receiving regular feedback from my professors? Does the program afford me the opportunity to truly know my professors and for them to know me? Will I have regular opportunities to meet with faculty to discuss career options, my personal development while in the program, or to give the program feedback about my experience as a student there? Does the program size still allow me to craft a plan that works for my individual set of circumstances?”
Does the faculty in the program have an active practice?
It is essential that counseling skills be taught by faculty who actively practice them. At times, faculty’s attention is solely on administrative or research responsibilities rather than also on clinical work. Applying clinical skills is a nuanced process that must take into consideration the great diversity of clients and settings. Look for a program where faculty bring up to date perspectives to their teaching and are able to show you how to apply techniques in the real world.
Are classes taught primarily by adjunct or full-time faculty?
Many programs cut costs by having few full-time faculty and many adjunct faculty. The greater the ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty, the more variability there may be in the quality of delivery of the curriculum. While full-time faculty often have a chance to communicate with each other and coordinate curricula, adjunct faculty may come to campus just to teach their
courses and may not be well integrated into the department. You might want to assess whether a program has a stable core of adjunct faculty versus adjunct faculty who might teach only once or twice without much further involvement with the program. You might ask programs what training and opportunities for collaboration they offer their adjunct faculty, and how well integrated into the overall functioning of the department they might be.
Are there opportunities for professional activities, such as research or attending conferences?
Graduate school is not simply a time to attend courses, but also a time to learn more about the mental health field, discover one’s passion and professional aspirations, develop presentation skills, and potentially acquire the necessary background to apply for further training (e.g., if you are considering doctoral programs). There is no better way to accomplish the above than to attend workshops and conferences, or to become involved in research. Look for a program where faculty are closely connected to, and actively involved in, professional organizations, and (if you are thinking about doctoral programs) frequently conduct research with students. Identifying and attending professional development activities can be intimidating at first; in this context, faculty can provide mentoring and guidance to students just entering the field.
What mentoring does the program offer towards securing a job?
Securing a job involves a lot more than completing a program or acquiring hours for licensure. From identifying one’s area of specialty, to crafting an effective resume, to developing strong interviewing skills, to networking in the field, each step is essential in bringing you closer to securing the job you want. Look for a program that provides you with clear steps in acquiring job search skills, not simply in your last semester of the program, but throughout the curriculum. This is especially important as some skills (e.g., interviewing, networking) are developed over time and are most effective when integrated with the knowledge acquired in the core coursework.
Will you have the opportunity to develop a sense of community with your fellow graduate students?
Graduate school is the perfect time to begin making lifelong connections that will help sustain you throughout your professional career. It’s important to have shared experiences beyond the classroom that help you get to know other students within your university community. Look for a program that provides opportunities for you to create those important personal and professional connections that will stay with you long after graduation. Ask whether students travel together to conferences or workshops, or if there are scheduled evening/weekend get-togethers or even study groups.
Is the program accredited?
Counseling programs may or may not be accredited. While non-accredited programs often still offer valuable training and the opportunity to obtain certification or licensure, accredited programs voluntarily choose to undergo a rigorous review process to maximize the quality of the training they offer. Accrediting bodies (e.g., CACREP, MPCAC) provide standards and consultation that ensure a given level of quality. You might ask programs if they are accredited and why they chose a given accrediting body.
Are you able to access information about the program directly from the staff in charge?
Graduate students usually lead busy and complicated lives. Getting questions answered and finding out key information from the program staff and faculty can be paramount in keeping things moving forward in a timely manner. Be sure you feel that the program and those in charge are accessible to you and your needs.