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Becoming a counsellor: A guide

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 6 Jun 2021 | comments*Discuss
Counselling Counsellor Therapy

In recent years, counselling has become more highly recognised by the NHS as an effective way to help people with mental health problems. Various programs to improve access and recruit more counsellors mean that it is a good time to consider a career in counselling. However, you should think carefully about your current career, if any, and your personal traits before deciding whether this is the right path for you.

What is Counselling?

Counselling is an umbrella word that covers many different kinds of talking therapy. At a very basic level, we think of counsellors as "helping" other people. If this describes you, then counselling is worth considering as a career.

You probably have questions about how to get into counselling. In fact, you likely share many of the same questions as some of our readers. Some people know early on they want to work as counsellors, others decide on making a career transition later on in life. Counselling is a career choice that really values life experience. Read on to learn what you need to know to become successful as a counsellor.

Counselling Qualifications

Counselling is an interesting profession when it comes to accreditation. The title is a protected one but not in the same way the title of a medical doctor is protected. You cannot, for example, advertise yourself as a medical doctor if you are not a registered medical doctor. You either are registered and you are a medical doctor or you are not registered and you are not a medical doctor.

Counsellors are a bit different. A person can use the title of counsellor whether they are registered or not. However, they cannot say they are a registered counsellor if they are not. For this reason, you can expect to charge more for a counselling session if you are registered compared to if you are not. Once registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, you can legally advertise yourself as a registered professional counsellor. Registration proves to clients that you have satisfied strict educational, practical and ethical standards.

What Kind of Counselling is Best?There are many forms of counselling but the main ones are:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of counselling involves focusing on the present rather than the past. You set goals with your client and use strategies to help them think and act in a more positive way. CBT has been studied more than other forms of counselling and has shown success in many research studies.
  • Person-centered therapy. Based on the approach of Carl Rogers, this kind of counselling focuses heavily on empathy, viewing your client with unconditional positive regard and behaving in a congruent way that means your actions honestly reflect your thoughts.
  • Psychotherapy. If you believe strongly that a person's past is critical to their healing today, then this may be the right counselling approach for you. Psychotherapists often work with people who have persistent problems that they have struggled to overcome for many years.
Most training courses will at the minimum do a brief overview of the other counselling types so you are well informed when patients have questions about your specific approach. From here, you can also branch into specializations such as couples counselling or family counselling. It is often when a person has worked many years in the counselling sector that they make a decision about specialization.

How Volunteering Helps

Volunteering as a counsellor has huge benefits for many reasons. First and foremost, spending time in a volunteer role can help you to decide if counselling is the right fit for you as a career. It can also help you to choose the best style of counselling for your personal beliefs and traits.

"Hi there, at the moment I'm doing a level 3 in counselling and psychotherapy and I hope to move forward to the degree. I'm really enjoying the course so far and hope to further my skills by volunteer work. Any amount of time would be beneficial to me but I don't know where to start or where to look?"

There are countless charities that will provide "free" training in return for a commitment that you will provide volunteer services for a specified amount of time such as one year. You will get to meet other people and learn about yourself as you train to become a counsellor. This training will not be sufficient for private practice or work as a counsellor in a professional setting. However, it's an ideal way to start. You may also manage to use these hours to satisfy entry requirements to a college or university training program, many of which require some previous exposure to counselling before you are accepted.

You can contact the local branch of the council sector for voluntary services to find out what opportunities are available in your area. Try searching online with keywords that include the counselling approach of interest to you, the word "volunteer" and the words "non profit" or "charity." These searches can also take you directly into the websites of organizations looking for volunteers.

Choosing a University

"Hey, I'm a college student who has been rethinking what I would like to do as a career. I've had no previous academic experience such as psychology but am planning to take it at AS Level next year in order to begin understanding the basic scientific theories that cover Psychology. I'm wondering what sort of education and qualifications I will need to get in order to become a professional counsellor and how I would get into a counselling workplace, can anyone help?"

Be forewarned that there are many unaccredited training programs that are not recognized by BACP. If you wish to become a registered counsellor, make sure you check their website to ensure any program of study is recognized. Unrecognized programs may still provide quality training but your employment opportunities afterwards will be more limited.

"Hi, I'm new to this! Due to redundancy I am looking at a change in career path. I have always fancied counselling, and decided to make the most of the situation and go for it! I will have to work during studying for this, and am going down the OU route of 'Introduction to Counselling'. I am unsure of where to go after this if and when I manage to complete it. Any advice or recommendations?"
You have a variety of options when it comes to counsellor training. There are courses ranging from certificate and diploma right up to undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Some people with backgrounds in related professions such as teaching may be able to go into a masters's level program that provides sufficient training for accreditation. Indeed, many people go on to become counsellors after working in another career for many years. They may find that their current career involves one-on-one communications with patients and they often take on a helping role by listening to people's problems.

What Will I Study?

In a training program, you will study theory as well as practical skills. Counselling programs also focus on personal qualities. This means you will learn more about yourself and how you relate to clients. Any course of study will also involve a practicum to apply your newly learned skills. Here, you will be supervised by an experienced and qualified counsellor who will provide feedback on your skills and relationships with clients.

I'm Done - What Now?

Once you have finished your training and are registered if you have chosen this avenue, you have many options for employment. Counsellors work in an enormous range of settings. Some counsellors are offered employment based on their practicum work. Some excellent places to check for employment opportunities are:
  • NHS website. The NHS posts employment opportunities for counsellors. There are opportunities in everything from primary care to specialties such as oncology, where you provide care to cancer patients and family members coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment.
  • BACP website. BACP provides links on its website to employment opportunities. Here you can find options for employment if you are registered with BACP.
  • University websites. Many universities offer links to employment opportunities relevant to its graduates. Some are open access, so you can view them even if you didn't attend the university. More often than not, however, you will gain access to the information from the university where you attended.
  • Social media. Connect with non-profit agencies and other potential employers through sites such as LinkedIn. Make sure you are vocal about your efforts to find a job after finishing your counsellor training.
  • National and regional newspapers. Many newspapers are freely available online, allowing you to browse adverts or create job search alerts when jobs matching your criteria become available.
  • Don't forget unadvertised positions. Many roles in counselling are not advertised and are filled based on word-of-mouth. Contact charities and other potential employers to register your CV.

There are seemingly endless opportunities in counselling, from working in a center for addictions to private practice or employment with the NHS. Many people find it easier to start out working for an employer before going into private practice, namely because private practice requires start-up money for insurance and advertising. You will also need money to see you through for the first year or two before you build up a good reputation and referral base to provide full-time, reliable income.

Some tips for getting employment include:

  • Get an up-to-date CV. Make sure your CV is current and covers all of your counselling relevant experience, including volunteer work. Counselling is a career where volunteer experience is strongly valued, so be sure to create a section dedicated to volunteer experience. Also ensure that you include your education at the top of your CV, as education is similarly valued in counselling. In fact, for some roles, it's critical.
  • Talk to other counsellors. Ask other counsellors how they got their first job. Let them know you are actively looking for work and would appreciate any advice and support.
  • Contact counsellor program trainers. Talk to trainers from places where you have studied and/or volunteered and see if they can connect you to opportunities in the field.

Choosing Counselling as a Career

Counselling is a helping career and a very gratifying one for those who want to make a difference in the lives of other people. Starting out can seem daunting, especially if it's not your first career. But remember that your experience can help make you a better counsellor. For those who are young and just leaving school, you can focus on getting experience through volunteer opportunities. Above all, becoming a counsellor requires commitment and an open mind to learn about yourself in the process.

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[Add a Comment]
Hi, I’m 49 and looking for a career change and am seriously thinking of becoming a counsellor, I have worked as a performing arts teacher for many years and also the past 10 with children and adults with special needs and disabilities. I have been told that I’m a good listener and give good advice. I would really like to know the best route to take because of my age. Ideally eventually I would want to work for myself.
LJ - 6-Jun-21 @ 2:39 PM
Hello im a 45 year old male and have worked as Police Staff in the community for approx 15 years, I have experienced many incidents and situations were I have had to think on my feet to help people in crisis, I have been told I am a good listener and love to help people improve their quality of life. I would be interested in learning how to go about becoming a counsellor and making a difference.Any advice or guidance would be appreciated.Thanks
Ned - 23-Mar-21 @ 9:37 PM
Hi I’m Kim I’m 46 and recently an old friend of mine lost his son to suicide, I myself have suffered mental health and in the past have tried suicide many many years ago, after finding out about my friends son it got me thinking that I would like to be able to help others in these sad situations and with myself having been through the same thing can understand and relate to others so I’m interested into becoming a councillor but have no clue on how or where to start I’ve always been there for family and friends that have or are going through similar situations and they have always told me to become a councillor so please any help or advice on how and where to start would be greatly appreciated. Thank You
Kimmilou - 18-Mar-21 @ 11:46 PM
Hi, I have had the goal of going into counseling since I did my GCSEs. I completed an a-level in psychology and I will soon be finishing my degree in Psychology and Counselling with the OU. And I have absolutely no clue on where to start with becoming a counselor and what I need to do to actually become qualified. Any advice would be very much appreciated. Thank you in advance :)
Gina - 16-Feb-21 @ 6:36 PM
Hi, I am a 37 year old software engineer with an MPhys in Physics. I feel like my career just generates money and stress and I'm seeking a change. I was wondering about a career helping people like teaching or counselling. What are my options? Ideally I would like to train remotely.
bt - 16-Dec-20 @ 1:46 PM
I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I have certain traits to become a counsellor. I often find myself supporting family, friends and colleagues through situations without realising. My background is telecommunications/customer service/retail and I’ve never really settled on what I want to do until now. I’ve got a lot of life experiences that I feel would help me train to be a counsellor - where do I start? Thank you x
Delly - 28-Oct-20 @ 9:58 AM
Found your site interesting. Am 51 and want to become a metal heath councillor
Digit - 12-Oct-20 @ 2:22 PM
I am a senior teacherin a secondary school with over 30 years experience. I’d like to trainto be a counsellor. Would I need to start at ‘level 1 - introduction to counselling or would my experience count? Thanks
Nic - 10-Oct-20 @ 9:39 AM
Am a teacher and a friend has just noted that most of our students come to talk and seek advice from me... So she has just suggested that I do counseling as a career. So am excited but do not know a college to start my training. Am in Kenya
Roche - 8-Oct-20 @ 12:22 PM
Hi I am a qualified diploma Staff nurse. I am looking for advice on a way forward to Councelling. I would like to know what pathway I should take. I am 51 and looking to work from home. I work 4 days a week.do could use one day for volunteer work.
TJ - 21-Aug-20 @ 5:54 PM
Hello, everyone Have been working with hospitality industry for 5yrs now, having bachelors degree in Business Administration(Finance), but honestly I feel like my passion is counselling and making change in people's lives, i really love it, when ever I talk to people havingdifficult situations, i find my self counselling them and they have been always giving me positive feed back, now I have realised that am really passionate about counselling and I would love to do it professionally, but am really black about what to do and how I can make it happen, any advise would be highly appreciated Thank you
Karamuzi - 30-May-20 @ 11:32 PM
Hi my names Kayleigh I’ve been looking into getting into counselling for awhile now I have suffered with mental health in the past and I’d love to help others that have gone through the same thing as me just to know there is light at the end of the tunel only I have no idea where I would start I’d like to get into CBT therapy do I apply for a college course then go into university how would I get into it?any advice would be greatful even if you could tell me a career path I would have to follow I have done some research but it goes way up to degrees and master degrees gets a little bit confusing thanks Kayleigh
Kaylee32x - 21-May-20 @ 2:58 PM
Please I am a midwifery student and I plan on pursuing a counselling course after achieving my degree. Please how long will it take me to complete the course and come out as a counsellor in addition to my midwifery career in the health sector. Thank you.
Nayadith - 7-Apr-20 @ 11:02 PM
Hi I’m 16 and taking health and social care and psychology at college, I’m looking for some kind of work experience I could do with psychology or counselling, I’m hoping to go on to do a degree in counselling and psychotherapy to be a counsellor and psychotherapist.
Eli - 11-Mar-20 @ 3:52 PM
I have completed BA Degree majoringin Psychology and Criminology I then did BA Honours in Psychology with UNISA IN 2015 So I would lIKE to persue a career in Counseling I have been employed as an HR Practitioner for 24 in the SANDF. I have lost intrest in the the organization. I would like to serve my community.
Aggy - 10-Mar-20 @ 2:13 PM
I havefinish my level 2 and looking to do my level 3
Joshua - 10-Feb-20 @ 8:56 PM
Hi, I am a qualified nurse and have been for 15 years working in predominantly intensive care nursing. I am looking to study counselling and change careers as having experienced counselling myself felt that it makes a real difference to mental health and learning coping mechanisms. I have a BSc honours in nursing. Would I need to do an introduction or should I be looking to do a post grad course? Any advise would be gratefully received. Currently I wouldn't be able to stop working and go into full time study so I think I may have to go down the part time route. Thank you
Hayley1983 - 31-Jan-20 @ 10:41 PM
I am posting to encourage those who are unsure whether to begin a counselling course. I am currently half way through my level 3 (second year), I am in my 20’s and I am the youngest there. The classes are of all different ages & stages of life. I have friends on my course who are in their 60’s and I love the diversity. It truly is a course you learn so much about yourself and others and even if you choose to not pursue it as a career, I still recommend it! So for those who have doubts due to age etc, I urge you go for it. You are NEVER too old! Counselling is a profession that can benefit from age & experience, so see it as an advantage not something that hinders you. Best of luck!!
M - 26-Jan-20 @ 1:43 PM
Hey I'm just about to start my level 2 in counseling, I'm so excited and have no doubt in my mind this area is for me. However, I've been looking online and there are no paid jobs out there... Is this the case. This is my dream but I'm just wondering if there's a good chance of paid work after?
Lovecounselling - 24-Aug-19 @ 9:11 PM
Hi I have recently passed my Cbt and advanced cbt.Mental health and Domestic violence dipolmas. I want to work with DV support/victims what is my next step where and who do i speak to?
Me - 16-Aug-19 @ 8:00 PM
Hi everyone. I’m really fired up for a complete career change. Having recently undergoing a course of cbt, my therapist has done me a huge favour by making me realise that I would love to do her job! I’m not sure where to start. I’ve been looking at the beginning, doing a level 2 counselling concepts evening course at my local college. Only thing is, I’m scared to death it will be ful if kids (I’m 43 now). Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Mrsrusty - 13-Aug-19 @ 12:28 AM
I am 58 and considering doing a two year MSC in counselling at University which would qualify me to practice at 60.Is it too late, too expensive, a stupid idea?I am very unsure.
Becky - 24-Jul-19 @ 10:11 AM
I am 58.I completed a Foundation course three years ago and am thinking of doing a 2 year MSC at University.Am I crazy to think of doing this at my age?
Rebecca Macnaughton - 24-Jul-19 @ 10:09 AM
can i do counselling and IT at the same time will it work i have passion for both
D.morn sun - 28-Jun-19 @ 11:47 PM
Hi, I have been in a number of therapies including Gestalt therapy. I'm in my late 50's holding a degree in MA Dance Anthropolgy. Throughout I have taken interest in helping family members going through psychological issues. Through online self-study, such as CBT and EFT I have gained sufficient confidence to help me through various cases over time. More recently, the past 15 years I have been living and volunteering in India, counselling destitute children, women and families as well as individuals. I have also worked in a disabled children centre, which involves training staff, counselling parents and facilitating the childrens' daily activities as well as their educational needs, much like a SENCO. I would like to pursue a career as a professional counselor and would very much appreciate your advice. Aruna
Aruna - 14-Jun-19 @ 11:50 PM
Iam looking to get into Psychology then counselling..are these home study coarses any good to me?
Mrmost1426 - 9-Jun-19 @ 12:02 PM
Hi I am 35 and I am a forklift driver working in a warehouse. I have a partner with 3 kids one being a step daughter. Being a counsellor is something I have wanted to do for many years but with family life and working regularly to pay for bills and life I have found the time difficult to peruse. Need a little help and advice on what the best route is to go into becoming a counsellor as don’t have the time or money to go the University route if had too.
Edmund84 - 20-May-19 @ 3:09 AM
Hi, I am a chartered and registered forensic psychologist, and I am currently completing a doctorate in Forensic Psychology. I would like to broaden my expertise and experience. My questions really are where in the process would I have to start to become a registered counsellor? And would my qualifications and experience count towards becoming a registered counsellor? Thanks.
Ca - 7-May-19 @ 5:14 AM
I have I level 3 counselling skills I I would like to progress on toa level 4 has I would love to work has a counselor help people though life. I was wondering if you can help me with this x
Donna - 29-Apr-19 @ 6:56 PM
Hi there I wonder if you can answer for my questions regarding this career. I have graduated with a BSC in psychology and also an MSc in neuropsychology. I currently work as an assistant psychologist in brain injury rehabilitation and for people with mental health difficulties. I really enjoy my job but due to financial pressures I need something additional and I have always thought about a career in private counselling. I am firstly wondering what about the quickest route into becoming registered as a professional counselor. From research I believe this may be the certificate in counselling level 2, followed by a diploma in counselling? Is this correct or are there other means? Secondly once one is qualified as a counsellor, are you typically able to practice privately? Or are you required to do for example a certain amount of hours on a voluntary basis? Practicing privately is important to me as I work full time as an assistant psychologist and I do enjoy my current career as well. Any advice would be so greatly appreciated Best, Ray
Ray - 16-May-18 @ 6:19 PM
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