Even when you’re sure you have aptitude and affinity for professional counseling, the road can be long. All states require professional counselors to go through a licensing process. In order to be licensed, you need a master's degree and passing scores on one or more examinations. Full licensure requires you to work for a period of time under supervision.
Once you have completed all requirements, you are credentialed. You have a professional title and a set of initials after your name. Most often this is Licensed Professional Counselor, but some states do use other titles. Some states require you to hold a lower license while completing your experience requirements. This may be Licensed Associate Professional Counselor or another title. In all cases, you need to make sure that you don’t use a title that is higher than the one you have actually been given.
Some states have multiple levels of licensing for professionals who have already completed supervised experience. They may, for example, have separate requirements for Licensed Professional Counselors and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors. Professionals at the higher level typically have more authority when it comes to diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. Coursework requirements may be higher. There may be quantitative and qualitative differences in internship and work experience requirements. It's important to know in advance what the requirements are in the state where you will be practicing because some requirements are difficult to make up down the road. Most allow you to make up some courses post-degree; however, some are more strict than others.
Counseling licensure is tricky because states don't have the same requirements even for the same level of licensing. Most states model their standards at least loosely after CACREP. However, CACREP has more than one set of standards. Some states have policies similar to the general professional counselor licensing standards while others use the standards for mental health counselors. This means more specific curriculum requirements as well as more semester hours. CACREP-accredited clinical mental health programs are transitioning to a 60 unit minimum. Some states specify that a counselor must have at least 48 semester hours, others 60.
The 2009 CACREP standards mandate 700 combined internship/ practicum hours with 600 hours of internship. Earlier standards mandated 900 hours. Some state have 900 on the books for at least one level of licensing.
If you attend an accredited school in the same state where you will pursue licensing, chances are the program is going to meet state minimums as well as CACREP ones. However, it can get tricky if you'll be crossing borders. In many cases, if a person has met CACREP standards, the program is given less course-by-course scrutiny than if it is accredited by another agency. It is sometimes safer to enroll in a CACREP-accredited program.
All states require you to work under supervision for a period of time before you attain full licensure. States have different policies about the credentialing you'll have, if any, while you're fulfilling your practice requirement. Some require you to get an associate license. Others require you to register your supervision.
Some states allow you to have a clinical supervisor who is also an administrator at your place of work. Others feel that this is a conflict of interest. Some allow you to contract for supervision; others forbid the practice.
In some states, if you begin your supervised practice before credentialing, you won't get credit for your hours. In some, you could lose your license eligibility and conceivably face criminal charges. Your best bet is to become familiar with your state board early in the process. You may also want to join a professional organization.