Professional counseling requires a graduate degree, but you can give yourself a head start at the undergraduate level by the major you select. It won’t shorten your graduate course load, but it can help make you an attractive candidate. Having the right major or minor can also help ensure that you won’t waste time or money taking prerequisite courses later. (Prerequisites are usually modest, but you are often expected to have several psychology or social science classes on your transcript. Some schools desire particular courses like human development or abnormal psychology.)
One option, for a solid undergraduate education foundation, is a degree in human services. Choosing this major can have both direct and indirect advantages. Many graduate programs like candidates to have majors in human services or related fields like psychology or sociology. They also like to see experience. And human service coursework can be an asset when it comes to getting entry level positions in human and social services. Coursework can be especially beneficial if you want paid experience in an area of interest, and not just volunteer service. You may not want to stay at the entry level. You may want to become a mental health practitioner: assessing and treating serious disorders. Still, a major like human services is a good first step.
With a degree in human services, you may become an intake interviewer or community organizer. You may work in a group home or adult day care or be an aide in a mental health setting. Another possibility is probation officer. Volunteer coordinator… yet another possibility.
In some states, human service majors can even help you get an entry level certification or licensing. In Washington State, for example, you can become a Certified Counselor with a baccalaureate degree in a counseling-related field. It’s good to keep in mind that different states have different requirement for entry level human service workers. Also, human service degrees vary in scope and focus.
Expect to complete a human service core curriculum and some electives. Core coursework may include psychology, human development, social policy, and direct service methodologies. There is a fair amount of variation from program to program. Some may, for example, require a course in professional writing (distinct from the composition course that all students take) while others may cover things like grant writing in elective courses.
Expect to spend some time out in the field – even if the bulk of your coursework is online. Field experience can mean more than putting in hours in an agency. You may even find yourself designing your own service project.
You may have a choice of tracks. You may have the option, for example, of focusing on child welfare. If the program has a youth track, the emphasis will be slightly different: What are the issues that young people face as they grow away from their parents and develop their own identities? What strategies can people who work in youth organizations or youth-oriented services employ?
Another popular choice is geriatrics. Human services management is another option, but the focus will be different. You are still serving the disadvantaged, but in an indirect way.
Have a vision of your own? There may be multiple electives – or an opportunity to design your own concentration.
A human services degree is sound foundation for entry into a counseling graduate degree program. What about other mental health fields? Here, too, it offers a foundation. If you are interested in counseling psychology, you may want to look ahead to see if there are prerequisites for graduate programs, like statistics, that you should work into your educational plan. If you are interested in social work practice, a human services major won’t be as advantageous at the graduate level as a social work degree, at least when it comes to skipping lower level division courses. But if you want a broad exposure to human services – and the opportunity to choose your grad school pathway later, including a master’s in counseling path – you’re on the right track!