Counselling is a challenging career for a graduate to enter after a first degree. Accredited postgraduate study is required along with significant relevant experience. The job market for counsellors is difficult but opportunities exist in a range of sectors, notably health, education and not-for-profit. Counselling as a career is very diverse, reflecting different approaches and fields of specialism. It is a profession that enables practitioners to operate in a person centred fashion; the skills associated with counselling are transferable to many other 'people professions' within health, social care and education.
AGCAS, the professional body for higher education careers advisory services, has produced an Industry Insight for Social Care which provides an overview of what it is like to work in this area.
Work experience, as you would expect, is of great importance. Counselling is a career that requires a combination of experience and professional qualifications. It is not necessarily something that can be entered immediately after graduation which is why it is so important to gain relevant experience during your time at university.
At university opportunities exist to engage in student welfare support via your college. Nightline is a telephone support service for Durham students providing both training and volunteering opportunities. Student Community Action is not specifically concerned with counselling or student welfare but provides a range of opportunities to engage with different groups and individuals.
External experience is available through the many organisations, such as Cruse, Relate and the Samaritans, that provide support and listening services. It is possible to gain experience as a listening volunteer; Samaritans are one example of an organisation that recruits this type of volunteer: positions have to be applied for, training undertaken and a commitment made to undertake one 3-4 hours shift per week. Consequently volunteer positions of this type have to be considered very carefully because of the commitment involved but they do provide excellent experience. Listening and counselling services primarily exist in the not-for-profit sector but opportunities also exist within the public (local authorities, hospitals and community health teams, schools) and private (HR departments of large organisations) sectors. Higher and Further Education institutions normally provide a counselling service as part of their broader student services.
There are some useful online directories that you can use to research counselling providers and practitioners. Work experience is not always feasible because of the sensitivity of the work but it may be possible to speak with a practitioner about the nature of their work:
Evidence of working with a diverse range of people and issues is significant: mental illness, substance misuse, sexual abuse, bereavement, physical illness, trauma. In addition to targeting counselling organisations for work experience, it is important to consider charities and statutory providers that engage in specific issues. Experience of this nature will help you develop your knowledge of different issues as well as presenting you with the opportunity to engage with people. Charities often need volunteers to undertake support worker roles and work directly with groups or individuals; volunteer opportunities are also available in the public sector through hospital trusts and local authorities (e.g. Youth Services).
The number of organisations with whom you could volunteer or gain work experience is mind boggling! To help manage the options available it is useful to use charity directories; resources of this nature will help you to refine your choices by location and/or purpose. Examples include:
It is also helpful to peruse volunteering websites such as:
Internship and structured work experience opportunities are not readily available in this area of work. However, an internship in a different context is still an incredible source of organisational experience and skills development. Internships within HR functions could be useful in terms of exposure to stress related issues in the workplace and the mechanisms of support that are available; opportunities in a customer facing environment may help to develop person centred skills. Large charities such as Cancer Research and Oxfam do offer internships; the placements may not be specific to counselling but the exposure to different causes and issues will be beneficial. Internships with charities are not restricted to summer placements and are available to graduates.
Typically, formal internships are aimed primarily at students in their penultimate year; closing dates can be as early as December and January! The internships last 8-12 weeks; they are usually salaried and involve structured, project based work. Opportunities are advertised via our vacancy service, which is available through the Careers Centre website, but also through the main graduate careers websites such as Prospects, Target Jobs and Milkround. It is feasible to undertake work experience with SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) through the ‘Step’ programme. A further option is to approach organisations speculatively with a persuasive CV and covering letter.
Beyond graduation it is important to continue building the relevant skills and experience necessary to work as a counsellor. Jobs within health, social care and education, particularly if they involve working directly with people, are an excellent platform on which to build a career in a person centred profession. Support worker roles within appropriate organisations represent good, entry level opportunities for graduates.
Counselling is a challenging area in which to find employment in that the opportunities for full-time work can be limited. It is not uncommon for counsellors to work on a part-time basis, possibly in conjunction with another job role. On a more positive note the breadth of potential employers ensures a diversity of opportunities. Counsellors can work in private practice, dealing with a range of clients, but can also work in particular fields such as relationship guidance, addiction, sexual abuse and health. Employment opportunities exist with hospitals and community health teams, education institutions (schools, colleges and universities), statutory and voluntary sector care agencies, prisons, youth services, faith organisations and counselling services. New opportunities are emerging, genetic counselling for example, and there does appear to be an increase in openings for counsellors within certain organisations such as GP practices and large employers. There has been considerable investment in therapy within the National Health Service resulting in the ongoing recruitment of low intensity therapists known as ‘Well Being Practitioners’. Although these roles are not counselling posts, PWPs can expect to engage in assessment, behavioural activation and cognitive behavioural therapy as part of brief client interventions.
There are very few job sites that are dedicated to counselling vacancies. The main source of vacancies is the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy but this service is available only to members. There are, however, some very good job sites that focus on the broader sectors of health, education and social care which feature counselling vacancies. You will also find job opportunities that are relevant to a career in counselling.
- Simple keyword search tool; search under 'counsellor'
- Access to a broad range of related career opportunities including low intensity therapy posts
Useful job email service (you have to register to access this service but registration is free
- Excellent array of opportunities across the charity sector
- Strong selection of assistant and entry level positions (useful in respect of relevant, paid experience)
Counselling roles advertised but you will need to do a key word search
- Dedicated section on counselling vacancies although numbers of opportunities tend to small
- Volunteering opportunities advertised
Access to a wider selection of social care jobs
Excellent source of placements and voluntary opportunities (primarily for qualified counsellors). Browse the latest edition and access the 'Noticeboard'.
- Simple category search tool that includes 'advice and counselling'
- Internship and voluntary opportunities advertised
A postgraduate qualification recognised by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is a good basis for a career in this field. Courses last between 1 year (full-time) and 2-3 years (part-time). For further details of courses refer to the BACP website, which provides details of accredited courses and institutions. Competition for places is high, as it is for employment. Evidence of working with a diverse range of people and issues is significant: mental illness, substance misuse, sexual abuse, bereavement, physical illness, trauma etc. A further postgraduate qualification is the Diploma in Counselling Psychology, recognised by the British Psychological Society (BPS). The entry requirements are more specific, requiring an accredited degree in Psychology or equivalent alongside appropriate experience. The role of a counselling psychologist is different to that of a counsellor in terms of the application of psychological principles and assessment tools. Further information on accredited courses in counselling psychology can be found on the BPS website.
Funding is very limited in respect of both study options and it is likely that you will be self-funded.
Further information on postgraduate courses can be found on the Prospects and FindaMasters websites. Research the courses on offer before you apply; don't assume that they are all the same, particularly as there are different approaches to counselling and therapy. It is vital to approach admissions tutors at an early stage to establish specific entry requirements. The majority of courses are open to applicants of any degree discipline but institutions may also seek very specific evidence in terms of relevant experience and counselling qualifications. Reading, for example, stipulates a minimum of 2 years paid or voluntary experience as well as some form of basic counselling skills training. There are no absolute deadlines for postgraduate courses in this field but it is recommended that you apply early.
In addition to postgraduate level study, there are other qualifications to be considered in respect of counselling. Qualifications are available at different levels and can help prospective counsellors develop their understanding of the counselling process and improve access to postgraduate study. Many HE institutions offer a foundation or certificate course in counselling in preparation for a masters course; these courses normally last between 5 months to a year. Introductory level courses are widely offered by universities and colleges; these short study programmes represent a very good starting point for anyone considering a career in counselling. A typical example of an introductory level course is an NCFE level 1 and 2 qualification in counselling; these programmes are typically 10-11 weeks in length.