Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor: Job Description & Salary Info

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A substance abuse counselor's median salary is around $39,270. Is it worth the education and certification requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about the career outlook to find out if becoming a substance abuse counselor is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors aid in the diagnosis, treatment and recovery process for people who struggle with addictions. Read the pros and cons of being a substance abuse counselor to see if the career is right for you.

Pros of a Substance Abuse Counselor Career
Faster than average (31%) job growth expected from 2012-2022*
Could be hired as a counselor with only a high school diploma*
Could earn national certification to practice across the U.S.**

Cons of a Substance Abuse Counselor Career
Job prospects are higher for those with specialized training and education*
May need to work evenings and weekends
Working in private practice will require pursuing licensure*
You will need to pursue graduate studies to pursue certification**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Board for Certified Counselors.

Job Description and Career Outlook

Substance abuse counselors provide therapy services to individuals and groups who share similar addictions. They might also work with family members and other professionals, such as doctors and psychiatrists.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors was approximately $39,270 as of 2014. Because law enforcement professionals believe that people convicted of drug offenses are less likely to repeat their actions if they seek treatment, the BLS anticipated that job growth for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors would increase by 31% from 2012-2022.

Career Skills and Requirements

Education and Certification Requirements

While there are job opportunities for those with a high school diploma, state requirements might include that you have at least an associate degree to seek certification, which is the case to receive licensure as a chemical dependency counselor (LCDC) in Ohio. With an associate degree, you could also pursue certification as a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC) in New Jersey. These types of certifications, however, typically do not allow you to make diagnoses.

Many types of certification, including being recognized as a nationally certified counselor, require a master's degree. Employers looking for substance abuse counselors might want applicants who are licensed as a mental health counselor (LMHC), an independent clinical social worker (LICSW) or a clinical alcohol and drug counselor (LCADC). These credentials require a master's degree in a variety of states, including Florida, New York and New Jersey.

If you'd like to pursue an associate degree, you might consider a behavioral science degree program. Bachelor's and master's degree programs are also available in related areas, such as the Master of Arts in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling.

Job Postings from Real Employers

In addition to a variety of educational requirements, employers generally want candidates who have some experience. Many postings note that the substance abuse counselor is required to have, or be working toward, some type of certification. Below are a few substance abuse counselor job postings from April 2012:

  • An outpatient substance abuse program in Philadelphia is looking for a substance abuse counselor with a bachelor's degree and at least one year of experience but will consider an individual with an associate degree provided that they have a significant amount of experience.
  • An outpatient program in Massachusetts advertised for a substance abuse counselor with a master's degree to provide therapy for individuals, couples and families. The posting states that the program prefers a candidate with licensure as a social worker (LICSW) or as a mental health counselor (LMHC).
  • A maximum-security unit of a hospital in Texas is looking for a substance abuse counselor with a LCDC. Applicants should have at least a high school diploma and one year of experience.

How to Make Your Skills Stand Out

Many states have associations for counselors, such as the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association (IMHCA) or the California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (CLPCC). Membership benefits can include access to job postings, professional development, networking opportunities and an opportunity to be listed on the association website's counselor finder registry.

In addition, if you've already earned a bachelor's degree in a related field, you might consider completing a graduate certificate program in substance abuse counseling to increase your knowledge and stand out to prospective employers. Because job prospects are expected to be better for those with specialized training and education, you might consider earning a master's degree.

Alternative Career Paths

If you decide that being a substance abuse counselor isn't the right career path for you, there are other career options that involve helping people. As substance abuse counselors may have a variety of levels of education, there are similar career occupations available that require as little education as a high school diploma or as much education as a master's or doctoral degree, including a social and human services assistant, social worker or a psychologist.

Social and Human Services Assistant

According to the BLS in 2011, the average salary for social and human services assistants was about $31,000. Much like a substance abuse counselor, the anticipated job growth from 2010-2020 for such a career is 28%, faster than the average, as reported by the BLS. Though a high school diploma could be enough education to land you a job, advancement opportunities are expected to be limited without additional education. Social and human services assistants offer support to people in need and may assist social workers.

Social Worker

Social workers help people solve and cope with everyday problems. Depending on their level of education, they might also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues. Minimum education requirements for such a career depend on the field you'd like to pursue. Direct-service positions, such as a school social worker, may only require a bachelor's degree. In order to practice as a clinical social worker, however, you typically need a master's degree. Because social workers may need to travel to the homes of their clients, they may spend some of their time out of the office. The BLS also reported a faster than average job growth (25%) from 2010-2020 for this occupation.

Psychologist

Psychologists spend their day diagnosing and treating peoples' psychological issues. You should have a master's degree to work in the education field and a doctorate plus certification to practice as a clinical psychologist. In order to accommodate patients, psychologists may need to offer night and weekend hours. Although the educational requirements for this position are generally more advanced, you would have the potential to earn an average salary of $73,000 working as a clinical, counseling or school psychologist, according to the BLS in 2011.

Popular Schools

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    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master: Psychology/Addictions
      • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
      • MS in Nursing
      • Master: Psychology/General Psychology
      • Master of Healthcare Admin
      • Master: Nursing/Nurse Administrator
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Psychology in Addictions
      • Bachelor: Health and Wellness
      • Bachelor: Health Science
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    2. Saint Leo University

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    Bachelor's
      • BA: Psychology - Clinical/Counseling
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    3. Northcentral University

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    Doctorate
      • PhD in Psychology - Addications
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      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families
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      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Couple Therapy
    Master's
      • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration
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      • MAMFT - LGBTQ Couple & Family Therapy
      • MAMFT - Military Family Therapy
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    4. Regent University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling
      • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Psychology - Clinical and Counseling Psychology
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    5. Post University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • B.S. in Human Services / Counseling
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    6. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice Behavior Analysis
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    7. University of the Southwest

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSEd - Mental Health Counseling
      • MBA Healthcare Administration
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    8. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration
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    9. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Healthcare Management
      • Master of Business Admin: Healthcare Admin
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Business Admin: Healthcare Management
      • Bachelor of Healthcare Management - HSA Mgt.
      • Bachelor of Healthcare Management
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    10. Baker College Online

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Healthcare Management - MBA (Master's)

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master: Psychology/Addictions
  • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
  • BS in Psychology in Addictions
  • Bachelor: Health and Wellness

Which subject are you interested in?

Saint Leo University

  • BA: Psychology - Clinical/Counseling

What is your highest level of education completed?

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Addications
  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Psychology - Clinical and Counseling Psychology

What is your highest level of education completed?

Post University

  • B.S. in Human Services / Counseling

Education Level:

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice Behavior Analysis

What is your highest level of education completed?

University of the Southwest

  • MSEd - Mental Health Counseling
  • MBA Healthcare Administration

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado State University Global

  • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

What is your highest level of education?