Study Drug & Alcohol Counseling: Master's, PhD & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in a drug and alcohol counseling graduate program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD degree and potential careers.
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Master's and PhD Programs in Drug and Alcohol Counseling at a Glance

Counselors have different requirements than counseling social workers or counseling psychologists, though all three may engage in counseling activities. Drug and alcohol addiction counselors work with individuals and groups to help them modify their behavior in areas like drug counseling to smoking cessation efforts. Alternatively, those interested in graduate education counseling in the drug and alcohol field may choose to pursue graduate studies in psychology. The common requirement for a practicing clinical psychologist is a doctoral degree, either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of drug and alcohol counseling is expected to grow 27% from 2010-2020. This may be driven by an increased demand for treatment as well as court-mandated treatment rather than jail time for criminal offenders. Positions for psychologists as a whole are expected to grow 22% over the same time period.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in starting a counseling practice or developing their career though formal education Individuals who want to reach the highest level of education in their field, either to promote their career or to teach others
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) Substance abuse counselor ($39,000)*
- Private practice
- Crisis intervention
- Non-crisis intervention
- Part of healthcare teams
In addition to the options listed under the master's degree:
- University professor ($80,000)*
- Psychologist ($68,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4-6 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 20-25 courses
- Master's exams
- Master's thesis
- Roughly 20-35 courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation completion and defense
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in psychology or a closely related field Master's degree in psychology, counseling or a related field
Online Availability No Some available with partial residence requirements

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Master's Degree in Drug and Alcohol Counseling

A master's degree in counseling with a focus on drug and alcohol addiction is one of the requirements for national certification as a substance abuse counselor. Those interested in seeking certification should seek a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP accredits master's programs in a number of areas, including addiction counseling, as well as doctoral programs in counselor education.

Pros and Cons


  • Master's degrees are required for licensure in many states.
  • Master's degree programs are designed to provide a thorough background in counseling, and may also provide opportunities for field practice.
  • For those hoping to earn a doctorate, a master's degree provides enough education to begin gaining work experience, while simultaneously pursuing further education in the field.


  • A master's program represents a significant investment in terms of time and money.
  • Not all counseling positions require master's-level education.
  • Completing a master's program does not guarantee state licensure.

Courses and Requirements

In addition to preparing students for careers in addiction counseling, master's degree programs in counseling provide training and preparation for state licensing requirements. Course topics that might be addressed include:

  • Social and physiological aspects of addiction
  • Techniques of addiction prevention
  • Individual assessment, diagnosis and counseling for addiction
  • Group assessment, diagnosis and counseling for addiction
  • Treatment program management and human resources
  • Behavioral science research methods

Online Degree and Course Info

While full master's degree programs accredited by CACREP are available online, counseling programs specific to drug and alcohol are not available. Because of the importance of CACREP accreditation in becoming licensed, students should consider this when making a decision. Certificate programs specific to drug and alcohol or addictions counseling may be available to individuals who already hold a degree.

Stand Out with This Degree

Beyond the master's degree, counselors might seek the Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) certification from the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. This credential has stringent requirements that include state licensing, several years of supervised work experience and passing the MAC exam. Students should also take advantage of their connections within the program to develop field experience and create professional relationships with their mentors and classmates.

The field of counseling is currently debating the role of technology and social media. As the possible applications grow, students looking to stand out should keep themselves abreast of developments in the social media field and the professional debates that surround it.

PhD in Drug and Alcohol Counseling

A PhD in drug and alcohol counseling may be of interest to those seeking to further their education in the counseling field, either for the purpose of preparing for supervisory positions or in order to become postsecondary teachers and engage in research. These programs generally focus on the counseling discipline as a whole and the students, in conjunction with their advisor and dissertation committee, may select drug and alcohol addiction as a specialization.

Pros and Cons


  • Earning a PhD may enhance a counselor's professional status.
  • Research performed during the dissertation process may provide insights into specific areas of drug and alcohol counseling.
  • Completing this program will make an individual eligible for university-level research and teaching positions.


  • The high-level research required for a dissertation may be different from the career-focused education of previous degrees.
  • The time commitments may make completing these programs difficult for counselors working in an independent practice.
  • Doctoral requirements are separate from licensing requirements.

Courses and Requirements

The coursework for PhD programs is designed to prepare candidates for the pursuit of advanced research. In addition to courses on research methodology and statistical analysis, course topics might include:

  • Theory and methods in consultation
  • Theory and methods in counseling
  • Group counseling training
  • Counseling supervision practicum
  • Counseling leadership and administration
  • Ethics and law in addiction counseling
  • Advanced substance abuse counseling

Online Degree and Course Info

At this time, there are few CACREP-accredited PhD programs in counselor education with online portions. Due to the significant research and residency requirements of these programs, they are not generally offered online. Some blended programs are available with courses that require a traditional classroom setting.

Stand Out with This Degree

In order to stand out in a PhD program, individuals may want to specifically focus their research on areas drawing from their own counseling experience. Care should be taken to foster close professional relationships with advisors and dissertation committee members, as this will greatly expand the reach of an individual's professional network and assist in the dissertation process. As the role of social media in counseling changes, professionals should be aware of these changes and be ready to take advantage of them.

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