Substance Abuse Therapist Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

About this article
What are the pros and cons of a substance abuse therapist career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a substance abuse therapist is right for you.
View available schools

A Substance Abuse Therapist Career: Pros and Cons

A substance abuse therapist works with their clients to overcome their addictions to alcohol and other drugs. Consider the following pros and cons to determine if a career as a substance abuse therapist is right for you.

Pros of a Substance Abuse Therapist Career
High job growth (31% growth in 2012-2022)*
Variety in duties (leading individual and group counseling sessions, educating families, coordinating support services)*
Growing demand for substance abuse rehabilitation services*
Large number of options for places of employment*

Cons of a Substance Abuse Therapist Career
Often involves weekend and evening work hours*
Heavy caseloads are common (insufficient resources to meet demand for services)*
Potential for high stress (difficult clients, intervening in crisis situations)*
May require travel to clients' homes**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Michigan Jobs & Career Portal

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Substance abuse therapists provide counseling to individuals and groups. Their clients are people dealing with addictions to alcohol, illegal drugs or pharmaceutical drugs. These therapists, or counselors, develop treatment plans to help clients work through the recovery process and rebuild relationships, careers and, ultimately, their lives. Also known as addiction counselors, substance abuse therapists may work in conjunction with doctors, social workers or other professionals to implement treatments. Be prepared to work irregular hours, especially if you plan to work in a residential rehab facility. Evening and weekend work schedules are common.

Helping others overcome their addictions and rebuild their lives can be a very positive experience. However, you should know that a high level of stress often accompanies those rewarding feelings due to difficult clients and high caseloads.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse therapists earned a mean wage of about $46,000 annually. The 31% job growth projected in this field from 2012-2022 can be partially attributed to the fact that legal offenders are increasingly being sentenced to treatment for substance abuse, reports the BLS. Employment opportunities should be most plentiful for those working in individual and family services or residential rehabilitation facilities. Other employers include outpatient treatment centers, medical facilities and government agencies.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

The amount of education required to work as a substance abuse therapist varies. A higher level of education is associated with a greater level of responsibility and independence in the workplace. To have your own practice, you'll need a master's degree in the field and 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised work experience, according to the BLS. The majority of therapists are employed in mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities, and the requirements to work in this capacity vary state to state.

While some states may credential counselors using an exam and no set education requirements, it is more common for some level of postsecondary education to be required. An education poll on a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored site, O*NET Online, found that the majority of counselors in this field who volunteered information reported having a bachelor's degree (www.onetonline.org); this may not be representative of the whole field.

Bachelor's degree programs center on substance abuse and counseling theories and typically include an internship. Programs at the master's degree level cover the same areas but go deeper into the concepts and theories related to substance abuse counseling. In addition to completing an internship or practicum, students learn about diagnostic protocols, pharmacology, the physiological effects of substance abuse and the types of mental health disorders that may accompany drug use.

Regardless of the licensure or certification requirements for your state, some other qualities and skills are important for succeeding in this career. These include:

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Compassion and concern for others
  • Patience
  • Ability to manage stress
  • Flexibility
  • Solid clerical skills (documentation of client interactions and treatments is vital)

What Real Employers Look For

Meeting education and credentialing requirements are the primary qualifications employers use to hire substance abuse therapists. Experience and schedule flexibility also tend to be important. Jobs may require travel, so possessing a valid driver's license is not an uncommon requirement. The following real job postings from April 2012 give you an idea of what employers tend to look for when hiring these therapists.

  • An Iowa community organization offering substance abuse services is looking for an outpatient substance abuse counselor. In addition to doing assessments, the counselor must develop treatment plans as well as conduct group and individual sessions. Candidates for the job need a human services degree and must possess state certification as an alcohol and drug counselor within a year of being hired. Work experience counseling legal offenders, adolescents and those with mental health conditions is preferred. The job is a full-time position requiring some traveling and evening work.
  • A Georgia counseling agency seeks a full-time substance abuse counselor to lead individual and group therapy sessions, maintain clinical documentation and research the literature in the field to determine best practices. Providing services to adults, adolescents and children is part of the job. Candidates must be certified addiction counselors. Good computer skills and experience working in community-based programs are also expected.
  • A New Jersey rehabilitation facility needs a primary substance abuse counselor to work at its Pennsylvania transitional living facility. The full-time position involves assessing and counseling individuals who are in the recovery process. Candidates must have a bachelor's degree and possess certification as an alcohol and drug counselor or addictions counselor. A master's degree is preferred. The employer also expects the counselor to have three years of experience working in the field. A valid driver's license is required.

How Can I Stand Out?

Specialize

Licensure or certification is often needed to work in this field, and some states use examinations from the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors' (NAADAC) National Certification Commission. Yet while such certifications may be required, you can further stand out by obtaining credentials in certain specialties. For instance, NAADAC offers certification in nicotine dependence and an adolescent specialist endorsement. These specialty credentials could give you an edge if you're aiming to work in a specific area of substance abuse counseling.

Computer Skills

Good computer and clerical skills may not spring to mind when you think about a career in counseling, but they are vital. Meticulous recordkeeping is essential to track clients' progress and also to meet reporting regulations for your employer. With the push towards electronic records over the last few years, you need to show employers that you have solid keyboarding skills and proficiency in standard office software programs. Healthcare or case management software may be used in this job as well.

Comparable Careers to Consider

Another career option with even faster employment growth is that of a substance abuse social worker. The 2010-2020 BLS estimate for job growth is 31%, primarily for the same reason as the high growth for therapists in this specialty: a rising number of offenders entering rehab facilities. Social workers must be licensed in their state, and education requirements vary. However, substance abuse and mental health social workers need a master's degree due to the clinical nature of their work. The 2011 mean yearly wage for these professionals was about $43,000. Still, this occupation has the potential to be stressful as well.

Finding that specializing in substance abuse isn't for you? You may want to look into becoming a mental health counselor, an occupation with a 36% expected jump in employment growth from 2010-2020. These counselors provide services to clients dealing with a range of emotional or psychological issues, such as relationship problems, depression or low self-esteem. In addition to having their own private practices, mental health counselors work in several settings, including hospitals and outpatient facilities. According to 2011 BLS data, they earned a mean annual income of about $43,000. As in many of the helping professions, keeping your own emotions and stress level in check is important.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Ashford University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.A. - Education
      • MA-Psychology
      • MS-Criminal Justice
      • MBA - Media Management
      • MBA
      • MA/Education - School Leadership in the 21st Century
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Journalism and Mass Communication
      • B.A. - Psychology
      • BA/Education Studies
      • B.A. - Business Admin
      • B.A. - Communication Studies
      • B.A. - Liberal Arts
    Associate's
      • Associate of Arts - Early Childhood Education
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Master of Science - DNP Executive Leader
      • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
      • Master of Science - DNP Path (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
    Master's
      • MSCJ: Law
      • Master: Legal Studies
      • MS in Psychology
      • Master : Business Admin
      • Master: Psychology/General Psychology
      • MSPY - Industrial/Organizational Psychology Specialization
    Bachelor's
      • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
      • Bachelor: Liberal Studies
      • Bachelor of Business Admin
      • BSBA - Investment
      • BS in Liberal Studies Leadership
      • Bachelor: Nutrition Science
    Associate's
      • AASBA in Business
      • AAS in Legal Support and Services
      • Associate: Business Admin.
      • Associate: Business Admin. - Office Mgmt
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
      • Associate: Accounting
    Certificate
      • Psychology
      • Medical Assisting
      • Certificate in Human Services
      • Medical Office Administration
      • Human Services Certificates in Child and Family Services
      • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • DBA - Management
      • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Special Education
      • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Cognition and Instruction
      • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Industrial and Organizational Psychology
    Master's
      • M.S. Psychology with an Emphasis in Gerontology
      • M.S. in Psychology with an Emphasis in Human Factors
      • MA in Curriculum and Instruction
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
      • MS in Psychology: General Psychology
      • M.B.A. with an Emphasis in Project Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Business for Secondary Education
      • BS in Applied Management
      • BS in Psychology
      • B.S. in Psychology with an Emphasis in Performance and Sports Psychology
      • Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education
      • BS in Accounting
    Certificate
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in GeroPsychology
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Industrial and Organizational Psychology
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Forensic Psychology
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Health Psychology
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Human Factors Psychology
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Life Coaching
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Johns Hopkins University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Communication
      • Master of Liberal Arts
      • Master of Arts in Science Writing
      • Master of Science in Applied Economics
      • Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems
      • Master of Science in Biotechnology and Certificate in National Security Studies Dual Degree
    Certificate
      • Certificate in Government Analytics
      • Certificate in Biotechnology Enterprise
      • Post-Bachelor's Certificate in Applied Research for Communication
      • Post-Master's Certificate in Sequence Analysis and Genomics
      • Certificate in Geographic Information Systems
      • Certificate in Biotechnology Education
  • Campus and Online Programs
    5. Everest

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate's - Computer Information Science
      • Associate's - Accounting
    Certificate
      • Dental Assistant
      • Medical Administrative Assistant
      • Medical Assistant
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Higher Education Administration
      • MS in Criminal Justice
      • MBA in Criminal Justice
      • MEd in Curriculum and Instruction - Dyslexia Studies & LBLD
      • MS in Psychology
      • MA in Communication
    Bachelor's
      • BA in Psychology
      • BA Psychology w/conc in Applied Psychology
      • BA Communications w/conc in New Media
      • BS Computer Science
      • BA in Communication
      • BA in Psychology - Forensic Psychology
    Associate's
      • AA in Liberal Arts
      • AS in Marketing
      • AS in Accounting
      • AS in Business Administration
      • AA in Digital Photography
      • AS Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA
      • MBA Dual Concentration: HR & Project Mgmt.
      • MBA Dual Concentration: BS Mgmt. & HR
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Business Mgmt & Project Mgmt.
      • MBA: Technology Management
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Accounting and Project Management
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. - Business Management: Business Admin Concentration
      • B.S. - Business Management With No Concentration
      • B.S. - Business Management: Entrepreneurial Studies Concentration
      • B.S. - Information Technology: Security Technology Concentration
      • B.S. - Business Management: International Business Concentration
      • Bachelor: Health Care Management
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Business Management
      • Associate of Science - Business Studies
      • Associate: Health Information Management
      • Associate: Healthcare Management
      • Associate of Science - Information Technology Admin and Management
      • Associate of Science - Accounting
    Certificate
      • Diploma: Medical Office Admin
      • Diploma: Medical Assisting
      • Diploma: Bookkeeping and Payroll Accounting
      • Networking Systems Certificate
  • Online Programs Available
    8. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Education - Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Education
      • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Human Services
      • Psy.D. in Non-Profit Management
      • Psy.D. in Organizational Leadership
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Education
      • Master of Arts in Psychology - General Psychology
      • Master of Arts in Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
      • M.A. in Psychology - Organizational Leadership
      • M.A. in Psychology - Business Psychology
      • M.A. in Psychology - Career Management & Counseling
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Applied Computer Science
      • PhD in Business Admin - Applied Computer Science
      • Doctor of Business Admin - General Business
      • PhD-TIM - Computer Science
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Management
      • Ed.D. - Sports Management
    Master's
      • M.A. in Psychology - General Psychology
      • MBA - Applied Computer Science
      • Master of Business Admin - General Business
      • MEd - General Education
      • Master of Business Admin - Accelerated General MBA
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Education Specialist - Organizational Leadership
      • Education Specialist - Special Education
      • Education Specialist - International Education
      • Education Specialist - Early Childhood Education
      • Education Specialist - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Education Specialist - Instructional Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor - Management - Criminal Justice
      • Doctorate: Computer Science
      • Doctorate - Computer Science: Information Assurance (Executive Format)
      • Doctor of Management - Graduate Level Instructional Practices
      • Doctorate: C.S. - Enterprise Information Systems
      • Doctorate: Management - Organizational Development and Change
    Master's
      • Master of Science in Computer Science
      • Master: Computer Science - Database Systems
      • Master of Business Admin
      • Master of Business Admin - Entrepreneurship
      • MS - Computer Science - Computer Systems Security
      • M.S. - Information Technology
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. - Psychology
      • BS - Criminal Justice
      • B.S. - Psychology - Organizational Behavior
      • B.S. - Psychology - Consumer Behavior
      • BS - Nursing (RN to BSN completion)
      • BS - IT - Web Development
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Business Administration

Featured Schools

Ashford University

  • M.A. - Education
  • B.A. - Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Associate of Arts - Early Childhood Education

What is your highest level of education?

Kaplan University

  • Master of Science - DNP Executive Leader
  • MSCJ: Law
  • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
  • AASBA in Business
  • Psychology

Which subject are you interested in?

Grand Canyon University

  • DBA - Management
  • M.S. Psychology with an Emphasis in Gerontology
  • Bachelor of Science in Business for Secondary Education
  • Graduate Certificate of Completion in GeroPsychology

What is your highest level of education?

Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Arts in Communication
  • Master of Liberal Arts
  • Certificate in Government Analytics
  • Certificate in Biotechnology Enterprise

What is your highest level of education?

Everest

  • Associate's - Computer Information Science
  • Associate's - Accounting
  • Dental Assistant
  • Medical Administrative Assistant

What is your highest level of education completed?

Southern New Hampshire University

  • MS in Higher Education Administration
  • BA in Psychology
  • AA in Liberal Arts

What is your highest level of education?

Herzing University

  • MBA
  • B.S. - Business Management: Business Admin Concentration
  • Associate of Science - Business Management
  • Diploma: Medical Office Admin

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Education - Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Education
  • Master of Arts in Education
  • Master of Arts in Psychology - General Psychology

What is your highest level of education?