Counsellors can make a significant positive impact on people’s lives, and ultimately improve the health and well-being of our society.

With mental health issues and general life stress becoming more prevalent, a non-judgemental, listening ear can do more than make someone feel better – it can help turn people’s lives around. But when people are considering becoming a counsellor, it’s easy to become confused about what counselling actually is. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has two definitions of counselling:

  1. 'Give advice to (a person) on social or personal problems, especially professionally.'
  2. 'The process of assisting and guiding clients, especially by a trained person on a professional basis, to resolve especially personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties.'

This guide focuses on definition two. However, as you read through it will become clear that to get to the second definition, you will first usually have to do a job that involves definition one.

Skip ahead to learn more about becoming a counsellor:

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What does a counsellor do?

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) says:

'Counsellors and psychotherapists play a crucial role in improving the health and wellbeing of our society. They help people to talk about their feelings, think about their choices or their behaviour, and make positive changes in their lives.'

The people that counsellors see are known as clients. Clients will meet a counsellor to try to resolve a range of emotional, psychological and relationship issues.

For example, these clients could be:

  • someone going through a divorce
  • a student with anxiety issues
  • a person whose partner has died of cancer
  • an adult who feels they have unresolved issues that are affecting their mental health

Counselling is often described as therapy, and a trained counsellor can often be described as a therapist.

Counselling does not normally involve seeing a client just once. It will involve seeing them on numerous occasions by appointment in a safe, private place where confidentiality can be maintained.

The BACP says:

'Therapy may involve talking about life events, feelings, emotions, relationships, ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour. The therapist will listen, encourage and empathise, but will also challenge to help the client to see their issues more clearly or from a different perspective.

'Counselling is not about giving advice or opinions, nor is it a friendly chat with a friend. The therapist helps the client to understand themselves better and find their own solutions to resolve or cope with their situation.'

What to expect as a counsellor

Counsellors can work in a range of settings, such as universities, schools, GP practices and prisons, as well as a wide range of workplaces and in private practice.

They could have a specialism, such as working with people on the autistic spectrum, or they could be a generalist covering multiple issues. They do not always see clients on a one-to-one basis. They may see couples or groups and provide counselling via Skype.

Some counsellors work part-time and some full-time. They may have dual roles, such as being both a counsellor and a teacher. Sometimes, counsellors work on a voluntary basis. An example of this would be working at a charity that has a very particular focus, such as helping clients with a rare health problem.

Personal qualities required for counsellors
  • a friendly manner, so that clients feel comfortable with you
  • patient and empathetic with an impartial, non-judgmental attitude
  • an understanding of yourself and your own baggage
  • excellent at observing behaviour and listening
  • observance of confidentiality
  • to be open to advice and supervision from a mentor
What do counsellors think of their profession?

Here’s what Shirah Herman, a counsellor at JFS School, says she enjoys about being a counsellor:

  • 'Having the opportunity to make a significant positive impact on a young person's life.'
  • 'Helping to enable a person to feel safe enough to explore personal and sometimes difficult issues in their life in order to cope better with their situation and to move forward.'
  • 'Learning to develop my own skills in the areas of reflection and insight, and to work on my own personal development.'
  • 'It is an exciting and rewarding career in which I get to meet many people with different life experiences and it is a privilege to be trusted to help people.'
The different types of counselling styles

It’s important to become aware of the language used to describe the different methods that can be used in counselling, because you may specialise in a particular way of working with clients, such as:

Humanistic therapy

This approach focuses on the individual as a whole. It encourages people to think about their feelings and take responsibility for their thoughts and actions.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy

The psychodynamic approach is derived from psychoanalysis, but it focuses on immediate problems to try to provide a quicker solution. It stresses the importance of the unconscious and past experience in shaping current behaviour.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT aims to help you change the way you think (cognitive) and what you do (behaviour). Rather than looking at past causes, it focuses on current problems and practical solutions to help you feel better now.

How to become a counsellor

Be prepared for the length of time it may take to become a professional counsellor. Many counsellors will start off in a different core profession such as:

  • nursing, and other allied health professions with significant client contact
  • social work
  • teaching
  • careers advice and coaching
  • youth work
  • social care

Herman continues:

It is advisable to come into counselling with a sound and solid core profession such as nursing, social work or teaching. This demonstrates a breadth and depth of skill and is often a springboard to further training within the counselling profession. It offers an individual further opportunity to do counselling in a variety of workplaces and demonstrates a commitment to training and learning that employers often welcome, as life experience is needed in the profession of counselling.

Voluntary work can sometimes involve advising or helping people, and this experience may be acceptable to a local college that's running an introductory or certificate in counselling (which will give you a true taste of what counselling involves).

Top tip! Not all counsellors have been to university to study a full-time degree. They may have gained some great work experience and then decided to undertake counselling education and training later on.

Counselling education and qualifications

Vocational vs academic routes to becoming a counsellor

In order to decide what the best route is for you to become a counsellor, consider these four questions:

What is your core profession going to be?

Let’s say you choose social work. This may involve doing a three-year full-time degree in social work, before working as a social worker for five years.

Do you want to gain a better awareness of what counselling really is?

While working as a social worker, you could take an introductory course to make sure that counselling is the right career for you. This will help you gain basic counselling skills and give you an overview of what the training involves before you commit fully. These courses can be run at local colleges and normally last between eight and 12 weeks.

Do you want to take a qualification to enable you to more effectively counsel in your current job?

If so, while still working as a social worker you would take a level two certificate in counselling skills at a local college. This part-time course normally runs for a year.

Do you want to commit to core practitioner training in counselling and psychotherapy?

You have now decided that you want to become a fully trained accredited counsellor. You may want to incorporate this into your work as a social worker, or you may want to be a full-time counsellor.

These are the guidelines from the BACP:

'Your core practitioner training should be at the minimum level of a diploma in counselling or psychotherapy at minimum of level 4, but could be a bachelor's degree, master's degree or doctorate.

'Your course should be at least one year full-time or two years' part-time classroom-based tuition. It should also include an integral, supervised placement of at least 100 hours, allowing you to work within an organisation and practise your skills with clients under supervision.'

Academic route to becoming a counsellor

Search for a degree course and you'll find just fewer than a hundred full-time counselling courses, which break down into three types:

  • counselling degrees
  • counselling foundation degrees
  • psychology degrees with counselling
Counselling degrees

If considering a counselling degree the key is to check entry requirements. Do they have age, work experience or insight requirements?

You also need to check that the course is accredited by a counselling professional body, such as the BACP or the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

Counselling foundation degrees

Foundation degrees in counselling are two-year courses offered by local colleges of further education, and many people on these courses will be mature students.

These courses can meet the minimum requirement of the BACP to be core practitioner training, and you can often move on to a one-year top-up course to turn it into a full degree. You need to check this with the institution though.

Psychology degrees with counselling

These will be psychology degrees with an element of counselling. You would need to check the quantity and quality of the counselling content. It may be the equivalent of an introductory counselling course, for example.

This type of degree will be accredited by the British Psychological Society (not by the BACP, nor any other counselling professional body, as far as we can see).

It could be that the foundation knowledge gained from your psychology degree will prove useful in any education or work that you do in the field of counselling and psychotherapy.

What qualifications are required to become a counsellor?

There are no set entry requirements to become a counsellor, however you need to be aware that while an introductory course in counselling may have no academic entry requirements and a degree course will.

Finding an accredited counselling course

As well as searching for courses, you can also use the BACP search facility, look at those accredited by the National Counselling Society and browse master's-level courses run by the UK Council for Psychotherapy.

Top tip! Some courses will ask you to undergo therapy yourself. Embrace it. Your own personal therapy will demonstrate the empathy you need when working with clients who may be having to deal with very difficult emotional issues.

Average counsellor starting salaries

Like social workers or paramedics, counsellors aren't usually motivated by money when choosing their profession.

The average annual pay for counsellors is £28,080. Some will earn more than this, while many will work part-time and therefore be likely to earn less.

There's an expected 6.4% growth in the counselling workforce by 2024.

Where to find counsellor jobs

You can find counselling jobs advertised in:

Counsellor voluntary work

Charities and other organisations may offer voluntary work. These opportunities may still require a completed introductory course in counselling or even a part-time certificate. For example:

  • Relate: offering counselling services and advice nationwide.
  • Cruse: national charity for bereaved people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Also look at:

Related jobs and careers

Interested in similar jobs to counselling? Read our dedicated subject guides on nursing, social work, and teaching.

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