A Career in Counseling: A Closer Look at Areas of Specialization

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Although it is possible to work as a general counselor, helping clients in an array of situations, facing a variety of issues, many professionals on the verge of entering the field look to specialize, Lynne Shallcross explained in an article for Counseling Today. Deciding what specialization to select, if any, can be a challenging decision. It can help, therefore, to take a closer look at some of the major specialization areas in which counselors work.

Why specialize?

Before reviewing notable specialization areas, it is important to examine the reasons why some counseling professionals opt to specialize in a certain area. In her article for Counseling Today, Shallcross interviewed Barbara Adams, a therapist currently working with children in Alabama. Shallcross learned that Adams’ career has featured stints working as both a specialized counselor and a general counselor. Shallcross also received Adams’ professional opinion on some of the major benefits of working in a specialized field, as well as some of the drawbacks. Adams’ reasoning is as follows:


  • Adams explained that opting to specialize can breed a sense of intimacy and familiarity with the topic and issue at hand, which can boost a counselor’s confidence that she or he is providing the very best care to clients.
  • Through a specialization, it is possible for a counselor to become a leader in a certain area, providing guidance and education to other counselors.
  • Individuals who follow a specialty tend to have a passion for that particular issue, whether it may be marriage and family counseling or substance abuse counseling. As Adams makes clear, counselors who are passionate about a certain area tend to be more invested and dedicated to their role, providing better counseling services as a consequence. As she explained, “With specializing, I learned that it is important to follow your passion in practice. If you are drawn to and wind up doing what you enjoy, you are a more effective counselor, and those to whom you provide services are the real winners.”Shallcross also interviewed Tamara Suttle, a counselor who works in Colorado. Suttle explained that many counselors often will opt to specialize — to find a niche — in order to increase their commercial viability. Conversely, however, the same rationale can be applied when deciding to generalize. Counselors who generalize will be able to work with a wide client base, enhancing their marketability.


  • Counselors who specialize risk becoming unfulfilled professionally or, to borrow a phrase from Adams, “burned out.” This result is perhaps because counselors who specialize come to know their area so well that they no longer feel stimulated or challenged.
  • Counselors who specialize can be less marketable overall, particularly if there is minimal demand for the services they offer in the area in which they live and practice.

A closer look at areas of specialization

Making the decision to specialize can be challenging. It is helpful, therefore, to take closer look at certain specialties. Below is a comprehensive guide to three areas in which counselors typically opt to specialize:

Marriage counseling session

Marriage, couples and family counseling

According to an article published by U.S. News & World Report, marriage, couples and family therapists work with families and couples through any number of issues that can impact intimate and loving relationships. Counselors in this field offer similar services as marriage and family therapists. Much like in general mental health counseling, they will find themselves working with clients experiencing mental illness, as well as with individuals recovering from traumatic or abusive situations. For example, a marriage, couples and family counselor may work with a client who has experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a partner or family member, or they may offer group counseling to a family wherein one or more members are living with mental illness.

Other common issues that professionals encounter include common family and marriage-based problems such as infidelity, divorce and grief over a loved one’s death. Professionals in this field typically will offer their services to individuals, couples or groups.

Job outlook

According to an article from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marriage and family counseling typically falls under the remit of mental health counseling. The BLS article detailed that employment within the mental health counseling paradigm, in the decade spanning 2014–2024, likely will increase by almost 19 percent.

Substance abuse counselor

As explained by journalist Ralph Heibutzki, writing for the Houston Chronicle, substance abuse counselors assist clients who are struggling with, or have experienced, addictions to drugs, alcohol or both. Professionals in this specialization will help clients assess their behaviors with a critical eye, determining the kinds of behavior that the clients want to change and the triggers that they need to avoid. Heibutzki explained that in addition to assessing client behavior, substance abuse counselors will offer assistance with the development of strategies to enable clients to achieve lives of recovery and subsequent sobriety. In some cases, substance abuse counselors may connect clients living with substance abuse disorders with psychiatrists for additional services.

Heibutzki elaborated that treatment models for counseling in this field tend to embrace the notion of steps or stages, often mirroring the process devised by Alcoholics Anonymous. These stages encourage not only ways of finding sobriety from drugs and alcohol but also strategies for rebuilding a life that is both physically and mentally healthy.

Substance abuse counselors can be found in an array of professional settings, from private clinics, to hospitals and even prisons. They can work with clients in support groups or conduct one-on-one meetings.

Job outlook

In terms of employment prospects, the BLS projected employment growth of 22 percent, between 2014 and 2024.

Grief counselor

Another form of mental health counseling, professionals in the specialized field of grief counseling help clients find healthy ways to navigate the often complex and emotionally challenging terrain of the grieving process, journalist Luanne Kelchner explained, writing for the Houston Chronicle. Counselors in this field also can help clients find ways to move on with their lives in healthy and positive ways. Much like other forms of counseling, grief counseling can be administered on a one-on-one basis or in a group format.

Job outlook

While the BLS does not track specific employment statistics for grief counselors, given that the profession falls under the umbrella of mental health counseling, it helps to look at the statistics for that career path. As detailed previously, the industry boasts a projected growth in employment of around 19 percent by the year 2024.

Consider Bradley University

If you are interested in the above specializations or have a desire to generalize by working as a clinical mental health counselor, consider applying to Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Designed to help you study in conjunction with your professional schedule, a Bradley graduate counseling degree can give you the head start you need to succeed in this challenging yet rewarding profession.


Recommended Reading

A Look Forward at The Counseling Job Market

Master of Arts in Counseling: What is a Master’s Practicum?

Bradley University Online Counseling Programs