When choosing a master’s in counseling program, many aspiring students stress about the difference between a Master of Arts (MA) and a Master of Science (MS). This is one of the greatest sources of confusion for students who are considering different programs, triggering questions like:
The good news is that regardless of your career goals, earning either an MA or an MS in Counseling should empower you to reach them. The more important factor to consider is the depth of the curriculum, which varies from institution to institution and from program to program.
Below we take a closer look at the difference (or lack thereof) between an MA and MS in Counseling and answer other common questions that students tend to have about the program.
A Master of Science (MS) and a Master of Arts (MA) are both postgraduate degree programs that prepare you to be a clinician in fields such as mental health counseling, marriage and family counseling, and substance abuse counseling.
"The reality is that there really isn’t much of a difference between the two degrees at all," says Dr. Karen Miranda, Director of Graduate Counseling Programs at Regis College. “Many students see the word ‘arts’ and make an assumption that you're drawing from liberal arts, and see the word ‘science’ and make an assumption that you're drawing more from the sciences. While that’s more true at the undergraduate level, it’s not really the case at the graduate level, at least for counseling programs.”
Why? Because all licensure prep counseling programs are required to have the same, roughly 16, core courses, depending on the state’s requirements.
According to Dr. Miranda, whether you're pursuing an MA or MS degree, the core curriculum will cover mandatory fundamentals, such as theories of counseling, human growth and development, helping relationships, social and cultural foundations, and research methodology. There simply aren’t enough “free slots” in the curriculum for an MA or MS designation to make any real difference.
Instead of choosing a program based on whether it is an MA or MS, prospective students are better served by ensuring the coursework meets the qualifications for licensure. If you plan to become a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)—the most common option for someone with a degree in counseling—here are the questions to ask when choosing a graduate program.
Although there is significant overlap in the core coursework for each state, some required coursework does vary. Research any program you're interested in to make sure it includes all the required courses for the state where you intend to practice, especially if you're planning to attend school online or out of state.
Many professional groups urge students to be wary of MA or MS counseling programs that offer credits based on life experience. Your transcripts must demonstrate that you completed the specific courses required for licensure, and there are no quick substitutions.
If you are unsure of whether or not a particular program meets the requirements of a particular state’s licensing process, Dr. Miranda recommends you reach out to a member of the program’s staff. They can usually provide clarity.
You must complete 60 credits of master’s level coursework to meet the educational requirements to become a licensed mental health counselor.
However, some master’s-level counseling programs only consist of 48 credits but are still marketed as “master’s” programs. If you decide to enroll in one of these shortened programs, you’ll still need to complete the additional 12 credits before you meet the educational requirements to become a licensed counselor.
Electives provide a valuable opportunity to explore in-depth topics related to your interests, and these offerings are where individual degree programs vary the most.
The MA in Counseling program at Regis College, for example, offers electives such as trauma assessment, child psychopathology, forensic counseling, expressive therapies, and LGBTQI+ counseling, among others. You can use elective courses to dive deeper into an area that you’re passionate about or to explore new subjects that could shape your career path.
Because so much of your required coursework is predetermined, you will only have a few elective slots to fill. It’s important that the degree program you enroll in has courses that fit your interests.
Having educational support that helps you to break into the industry is just as important as the coursework itself. Your clinical placement in the field will be a critical part of your education and training, where you’ll gain experience on the job and apply everything you’ve learned. If you have an interest in working in a particular field after you become licensed, it can be helpful to obtain clinical experience to align with that career. Employers also like to see candidates bring a breadth of clinical experiences to their agencies.
Consult with an admission counselor to understand the placement options available at the programs you’re considering. Do they have a wide variety of placement options available in different fields and environments? Will they help you find a clinical internship that prepares you for the specialized fields that interest you?
The field of counseling is an incredibly personal one. After all, as a counselor, your job will be to help people through the challenging times in their lives. With this in mind, before enrolling in any counseling program, it’s important to consider the mission of the program that you are considering. Does this mission align with your own personal beliefs and the kind of work that you want to do? If not, you may want to find a different program that does more closely match your beliefs.
For example, the Master of Arts in Counseling program at Regis College is built around the following mission:
The Graduate Counseling Programs at Regis are grounded in empirical science, compassionate practice, and social justice advocacy. We are committed to the development of counselors who are guided by theory and ethical awareness, informed by the active inclusivity of intersectional feminism, and dedicated to anti-racist practices. Through a community of collaborative engagement and leadership, we seek to inform and transform mental health delivery systems, reduce stigma and barriers to treatment, and serve our communities in ways that model fairness and instill hope.
“Intersectionality, feminism, and anti-racism form the bedrock of our program, which is especially important in today’s social environment,” Dr. Miranda says.
Go beyond the course catalog! Try to speak to an admission counselor to gain more insight into how the college engages students. Ask alumni, as well as current students, their thoughts on the curriculum and class environment.
While all reputable master’s programs in counseling have research and clinical components, different programs employ a variety of teaching methods that enrich your education, and it is important to identify which programs support your specific career goals. Putting in this extra effort will only help you develop a diverse skill set that will pay off in the long run.