The Job and What's Involved

Counsellors help people who want to explore their feelings by offering them time, attention and respect in a private and confidential setting. People seek help for a variety of reasons. They may be experiencing problems such as stress, relationship difficulties or bereavement, or they may want to improve the way they deal with everyday life.


  • Agree a 'counselling contract' with their clients, outlining the issues that will be covered and the conditions under which the counselling will take place.
  • Help clients to talk about their behaviour and feelings by listening carefully and patiently, making observations and asking questions.
  • Do not give advice but enable clients to examine their options and explore their own solutions.
  • May work with a range of clients, especially in private practice, or specialise in a particular type of problem, eg AIDS, eating disorders or substance misuse.
  • Undergo supervision to review their cases with a more experienced practitioner.
  • Are expected to keep records of their work.

Counselling usually takes place in a one-to-one situation, but it can involve work with couples, families and groups. It can also be done over the phone or the internet, if the counsellor has received appropriate training.

Counsellors generally work standard office hours from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Sessions with each client usually last about an hour. Some counsellors also work in the evening and at weekends. About 75 per cent work part time. Professional guidelines suggest a maximum of 20 hours of client contact time each week.

Counsellors mostly work indoors, usually seated in a quiet, comfortable room, in places such as health centres, schools and colleges.

Some may work from home.

Starting salaries range from £15,000 to £24,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Full and part-time jobs are available in schools, colleges, youth agencies, the NHS, the voluntary sector and large employers. Many full-time posts are a mixture of counselling and another role, such as teacher, advice worker, co-ordinator or nurse.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has around 24,000 members in the UK, including 6,000 volunteers. This figure excludes members of other organisations. The proportion of voluntary posts is higher in Scotland.

The number of opportunities is stable, but there is still fierce competition, especially for full-time jobs. Opportunities in schools and health centres are increasing. Jobs are advertised in the national press, New Statesman and Society, Therapy Today and Community Care, as well as in other specialist journals and on the websites of professional bodies.

Education and Training

There are no precise entry qualifications for this job, and it would be unusual for someone to enter full-time counselling work before their mid-twenties. Most advanced counselling courses insist on maturity and life experience. Counsellors often start out by working in areas such as social work, nursing and teaching, or do voluntary counselling.

Degrees in social sciences, psychology or human sciences may be a useful preparation and a degree in psychology would be essential for anyone wanting to train as a counselling psychologist.

Entry requirements for degree courses are at least two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications.

Most counsellors start work by gaining experience in a voluntary job and then moving into paid part-time work. Voluntary counselling jobs are available in many charities and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) keeps a list of them.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most employers now require counsellors to have or be working towards a qualification recognised by a professional body. These bodies include BACP, COSCA (Counselling & Psychotherapy in Scotland), and The British Psychological Society (BPS) for counselling psychologists. Counsellors have to satisfy strict rules of theory and practice to gain professional recognition.

Relevant courses can be studied whilst working part time, and include:

  • Postgraduate Diploma in Counselling, or a Masters Degree in Counselling - usually two to three years part time, or one year full time. A degree is sometimes required for entry and work experience is essential.
  • The BPS Qualification in Counselling Psychology - three years full time, or up to six years part time. A degree in psychology and work experience is required. See the BPS website for more details.

Most counsellors train part time and often at their own expense. Fees vary from a few hundred pounds for an introductory course to several thousand pounds for a diploma course.

The Diploma gives you choice and flexibility, enabling you to find out more about the topics you are particularly interested in and broaden your study by including additional or more specialised subjects.

Many private, voluntary and charitable counselling organisations have their own training programmes that focus on the particular needs of a specific group of clients.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A counsellor should:

  • Have excellent listening and observation skills.
  • Be able to work with people from a range of backgrounds.
  • Have patience, tolerance and sensitivity.
  • Be non-judgemental.
  • Be able to support clients emotionally and encourage them to express their feelings.
  • Be able to explore and understand a client's feelings, but not become burdened by them.
  • Be able to challenge clients and help them to question their attitudes.
  • Exercise self-awareness and regularly review their own practice.
  • Respect client confidentiality as far as permissible.

Your Long Term Prospects

Counsellors generally tend to work in small teams. There may be opportunities for experienced counsellors to move into management, supervision or training, depending on the size of the organisation.

There are specialist courses for experienced counsellors who want to move into certain types of counselling, such as drug misuse, AIDS, bereavement, cancer or child abuse.

There are also opportunities for self-employment. Counsellors can set up in private practice and work from home or their own offices.


Get Further Information

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), BACP House,
15 St Johns Business Park, Lutterworth, Leicestershire, LE17 4HB
Tel: 0870 443 5252

The British Psychological Society (BPS),
St Andrews House, 48 Princess Road East, Leicester LE1 7DR
Tel; 0116 254 9568

COSCA (Counselling & Psychotherapy in Scotland),
18 Viewfield Street, Stirling FK8 1UA
Tel: 01786 475140

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO),
Regent's Wharf, 8 All Saints Street, London N1 9RL
Tel: 020 7713 6161

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO),
Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH6 3BB
Tel: 0131 556 3882

United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP),
2nd Floor, Edward House, 2 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7LT
Tel: 020 7014 9955

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