What’s Right for Me? Clinical Counseling Versus School Counseling

If you are deciding between a school counseling degree and a clinical counseling degree, the difference is in the details. There is a fine line between the career paths, and the following comparisons highlight the differentiators to help you make your final decision easier.

The Parallels

For both careers, you will invest about the same amount of time and field training experience. The skillset needed for success in each field is much the same, and both school and clinical counseling require that you earn a graduate degree and acquire proper licensing. The projected job growth is also similar.


While both careers require a graduate degree and similar courses in basic counseling skills, the differences are in the coursework and focus. Students in school counseling may target specific issues—educational, developmental, and behavioral—appropriate and relevant to a specific age range while clinical counseling students may focus on varying therapy styles, methods, and techniques.

Counseling Salary:

Pay difference is also relatively comparable with a discrepancy of about $12,000 dollars per year between the two. The Bureau of Labor Statistics  External link reports that the average salary for school counselors in 2012 was $53,610 while mental health counselors External link  made an average of $41,500 that same year.


School and clinical counselors are trained in communication, listening, and interpersonal skills to strengthen the therapist-client relationship and to ensure they are empathetic and compassionate toward their clients.

These shared elements make the decision between school counseling and clinical counseling a difficult one. To get you closer to making a definite decision, ask yourself the following questions.

Whom Do You Want to Work With?

Like their job title indicates, school counselors work primarily with students and parents in a school environment. If your dream clients are students, a school counseling degree is for you.

On the other hand, students who graduate with clinical counseling degrees can work as clinical therapists and mental health counselors. The degree allows you to work with individuals and groups, including children, adults, older adults, couples, families, and organizations. If you are interested in supporting people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and problems, consider a clinical counseling degree.

What Do You Want to Be Doing?

School counselors mentor and counsel students on a range of issues from schoolwork to social, behavioral, psychological, and emotional problems, such as bullying, substance abuse, and low self-esteem. They can also help with class scheduling as well as career and education goals and are trained to administer tests and identify and counsel students with special needs. Additionally, school counselors often work with parents, teachers, and school administration for the betterment of their students. The ability to facilitate, lead, and collaborate with other adults is essential.

In comparison, clinical counselors identify, assess the severity of, and treat a person’s symptoms and specific needs whether emotional, social, mental, or addiction related. They are also responsible for monitoring their client’s progress, collaborating with other staff members, creating and following treatment plans, and making referrals. Lesser-known duties for clinical counselors with a private practice include marketing, bookkeeping, and collecting payments.

When and Where Do You Want to Work?

Clinical counselors and school counselors both have the ability to work full time. School counselors, however, are usually off during summer vacation and other school holidays. Clinical counselors may work evenings and weekends to accommodate clients who work regular hours.

You will find school counselors in public and private schools as well as community colleges, universities, and even prisons. While clinical counselors can work in schools, you will also find them in community centers, mental health institutes, hospitals, outreach and social services agencies as well as in private practices.

Final Thoughts

School counselors and clinical counselors have similar educational backgrounds, salaries, and skillsets, but practice in different environments. Deciding whom your clients will be, what you will be doing, and where you want to work are the keys to deciding between these two counseling career paths. For those interested in pursuing either career path, an advanced degree is necessary for practice. Counseling@Northwestern’s Master of Arts in Counseling Program prepares students for a broad range of careers in the counseling field.

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