One of the top things I'm asked is about counseling degree options. One of the universities I'm affiliated with has an undergraduate counseling minor (very similar to a pre-counseling program at many other schools). One of the universities I went to as a student had several different degree paths for would-be counselors, including several masters programs and a Ph.D. I've taken a little counseling coursework and have done plenty of one-on-one student counseling, but I'm not a professional counselor and don't intend to be. However, I've met with enough counseling students to know where the big questions arise when they're looking at degree programs and I've compiled those together and tried to address some of them in this article. Your goals as a counselor will largely determine which direction you should go when choosing a degree program. Here are the three main options:
Option 1: Other Degree Programs
Make certain that counseling is what you want to do and that this field of study best fits your professional goals. That's one of the great things about tackling some of it in your undergrad years. Getting even limited experience would be very helpful in determining your interest in pursuing that. For others, social work, like helping the poor or working in an orphanage, is more your ultimate goal. If that's the case a Master of Social Work degree is more appropriate. A counseling degree is usually geared more towards clinical counseling (sitting in an office, having clients, etc.). For those going into ministry, counseling is a necessary skill to have. However, for most, having one or two courses would be more appropriate than having an entire degree in it.
Option 2: Church-based Counseling
Counseling within a local church may mean that you're on the pastoral staff and you're doing informal sessions with members. For some churches, though, counseling involves a more structured program that allows members and non-members to seek help. In these cases someone with a degree (but not necessarily licensure) can usually counsel. It really depends on the state, though, so do some research on your own state's law about operating a full counseling program in a church and the qualifications they seek.
Option 3: Professional, Licensed Counseling
Most professional counselors will seek licensure. This is done mainly because it is much harder to find a good, long-term career as a counselor without it. Getting licensed is a process that you have to do through your state. You are evaluated based largely (if not solely) on your education. If your degree program fits their criteria, then you'll be in. If not, then there's usually not a lot you can do about it (except go back to school). To have a standard for professional licensure in counseling, there is a specific type of accreditation that has been created and generally agreed upon: CACREP accreditation. They are an academic accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (the government organization that recognizes valid accrediting bodies). If you graduate from a program that is CACREP accredited, then you usually are set to get licensure in any state. Of course, with a CACREP-accredited degree you can also do church-based counseling, which makes this option (usually) the best one for those wanting to begin a career in counseling. You can find a list of CACREP accredited degree programs HERE.
One of my favorite movies growing up is Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the movie, Indiana Jones travels around to recover the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi's. At the end, he recovers it and the ark is brought back to America (I'm sorry if that spoils the movie for you, but it's been like 30 years so you should have seen it by now!). Dr. Jones sits down with the "government men" and they explain that "top men" are working on the ark and that it won't be going to a museum. It then cuts to a scene with the ark being put in a wooden box and pushed around a giant warehouse filled with similar wooden boxes. That scene has been etched in my mind since then as a symbol of futility.
When I began looking at masters programs in theology and church history, I saw the option that many had of either writing a thesis or taking some extra courses and skipping the thesis. As an undergraduate looking at those options I thought, "Why would I write some huge paper when I can just take a couple of extra classes?" As I made my way through my masters I realized that writing in my graduate program was totally different than what I did in my undergraduate program. Most of it was me - I had matured and I had focused my own research to several key areas that I really enjoyed not only learning about, but writing about too. Suddenly the thought of a thesis was not overwhelming - like the warehouse scene: filled with boxes that just went on and on. It was something that could be tackled because I knew how to write in my field by the end of my program. More fundamental, I learned how to research. I went to some great libraries as an undergraduate, but I often sat there and just stared at the rows and rows of books, not really knowing where to begin. By the end of my grad program I was sitting at my desk with primary sources, going to the library only when needed for secondary sources, and getting some real work done. I say all of that to just make you aware that it is doable.
Now, which option is better? It really depends. If there is any chance that you're going to continue to a doctoral program, then you should seriously consider the thesis option. If you want to write in your field or do extensive research on a particular topic, then you probably should go the thesis route.
If you are doing a more practical masters and aren't interested as much in the academic side of things (teaching, writing, etc.) then you might not be as motivated to complete a thesis. If you do a non-thesis option, that doesn't necessarily mean that you won't be prepared for doctoral studies. One thing I'd recommend if you go that route is to be strategic in your writing for each class. Almost all of the papers I wrote in grad school touched on church history and historic theology. At the end of my coursework I had a collection of great papers in one field of study. Some of those papers could be reworked into publishable articles or even a thesis or dissertation (as a basis for larger research).
I'd be interested in hearing your own experiences with either your thesis/non-thesis program or if you have any tips for those looking into such programs.
In the following clip, Sir Ken Robinson gives a brilliant lecture on the most fundamental aspects of the American education system. He speaks of not only the students, the role of teachers, but also about changing the way we view public education in America.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.