What is an LPC?

An LPC is a licensed professional counselor. LPCs provide mental health services that focus on behavioral, emotional and mental issues in various healthcare settings. Depending on the state, they may be called a licensed clinical professional counselor, licensed mental health counselor or something similar.

As an LPC, you may work with individuals, couples, families and groups to provide counseling for learning disabilities, substance abuse and psychoanalysis. A counselor’s education and training are focused on delivering client-centered therapy.

You may be interested in a specialized counseling degree that focuses on a particular area of counseling practice. Here are two tracks to consider:

  • The licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) is for those interested in mental health and illness.
  • A licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) is licensed for the independent practice of clinical professional counseling.

An LCPC has responsibilities similar to an LPC, with additional education in supervisory, research and staff development roles. LPCs may also be known as licensed mental health providers or clinical mental health counselors, depending on the state. More than 120,000 professional counselors are licensed in all 50 states (PDF, 723 KB), the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, though keep in mind professional designations may vary by the state in which you practice.1

There are a number of specializations for counselors, including marriage and family, substance abuse and school counselors.

Steps to Become an LPC

A counseling degree helps prepare you to guide other people through difficult times. This article is designed to help you along your path, but there are other resources and organizations that are useful to research. On the LPC track, here are a few common steps you may consider before you earn the name and title.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Pursue a master's degree in counseling
  3. Complete practicum and/or internship hours
  4. Sit for licensure exam
  5. Obtain counseling licensure and/or certification
  6. Choose a counseling career path
  7. Advance your practice through continued learning

For more information on the steps above, see our guide, How to Become a Counselor.

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What LPCs Do

Because LPCs provide mental health services, they may work alongside physicians, psychiatrists and other specialists. Professional counselors are typically involved in the mental, emotional and behavioral needs of individuals, families, groups and communities. In many states, an LPC is licensed to diagnose whether a patient has a mental illness.

Becoming an LPC requires a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree (PDF, 414 KB) in counseling as a foundation. The master’s degree program includes practicum or internship hours working directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed professional.

The next common step is becoming a licensed professional counsel in your state. Requirements vary by state, and some states may offer reciprocity so you may practice in another state. All states may require a national exam.

You may choose from a wide variety of specialties. The American Counseling Associations (ACA) has 18 divisions, such as:

Check with your state’s licensing board to determine if there are specific requirements for the specialty area you are considering.

School counselors, also known as guidance counselors, are typically educators who pursue additional education, including a master’s degree, and practical experience to support students and teachers. An undergraduate degree in counseling, psychology or a related field is also relevant for pursuing a master’s degree in school counseling. College counselors provide similar services at a college or university level.

As a counselor, you may work in private practice, counseling or a mental health agency, a hospital, a police station, a rehabilitation center or a military base. You may want to consider a master’s degree in mental health counseling if you’re looking at these career choices.

Regardless of the specialty you choose, a master’s degree may provide you with the practical and theoretical knowledge to obtain certification and licensure, although it’s not always required, depending on the specialty. Online counseling degrees are available to allow you to obtain your degree with little to no attendance on campus. It may be more convenient to pursue a specialty in an online degree program than at a university you must attend in person.

According to the ACA, licensing requirements for counselors typically include (PDF, 723KB):1

  • Master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited institution, including an internship
  • Completing 2,000-3,000 hours of post-degree supervised clinical experience
  • Passing the national counselor examination
  • Adhering to a code of ethics and practice standards
  • Continuing education

Degrees Required for LPCs

The primary academic paths for LPCs are a master’s degree in counseling or a master’s degree in clinical psychology, with preparation for LPC licensure. Some states—but not all—require that the master’s degree is earned at an institution accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or equivalent. We have compiled a list of 74 CACREP-accredited online programs to help you find the right program for you.

You may also decide the best learning option for you whether it’s online, on-campus, or a hybrid of both options. With an on-campus degree, you interact with faculty and staff and peers in the program. It’s an option for students who prefer a structured experience for the best results. Professors and staff members are typically available to answer questions and provide assistance.

An online counseling degree typically provides the same education with more flexibility for students with busy schedules. If you’re interested in a particular program, check the learning structure to see if it’s right for you. In a synchronous approach, the classes occur at a set time and day, so the entire class participates together. Many online programs are asynchronous, so students may log in and view class content at their convenience, provided they meet class deadlines.

A hybrid program includes on-campus and online learning elements, with a brief on-campus residency that may be voluntary or mandatory.

What’s the Difference Between LPCs and LCSWs?

While there are many similarities between LPCs and LCSWs, there are some differences in terms of education and professional outlook. Both careers require a master’s degree to prepare for licensure and credentialing.

The LPC requires a master’s in counseling or a related degree or a doctoral degree. The profession offers mental health and emotional counseling focused on the individual to help resolve problems in the client’s internal life. In some states, LPCs are licensed to diagnose mental illness. LPCs are credentialed and licensed by agencies and organizations for counselors.

In comparison, the LCSW requires a master’s in social work and is governed by credentialing and licensing organizations devoted to social work. The social work approach to counseling includes the individual’s internal situation and external factors, including home, career and societal aspects that impact the client’s life. Social workers may work in clinical and non-clinical roles such as macro-social work and administrative roles. Find out more about how to become a licensed social worker.

Both degrees require extensive clinical practice hours under the supervision of a licensed professional. To be a practicing professional in either category, you should complete the necessary academic and clinical preparation and a licensing exam. The number of supervised clinical hours and other requirements varies by state. Both career paths offer the opportunity to specialize in specific practice areas. Also, both careers require adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education to maintain the license.

What’s the Difference Between LPCs and LMFTs?

Some of the work of LPCs and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) may overlap, but there are differences based on the clinical approach and the client’s situation.

Counselors work with clients to resolve specific issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or substance abuse. They may work with individuals, families or other groups one-on-one or at the same time. Counselors typically treat mental health issues that are rooted in a variety of causes. These issues may also impact marriage and family relationships, but the emphasis is on improving the client’s mental health.

The LMFT focuses on couples and family members to address problems within relationships. They often use a goal-oriented therapy approach to help clients recognize how their beliefs and feelings affect their actions and relationships. Depending on the situation, an LMFT may partner with another professional such as a licensed social worker or a substance abuse counselor, to address issues such as abuse or addiction.

Therapists in either role can make a positive impact on their clients’ lives. For a student considering how to become a licensed LMFT, the answer may be found in the types of issues and people you may want to address.

Both careers require a master’s degree and supervised clinical hours to prepare for the licensing exam. Graduates may apply for licensure before they begin to practice. Some states have a special category for LPC students who have completed their degrees and received licensure but have not yet completed the supervised clinical experience requirement, according to the American Counseling Association.

How Much LPCs Make

LPC salaries depend on whether the therapist works in private practice or for an agency or school as well as the state they practice.

Educational, Guidance, School and Vocational Counselor Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, elementary and high school counselors average $66,910 per year, while their counterparts at junior colleges average $61,800, and those at universities and professional schools report an annual wage of $53,180. In the vocational rehabilitation segment, average yearly salaries are $42,940. In comparison, individual and family services counselors gross an average of $44,940 per year.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselor Salary

The national average pay for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselor in this category is $47,920, according to the BLS. Those who work in local government agencies top the list at $56,160. Outpatient care center counselors report a yearly wage of $46,260, compared to $47,790 for those who work in individual and family services.

Rehabilitation Counselor Salary

Rehabilitation counselors have an average annual wage of $39,930, according to the BLS. The top earnings are those in state government positions, with a salary of $53,390. In comparison, counselors working in residential facilities earn $34,290 per year on average.

1. American Counseling Association. “Who Are Licensed Professional Counselors (PDF, 723 KB),” 2011. Accessed September 2020.

Last updated: August 2020