Your Guide to Becoming a Counsellor:
Training to become a counsellor is a rich, rewarding and challenging experience as you develop into a professional with a meaningful, purpose-driven career. With so many courses to choose from, at varying entry levels and across a range of theoretical approaches, it can be hard to know where to start when you set out on the journey towards becoming a counsellor.
Also, because there is no single professional body responsible for overseeing the training of counsellors in the UK, there is no one single route towards becoming a counsellor. The available options can feel bewildering at first as you choose the right direction for you.
Training to become a counsellor involves a commitment in terms of time and money, so you’ll want to do your homework on the different options available and ensure you head in the right direction from the start. This short introduction will help to point you in the right direction.
Stage 1: Choose a counselling approach
Counsellors are trained in a variety of theoretical approaches and have different ways of working with clients. The first thing you need to do is choose which style of counselling you will find stimulating and engaging to train in. Deciding what type of counsellor you want to become will help you decide which approach will suit you best. If you haven’t already had an experience of being in counselling yourself, one way to decide which approach will suit you is to get first-hand experience of being a client.
Put simply, the different approaches to counselling can broadly be categorised as psychoanalytic, behavioural and humanistic. Psychoanalytic approaches, which include psychodynamic therapy, are based on the type of psychoanalysis originally practised by Sigmund Freud. Behavioural therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are used to help people deal with specific phobias and anxieties. Humanistic therapies, which include the person- or client-centred approach among others, focus on personal growth and self-development.
A further approach known as transpersonal therapy describes any form of counselling that also places emphasis on spirituality, human potential or heightened consciousness. Psychosynthesis, which is the type of counselling approach taught at the Psychosynthesis Trust, is one type of transpersonal therapy.
Finally, a large number of training courses are described as ‘integrative’. This means the course will combine several distinct approaches, for example, psychodynamic therapy with CBT.
Think about your own outlook. Do you favour a Western medicalised approach to counselling which focuses on offering relief from symptoms? If so, behavioural therapies like CBT might interest you. Or are you drawn to a more holistic approach where the practitioner considers physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual factors? In which case training like the one we offer at the Psychosynthesis Trust might be more suitable for you.
Stage 2: Choose the type of course that suits you
To train to become a counsellor, separate courses are available at different levels run by universities, colleges of further and higher education and independent training organisations. These range from introductory certificates and degrees to postgraduate diplomas, advanced diplomas, Masters degrees and PhDs.
You don’t necessarily need to have a degree or HND to be accepted onto a counselling course. Counselling is often a second career and life experience is highly valued. Evidence that you have the necessary personal qualities is just as important as academic achievement to get onto a counselling course. These qualities include good communication and listening skills, warmth and empathy. You’ll need these to assist clients to talk openly about their feelings. You’ll also need to be trustworthy, open to experience, have an accepting attitude (sometimes called being ‘non-judgmental’) and be self-aware.
Unlike other healthcare professions like medicine and nursing which are Government regulated, there’s no statutory regulation currently in the UK regarding counselling. Consequently, there’s no legal minimum level of qualification required to become a counsellor. However, most employers prefer counsellors to be registered or accredited with a professional body. Accreditation or registration is a kite mark that guarantees a counsellor has fulfilled a certain level of training and practice to gain professional recognition.
To become registered or accredited you’ll need to have completed a course, like the ones on offer at the Psychosynthesis Trust, that’s accredited by one of the main professional bodies for counselling and psychotherapy in the UK. The largest of these, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), accredits around 100 courses across the country. These are among the best recognised in the profession. To register with BACP, you’ll need to have completed a minimum of a one-year full-time or two-year part-time counselling course that includes a supervised placement of a minimum of 100 hours as a main part of the course.
A recognised qualification will also allow you to join a register of counselling and psychotherapy practitioners accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA), an independent body directly accountable to Parliament.
To find out what to expect before committing to further courses, it’s a good idea to start by doing a short, introductory ‘taster’ course. This will introduce you to basic counselling theory and skills and will usually last up to 40 hours part-time over a few months or as a full-time intensive course over four or five days. The introductory course at the Psychosynthesis Trust, for example, takes place over four days and runs at regular intervals throughout the year. You can find out more about the Essentials of Psychosynthesis course and when it is next running here.
If you then decide to pursue further training, you will usually need a counselling skills certificate of approximately 100 hours in order to access a diploma course. Certificate courses generally take around one year part-time to complete and will introduce you to counselling theories and ethics, practical counselling skills and self-awareness. The best ones will require that you have personal therapy and emphasise the need for a depth of self-enquiry.
Having gained a counselling certificate the next stage is to go on to a diploma or advanced diploma course. These involve a minimum of 400 hours of study and can be done full-time in one year or part-time over two to three years. In addition to attending the course, you’ll also have to secure a supervised counselling placement where you’ll start to work as a counsellor with clients. Courses vary in their requirements but most expect you to gain 100 hours of counselling experience to pass. Again, the best trainings will require personal therapy and a depth of self-development.
Stage 3: Choose a training school
Most universities, colleges of further and higher education and independent training organisations run open days or evenings to introduce prospective students to their counselling courses. These are usually free of charge and provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about the different training options available. They also provide a chance to meet and talk to trainers and sometimes to students on the course. It’s a good idea to attend a number of open days or evenings to get a feel for the range of different training settings. This will help you decide what setting feels right for you. You can find details of the dates and times of forthcoming open evenings at the Psychosynthesis Trust here to find out more about becoming a counsellor.
As well as the course fees you’ll need to plan for potential additional expenses. Depending on the course you choose, these might include supervision, personal therapy, indemnity insurance and travel. You should also budget for buying course books. And if you have a family to look after while you train, don’t forget to think about the costs of childcare.
If you don’t have the necessary funds to train and haven’t previously studied in higher education, you may be eligible for a student loan from the Government. Sums of between £300 and £10,000 are available to help fund up to three years of learning. Some organisations, like the Psychosynthesis Trust are registered with the Skills Funding Agency, which means their courses are eligible for career development loans.
Stage 4: Next steps after training
Once you’ve obtained your counselling diploma, you’ll be ready to launch yourself into the profession as a qualified counsellor. Various employment opportunities are then open to you. You may choose to work as a self-employed counsellor in private practice. Or you may want to apply to work within the NHS, in the workplace, in education establishments or the voluntary sector.
As already mentioned, you can also develop your career by gaining accreditation through one or more of the counselling professional bodies. Each professional body differs in their requirements for entry. You will be eligible to apply for BACP accreditation, for example, after completing 450 hours of training and 450 hours of supervised practice with clients. Ideally your course will be accredited by BACP so that you can automatically join the BACP register of practitioners on completion.
Having trained to become a counsellor, you may also choose to progress onto a Masters degree course to qualify as a psychotherapist. Masters degrees generally run over one year full-time or two to three years part-time. To become a registered psychotherapist you’ll need to complete training recognised by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), which includes a mental health component and 450 hours of supervised clinical practice.
An alternative route to becoming a counsellor is to become a Chartered Counselling Psychologist. You’ll need a psychology degree approved by the British Psychological Society (BPS) to take this route, followed by a BPS-approved postgraduate training programme in counselling psychology.
Training to become a counsellor is a big step that will require time, self-evaluation and dedication. If you enjoy helping people with their problems and want to make a positive difference to their lives, then becoming a counsellor could be the perfect job for you.
In summary, it is advisable to choose a counselling course that is BACP accredited and that emphasises the importance of deep personal exploration and self-knowledge. The training we run at the Psychosynthesis Trust offers these plus a thorough grounding in a counselling model that is holistic and which sees the development potential in our struggles and crises.
Becoming a Counsellor: a student companion by Kirsten Amis (Sage Publications Ltd 2011)
Thinking of Becoming a Counsellor? by Jonathan Ingrams (Karnac Books 2012)
An Introduction to Counselling by John McLeod (Open University Press 2013)
What You Really Need to Know about Counselling and Psychotherapy Training: an essential guide by Cathy McQuaid (Routledge 2014)
Psychosynthesis Counselling in Action (4th edition) by Diana Whitmore (Sage Publications 2013)
What We May Be: techniques for psychological and spiritual growth through psychosynthesis by Piero Ferrucci (Jeremy P Tarcher 2009)
Psychosynthesis: a psychology of the spirit by John Firman and Ann Gila (SUNY Press 2010)
Find out more about becoming a counsellor and obtain further details about registration and accreditation by contacting the various professional bodies in the field:
For a full list of BACP accredited courses see here
Get in touch to speak to Matt Shepheard our Training Director if you want to discuss further. He'll be happy to help.