How to Become an Addiction Counselor [2024 Guide]

By Joy Cromwelle
Edited by Briana Sukert
Updated on April 13, 2024
Edited by Briana Sukert
Ready to start your journey?
Discover how to become an addiction counselor in just 5 steps. By pairing education and training with compassion and caring, you can make a real difference in the world.

What does it take to become an addiction counselor? The answer to that question depends largely on where you live.

Each state sets its own rules, but you’ll probably need to obtain a college education.

How to Become an Addiction Counselor

To find out whether substance abuse counseling is a good fit for you, enroll in some undergraduate psychology or behavioral science classes. If you decide to stick with the program, you may eventually want to earn a graduate degree.

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Graduate studies can prepare you for clinical counseling licensure and the opportunity to work in private practice.

By pairing an addiction counseling degree with compassion and caring, you can make a real difference for people with substance abuse disorders.

How to Become a Certified Addiction Counselor

female student studying in university

The first step to becoming an addiction counselor is earning your high school diploma or GED. All states require addiction counselors to be high school graduates.

Although you may be able to start working in the substance abuse counseling field with just a high school diploma, it’s a good idea to seek further education. Most states require higher education for their addiction counselors, and, in any case, college classes will help you get better at the job.

5 Steps To Become an Addiction Counselor:

  1. Earn your high school diploma or GED.
  2. Study a related field for your bachelor’s degree.
  3. Put your time in working.
  4. Take the exams.
  5. Bonus: Further your education with a graduate degree.

If you earn your undergraduate degree in a field related to addiction studies, such as mental health counseling, psychology, or human services, you may soon be eligible to pursue industry certifications.

Most substance abuse counselor certification programs require you to earn college credit hours and accumulate professional work experience before you sit for their exams. Once you pass certain tests, some states will approve you to become an official practitioner.

To become a licensed professional counselor who can practice independently, a master’s degree is required.

You’ll also have to accumulate professional experience and pass an examination. Someday, you may even want to earn a PhD in Counseling.

Online Addiction Counselor Degrees

Addiction Counselor student studying on her laptop

The more education you earn, the more tools you’ll have at your disposal to help people with addictions.

To get started in this field, it’s a good idea to earn a bachelor’s degree and then advance further with master’s and even doctoral studies.

Click on your appropriate educational level to jump to that section of the guide.

A number of universities also offer accelerated degrees in counseling online.

Bachelor’s Degree in Addiction Counseling

bachelors degree students in the classroom

The value of a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies varies from state to state. In some states, you can begin counseling with only this undergraduate degree. You won’t be licensed for independent practice but may be able to work under the guidance of a supervisor.

Other states are stricter about granting official counselor titles. If you live in one of those places, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree first. Fortunately, an undergrad degree in this field can help you move smoothly into a graduate program.

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In the meantime, your undergraduate degree will likely qualify you to hold some sort of position in the addiction field. For example, you might be able to work as a counseling assistant, a caseworker, or a caregiver in a group home.

Bachelor’s programs for students interested in entering this field include:

  • Applied Behavioral Science
  • Human Services
  • Psychology — Addictions
  • Psychology — Counseling and Clinical
  • Social Work (BSW)

Whether you want to go right into the workforce or plan to enroll in grad school, it’s a good idea to choose an undergraduate program that directly relates to this field.

Among these degrees, a BA or BS in Psychology with a concentration in Addiction may be the most common.

Master’s Degree in Addiction Counseling

masters degree students taking notes in the classroom

Earning a MS degree is an important step for many mental health counseling professionals in this field. In some states, you must achieve this level of education before you’re allowed to practice as a substance abuse counselor.

All states require you to get a master’s if you want to become clinically licensed.

In states other than Kansas, a master’s degree can be a good way to break into this field for the first time. A number of master’s programs don’t require you to hold a particular bachelor’s degree.

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On the other hand, certain undergraduate prerequisites may qualify you for an advanced-standing master’s program. The master’s program you pursue can come in a number of fields. For example, some students earn a masters in applied behavior analysis or a masters in psychology.

Some graduate counseling programs are specifically designed to prepare you for licensure. You’ll first need to earn work hours and take an exam.

Licensure can allow you to practice independently, and it can qualify you to take advanced roles with increased responsibilities or higher pay.

Doctorate Degree in Addiction Counseling

doctorate degree students in the classroom

Some substance abuse professionals choose to earn a doctoral degree. Typically, a master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for taking clinical licensure exams, but you could also qualify with a doctorate.

In fact, to become a professional psychologist, you must earn a doctoral degree. In settings like hospitals, medical clinics, rehabilitation centers, and private practices, psychologists can provide drug counseling services for people who have addictions.

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Having a doctorate can also open the door for other opportunities in this field. You might become a researcher who studies addiction science and treatment methods, or you might teach students who want to become substance abuse counselors.

Your doctorate may also make you an outstanding candidate for leadership positions in treatment facilities and non-profit organizations.

What Does an Addiction Counselor Do?

counselor talking to a patient in her office

Substance abuse counselors help people with alcohol, nicotine, or drug addiction. A substance abuse therapist or addiction counselor can also work with people who have other dependencies, such as gambling addictions.

Counselors may see clients in one-on-one or group counseling sessions. Through frequent check-ins, counselors can help people consider why they behave the ways they do and learn to make different choices.

Sometimes, the professionals may also provide therapy for mental health issues that co-occur with addictions.

Addiction counselors may have additional responsibilities. These can include conducting client evaluations and coordinating treatment plans among various professionals. Counselors also help clients transition out of treatment.

What Are the Skills of a Successful Addiction Counselor?

young woman with psychologist comfortably talking in an office

Substance abuse counseling can be a rewarding career, but it can also present many challenges. Your education and clinical experiences can help you prepare for the rough parts of the job, and your personal skill set can help you achieve success as well.

To be a good counselor over the long term, you must be able to manage your personal and professional stress. You must also be able to confidently set boundaries so that your work responsibilities don’t become overwhelming.

Good people skills can make all the difference. You must be an empathetic listener who pays attention to what others say and cares about making a difference.

Where Do Substance Abuse Counselors Work?

professionals in the lobby of a treatment center

Outpatient treatment centers employ 19% of addiction counselors, and another 10% work at residential facilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These counselors in the substance abuse counseling field may also find employment with hospitals, medical clinics, correctional facilities, halfway houses, schools, youth centers, government agencies, or non-profit organizations. Others are employed by individual businesses to provide employee support.

Clinical Experience Requirements

counselor comforting a patient during group therapy

After earning your substance abuse counseling degree, you will probably need to earn clinical hours at substance abuse centers or other related facilities before you can become credentialed by your state.

During your clinical experiences, you’ll work directly with clients and put your classroom knowledge into practice.

A more advanced professional will provide supervision and guidance. Discussing cases with your supervisor will help you learn from your experiences and consider different ways to address issues that may arise during individual or group counseling sessions.

The number of clinical hours that you need can vary greatly depending on the state or the certification program, but you can expect it to be in the thousands. You might have to accrue quite a few more hours if you have only a bachelor’s degree than you would after earning a master’s degree.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

people taking an exam

Each state sets its own rules about how professionals must demonstrate their competence in this profession. The regulations usually involve achieving a certain level of education, such as graduation from a substance abuse counselor program, and earning certifications or passing licensure examinations.

The examinations used for licensure purposes in most states aren’t exclusive to this specific area of counseling. Rather, they are used by counselors across many disciplines and are designed to test your overall counseling abilities.

Your state may rely on the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE).

Once you pass the required exams, you may be eligible to apply for state licensure that so you can practice as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) or another title used by your state.

In addition to general counseling certifications, you can also earn certifications that are specific to the field of addiction treatment. Some of the most well-known certifications are offered by the National Certification Committee for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP).

NCC AP certifications include:

  • Master Addiction Counselor (MAC)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level I (NCAC I)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II (NCAC II)
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor (NCAAC)
  • National Clinical Supervision Endorsement (NCSE)
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS)
  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS)

To take NCC AP certification exams, you must already hold state credentials for addiction counseling or another healing profession.

How Much Does an Addiction Counselor Make?

professionals chatting outside a clinic

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for substance abuse counselors is $47,660. The highest earners have annual salaries of about $78,700.

You’re likely to earn more if you work for a government agency or a healthcare facility.

Those mental health professionals who work in private practices and outpatient centers typically have salaries that fall toward the middle of the scale, and employees at inpatient facilities and substance abuse centers may earn the least amount of money.

Pay can vary significantly throughout the country. Experience and education can help you move up the substance abuse counselor salary scale.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Addiction Counselor?

students walking in university campus

The length of time that you’ll need to invest in addiction education and specialized training will depend on your state’s requirements.


On average, it takes about four years to get a bachelor’s degree and another two for a master’s.

Clinical Experience

After graduation, you’ll need to earn several thousand clinical hours in supervised work settings. The exact requirements can vary, but keep in mind that earning the average of 6,000 hours may take about three years.


Once you’ve earned the required amount of education and experience, you can take a certification exam. You may need to study for several months.


You can move up in the professional world with additional certifications. Each will require acquiring more specialized training and work experience.


Bachelor’s Degree in Addiction Counseling Accreditation

As you begin your search for a substance abuse counselor degree program to continue your education, always check that the university is accredited by a regional agency. Schools that don’t submit to accreditation audits probably don’t offer the highest quality education.

To see if a university is accredited, simply go to the U.S. Department of Education’s database website and type in the name of the college or university.

Financial Aid

financial aid for Bachelor’s Degree in Addiction Counseling students

After narrowing down the list of schools you’d like to enroll in, it’s time to apply for student financial aid.

Every little bit helps, whether it’s through the federal government, your state, private organizations, the university itself, or even your current employer.

You might qualify for:

  • Grants
  • Scholarships
  • Deferred Loans
  • Tuition assistance

If you take a deferred loan, you probably won’t have to start paying it back until after you find a job.

If you accept tuition assistance from your employer, you’ll most likely have to commit to working for them for a certain period of time.

What Is an Addiction Counselor?

couple with a counselor in an office

An addiction counselor, also known as a substance abuse counselor, is a professional trained to assist people who struggle with any kind of addiction. Many focus on alcohol or drug abuse, as so many people struggle in these areas. A counselor with this specialty may also be known as an alcohol and drug counselor.

Other counselors help people work through gambling or other types of addictions.

Most states require practitioners to be licensed or working under a licensed counselor.

Do I Need to Have a Degree in Addiction Counseling to Be an Addiction Counselor?

people during admission interview

A bachelor’s degree in addiction counseling demonstrates your knowledge about working with people who have substance use disorders, but states have different rules about the education levels they require.

If you have an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, you could get a master’s degree in addiction counseling in order to start working as a counselor for the first time. Counseling programs to consider include Addiction Studies, Psychology, Social Work, or Counseling.

Professional mental health counselors may be able to shift their focus to addiction by pursuing certifications from NCC AP.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) also issues a Master Addictions Counselor (MCC) certification.

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Substance Abuse Counselor?

female student thinking in class

The education that you need for practicing as a successful substance abuse counselor depends on the state in which you practice.

You may be able to work in this field with only a high school education or an associate’s degree.

Most commonly, though, a person will need to earn a drug and alcohol counselor degree in a suitable field at the bachelor’s degree level and then the master’s degree.

This educational path can empower you to provide comprehensive counseling care for people with drug abuse disorders.

What Is NAADAC Membership?

professional counselors attending a conference

NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals is an organization for people who work in substance abuse treatment.

There are professional memberships for credentialed addiction counselors and associate memberships for those in related positions.

While you’re in school, you can sign up for a student membership.

These mental health professionals subscribe to a code of ethics, and they have access to a variety of resources. These include networking opportunities, industry advocacy, job postings, continuing-education webinars, and a magazine subscription.

NAADAC is the parent organization for NCC AP, but holding NCC AP certification doesn’t automatically make you a NAADAC member. Enrollment is separate, and dues are paid annually.

Becoming an Addiction Counselor

student walking into classroom

So, what do you need to do to become a licensed addiction counselor?

  1. Earn your degree.
  2. Rack up counseling hours.
  3. Get licensed.

Make sure that the substance abuse counseling school you study at is fully accredited and investigate all avenues of financial aid to see you through!

Ready to start your journey?