Considering a career in mental health counselling?

There are many different professions working with mental health and counselling.  How do you choose the path that is right for you?

May 30, 2023

Many students know that they want a career where they are helping people, but don’t know the many options available to them or are unsure of the differences.   

In fact, many of the primary counselling occupations overlap in their work roles, skill set and place of work. It is not uncommon to find psychologists, social workers and psychotherapists working in the same department and handling similar subsets of presenting issues. 

The following information is an initial guide for undergraduate students who are exploring a possible career in the mental health counselling field.  

  • First, it is important to be clear about your intentions – Why are you interested in this career area? What motivates you to work in this field?  Consider booking an appointment for Career Counselling and signing up for the free, online Career Planning Essentials Course on OSCARplus to help clarify what you want and help direct your  education options.  
  • Because there is a range of occupations and career pathways in working in the mental health field, it’s helpful to use  professional associations or regulatory colleges for career and education information.  
  • Talking with people in the field will also help you understand the education pathways and the various roles and work environments you can work in. Informational Interviews can help you get clarity in this field that can be confusing to explore.  

First it’s important to be aware of the range of occupations in this career field: 

Psychiatrists train as a medical doctor (MD) first, and then specialize in Psychiatry.  They predominantly diagnose and prescribe medication and conduct follow-up for treatment stabilization, provide consultation/treatment planning recommendations to front line staff (ex. Social Workers, Psychologists, Nurses). Some opt to engage in psychotherapy or research. 

For more information:

 Psychologists (PhD) and Psychological Associates (Masters) are “trained in the assessment, treatment, and prevention of behavioural and mental conditions. They diagnose neuropsychological disorders and dysfunctions as well as psychotic, neurotic and personality disorders and dysfunctions. In addition, Psychologists and Psychological Associates use a variety of approaches directed toward the maintenance and enhancement of physical, intellectual, emotional, social and interpersonal functioning” (College of Psychologists of Ontario,  They must attend an accredited program that provides supervised practice and prepares you for the Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) exams.  

An added note, as we get a lot of questions about the differences. The College of Psychologists of Ontario states: “Psychological Associates have completed a masters level degree in psychology (e.g. M.A., M.Sc., M.Ps., M.Ed.), which is then followed by four years of experience working in the scope of practice of psychology. Psychologists have completed a doctoral level degree in psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D., D.Psy.) which typically includes a one-year internship.” 

For more information:  

 Psychotherapists work with individuals, couples, and families in individual and group settings.  Psychotherapists work together with their clients to bring about positive change in the client’s thinking, feeling, behavior and social functioning.  They do not diagnose and are limited to the kinds of psychological assessments they can perform.  Training for a master’s level psychotherapist is generally around 2 years.  A research thesis is typically not required but mandatory if you wish to pursue doctoral studies. 

For more information: 

Psychometrists are “part of research or healthcare teams that specialize in administering, scoring, analyzing and interpreting psychological tests. In Ontario, Psychometrists are not legally allowed to communicate diagnoses, so they must work under the supervision of a Registered Psychologist or Psychological Associate, who are licensed to do so. Tasks include explaining testing procedures to clients, answering questions, administering tests, scoring tests, analyzing data, interpreting results, writing reports and communicating results to other mental health care professionals.” Educational requirements for this field can range from a bachelors degree in psychology/human behavior or Masters in Psychology.  

For more information: 

 Social Workers (Bachelor of Social Work)  can provide a range of supports including  counselling , case management services, advocacy, program facilitation, and various forms of service delivery depending on population they are working with.  Social Workers will refer their clients/patients to a psychologist or psychiatrist for evaluation. The Bachelor of Social Work program is typically a four-year undergraduate degree that must be completed at a recognized institution . There are also post-degree BSW programs, such as the one at McMaster, that can be completed in 2 years.  

For more information: 

 Social Workers (Masters of Social Work) provide counselling or psychotherapy, case management services,  various forms of service delivery as well as policy related work. The Master of Social Work is  typically 2 years for those that have an Honours degree and 1 year for those that have a Bachelor of Social Work degree. 

For more information: 

 Occupational Therapists  typically focus on improving functioning and reducing impairment in practical ways by improving life skills, community participation, building motivation, and support. They may choose to get specialized training in counselling or psychotherapy or work with individual with chronic mental health that impairs their daily living.  

For more information: 

Child and Youth Workers work with children and youth who have social, emotional or behavioural issues. Primarily offered as an Advanced Diploma at Ontario Colleges, other pathways include Bachelors or diploma.  Skills gained include crisis management, treatment options and strategies, counselling, case management and child and youth development.  Typical workplace settings include schools, shelters, group homes, social service agencies, correctional facilities and community/mental health centres. (Child and Youth Worker, Ontario Colleges). 

For more information:

Because there is a range of professions in the field, with different education pathways, it might be helpful to first outline the different educational credentials. As you review, you can consider the education path that is best for you personally and to also prepare you professionally for your career path.   

Graduate Certificate (or Diploma) : Requires a university degree or college certificate/diploma for admission, building on knowledge and experience gained in previous postsecondary study in a specialized area ( 

  • Social Service Worker-Accelerated, Career Development Practitioner, Child and Youth Worker – Accelerated.  

BSW : A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is a 4-year undergraduate degree that gives you the entry-level requirements for registering with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW). 

MEd: A professional masters program with a focus on preparing students for working as a practitioner. Does not generally have an independent research/thesis component or is optional, and tends to be focused on coursework and internship experience.

MA: A Masters of Arts program that includes an independent research component.  Generally, the completion of a Masters thesis is required for entrance into a doctoral program. To prepare you for the clinical/counselling practice, look for MA programs that include a clinical internship/practicum.  Typically these Masters programs in the field will require an Honours Psychology degree or equivalent. 

MSc:  A Masters of Science program in the science or health science faculty. It does not necessarily mean you need a B.Sc to apply to these programs. Professional degrees like Occupational Therapy and Psychotherapy might have this designation. Typically focused on evidence based clinical practices and providing clinical experience. 

MSW: A Masters of Social Work (MSW) can be completed in 1 year after your BSW or 2 years after an Honours Degree (some pre-requisites may be required ). The MSW programs that have clinical practicum placements will prepare you for a range of helping roles, including therapy/counselling. 

PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology): Following a scientist-practitioner model, this degree tends to have a greater emphasis on training students to become clinicians/practitioners. This model is more common in the United States, although these programs do exist in Canada.

PhD: (Doctorate of Philosophy): Following a scientist-practitioner model, this degree has a  emphasis on research in the field as well as clinical skills through internship. There are direct entry options or programs that require you to first apply to the MA program then continue to the Ph.D program.

EdD (Doctorate of Education):  a pathway for professionals working in the field to build on their knowledge and skills and take on leadership roles. Is primarily for professionals who are already engaged in a career in counselling services in an educational and/or community setting. 

Many of these careers are regulated health professions and the regulatory college or Associations have helpful resources.  

  • Associations: group intended to support the professionals in the field.  These are specific to your career area of interest and often list accredited programs and job boards.  Pro-tip: often, you can use the directory to connect with professionals for an Informational Interview.
  • Regulatory Colleges: body intended to protect public interest, the college gives information on registration requirements to practice and scope of practice. Understanding the registration requirements is important if exploring programs outside of Ontario or Canada.  
  • Research using career information databases like Career Cruising, through the search feature on LinkedIn, and by talking with professionals in the Alumni and Partners Network who are currently in the occupation or industry.  Working in Mental Health is a website that profiles occupations in mental health. 
  • Consider volunteer opportunities with organizations that allow you to volunteer with the population/issue or work setting (you likely will not practice formal counselling until in placement in some professional program). 
  • Use education databases to search for programs  include and  and you can refer to our Considering Further Education tip sheet for more guidance on your application. 

The Student Success Centre can help you explore you options through career counselling, career planning essentials course, career assessments and career exploration supports. We are here to help. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but hope it helps you explore more career possibilities with different education pathways.  

  • Addictions Counsellor 
  • Autism and Behavioural Therapist 
  • Brain Disorders Management 
  • Career Development Professional 
  • Learning Disabilities Specialist 
  • Disability Management 
  • Mental Health Nursing (for RNs and RPNs)  
  • Probation Officer 
  • Life Coach 
  • Recreational Therapist  
  • Spiritual Care Provider 
  • Social Policy Analyst 
  • Undergraduate degree – a psychology undergraduate degree is not your only option, be sure to check the schools/programs for requirements.  
  • GPA requirements  – these will vary depending on the competitiveness of the program.  Many programs will be more interested in your last 2 years of academics as more representative of your ability to perform at a Master level program.  
  • Letter of reference – many will ask you to provide professional and academic references. The professional references may be from volunteer positions.  
  • Experience – this will be highly valuable to prepare you for the clinical placements in these programs but also it is generally required for most programs in this field. Look for building experiences in a direct helping role and experience that shows your knowledge and understanding of mental health issues and supports.   
  • Resume/CV   
  • Interview  
  • Deadlines  

For M.A/Ph.D in Psychology, some programs might require you write the GRE.


Absolutely. We are here for you. For assistance with all-things further education, feel free to reach out to the Student Success Centre in whichever way is most comfortable for you. We offer workshops, one-on-one appointments, research and application support, interview preparation and many more services.