What Is the Best Degree for Substance Abuse Professionals?

Substance abuse workers are professionals who work in a variety of settings treating individuals with chemical dependencies and other behavioral disorders. What is the best degree for substance abuse professionals? The answer to this question has everything to do with two factors: the type of substance abuse professional students wish to become and the state in which they plan to practice. Let's take a brief look at these variables in action in the real world.

Which Type of Substance Abuse Professional?

There are jobs for substance abuse workers with every level of education, from a high school diploma and vocational certification to associate's, bachelor's, master's and even advanced doctoral degrees. It is common to pursue an education at least to the certificate level and frequently up to a master's degree in chemical dependency studies or a related major.

A master's degree is typically required to earn a state license as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor, whereas someone holding a bachelor's degree may qualify as a counseling or rehabilitation aide, for example. There are also jobs available to certificate-holders in some states. Entry-level jobs are often certificate-friendly, focusing mainly on competency and minimum experience.

Many employers want workers to have at least an associate's or bachelor's degree in human services, psychology, or a related field. If prospective students plan to maintain a private practice or work in a school setting, for instance, a graduate level of education and licensing is normally necessary.

Which State of Practice?

Aspiring drug and alcohol workers must specifically decide if they will pursue a state-regulated license. Doing so opens up the bulk of jobs in the field, as well as opportunities for advancement and leadership. In most states, becoming a substance abuse professional entails licensing.

Pursuing a state license means insuring one's educational pathway complies with the requirements of the state of practice. Different states require different amounts of instruction, usually between 300 and 400 hours of classroom training. States also decide how much on-the-job experience is required to get a license; usually several thousand hours is necessary.

Check with the relevant state division for updated information. Accurate state-by-state information can be found at the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network website. The network also maintains a complete, updated list of acceptable certificate- or degree-granting addiction study programs in the U.S.

Addiction professional licensing often requires less supervised clinical work in exchange for formal education. In other words, certificate-holders can either work—and be paid—to earn the clinical hours needed for a recognized credential. Alternatively, they may pursue—at their cost—an undergraduate or graduate education to qualify with less total clinical hours.

The main trade-off comes in the lasting value of a formal education in this profession. Pay and benefits are strongly tied to proof of job applicants' high educational achievement.

Professional Expectations

How much responsibility do you want to take on? What are your pay expectations? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What about 20 years? The answers to these questions will be instructive as to which balance of schooling and clinical experience you should strike.

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