Addiction Specialist

Unfortunately, addiction to opioids, cocaine, alcohol, and other substances is prevalent in the United States. According to the Addiction Center (2022), over 21 million Americans suffer from an addiction, but sadly only about 10 percent seek any form of treatment. The problem is only worsening as the number of deaths from drug overdose has tripled since 1990. Many agencies, clinics, and centers have been established to help those suffering from addiction. The key people at these clinics are addiction specialists.

Addiction specialists help clients overcome addiction and mental health issues.

Responsibilities can include assessing mental health and addiction problems, assigning diagnoses, providing counseling, educating on choices to decrease the likelihood of relapse, and advising families on how they can help. Addiction specialists are employed in various workplaces, including hospitals, detox centers, inpatient treatment centers, clinics, and government agencies. 

Now is a great time to enter this profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), there is an anticipated 22 percent increase in jobs for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. This is more than four times the projected national average growth of 5 percent for all jobs. Professionals in this field earn $56,230 on average, but top earners in the 90th percentile make $82,710 per year or more. 

The vast majority of addiction specialists are also licensed counselors. Education for this career includes an undergraduate degree in addiction, psychology, or related field, followed by a master’s in counseling. Many master’s programs offer a concentration in addiction, but professionals who complete a general degree can gain specialized training with a graduate certificate in addiction. 

Addiction specialists are only required to be licensed in 27 states and the District of Columbia; however, counselors are required to be licensed in all 50 states. Aspiring professionals should contact their state licensing authority to verify requirements. 

Continue reading to learn about education requirements, steps to licensure, typical job duties, and top programs for addiction specialists.

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Addiction Specialist Specializations & Degree Types

Education requirements for addiction specialists vary based on the role they fill. 

Social workers helping clients with addiction may have an associate or bachelor’s degree in psychology or behavioral health with an emphasis in addiction. However, most addiction specialists are certified counselors which requires at least a master’s degree. There are numerous master’s programs across the country in addiction counseling. Some students may choose to simply complete a master’s in counseling and complete an additional certificate in addiction. Professionals looking to further their education can pursue a doctorate in psychology or even an MD in psychiatry.

Admissions Requirements for Addiction Specialist Programs

Admission requirements for addiction specialist programs vary based on the degree pursued. 

Associate and bachelor’s degrees require prospective students to have completed high school or a GED. Master’s programs require applicants to have already completed a bachelor’s degree. Most master’s programs look for a bachelor’s degree in a related field, although some offer remedial classes for students from other disciplines. Often work experience is required as well. Doctorate and MD programs have the most stringent requirements as applicants typically need to have already completed a master’s degree. 

Programs at all levels typically require test scores (SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT), statements of purpose, letters of recommendation, and official transcripts. 

Addiction Specialist Program Accreditation

Accreditation for addiction specialist programs happens at various tiers. The National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) certifies all levels of programs, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and certificates. 

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is responsible for accrediting counseling programs. Attending an accredited program is important because it guarantees a minimum standard of education. It makes transferring between schools easier and can often mean the difference between obtaining certification or not. Students should ensure the program they enroll in is at least regionally accredited by an entity recognized by the Department of Education, and ideally also accredited in their specific field of study. 

On-Campus Addiction Specialist Degree Programs

Lewis & Clark – Graduate School of Education and Counseling

At the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, aspiring addiction specialists can complete the professional mental health counseling (specialization in addictions) program to prepare them for their career. Graduates will have the necessary skills to address mental health issues in clients as well as help treat addiction. 

As part of the program, students earn either a master’s of arts (MA) with an emphasis in counseling or a master’s of science (MS) with an emphasis in research. Applicants to the program must have an undergraduate degree in psychology, a related field, or complete an introduction to psychology course prior to starting classes. 

  • Location: Portland, OR
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $1,063 per credit

Boise State University

The CACREP accredited master of arts in counseling at Boise State University is a comprehensive program designed to prepare professionals for counseling roles in various settings. This degree requires a minimum of sixty semester hours of coursework. Within this master’s students can choose a concentration, including one in addiction counseling. This specialization equips professionals with the necessary skills to work with individuals and families affected by substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. The coursework in this area covers assessment, treatment, relapse prevention, as well as models of prevention and intervention for addiction

Admission to the program is highly competitive, with only a limited number of students accepted each year. Graduates of the addiction counseling program have the option to work in private practice or in various community agencies that provide counseling services for substance abuse.

  • Location: Boise, ID
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $27,491 per year

Central Michigan University

The master’s of arts in counseling at Central Michigan University is a comprehensive and flexible program that prepares students to become skilled and compassionate counselors. The program offers three concentrations: addiction counseling, clinical mental health counseling, and school counseling. Students can gain hands-on experience through mandatory practicum placements and internships.

The faculty consists of licensed counselors with doctoral degrees in counselor education, providing rigorous instruction and close supervision to ensure that students are well-prepared for their future careers. The program is designed to accommodate students working while pursuing their degree, offering various class formats such as evening classes.

  • Location: Mount Pleasant, MI
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $$758 per credit

University of Detroit Mercy

The addiction counseling program at the University of Detroit Mercy is recognized as Michigan’s premier program in the field. With a long history and being one of the first of its kind in the nation, the program has established itself as a leader in addiction counseling education. It is known for its innovative approach and cutting-edge curriculum focused on substance and behavioral addiction counseling.

Students receive specialized training in preventing, assessing, and treating addictive disorders. Coursework is tailored specifically to addiction counseling, covering both substance and process/behavioral addictions. Graduates are prepared to work in various settings, including private and public agencies, rehabilitation centers, and outpatient clinics.

  • Location: Detroit, MI
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $940  per credit-hour

University of North Carolina, Charlotte – Cato College of Education

Students in the master of arts in addiction counseling program at UNC Charlotte will gain the skills to effectively work in different treatment settings and address various addictive behaviors. They will gain knowledge in client assessment, treatment planning, goal setting, and referral to essential resources. The program emphasizes the development of critical coping skills and the identification of unhelpful behaviors. Through coursework, practicum, and internships, students will learn diverse clinical skills, including techniques to engage families in the recovery process.

For the past 10 years 100 percent of graduates of this program have passed their licensure exam on their first attempt. In total students will complete 60 hours of graduate coursework, 150 hours in a practicum, and 600 hours in an internship. Due to the curriculum of this program students can become either a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist (LCAS) or a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). 

  • Location: Charlotte, NC
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $1,863.46  per credit-hour

Online or Hybrid Addiction Specialist  Degree Programs

The George Washington University – School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Many individuals who struggle with addiction end up incarcerated, which is why the master’s of science in health sciences (MSHS) in correctional health administration can be a unique course of study for aspiring addiction specialists. Graduates are not only prepared to step into leadership roles in various healthcare settings, but they have also received unique training to be at the helm of prison healthcare centers.

Courses in healthcare for special populations, strategic communications, and health administration for behavioral health populations provide some of the necessary skills to pursue work with clients who have addictions. Over two years, students complete 36 credits completely online. Classes are offered asynchronously offering students the flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule, without having to quit their jobs or relocate. 

Prospective students must have at least three years of experience working in a healthcare setting. Experience in corrections is not required. Additional admission requirements include completing a bachelor’s degree, a personal statement, a current CV, two letters of recommendation, and official transcripts.  

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA)
  • Tuition: $1030 per credit

Purdue Global

Counselors who want to widen their skills and work with patients dealing with addictions can complete the online graduate certificate in addictions from Purdue Global. Students learn how to counsel those experiencing physical and psychological dependencies with an emphasis on application. 

Graduates of this program can find work as addiction specialists in hospitals, detox centers, mental health clinics, and behavioral health offices. Courses in pharmacology, ethics, dependency counseling, and co-occurring disorders prepare graduates to aid clients to make the necessary changes to overcome addiction.  

  • Location: West Lafayette, IN
  • Duration: 1.5 to 2.5 years
  • Accreditation: National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC)
  • Tuition: $420 per credit

Adler Graduate School

The motto of the Adler Graduate School master of arts in counseling, co-occurring disorders and addiction counseling is “help others heal and overcome.” This CACREP-accredited 64- to 73-credit program is offered entirely online with synchronous and asynchronous classes. Hybrid options are available for students who want some in-person interaction as well. A practicum and internship ensure students have the hands-on experience to excel in this field. 

This program equips students with key skills necessary to become effective co-occurring disorders and addictions counselors. These skills include social justice advocacy, a strong professional identity, proficiency in counseling, prevention, and intervention techniques, the ability to conduct assessments and diagnoses, ethical decision-making, and competence in research and evaluation. 

  • Location: Minnetonka, MN
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $690 per credit

University of the Cumberlands

The University of the Cumberlands offers an online master’s in clinical mental health counseling to meet the increasing demand for licensed counselors. With a focus on improving mental health, strengthening relationships, addiction, and removing barriers to achieving goals, this program equips students to make a difference in their communities. The comprehensive curriculum covers counseling theories, evidence-based practices, and ethical considerations, while providing practical experiences and supervised internships to enhance clinical proficiency.

Upon completing the program, graduates are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and practical experience needed to pass their state licensing exams. To be considered for admission applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 GPA or higher and submit a completed application including a writing prompt. 

  • Location: Williamsburg, KY 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $449 per credit

Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies

The online master’s in addiction counseling at Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies offers flexible and convenient classes for substance abuse counselors. Students can complete the program full-time or part-time, with the opportunity to develop skills through direct patient interaction. The program has multiple start dates, financial aid options, an online orientation course, and on-campus residencies. It meets state licensure requirements and fosters a diverse learning cohort.

From 2017 to 2020 100 percent of graduates passed their credential exams within six months. More than 90 percent of graduates were employed full-time in this field during this same time. While coursework is offered online, students will be expected to complete 900 hours of clinical experience during their program. This can be arranged at a site near the student’s home. 

  • Location: Center City, MN
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Tuition: $829 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become an Addiction Specialist?

Timelines vary for becoming an addiction specialist. Those who choose to pursue the most popular education path of a master’s in counseling spend between five to seven years studying (post-high school) and two to three years completing required practicum hours to earn licensure for a total of seven to ten years. 

How To Become an Addiction Specialist  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Completing high school or obtaining a GED is the first step toward a career as an addiction specialist. Students should take courses in psychology and science to help prepare them for further studies. Additionally, students can gain valuable experience by interning or volunteering in addiction centers while still in high school. 

Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

Most addiction specialists earn a bachelor’s degree in addiction studies, psychology, or health sciences. While it may be possible to work as an addiction specialist with just a bachelor’s degree, most professionals in this field go on to complete further studies. 

Step 3:  Complete a Master’s degree (Two Years, Optional)

The majority of addiction specialists are also licensed counselors. In order to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC), it is necessary to complete a counseling degree from a regionally approved or CACREP-accredited program. Those pursuing this career should complete a graduate degree with an emphasis on addiction or complete a graduate certificate to gain additional education and training. 

Step 4: Complete Clinical Hours (Timelines Vary)

Counselors are required to complete at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical work experience prior to earning certification. 

Step 5: Pass Required Exams (Timelines Vary)

Exams for addiction specialists and licensed counselors vary by state. Typical exams include national certification exams such as the ones through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) or the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). Additionally, some states require jurisprudence exams. Prospective addiction specialists should check with their state to verify requirements. Detailed information on licensing and certification is provided in the section below.

Step 6: Apply for Licensure (Timelines Vary)

Addiction professionals must only be licensed in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Certified counselors, on the other hand, are required to be licensed in every state. 

Licensing is on a state-by-state basis. Applicants should contact their local board to learn about testing, education, and internship requirements.

What Do Addiction Specialists Do?

The duties of an addiction specialist vary widely based on their role and place of employment. Typical day-to-day responsibilities of addiction specialists who are licensed counselors include:

  • Assessing patients’ mental health disorders and addiction issues
  • Diagnosing mental health disorders in clients
  • Writing treatment plans to help patients overcome addiction and manage mental health issues
  • Providing treatment in the form of one-on-one therapy, group sessions, workshops, and other activities
  • Educating patients and family members on addiction and mental health issues
  • Performing urinalysis to determine if clients are staying drug-free
  • Maintaining client records
  • Assisting with insurance billings
  • Scheduling intake assessments and therapy for clients
  • Collaborating with other healthcare providers to provide holistic treatment 
  • Assisting clients with making new housing arrangements to remove themselves from negative situations
  • Helping patients access social services

Addiction Specialist Certifications & Licensure

Addiction specialists only need to be licensed in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Licensing requirements vary by state and aspiring professionals should check with their local board to learn the steps they need to take. 

Addiction specialists may pursue certification as a national certified addiction counselor (NCAC) through The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC). While not required, it can help with employability. 

However, those pursuing this career as a certified counselor must be licensed in all 50 states. Licensing is also done on a state-by-state basis and requirements vary. Certification can be obtained as a national certified counselor (NCC), and subsequently as a master addiction counselor (MAC), through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

To qualify for the National Counselor Examination (NCE), applicants must have an accredited master’s degree in counseling (ideally CACREP-approved), official transcripts, a specific number of supervised work hours (varies by state), a processing fee, and other requirements.

The NCE exam itself consists of 200 multiple-choice questions across eight core areas. Candidates have three hours and 45 minutes to complete it.

How Much Do Addiction Specialists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, addiction specialists fall under “substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.” Per the BLS (May 2022), these professionals earn $56,230 per year on average nationally with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $34,580
  • 25th percentile: $39,810
  • 50th percentile (median): $49,710
  • 75th percentile: $64,400
  • 90th percentile: $82,710

Addiction Specialists Alternatives

There are many alternative careers to being an addiction specialist. Here are a few:

Crisis Counselor

Crisis counselors provide immediate support and assistance to individuals experiencing emotional distress or going through a crisis situation. Their primary role is to listen attentively, offer empathy, and provide guidance to help individuals cope with their feelings and navigate their challenges. They work in various settings, such as hotlines, crisis centers, hospitals, or emergency response teams.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals who specialize in providing therapy and support to individuals, couples, and families. Their primary focus is improving their clients’ relationships and overall well-being. They use evidence-based techniques and interventions to help clients navigate challenges, resolve conflicts, and enhance communication within their relationships.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB)

Social Worker

Social workers work to improve the well-being and quality of life for individuals, families, and communities. They provide support, resources, and advocacy for people facing various challenges like poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence, substance abuse, and more. Social workers assess clients’ needs, develop personalized care plans, and connect them with necessary services and assistance. They also play a vital role in advocating for social justice, promoting equality, and addressing systemic issues that contribute to social problems

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


At, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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