Addiction Specialist

Unfortunately, addiction to opioids, cocaine, alcohol, and other substances is a prevalent problem in the United States. According to the Addiction Center (2020), 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 ready and willing to help 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 a variety of 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 2019), 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 $49,950 on average, but top earners in the 90th percentile make $76,080 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.

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: $975 per credit-hour

Monmouth University – Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences

The master’s of arts (MA) in addiction studies at the Monmouth University Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences puts students on a path towards becoming a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor (LCADC) in New Jersey. Graduates can work in a variety of addiction treatment facilities or be eligible to open their own practice.

Students are required to take courses in social and cultural foundations, pharmacology, psychopathology, and treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. In addition, students complete 100 practicum hours in a drug or treatment facility in order to gain valuable hands-on experience.

Admission requirements include undergraduate courses in psychology, a completed bachelor’s degree, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and an extensive response to questions in the admissions application.

  • Location: West Long Branch, NJ
  • Duration: One and a half to two years
  • Accreditation: National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC)
  • Tuition: $1,233 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 a variety of 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 the course of 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 are required to have at least three years of experience working in a healthcare setting. Experience in corrections is not required. Additional admission requirements include already having completed 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: $980 per credit-hour

Purdue University 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 University Global. Students learn how to provide counseling to 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-hour

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 in order 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 towards 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 varies 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 are only required to 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 the role they fill and their place of employment. Typical day to day responsibilities for 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 patient 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 in order to remove themselves from negative situations
  • Helping patients access social services

Addiction Specialist Certifications & Licensure

Currently, 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.

Those pursuing this career as a certified counselor, however, are required to 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?

Addiction specialists fall under substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Per the BLS (May 2019), addiction specialists nationally earn $49,950 per year on average with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $29,520
  • 25th percentile: $35,960
  • 50th percentile (median): $46,240
  • 75th percentile: $59,650
  • 90th percentile: $76,080
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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