I’m considering going back to school for a new career

For about half a year now, I’ve been considering the possibility of embarking on a second career: training to become a mental health counsellor.

It’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s not one that I’ve necessarily made yet. I already have a master’s degree, and I’ve been working in the same field for the past 10 years. Going back to school would be a huge change; it would require so much of me, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and — most importantly — financially.

It also raises a ton of practical questions. What kind of training do I need? How much would it cost? Where would I go to school? Where can I practice afterwards?

I thought I’d share some of my thought process, as well as the research I’ve done so far.

What does it take to become a professional counsellor?

In the United States, it seems that guidelines around practicing as a professional mental health professional — often called a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) — are quite strict. Every state has its own licensing laws and bodies. I remember that when my old therapist moved from DC to California, he had to study for almost a year to get licensed to practice in California.

Not the case for many other countries. In the UK, France and Switzerland, for example, there are no legal requirements around who can call themselves a “counsellor”. In a virtual open house webinar I attended for a university in the UK, the host said, “Any charlatan could go into the yellow pages tomorrow and advertise themselves as a counsellor despite having no training or certifications.”

However! Psychologists are a whole other thing. To practice as a psychologist (psychologue in French) in these countries, you pretty much need to have a PhD in counselling psychology or psychotherapy. In the UK, it’s called a DPsych and takes at least four years to complete.

Personally, I am not interested in becoming a psychologist. I just want to do regular talk therapy. So I began to look into one- or two-year master’s programmes in counselling, in particular those offering work placements to help their students gain real-world experience in working with patients.

Which country would it make sense to do the programme in?

I’m not interested in moving back to the US, both for personal and financial reasons. I’m still paying off my student loans from my last master’s degree; I can’t go through this again. I also can’t do a virtual programme because I struggle with attention deficiency when it comes to online learning, and because I want to do work placements, which would require hundreds of hours of working with clients under clinical supervision. So the US is out.

Staying in Switzerland to do the programme was the next option I considered. English is, obviously, not an official language in Switzerland, and I sure as hell can’t do a master’s degree in French. There is one English-language master’s programme in counselling at Webster University, which is a private uni in Geneva, but tuition for a two-year full-time programme is 52,320 francs. I can’t afford it without loans. So Switzerland is also out.

I also considered other countries in Europe. France, Germany and Austria are the biggest “maybe”s, but I haven’t found any promising-looking English-language programmes in these countries yet. Language wouldn’t be an issue in Ireland, but there’s a severe housing crisis in the country (same for The Netherlands). The Nordic countries would be too difficult for me to live in, given the challenge of long winters.

For the moment, I’ve landed on the UK. Specifically, London. It’s expensive, but I’ve always thought that it would be a shame if I didn’t live in London at least once in my life, just to experience all the things that the city has to offer. I began to focus my research on unis in London.

How much would it cost to study in London?

Short answer: it’s more expensive than continental Europe, but still cheaper than the States. There’s a two-tiered pricing system, where students from the UK pay significantly less than international students.

Below is a table I made, comparing 2023-24 international student tuition prices for 10 programmes that I identified in London.

UniversityDegreeDuration of studyTuition (GBP)
City University of LondonPostgraduate Certificate in Counselling Psychology1 year part-time7,730
University of East LondonPGDip Counselling and Psychotherapy2 years part-time10,040
St. Mary’s UniversityPsychology (Conversion)1 year full-time or 2 years part-time10,500
University of GreenwichTherapeutic Counselling, MSc3 years part-time12,252
Queen Mary University of LondonMental Health: Psychological Therapies PGDip9 months full-time; 21 months part-time14,850
St. Mary’s UniversityPsychology of Mental Health MSc PGDip, PGCert1 year full-time16,350
Goldsmiths University of LondonMA Psychodynamic
Counselling and
2 years full-time; 3 years part-time21,260
Queen Mary University of LondonMental Health: Psychological Therapies MSc1 year full-time; 2 years part-time22,250
Birkbeck University of LondonPsychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy MSc3 years part-time32,715
University of RoehamptonIntegrative Counselling and Psychotherapy PG3 years part-time39,750

I had known that master’s programmes in the UK were shorter than in the US, only taking one year of full-time study. But I was confused by all the different names. What were PGDips and PGCerts? And how were they different from a regular MSc?

My understanding is that in terms of amount of time and effort required, PGCert < PGDip < Masters. For a PGCert, you would go to school, usually on a part-time basis, if you are a working professional who wants to brush up on a certain specialized area of study. And after finishing the PGCert, if you want to keep going, you can extend your studies by another year and go for a PGDip or a Masters.

From a tuition standpoint, the UK looks — well, not great — but feasible, compared to the US. But there’s also the cost of everything else. According to Numbeo, the cost of living in London is 28% lower than that of Geneva. Rent is 18% lower. A one-bedroom flat outside central London might run at least 1,500 pounds (and I’m sure it’s getting worse). Living in Switzerland is so mind-numbingly expensive that you don’t experience as much sticker shock in other places, but still, London is no picnic.

Based on my calculations, if I want to stay in London for a full year, studying full-time and not working at all, I’d have to save up around 25,000 to 30,000 pounds in addition to tuition.

Realistically, though, I’d have to keep working during this time to avoid digging myself into a hole financially. It appears that being on a student visa in the UK entitles one to work up to 20 hours a week. I could potentially cut back my hours at work and telecommute for a year; I could also go on sabbatical and try to find a part-time consulting job through my professional network.

What would I do after getting the degree?

This is the toughest question to address. The reality is that getting a counselling degree won’t entitle me to work as a counsellor anywhere outside the US, the only country where I have citizenship. I can’t practice in Switzerland, because that’s not what my residency permit is for. I can’t practice in France or Germany or any other EU country because I can’t get a visa to live in those places based solely on the profession of being a therapist. I could work in the UK for two years after graduating, but after that, I’d have to find someone to sponsor my visa. (I’m also not keen to stay in the UK on a long-term basis.)

Which begs the question: why spend all this time and money on this degree when I can’t even actually use it?

Believe me, I’m asking myself this question, too. I think it boils down to three reasons:

  1. I think getting professionally trained in counselling would be an incredibly useful life skill to have. Thanks to social media, nowadays we see a lot of people throwing around clinical terms carelessly and diagnosing themselves with serious issues without consulting a professional. I want to learn how to think and speak about mental health in an informed and accurate manner.
  2. I just want to help people. I may not be allowed to set up a practice in Switzerland, but I can still volunteer my skills and services. There are a lot of English-speaking expats here, and many, like me, don’t speak French well enough to do therapy in it. I’m happy to give a certain amount of my time and emotional labor for free to people who really need to talk to someone.
  3. If I end up staying long-term in Switzerland, there is a potential path towards working as a counsellor one day–after retirement, that is. It’s still a long ways off, but it’s in the back of my mind.

Where I’m at now

Due to the considerations I outlined above, as well as the sheer financial cost of doing another master’s degree, I won’t be doing a three-year programme. Nor am I particularly motivated to do a two-year programme.

As a result, I’m now looking at the one-year PGCert and PGDip programmes in the list above. I think a one-year programme would help me gain a preliminary understanding of what it’s like to work in counselling, and whether it’s even the right fit for someone like me. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll have gained some valuable skills, as well as had the chance to live in London for a year.

It seems that academic terms usually start in September, and the application period is open from December until late summer, although many universities’ websites urge students to apply early (i.e., by March) in order to secure a place.

My current plan is to start my studies in September 2024. Before that, I’ll pay another visit to London — probably some time this autumn — to visit the different campuses and get a feel for the atmosphere.

Decisions, decisions, decisions… to be continued.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash


  1. This is fascinating! I’ve been thinking of doing something similar after I retire from the Foreign Service. I did my undergrad work in Psychology, but then at the master’s level I went for international relations instead. Have you looked at programs in Australia? I did my postgrad there in Sydney and it was incredible. It’s very hard to actually immigrate there, and the cost of living isn’t low either, but the weather and the people are awesome and it’s not hard for U.S. citizens to get a student visa. You might want to look at cross-recognition of degrees and certificates from there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good idea to do it after retirement! That’s what my old therapist did — she had a whole professional career in international development, retired, and then went back to school to train as a counsellor. I could tell that it brought her a lot of fulfillment to continue working in a different capacity after retirement.

      Hadn’t thought of Australia so thanks for the suggestion! Will have to look into it. (Sunny weather is definitely a huge plus.)

      Liked by 1 person

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