Is a Career in Addiction Studies Right for You?

Perhaps you’ve wondered whether a career in addiction counseling would be a good fit for you. You’re sober, or have recovered from an eating disorder, gambling addiction, or substance abuse. You’ve cleaned up your life, helped a few others change theirs, and now you feel you could do more. You’d like a job that supports others struggling with addiction. It turns out that you’re not alone. According to Dr. Jorja Jamison, Associate Professor of Addiction Studies at Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School, one-third to two-thirds of students might identify as a person in recovery. “I don’t think that I’ve ever met a single student in the ten years I’ve been here who wasn’t touched by addiction in some way. Either having a loved one with a substance abuse disorder, having dealt with one themselves, or seeing it in the community. Everyone gets touched by addiction to get into this field.”

Sandra Clark, Adjunct Faculty Member in Addiction Studies, sees a similar pattern at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. “A number of students in my classes are in recovery, have a co-occurring substance abuse, or have a family member with substance abuse or a mental health issue. Others simply have a passion for helping people. Any addiction counseling program will have this make-up.”

Hazelden offers two degrees, one completed online and the other on campus in Center City and St. Paul. Both degrees allow students to get dual licensure – as alcohol and drug counselors and as a master’s level mental health practitioner – meaning licensed to work with all of the co-occurring mental health concerns, from depression and anxiety to trauma. According to Dr. Jamison, 80% of substance abuse clients have a co-occurring disorder. Hazelden graduates are equipped to deal with that entire range of concerns.

These two programs provide a good study in comparison for selecting an addiction studies school. At Hazelden Betty Ford, the programs offered are master’s degree programs. A previous college degree of any kind is required, along with an application, letters of reference, an essay, and the typical things you’d see required for college admission. Minneapolis College also offers two programs, however, the associate degree in Addiction Studies is one that students can enter straight from high school. Ms. Clark followed that model in her path to becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor. She completed her associate degree at Inver Hills Community College and transferred to Metro State University to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She said, “When I graduated from high school, I was looking for a smaller school. I didn’t want to get lost in the numbers. It [a bigger college] was intimidating. I was looking for a community college, a place where I could get acclimated and then move to a 4-year college.”

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The second program at Minneapolis College, the 36-credit diploma program, is designed for students with any previous college degree to meet Minnesota’s requirements to apply for licensure in addictions counseling.

It’s an under-resourced field. We don’t have enough counselors; we don’t have enough treatment centers.Hazelden Betty Ford gets students from diverse backgrounds and their online program attracts people from around the world. The average age is 43; much higher than most graduate programs. These students have had careers such as lawyers, doctors, or administrators. “In the old days of addiction counseling,” Dr. Jamison noted, “it used to be that the only qualification needed was that you were a person in recovery. This is a new generation. It’s considered a field of counseling, a specialty that uses all that we know in terms of research and in terms of helping people improve their lives.”

“In the past, society didn’t really know how to treat mental health disorders,” she said. “Instead, people were cordoned off and institutionalized. People with substance abuse disorders weren’t getting better because they weren’t getting the help they needed, especially if they had a co-occurring mental health problem. Now the field of addiction studies is moving towards an evidence-based practice; which means that students are taught how to understand and use research data. They’re taught which theories and techniques have been shown to be successful and how to use them.”

The primary trait that addiction studies students have in common is a passion for the work. Dr. Jamison said, “The work is really challenging. It has the potential to be incredibly rewarding. But there are definite setbacks when dealing with substance abuse disorders. Having a passion for the overarching mission helps counter that. It’s an under-resourced field. We don’t have enough counselors; we don’t have enough treatment centers. Everyone gets stretched really thin. Being able to take care of yourself in that environment is really critical.”

Because of these demands, Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School encourages students to have a dedicated, practice of self-care: Physically, psychologically, and socially. People can’t be effective counselors and helpers if they’re not taking care of themselves. Jamison noted that students who embrace self-care have longevity in the field. At Minneapolis College, self-care is encouraged through campus organizations such as The Collegiate Recovery Program and the Addiction Counseling Club, a student-run club and drop-in center where students can network and gain support.

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Successful students, according to Ms. Clarke, are committed to learning and being flexible, especially because of all the changes going on in the state. As of July 1st, Minnesotans can choose their treatment center. Previously, they needed to go through an access point to be assessed. The assessment process could take up to 30 days. Now, they can use their own insurance, use Medical Assistance, or use the newly created Behavioral Health Fund set up by the Department of Human Services. This change in statute was designed to increase access to treatment.

Both Dr. Jamison and Ms. Clark maintain private practices. In addition to helping their individual patients, they both chose to be counselor educators because they can then also affect every patient that their students will counsel during their careers, multiplying their counseling power.

Dr. Jamison said, “I find it incredibly rewarding to work as a counselor educator. I really love the challenge and spirit it takes to work with people who are grappling with the disease of addiction. It’s a challenging field, but it also has some of the greatest rewards that you can possibly imagine; seeing people recover, seeing people get their lives back, and seeing them overcome the shame of losing jobs, losing families, and coming out on the other end of that journey with a deep understanding of how they work in the world. I get to see people make peace with life in a way that other careers don’t.”

Ms. Clark said, “The meaning of my name Sandra is ‘helper.’ I’m meant to be a helper. I joke with clients and students, if we weren’t meant to help each other we’d all have our own planet. We’re all on this planet together and we’re supposed to be helping each other.”


Mary Berg is a retired associate professor of clinical education, a resume writer, published author, and poet. Her website is www.marybergresumewriter.com

Last Updated on July 16, 2022

5 comments

  1. Eddie Rehfeldt says:

    Terrific article. I’m so glad to see Dr. Jamison interviewed on this topic. She is such an inspiration to so many at Hazelden Graduate School. My residency with Dr. Jamison pushed me to work with an underserved population as part of my master thesis. I would not have had the courage to reach out to tribal leaders of a tribe in my state unless she called me out to challenge myself. Now I hope others will commit to being of service. We need you. Thank you for posting this piece.

  2. Marilyn Tims says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article. Without a doubt, I know that this is where I want to be. This is my passion watching others come into their meaning and purpose in life. Why do I feel this way? I’m the evidence of what was and what is, and coming to be. (ITE). It has been over 30 years for me, and I know that change is possible when you have the drive, determination, and willingness.
    The reward is watching the transformation and seeing the joy along the journey.

    Thank you again for the amazing article.

  3. Taylor Coffin says:

    “I get to see people make peace with life in a way that other careers don’t.” – so incredibly inspiring and powerful! I am about to graduate from Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies and am leaving with intense gratitude to this program and my professors (particularly, Dr. Jamison!) for the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I am looking forward to “seeing people make peace with life” as I venture into this new career.

  4. Sharonda R. says:

    Great article! I am a grad student at Hazelden Betty Ford and I am looking forward to learning from Dr. Jamison! I am a certified addiction counselor in Georgia and agree that there are many challenges in this work but there are also rewards of getting to see progress and relationships repaired. I have been in this field for almost 20 years and absolutely love this work!

  5. Jennifer Sorensen says:

    Great article and good job of explaining the challenges of working in this field but also sharing how wonderful the benefits can be, helping change lives!
    Way to go Dr. Jorja Jamison ! Proud to say” that’s my professor and advisor!”.

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