Skip to main content

How to Become an HIV Counselor

A professional career coach, Marcy has helped hundreds refine their resumes, improve their interviewing skills, and advance their careers.

The Red Ribbon is the symbol of HIV awareness.

The Red Ribbon is the symbol of HIV awareness.

HIV Counselors Focus on Education and Prevention

Although some people mistakenly think that HIV is old news, it is still very much a health condition requiring constant attention and understanding. As HIV awareness has grown in the medical field, new careers have been created to meet the needs of those who live with the condition or who need education about avoiding exposure.

A rewarding way to work in this field is by becoming an HIV counselor. These professionals work with those who are infected and their family members to help inform them of infection control and how to protect those who live with the person who has the virus.

They also work with high-risk populations and others as educators and give advice about resources in the community. Finally, they provide information to the general public to raise awareness about the risks of becoming infected and how to avoid exposure and transmission.

HIV counselors need training in various areas, though, to do their jobs right. Read on for more information about this position.

National HIV and Counseling and Testing Event (Lowell, MA)

Jobs for HIV Counselors

HIV counselors can be employed in a variety of types of organizations and settings. Some examples include:

Colleges and Universities: Institutions with large populations or with a high percentage of at-risk students will likely have HIV counselors available (or referral arrangements) through student health centers or other counseling offices.

AIDS Services Centers: Most large cities have AIDS resource services available (and some have several resource operations). Many are non-profit, but some are government funded. All are available to provide education about prevention, living with HIV and AIDS, referral services for health care, and other social services support.

Public School Systems: Some public school systems may provide HIV counselors in communities where there are higher risks of exposure. Counselors in these settings might offer group education sessions as well as, or in lieu of one-on-one, ongoing support.

Medical Offices: Large clinic systems may have HIV counselors available (or persons who are trained in this area in addition to another position they may hold).

Drug Research Firms: Firms that do outsourced research work for pharmaceutical companies often test for HIV as part of the screening process. Persons who test positive are informed privately (this can be by a physician) and offered referral information about community resources (which can be by someone with a degree or training in HIV counseling).

HIV Intervention and Outreach Services: Many communities have outreach services to help educate and prevent the spread of HIV. These can include mobile vans that do on-site testing, visiting places where social encounters can lead to unprotected sex, and other programs that are uniquely designed to address needs in a specific community. HIV counselors are part of the teams providing these services.

Public Health Clinics: These facilities generally provide testing for HIV, and offer pretesting as well as post-testing counseling to those who use their services.

Third-World Countries: There are opportunities for humanitarian work to help educate at-risk populations in countries where HIV infection and AIDS occur in epidemic numbers. These can be volunteer positions or paid assignments.

HIV Testing and Counseling

Requirements and Training for HIV Counselors

The training and requirements for doing HIV counseling in your community, state, or country can vary with the specific job you might seek and the guidelines imposed by the government. To find out the requirements in your area, check with the types of services listed above (a good place to start is the local AIDS Services organization if one is available).

Ask to speak to someone who either does counseling or who manages the operation; they will know what requirements exist for training and, in some cases, certification in HIV Counseling.

Many state health departments offer training programs (or will refer you to places that offer training that meets local requirements). Some medical schools offer training programs as well. The list of training options and criteria is too varied to include in one article.

An example of the type of education that might be needed can be found through the AIDS Health Project in San Francisco, which lists some information on basic training, advanced training, and continuing education for those who wish to become HIV Counselors.

Your local government will have information on the number of hours or days of training needed for the levels of certification and opportunities to take online courses. The guidelines in each state (or country) change as new information is available, so it is best to check for current requirements in your area.

HIV Counseling through Desmond Tutu Foundation

What Makes a Good HIV Counselor?

HIV counselors address many sensitive topics when talking with clients, including sexual orientation, history of drug use, high-risk behaviors, trust, sexual activity, family and relationship issues, and more.

A good HIV counselor should have most, if not all, of the following qualities and skills:

  • Compassion
  • Ability to communicate well
  • Frankness
  • Acceptance
  • Sensitivity to emotions
  • Desire to help others
  • Non-judgmental attitude
  • Flexibility
  • Desire to keep learning

These are just a few of the qualities you can bring to the career. Continuing education is important since treatment options change almost every year, and resources can change in your community.

When HIV Becomes AIDS


In addition to providing basic education and prevention information about HIV infection, counselors are often trained to help recognize when HIV may have advanced to AIDS.

This training helps counselors refer clients to appropriate medical care for declining immune systems or opportunistic infections. An opportunistic infection is one that attacks a compromised immune system; it is generally one that a healthy immune system might resist, whereas someone with a weakened immune system is more vulnerable.

The videos on this page show a few ways HIV counselors help individuals who are infected, are at risk of infection, or who live with someone who is infected, as well as information on when HIV becomes AIDS.

What about you?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on March 05, 2013:

Many thanks, Amber! This career will only keep growing in coming years. Despite recent news reports, we are nowhere near a universal cure. I appreciate your comments here.

Amber Vyn on March 05, 2013:

Thorough and up to date! I really liked that you listed the important qualities for being an effective HIV counselor.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 25, 2013:

Hi, blaxirican - thanks for your kind comments, and for pointing out some variations on the opportunities. I'm in Austin, too - I'm guessing we may know some of the same people here. The network of HIV service providers is pretty connected here!

blaxirican80 on February 25, 2013:

This is a great, very accurate article on the topic. I was a social worker in the field of HIV for 5 years in the Austin, Texas area. A lot of agencies lean toward a bachelor's or master's degree in the social sciences but there are often a lot of opportunities for volunteers, peer advocates, and student interns. As you said, it really varies by location. If a person is truly interested in working in this field, they should not let their credentials, or a lack of, stop them. The field is always in need of compassionate, caring individuals. Thanks so much for sharing information on this topic area!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on November 26, 2012:

Thanks, Jared - it's a very important area of healthcare. HIV is by no means cured, but it can be managed.

jared maronga on November 26, 2012:

I gree to the topcis and information on this career

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on April 24, 2012:

Hi, Alocsin - it can vary with the requirements of where they work and the type of position, according to what I've seen. Some have degrees in social work, some are perhaps RNs, etc. Some do not have degrees, in some instances.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on April 24, 2012:

I used to do volunteer work for the HIV community way back in the dark ages but I was not a counselor because of no related degree. I was under the impression that HIV counselors needed some sort of counseling degree. Is that not true? Voting this Up and Useful.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on April 23, 2012:

Kittyjj: I am impressed at the number of informative videos available about this sensitive subject. I truly appreciate your commments!

Hi, Nettlemere - thank you for reading and commenting; I'm so glad you like the hub!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on April 23, 2012:

Excellent well written and informative article

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on April 23, 2012:

A great hub with tremendous valuable information. I love the videos. Voted up and useful.