NACE Journal, August 2020
Graduate Programs in Counseling
It is especially important in our field to have open conversations and provide guidance and support to the future leaders of the counseling profession. Many of the graduate students in master’s and Ph.D. counseling programs spend hours gaining the academic knowledge, skills, and expertise to become excellent counselors and create meaningful work. With that said, it is important to provide graduate students who are training to become counselors with career guidance on how to make the most of their graduate training and prepare them with an enriching experience that will be valuable during and after their academic journey.
According to the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), there are 870 accredited counseling programs across the United States.1 This means that there are thousands of counselors enrolled in graduate programs who are receiving professional preparation to move the counseling profession forward. The preparation is multifaceted and involves developing trainees’ clinical knowledge, skills, and counseling competencies.2 Graduate programs are tasked with ensuring students are continually tested, evaluated, and supervised throughout their training. For counseling students, a large part of their professional development is tied to their personal development and growth as well. Graduate counseling programs are unique in that students are encouraged to bring their whole selves into the classroom. Appropriate self-disclosure, practicing role-plays, and writing self-reflection papers are a few components used to help increase their level of self-awareness and counseling skills. As career practitioners, it is important that we support them with both their personal and professional development, as these are deeply connected.
Counseling as a Career
Students pursuing a career as a counselor may have decided to enter the field for a variety of reasons. One student may want to work with children and teens in a K-12 setting as a guidance counselor while another student may want to work with adults in a private practice as a psychotherapist. Regardless of a student’s individual career path, there is a strong desire and commitment to help others and society as a whole. Both master’s- and doctoral-level students go through several stages to reach their goals: obtaining clinical hours, taking state board licensure or certification exams, and maintaining their licensure through continuing education credits and trainings. When these students seek us out for support, whether it be to review their documents, to practice interviewing, or to talk through the job search, it is important that we understand their career journey and support their desire to enter the counseling profession.
The Clinical Internship
A huge milestone in graduate counseling programs is beginning the fieldwork experience. While this is an exciting sign that a student is prepared to work directly with clients, it can also feel overwhelming. Graduate students spend months researching, preparing their professional materials, interviewing, and waiting to hear back from their dream internship sites. Additionally, once a site has been secured, learning about hidden workplace cultures requires graduate students to adapt to their environment and adjust quickly.
Incoming graduate students are likely to enter with different levels of experiences, comfort, and clinical skills. Whether a graduate student is interning at a nonprofit organization, with a private practice, or in a higher education setting, the desire to succeed and gain the valuable and practical experience to propel them in their field is always there.
Developing the Professional Identity
It is important to note that the clinical internship is more than just a degree requirement—it is a great way for students to test their counseling skills and craft their professional identity. While at their internship, students can be encouraged to collaborate with their new colleagues, shadow counseling appointments, and take advantage of opportunities to tailor their internship experience whenever possible. Encourage the students you meet with to ask themselves one or more of the following:
- What are my personal and professional values?
- What are the unique skills and qualifications I bring to the profession?
- How and in what areas do I want to grow as a counselor?
By taking the time to answer these questions, students will have a better idea of what they want their post-graduate experience to look like, they will be able to identify jobs and opportunities that are a good fit, and they will have a set of professional values to share with employers throughout interviews and networking events.
Prior to the start of a clinical internship, students have been exposed to a variety of influential leaders and counseling theories. Counseling theories help inform and guide counselors in how to assist clients in the change process. A counselor’s theoretical orientation serves as a guidebook both within and outside of sessions, supporting treatment planning and the establishment of goals, and informs client conceptualization.3 Helping students develop an openness to exploring their theoretical orientation can help set them apart during internship and job interviews. Developing a solid counselor philosophy and approach to solving problems can help students find organizations that match their authentic counseling style.
Whether the student has a counseling style that leans toward psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or person-centered, it is important that we encourage our counseling students to build a foundation to understand and help others. Keep in mind that this can change and adapt over time, and students may likely adopt an integrative approach. Remind students that the choice they make now does not necessarily have to be a framework they keep forever, but rather a way to practice understanding behavior and solving problems.
As career practitioners, we know that graduate students have a variety of professionals in their network to help them grow and reach goals. Graduate students in clinical training programs are required to have a clinical supervisor and have weekly supervision sessions. Supervision is a safe space where students meet with a trained counselor who can provide feedback on skills and counseling sessions and help students grow personally and professionally.4
The role of the supervisor is crucial to how graduate students feel about the population they serve and their own confidence in their clinical skills. It is important for graduate students to enter their supervision session with thoughtful questions and an open mind to explore strategies and learn how to overcome challenges. Supervision is also a great space for graduate students to gain a better understanding of their beliefs and values and explore how this may influence their counseling style and effectiveness.
Supervision sessions are also an opportunity for the students to discuss and share their long-term goals. Supervisors are knowledgeable about the potential roadblocks ahead, so receiving feedback on their goals can help the students adjust and prepare as needed. Clinical supervisors can be the greatest teachers and consultants and the biggest cheerleaders. Encouraging graduate students to be attentive and engaged during this time is a great way to help them reflect on where they are and where they would like to head.
Building the Professional Network
It is the personal responsibility of new professionals to keep their knowledge and skills current so that they can provide their clients with professional competency and expertise. While supervision is a critical way to enhance one’s professional development, it is encouraged that students step outside of that formal relationship and connect with other experienced counselors for continued growth. Encourage counseling graduate students to attend a new training, present at a conference, join a new professional association, or broaden their network by attending an event. Graduate students can network with their peers, professors, or experienced professionals. These opportunities will strengthen their communication skills and help develop their professional identity.
Self-Care, But With Others
Throughout the counseling program, graduate students are receiving excellent training on how to help others, but it is just as important for them to learn how to receive help from others. When their schedule is filled with their internship and classes, it can be difficult to seek out help and support in the moment. It is important that graduate students develop a strong support system that they can tap into whenever they need. When helping students figure out where to start, encourage them to start small—a mentor, friend, colleague, or classmate are all important people to tap into. Graduate school is a perfect time to practice this and build a solid foundation over time.
Graduate students who pursue counseling programs are natural helpers and healers. With the large number of counselors entering the field, it is critical that career practitioners provide them with support for both their personal and professional development. Ensuring that we provide them with the resources to engage in their first introduction into the counseling profession will help us as well. We will strengthen our own career development skills and knowledge of the profession as we support students who will soon be on the frontlines. As career counselors, we can all lead the way by “paying it forward” and guiding these helpers into a truly rewarding field.
1 Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cacrep.org/
2 Mullen, P.R., Uwamahoro, O., Blount, A.W., & Lambie, G.W. (2015). Development of counseling students' self-efficacy during their preparation program. The Professional Counselor, 5(1), 175-184. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.wm.edu/educationpubs/122/
3 Holm, J., Bevly, C., & Prosek, E. (2018). The Relationship Between Counseling Students’ Theoretical Orientation and Treatment Outcomes. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 11(2). Retrieved from https://repository.wcsu.edu/jcps/vol11/iss2/4
4 Conoley, J. C., & Sullivan, J. R. (2002). Best Practices in the Supervision of Interns. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology IV (p. 131–144). National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-03715-009