Your masters program will teach you theories and basic skills. You will also learn about substance abuse, human sexuality and how to do research. What your program is NOT going to teach you, however, is what to start focusing on NOW to set yourself up later to be a competent, well-rounded counselor. But after almost six years of clinical experience, I can tell you. And I will.
- Find a niche. The sooner you start to think about the area in which you want to specialize, the better. There are literally hundreds of counselors out there (visit your state licensing board’s website to find out just how may), and you’re going to want to stand out from the pack. For example, Florida has about 400 licensed mental health counselors. What will make people want to choose you? Do you speak Spanish? Specialize in LGBT issues? Start thinking about it now, so that you can start exploring those areas in more detail.
- Be prepared to deal with many types of issues. I know this sounds the opposite of what I just told you, but in addition to having a speciality you must also be enough of a generalist! People don’t always know what their issues are, sometimes new ones come out in the course of therapy. If you aren’t comfortable handling something other than substance abuse, say, then you’ll have to refer out every time a family or sexual issue arises. Although that may be considered ethical practice, it isn’t desirable for the client to keep having to see a brand new person for each issue. Therapy also becomes very fragmented that way. Not good. So be flexible, and be ready.
- Have a good referral network. There I go again, another opposite. But not really. You can’t possibly be expert in all things, this is why therapists refer to each other. For example, research shows that most therapists are not equipped to deal with sexual issues. This is where knowing your local sex therapist can be very beneficial.
- And know when to refer. Understand your limits, and be aware of when the therapy needs to go in a direction that you are not qualified to handle. This is where consulting with your peer group, or contacting the relevant person in your referral network comes in handy. They can give you a second opinion as to whether or not they think the client needs to be referred. But don’t over-refer either. Clients are very sensitive to this, and they may feel like their issue is “too severe” and hopeless if you have to send them to someone else.
- Don’t choose a personal counseling theory too soon. Don’t just jump into marriage with the first sexy theory that comes your way. Although your school will want you to develop your own theory, don’t allow yourself to get tied down too soon. Date all of the theories, then initiate a trial marriage before you forsake all others. If you typecast yourself too soon you will stifle your natural development, which will not only hold you back but frustrate the heck out of you. And who needs that?
Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,