*Things To Know* If You Are Thinking About Becoming A Counselor
So when I set out to begin researching how to start thinking about and planning out counseling career path, I hit Google. I came up with a lot of abstract articles, and very few that could give me basics of how to proceed to figure this all out. I’m going to be writing a series of articles to give people a really tactical, on-the-ground view of how the process went for me and what I discovered. I hope the next person will be the wiser and will fumble less to find the answers to at least some of their questions.
Also, I got A LOT of help via my networks, so thank you to Sabrina, Diane, Colleen, mom, and more for all the help here.
When I first started to take this career path seriously, I did four things to help me get to a decision of whether to pursue it (this was roughly a four-year process for me):
(1) I began engaging in therapeutic relationships myself.
This may go without saying, but there are folks who have a natural knack for counseling who forget this piece of the puzzle. Going through it yourself gives you an opportunity to evaluate if you could see yourself sitting on the other side of the table and if you think it’s at all helpful. For me, it also helped me define what type of skills and traits I found helpful in a counselor. Which definitely impacted where I chose to send in applications for my Master's.
The other thing I’ll point out here is that I think it’s also good to go after a very wide range of therapeutic relationships. I worked with a therapist who focuses on single-issue relationships, therapists trained in art therapy, an energy healer, a sound healer, and an intuitive healer. This broadness in my personal experiences was extremely helpful when defining a general direction to take.
Side note: Don’t let bad relationships with counselors deter you AT ALL. Some of these not so positive relationships were my most informative experiences.
(2) Hit my network and started informational interviewing anyone involved in careers with a therapeutic relationship component.
Informational interviews are absolute gold, and I’m so thankful that my friends and family handed over their contacts for me to chat up. Talking about your intentions and goals with people you care about can make some of these happen organically, but I also did do more directed outreach to my network over the years. I looked on my Facebook and LinkedIn for anyone already in my network who had this sort of career and sent an email to people I was close with for additional contacts.
I typically would start the process by introducing myself, who introduced me, the fact I was looking for a half hour to 45-minute informational interview, and my objectives for the call (i.e. learn more about counseling etc.). I would then look up the person on LinkedIn and Google to help me craft informed questions. The first time or two, I actually wrote down three to five questions prior to the call. I always followed up with a big thank you, and I did go back to some folks when I got accepted into Naropa's M.A. program to give them an update. I think that’s always appreciated!
One other suggestion: I kept my notes from these interviews in a million different places. I would highly recommend keeping them all in one place and including email addresses, who introduced you, the conversation date, and full names in each note.
(3) Leaned into my curiosity for all things healing.
This simply took budgeting and prioritization, which isn’t always so simple. It really took years before I fully understood that investing in workshops, training, and other experiences was a key investment in my future. During these years I did a weekend workshop on Ayurveda at a yoga studio, did an energy healing workshop, took a healing dreams workshop at Esalen led by two psychologists, attended the Brave Magic workshop by Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, and completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. I also read books, watched documentaries, did random YouTube meditation experiences, and finished other simple tasks to get a little deeper.
(4) Seeked out something that resembled it and see if I could hack it.
After going through all the above and understanding I had a genuine, deep passion for this subject matter, my next question was “can I hack it?” There are lots of ways to model this sort of understanding, albeit none will be exact. I found Crisis Text Line. It is no small commitment, and it is a worthwhile one. The training was six to eight weeks long and they require a year-long volunteering commitment. I learned tons about mental health and how to de-escalate people in crisis situations. While incredibly intense, I found this volunteering experience to be profoundly rewarding. I also actually learned quite a bit about different issues people can walk in the door with. The second organization that I volunteered at was Letters Against Depression. You respond to letters (even anonymously) from people who are experiencing depression.
One unintended upside of these four activities is that when it came time to do my applications, I had TONS to talk about and show for myself.
Here is some of what I gleaned (that’s universally applicable) from these activities:
(1) You don’t just have to be a therapist to help people through emotional and mental experiences:
- HEALER. This is anyone in the “alternative” space meaning sound, energy, intuitive, etc. healing. There are different education paths here, but often the healer is taking on a semblance of a therapeutic relationship with a client over multiple sessions. And the schooling is really up to the professionals themselves to direct.
- LIFE COACH. Typically, a life coach is there to help you achieve goals and not to resolve deep emotional trauma or mental health concerns. It’s fuzzy to me exactly what the line is because there are also people who could be considered counselors calling themselves coaches. However, to be a life coach, there is less schooling (sometimes none, requirements depend on the state) and similar to the healer category, the strength of each program is REALLY variable (some are really good, some are terrible).
- SPIRITUAL LEADER. Also a fuzzy line here, but many religious leaders end up in the role of spiritual counselor. It was explained to me as being grounded in how faith is involved in an issue, and not as a process of addressing the full person. You are just separating out the portion of the issue or growth that is steeped in matters of faith and addressing only that piece.
- CRISIS + ADDICTIONS COUNSELOR. I’m taking this moment to separate these two from the general counseling scope because the requirements (again likely different between states) can be less rigorous or require less schooling than other counseling disciplines. In both cases, you are dealing with isolated concentrations: a particular crisis or the addiction. These professions are more of a temporary kickstart and solve (who are highly necessary and important), but typically don’t dive into longterm relationships and change.
- YOGA + MEDITATION TEACHER. They are wonderful, impactful guides and can help you express, contemplate, and learn how to access new sides of yourself. From what I experienced, teaching these disciplines is about instigating self-help-type mechanisms within the individual. So you do get a sense of a therapeutic relationship indirectly and second-hand.
Side note: I didn’t look too deeply into each, so please take my words with a grain of salt. Also, there are likely WAY more options than I’ve outlined above, these are just the ones I considered or learned about in my process.
(2) The type of degree you decide to pursue will affect what you can be licensed for and your career options.
Being a total newbie to this field, I had no idea that the degree you pursued greatly narrowed your job opportunities thanks to licensing needs. This is very different in other career paths like marketing. I learned that social work is one of the most all-encompassing degrees you can get. It will prepare you for several different career paths including holding therapeutic relationships. I also didn’t realize that there is a different set of courses and requirements to be a school psychologist. As I was choosing which schools and degrees to apply for, I made certain to get clarity (by asking admissions folks) on which degrees would fulfill licensing requirements that are necessary for my desired path within counseling.
(3) If you want to test out what it’s like to work for pay in the mental health field, it’s WAY easier if you have an undergraduate degree in psychology and almost impossible if you don't.
I desperately wanted to get a foot in the door before I began my M.A. program. I spent months and SO MANY hours applying for all sorts of mental health, coaching, and wellness jobs. Almost all of the positions (even the lowest of the ladder ones) required at least an undergraduate degree in psychology. Even with a contact at an organization and relevant experience, I was not allowed to proceed in the interview process because I didn’t have the degree.
(4) Unlike business fields, networking groups aren’t really that much of a thing in this field.
I’d hoped to get my foot in the door by joining a networking group instead of getting a job. However, I struggled to find any networking groups in general and ones that would accept someone from outside the field specifically. I can now see the practical complications of networking in this profession: competing for a limited number of clients (i.e. saturation concerns), everything is confidential so there is little content you can actually discuss, and the simple fact that you’re talking to people all day already. These groups are a dime a dozen in marketing, so I was initially surprised to find the landscape so sparse and in some respects, nonexistent. Thus, it seems that any networking typically happens at continuing ed workshops. Those are great, but they cost money and sometimes are not open to the general public.
(5) Burn out is real.
One thing that came up over and over in my conversations with professionals is that this is a career where burn out is a real and present reason people drop out. To be a counselor, you need a Master’s degree, and that is not a cheap endeavor. Typically, it also takes some time to get your salary up as well. This to me indicated I’d better at least for now believe this was a longer-term life change. And I need to have my eyes and ears open for school programs and career options that would facilitate a dedication to keeping me as a professional counselor healthy and present.
I hope this is helpful! Next article will be on what to know if you are thinking about getting your M.A. in Counseling.