August of this year marks 11 years since I graduated from graduate school with an M.A in Counseling Psychology. I learned quite a bit in those three years of higher education, and it was invaluable. I spent over 8 months in internship and 5 in practicum during my program plus 11 years of work experience after.
That being said, there are many things I was not taught and I still have daily moments at my full-time job thinking, "Why didn't they mention this?" I want to share some of those with you today.
Note: My experience may be unique, and most of my work experience is in community mental health, addiction, crisis counseling, and working with those who are criminally justice-involved.
Proud Parents on Graduation Day 2010.
Here is a list of things I learned in the last 11 years working that I was not taught in Graduate School.
The pay isn't acceptable. That's not a little-known secret. I now have a cushier job than most currently and am grateful for it. I was on our state health insurance for years as insurance through my employer was $1200 for myself and my family. Many community health organizations have bonuses or pay based on productivity- that's probably a whole post on its own. I needed to make my productivity in order to eat many times.
No two clients are the same. Although there are often similarities, learning about people with X issue or Y diagnosis hasn't been that helpful, and looking back seems a bit too generalized, like stereotyping.
The field has changed a lot. I didn't expect a "soft" science to be constantly evolving 11 years ago. I spend a lot of time reading, managing conflicting information and news.
If you have a job, it's often due to a political decision. I don't mean the usual jobs are all political, but whether they'll still be available in a year are up to local and national politicians. I wasn't able to find an internship in my field due to budget cuts. This is likely not true if you do private practice, more so for community mental health.
Addiction work is possibly the hardest. I specialized in addiction counseling in graduate school. Most of my graduating class isn't in the field anymore, and most of my friends who worked with youth have also left. That said, my School Psychologist friends are all working. The year I graduated, our state's Addiction licensing board sent out surveys, and the average career length of an addiction counselor was 5.5 years. I no longer do addiction-specific work; it's one of the lowest-paying fields, which is very unfortunate.
Not all counselors are nice people. Granted, I am sure this is true for every profession. I have ended relationships with colleagues due to racism, sexism, and inappropriate behavior. And yes, I have reported them, and nothing has ever happened.
Clients are the experts in their lives. There have been many occasions when I gently told a colleague not to dictate care if it isn't what a client wants. Clients need to be believed and heard, not questioned or told what to do.
Counselors are a dedicated group that struggles with boundaries. It's hard not to be affected by this work. I have worked after-hours many times, couldn't sleep due to a client's intake responses, felt sick, had a panic attack, and cried after sessions. I hiccup-sobbed into my co-worker's arms in a hallway once and cried in the bathroom at work more times than I would like to admit openly. Yet I returned the next day, and the next 11 years. I am one of many who enjoy the work, the challenge, and the successes I see in my clients.