Graduate school was a whirlwind experience, that, if I’m being honest, I was wildly unprepared for. As I entered my undergraduate senior year, I felt lost. I had no idea what my next steps would be. Many of my classmates had their first “real jobs” lined up already, while others were hastily working on graduate school applications. When I tried to seek guidance on what to do, I received mixed messages from nearly everyone I spoke to. I was going through the motions, preparing to graduate, with no real plan for the future.
After much inner turmoil, I decided to consult with my best friend, Sarah. On a tear filled phone conversation, detailing the uncertainty of my life, somehow I convinced myself to apply to the University of Baltimore. Looking back, I’m certainly glad a late night phone call led to the place I am today.
I’m writing this blog for anyone enrolled in a graduate program within the helping field. So, to all the soon-to-be therapists, counselors, and social workers out there… this one is for you.
There is a reason why this is my first of many points. Although I think of myself as a self-sufficient and precocious human, I also have no idea where I would be without the support and challenges that my most treasured mentor has presented me with.
"Research shows that mentees generally perform better in their programs and after they get out of school" than students without mentors, says W. Brad Johnson, PhD, a psychology professor at the U.S. Naval Academy." Students tend to get tied into the mentor's network of colleagues, and that creates more open doors."
1. The Path Blazer : “This type of mentor is an expert in your industry or chosen path and can dramatically shorten the learning curve for you. They share their "been there, done that" perspective and illuminate your category in ways that would take you years to see.”
2. The Sounding Board : “Anyone who has ever "bounced something off" someone knows it can sharpen thinking and generate confidence in or poke holes in ideas.”
3. The Success Magnet : “This mentor type serves as a role model for success as they've simply achieved so much. They do not have to be in your industry; in fact, it's better if they aren't so you get fresh perspective on the art and science of success in and of itself.”
4. The Campaigner : “The Campaigner is a dedicated advocate; they're a fan of yours and will speak on your behalf in the pursuit of new career or business opportunities. They're both a reference and referrer, connecting you to possibilities.
5. The Mirror Mentor : “This mentor type is someone you can count on to tell you like it is. They know you well, know your strengths and opportunities, your background, and your tendencies. They won't let you off the hook. They'll hold up a mirror to you, forcing you to see yourself as is and things for the way they really are. They will challenge you, insert healthy tension into your path, and serve as an accountability partner.”
In my experience, sometimes multiple mentor roles are filled by the same person. Similarly, the same mentor roll can be filled by various people. Each one supplies a unique gift that facilitates your growth.
2. Don’t Put Anyone on a Pedestal
This is easier said than done, especially in the role of someone just beginning their career. Even if you think your professor, mentor, or colleague is the greatest person that’s ever walked the earth, remember that they are still human.
“Even visualizing a physical pedestal illustrates what I’m getting at here. Imagine someone you deeply admire that you’d love to forge a connection with. Now imagine that instead of meeting and communicating with them on your level (which is their level, too — because we’re all human), you pick them up and place them on a pedestal so they’re towering over you. They never asked to be put there, but you felt like they deserved to be and took it upon yourself to make that decision for them.We need to create a safe space for people to be themselves, to stand tall in their authenticity, to form real connections, to mess up, to grow, to just BE without constantly projecting our own judgments and expectations onto them — and the only way we can do that is by leveling the playing field by reminding ourselves that we’re all just doing the best we can while we try to navigate this crazy, gnarly, beautiful human experience.”
They may inspire you, teach you, and encompass all the things I mentioned in my previous point. However, if you spend enough time with someone, eventually you will realize that they can and will make mistakes or let you down. Human error is something that gets the best of everyone.
It’s also important to remember your own worth. There’s a limitless amount of potential within you waiting to be released.
3. Don’t be afraid to seek out uncharted territory
I remember how quickly my eagerness and enthusiasm turned to anxiety and despair when I began seeking my first practicum site. My university had supplied a list of potential internship sites. I began researching the potential sites and then called the ones that seemed fitting. I couldn’t tell you how many voicemails I left that went unreturned. Several organizations on the list seemed puzzled and even annoyed with my inquiry. Nevertheless, I eventually landed a few interviews, only to be crushed with the disappointment of not being selected. I cannot lie… I wallowed and sulked for a while. I allowed my anxiety to spiral and I thought of every worst-case-scenario outcome.
Then, one day I was scrolling through Instagram and followed a suggested account, Space_Between_Counseling . I liked the uplifting messages and Frida Kahlo quotes. I sent the owner, Susan Stork, LCPC, NCC, an email, asking if she’d ever consider taking on a practicum student. She agreed to meet me for coffee to get to know one another and discuss the possibility. I cannot remember the beginning of our conversation but I do remember the end. I was disclosing how disheartening the processing of finding an internship site had been and she asked something along the lines of, “You do realize I’m willing to take you on?”
It was a call into the darkness that was answered. Looking back, it’s always amazing to see those moments that ripple into changes that ultimately alter the entire course of your life. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, or the safety of recommendations to find something much better.
4. You (probably) don’t need to take Your GPA so seriously
You are not a failure because you didn't score an A on your latest paper or project. Read that sentence again. If you’re similar to the student I was in graduate school, you probably are thinking “Yes…but…”. Stop it and soak this next part in.
While it definitely is important to study and absorb the information you are being taught, it’s still possible to be a very gifted therapist, even without the 4.0+ GPA. Your clients likely don’t care if you know about axons and dendrites, or the complete history of therapy since the days of Freud. What they do care about is if you care about them.
Obviously, if your future plans involve a career in academia, or a doctoral degree, you may want to keep hitting the books. Just remember to take time for the other things that are important, too.
5. It’s ok if your practicum/internship is different than your classmates
Many of the students in my cohort completed their practicum and internship opportunities at various agencies. They had full caseloads within the first few weeks. It took me nearly a month to see my first few clients. I found myself stuck in the comparison trap. My supervisor frequently reminded me to trust in the process. At the time, I remember thinking, “what the hell does that even mean?”
Nevertheless, instead of hyper focusing on the differences in experiences between my classmates and me, I learned how to work in private practice. I embraced marketing as a way to be creative and target my ideal clients. I learned to be productive independently while making space for deep reflection. I began networking with other clinicians and broadened my sources for additional knowledge and referrals.
Guess what? I started getting clients. Not just any clients, but people from the populations I felt passionate about working with. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled.
6. Go to Therapy
If you ask me (and many others), this should be a mandatory requirement for all people enrolled in programs geared towards helping professions. Having an established relationship with a therapist I both like and respect throughout graduate school and beyond was immeasurably important.
You’re about to become a support system, a secret holder, and symbol of safety for way more individuals than the average human should be. That’s some heavy shit. You need to have support in place for yourself, too.
Therapy for therapists holds all the benefits of therapy for non-therapists, and then some. You can work through trauma that may impact your work with clients. Perhaps you’ll discover some blind spots that need exploring. You can dump your weekly struggles and triumphs without tending to the other person’s needs for once. You can pick up some therapeutic interventions to utilize with your own clients. At the very least, it’s important for you to experience what it feels like for your clients to be sitting in that position.
7. Practice what you preach
Don’t ask a client to complete any task or exercise that you are not personally willing to do. Our well intentioned evidence-based interventions are not enough on their own. How can we expect our clients to go deeper than we are willing to go ourselves? We need to serve as an example to our clients.
According to Jennifer Hamady, “In order to share the wisdom of these lessons, we have to actually learn the lessons. We have to have ourselves transcended the obstacles, not merely recognize that they exist.” I’m weary of a therapist who has never been to therapy. I’m skeptical of someone who recommends an intermediate hot yoga class while they have never even stepped foot on a yoga mat.
8. Be quiet
It’s only natural that you’ll feel both nervous and excited to work with you first clients. You’ll be armed with text book knowledge and plans to drastically alter your client’s wellbeing. You’ll want to know everything about them and you’ll want to impart all of your baby-therapist wisdom onto them.
Here’s a pro tip… Shut up.
Only our clients are the experts on themselves. Let them talk. When you feel the desire to utilize self-disclosure, question the purpose. Utilize silence. You’ll be amazed what comes out of someone’s mouth if you create enough blank space for it to happen.
This principal expands beyond the therapy room. Take in what your professors are telling you. Listen to the people in your cohort during case consultations and class. While it may seem like their clients concerns don’t apply to you… they likely will one day. Hush and listen.
9. Avoid burnout & Practice Self-Care
This is something that everyone tells you in graduate school. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I read about or heard about the importance of self-care. And yet, I found myself, along with arguably all the other members of my cohort (at least at some point) completely ignoring our needs. We were drowning in over-scheduled calendars, readings, papers and other assignments. At times, I ignored my basic human needs like sleeping and eating. I put myself at risk for burning out.
Burnout, a term first coined by Freudenberger (1975), has three components:
Depersonalization (loss of ones empathy, caring, and compassion)
A decreased sense of accomplishment.
Burnout is the enemy of all therapists. Therefor it is essential that we participate in regular self-care to ward off this threat. Our self-care practices should not just encompass our survival needs like sleeping and eating, but also promote our emotional, physical, relational and spiritual wellness. Some ways that you can practice intentional self-care include:
Take regularly SCHEDULED breaks
engage in hobbies & interests unrealted to work
Attend routine doctor & therapy appointments
practice saying “no” when you don’t want to do something
engage in exercise activities that you enjoy
eat nutrient-rich meals
intentionally plan blank space / white space
attend to your spiritual/religious practice
spend time with family & friends
Take vacations & leave work at home
When you intentionally engage in self-care activities, you enable yourself to accomplish your goals with greater ease and better serve your clients. Additionally, self-care practices serve as a method to decrease your Allostatic Load, which may lessen physical and mental health concerns throughout your lifetime.
10. Remember Your Worth
Your time, energy, and passion hold great value. Remember that. Respect yourself enough to let go of people that refuse to acknowledge your worth. Remind yourself that you do not need to chase every shiny object or opportunity that comes your way, because there will be others.
Hopefully these 10 tips will prove to be helpful as you navigate your own graduate school experience. I’d love to hear from you in the comments if there’s anything you think that I missed.
Meet the Author: Noelle Benach, LGPC
Noelle, LGPC, works with individuals and premarital / pre-commitment couples as they muck through the challenges of modern day relationships, stressors, and challenges. She is particularly passionate about working with other helping professionals, college & masters level students, members of the LGBTQIAP+ community, young adults, new parents, creatives and professional caretakers.
When Noelle is not in the office, you can likely find her strolling through local festivals & events, sipping coffee at one of Baltimore's many delightful cafés, traveling and tasting new foods, spending time outdoors with her fiancé and their corgi and two cats, or listening to the latest episode of her favorite true crime podcast.