Things I have learned in graduate school, part one

Walking out of my Human Development class tonight, I came to that daunting realization that I will be graduating with a master’s degree in two weeks. This particular class ended a week earlier than my other classes, and experiencing my first last class of graduate school is a strange feeling. Denial is my favorite defense mechanism, and it’s difficult coming to terms with the fact that for the first time since I was two years old, I will no longer be a student. So instead of being productive and doing things like job searching, tailoring my cover letters, or working on the three papers I have left, I’ve chosen to do some self-reflection and impart my words of wisdom regarding the journey that is a graduate school counseling program.

Don’t go into this field if you are not 99.9% sure it is the right field for you. I say 99.9% because we can never really be 100% sure about anything, but you can’t enter a graduate counseling program just because it’s something to do. If you don’t feel passionate about counseling and are doing it to fulfill your own unmet needs, it’s not worth the massive amount of student loans and self-reflection. There will be times you question your abilities as a counselor and times you want to go home and cry all day. You’ll encounter some horrific stories, worry about maintaining your composure, and wonder how on earth you can help this person. You’ll make Bachelor’s level pay with a Master’s degree (or two), it takes forever to get licensed and you may have to pay for supervision, you’ll probably work more than 40 hours a week, and it’s far too easy to burn out. Still passionate about the field? Congratulations, you’ll probably make a good mental health counselor one day, even if you are questioning yourself. If not, save your time and money and go into engineering instead.

Know what keeps you sane. Do those things. Have some of those things be somewhat adaptive. My practicum, ethics, internship, and even career development classes have consistently emphasized the importance of self-care, and I couldn’t agree more. Regardless of how hectic things yet, I’ll make time to run because it calms me down, keeps me focused, and balances me out. So run, or write, spend time with the people you love, and do the things that make you happy. As far as unproductive vices go, I’m not your therapist or your mother, so we don’t need to delve into that.

You will learn the exact same things over and over again. None of those things will be on your licensing exam, and you will rarely use these theoretical concepts in practice. Like I said, constant talk about self-care. I’ve also learned more about Freud than I ever needed to know, despite the fact that my program is not psychodynamically oriented. Don’t sleep with your clients. Cognitive-behavioral blah blah blah. It’s not all bad though. If I didn’t have the necessity of self-care drilled into my brain, well, let’s not go there.

Time management, or seriously, finish your paperwork on time, it’s unprofessional not to. Other things that are unprofessional: consistently swearing in front of your professors or supervisors, showing up 45 minutes late to class on a regular basis, missing half of your classes and taking off too much time at your internship, etc. Perhaps this is reflective of my own countertransference, but if you can’t manage your time in school, good luck getting all your case notes done before your agency/school gets audited and you’re in big trouble.

YOU CAN’T FIX PEOPLE. Probably one of the most difficult life lessons and the one thing new therapists and clients both hate to hear. People don’t change unless they want to or are on psychotropic medication, and even that doesn’t always solve the problem. Your job is to help facilitate exploration and positive changes. Therapists don’t have magic wands that “fix” people; if we did, we probably would be doing that now, rendering graduate school useless. Therapy isn’t about a quick fix, and while certain interventions can provide temporary relief, the counselor can only do so much if the client isn’t applying lessons learned in therapy. Think about it – has anyone ever made you change?

Stay tuned for part two!

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