I loved school. No. I LOVED school! It was so warm and fuzzy and friendly. The long hallways, the new books, the teachers. The pillars, the brick, the courtyards. Having that feeling of being among like-minded individuals. The constant rush of eager minds whizzing by en route to some important destination. But of course, it does eventually end. And for some counselors-in-training who’ve fallen in love with Learning without ever meeting her sister, Application, the end comes as quite a shock. Just recently I saw a Facebook post to this effect: “Help! I start my counseling practicum and internship next semester and I need a site!” Yikes. But, you don’t have to be pushed out of the womb so abruptly. Being forward-minded can drastically impact your trajectory. Here are a few tips for securing your first clinical work: 1. Don’t look for an internship. Look for a job. In my mind, internships are for people who clearly don’t know what they’re doing, need constant guidance, and are strongly desirous of lots of work for little pay and cases no one else wants. What’s more, they’re for people who want to show up early, stay late, and generally have no life outside of work. I didn’t want any of those things, so I never looked for an “internship,” but for a job. If a job posting read, “Interns wanted,” I immediately skipped it. If I was going to do dirty work for beans, I at least wanted a real title for my resume. 2. The early bird catches the worm. If you’re in your last year of grad work and are just now thinking about this, you have my condolences. Get started yesterday! Something told me very early on that if I wanted any chance of working somewhere decent post graduate school, I was going to have to get my foot in the door early. So, the summer immediately after I finished undergrad, I immediately started applying for mental health positions that required a bachelor’s degree or less. The kinds of jobs for which I could apply varied widely from respite care for the mentally challenged to wilderness camp counseling (and trust me, I am not a “woods” kind of guy). I ended up landing at a therapeutic boarding school for emotionally disturbed boys, where my official title was “residential counselor.” Even though I had a bachelor’s degree in religion, I apparently had a leg up on the competition because I was already studying to be a counselor (remember to mention that!). This entailed overnights, working with profound disturbances, and adapting to a completely closed system. Guess how long it lasted? Less than 4 months! But it was the “in” I needed to actually start logging real mental health experience for each successive employer. The titles of my first 3 jobs in the mental health world were “Residential Counselor,” “Education Support Clinician,” and “Therapeutic After School Program Director.” 3. Think “underserved.” When looking for available positions, remember that there are certain demographics that tend to be underserved in almost any city – among them are poor, children, elderly, and mentally challenged clients. If you can’t find work with one of these demographics, you’re not looking in the right places. And by the way, the “right places” for beginners are usually public agencies with loads of Medicare and Medicaid clients, though in certain areas with larger rural populations there are private agencies that tap into the government market-share as well. And don’t get short-sighted here – even if you have little to no ambition to work with these populations (i.e., you only want to work with rich, middle aged people), remember that this is a means to an end. Plus, you might learn a thing or two, including that you enjoy diverse clients. 4. Market yourself effectively. And remember – they need you. Don’t underestimate your skill-set. At public agencies, a bachelor’s degree makes you qualified to do most entry level work. At least half the time you’re competing against people with only high school education. The fact that you’re now in graduate school makes you an even hotter commodity. To boot, entry level mental health jobs are tough to keep filled, no matter what kind of attitude you get from the HR people at your local mental health agency. The turnover rates are ridiculously high because the work is tough, the pay is crappy, and most people use the positions as a stepping-stone for better career opportunities. So, don’t underestimate your value – apply for anything you’re interested in as long as you meet the minimum criterion. And, while recognizing your own limitations and need to ask for help, jump in with both feet. 5. Get close to those you respect. Boil it all down, and there’s only so much shucking and jiving you can do get noticed on your own. By far, the best skill I developed was “knowing” people. As a graduate assistant, I got in the hip pocket of each professor to which I felt strongly drawn, and made it my personal mission to engage them in a meaningful way. So much so, in fact, that I simply had to trust that if I was bugging them, they’d let me know. I did the same with members in the community at large who I felt it would be beneficial to know. I’m not talking about using people or being insincere – quite the opposite. Pick people you really respect. Though you should probably remember, kissing a little behind is a necessary prerequisite to getting where you want to go. This is nothing new, per se, but it does go beyond simple “networking.” I’m not talking about sending someone a flattering email or asking for their business card. Noteworthy people are used to being doted over. Instead, ask them to lunch – your treat. Get their opinion on what’s going on in your life. Drop by their offices from time to time, or when you see them out somewhere, make it a point to talk to them, even if it takes them several introductions before they finally remember your name. The keys to doing this successfully are sincerity and frequency. If you’re insincere (i.e., “I’m talking to you because you can do something for me!!!”), the frequency of your contact is likely to net you little more than annoyance. If you’re sincere, but only contact someone a few times, they’re likely just too busy to notice. That’s my take on all this, and it really is what worked for me. Let me know what you think about these suggestions. Do they seem realistic? Are they new to you? What suggestions would you make from your own experience? Be well!
Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group. More at http://changegroupcounseling.com