ACA Blog

Ryan Thomas Neace
Jan 10, 2012

Three Reasons You Shouldn't Go Back to School to Become a Professional Counselor

People are returning to school in record numbers. Graduate counselors-in-training are no exception. According to the American Council on Education, 62% of graduate and professional students are enrolled in Master’s programs. This should really come as no surprise. The economy’s in the tank. The phrase “job security” is increasingly an oxymoron. And the advent of online education promises to let you keep your current job and acquire new skills from the comfort of home with just a laptop and a dream. On top of all that, there are a hundred intrinsic reasons to go back to school. If you’re considering doing so to become a professional counselor, or you’ve already enrolled, you’ve probably got at least a few of your own of your own. Any of these ring a bell? “My current job is unfulfilling.” “I’m not using all of my potential.” “I’ve been ‘called’ to a different area.” “People always said I’d be a good counselor.” “All of my friends always come to me for help anyhow.” “I’m not making enough money.” “I always wanted to do more with my life.” “Working with people will just be more meaningful.” All of these are necessarily valid. And certainly some of them are likely among the reasons licensed professionals would list as their own initial motivation for going into the field. But if my experience with graduate students is any indication, there’s a lot more to consider. Amidst all the fun and excitement of new learning, here are some 3 reasons you might want to consider NOT going back to school to become a professional counselor. 1. The Thinning Wallet. Returning students should expect a ton of financial loss for the foreseeable future. There’s really no way around this, especially for part-time and/or online students, precisely because the number of scholarships and assistantships for such students tends to be far less than traditional students. That students regularly fail to consider this speaks poorly of entrance counseling for most academic institutions, but also of the short-sightedness of most students once they decide graduate school is a must. Using the graduate tuition rates for students at a Virginian private school in my area: Part-time Student Cost: $476/credit hour x 60 credit hours (the number associated with most states’ licensure requirements) = $28,560 Full-time Student Cost: $438/credit hour x 60 credit hours = $26, 280 Books per academic school year: $1000 x 4 academic school years = $4000 So, you’re spending over $30,000, not including repeating any courses (often required for the internship phase), professional organization membership fees or fees associated with liability insurance (though most organizations offer “student” rates), time lost at work due to juggling the demands of employment and school, etc. Maybe you’ve got $30,000 lying around…I didn’t. And most of the counselors-in-training I meet don’t either. Or, if you do have the actual cash, it is very likely to already have a designation. Student loans, you say? Not so fast. Current subsidized (need-based) Stafford student loans have an interest rate of 3.4%, and unsubsidized rates jump to 6.8%. Practically speaking, this means you could pay off $30,000 in subsidized loans in 12 years, 3 months at the rate of $250/month, and by the time you’re done you will have actually spent $36,715. Sound bad? It gets worse. Using the same monthly payment ($250), it would take you 16 years, 10 months to pay off $30,000 in unsubsidized loans, and by the time you’re finished you’ll have actually spent $50,412. (source: CNN Money Student Loan Calculator, http://cgi.money.cnn.com/tools/studentloan/studentloan.html) That just doesn’t sound smart, does it? Read on, MacDuff. 2. The Thinning (or Graying) Hair. According to College of the Overwhelmed: The College Mental Health Crisis and What We Must Do About It, graduate students are at increased risk for mental and emotional health issues, including suicide. This is true all the more because graduate students are more likely to be in poorer financial condition than their undergraduate counterparts (see Financial Costs above), and less likely to have health insurance. From one study in this work, 45.3% of respondents experienced emotional or stress-related problems that significantly affected well being/academic performance, and 9.9% seriously thought about suicide. This all seems particularly relevant in a career field where we’re asked to help guide others through the stormy waters of their own mental and emotional struggles. I am always staggered by the number of graduate counselors-in-training I meet who’ve never darkened the doors of a therapy room for their own needs, or even considered that it might be necessary as a part of their personal or professional development. Given the emotional and mental risks associated with graduate school alone, this hardly seems to follow. (P.S. - If you are slicker than most, and recognize your struggle as warranting therapy, remember to add that amount to your tab.) 3. The Thinning Career. This is perhaps the most important consideration, because it encompasses yet another layer of financial and emotional costs in addition to strictly vocational concerns. Time and time again I talk with graduate counselors-in-training who have frothy, peaches and cream dreams of exiting graduate school to obtain well-paying internships and/or first clinical work in private practice, all the while possessing virtually no clinical experience, no network, no professional affiliations, and no license. Except for a very slim, statistically insignificant minority, this will simply not be the case. What’s much more likely is that students will exit graduate school and find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, one of literally thousands of applicants for a limited pool of jobs. If a recent graduate is lucky enough to secure a position, this means they’re likely to work with underserved, high-risk populations in very difficult circumstances, which means tough work for low pay. To boot, many programs prepare students primarily for one-on-one work with relatively high-functioning clients typical in only private settings, while most entry-level jobs are with low-functioning clients in public settings. And what about salary? In my area of Central Virginia, a full-time clinician at a local public agency child & family division can expect a starting salary of $29,930 with 1 year of experience (roughly what an 800 hour internship will give you). Without that 1 year of experience you can expect that to drop to $26,851. If that doesn’t sound too bad to you, consider that a manager at McDonald’s with 1-3 years experience averages a salary of $38, 212. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? This consideration alone can be devastating for persons who already have a well-established career in some other discipline. The students with which I interact regularly lament their position when all of this dawns on them and they begin to consider the practical implications of leaving their current positions which may already pay $40-50,000/year. This is all the more true when they discover that their geographic locale may not be able to employ the sheer volume of counseling graduates looking to enter the mental health work force at any given time, and that they may have to relocate themselves and their entire families for jobs making less money. In short, the numbers just don’t add up. Again, students often somehow make it all the way through school with the impression that graduation will be followed by a horizontal move into counseling positions paying at least what they were already averaging, and that somehow their years of service in their existing career would net them advanced standing in the mental health field. Usually, this is woefully misguided. And, while there is typically a sharp increase in salary once clinicians obtain a state license, the road to that destination is typically long and wrought with peril. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, a state license is only issued with 4000 hours of supervised counseling and a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counselors Examination (NCMHCE), who’s “case study” approach differs significantly from the rote memory style most graduate comprehensive exams take. My own road to licensure involved 4-5 years of clinical work with literally 5 different agencies to piece together everything I needed to sit for the exam. The Bottom Line After four years of graduate counseling training, you are likely to find yourself at some $20-40,000 loss, potentially with interest. You are likely to have been like most of us during that timeframe – challenged to your financial and emotional ends, and at times unable to have met all of the demands required by your school, your job, and your family. You will have been at significant risk for the development of mental health issues, even if you went into your graduate career healthy (note: I have met precious few graduate students who fall into that camp – myself included!). You are also likely to find yourself in a worse position to be able to payoff the debt you accumulated to get to this point, at least for the next 4-5 years. So, if you find yourself at the front, middle, or back end of your graduate counseling student career, and find all of this to be daunting or even overwhelming…Congratulations. You are wise. If you find this causes you to do some soul searching and to consider whether this is really the path for you…Super Congratulations. You are very wise. Wanting to be “more fulfilled” or to enter into your “true calling” is admirable, but it’s worth asking whether pursuing a career in professional counseling for those ends is really worth it in light of the costs, especially if you’re already doing well in your career. A Caveat for the Faint of Heart. The above notwithstanding, I have no desire to unnecessarily discourage counselors-in-training or to carelessly shatter hopes and dreams. I understand the above paints a bleak picture. Am I saying you shouldn’t go into this field? No. But I am saying that there should be no mistake – returning to school is an investment. And let’s learn a lesson from the current economic crisis brought on by the mortgage scandals – you can’t get something for nothing, at least not for very long. Eventually, you have to pay the piper. And for students who’ve never stopped to consider the above, the cost is likely to be very high. If you are a student, my intent is to help you carefully consider the journey upon which you are embarking. If you are a counseling educator and/or mentor of counselors-in-training, my intent is to give you fodder for discussion with those in your care. For everyone, I do believe there are clever ways to avoid at least some of these pitfalls, and that planning can cover a multitude of sins. While I plan to return to more hopeful discussion about life as a counselor and counselor-in-training in future blogs, check out a few of the blogs I list below by myself and fellow ACA bloggers for now. They contain hope, inspiration, and practical advice you just can’t get anywhere else. And above all, remember the wise words spoken by that great academician, Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) in the hit 80’s film, “Back to School”: “Alright…but I'm gonna talk to that Dean. I mean, these classes could be a REAL inconvenience.” (Relevant ACA Blogs: • Ryan Thomas Neace, “Job Me! 5 Strategies for Counselors-in-Training Seeking Internships & First Clinical Work” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/01/31/job-me-5-strategies-for-counselors-in-training-seeking-internships-first-clinical-work/ • Anthony Centore, “Building a Six-Figure Counseling Practice: How Much Can a Master’s Level Counselor Make?” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/03/31/building-a-six-figure-counseling-practice-how-much-can-a-masters-level-counselor-make/ • Micah Walters, “Career Development via Holiday Gatherings” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/11/21/career-development-via-holiday-gatherings/ • Natosha Monroe, “Professional & Academic Pursuits: Fears are but Paper Tigers” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/08/24/professional-and-academic-pursuits-fears-are-but-paper-tigers/ • Christian Billington, “Do Your Own Work” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/10/18/do-your-own-work/ • Ryan Thomas Neace, “Three Reasons Why Counselors Should Also Be Clients, or All I Ever Needed to Know About Counseling I Learned in Counseling” @ http://my.counseling.org/2011/02/14/three-reasons-why-counselors-should-also-be-clients-or-all-i-ever-needed-to-know-about-counseling-i-learned-in-counseling/)

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

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