ACA Blog

Feb 07, 2013

What’s Wrong with the Counseling Intern Picture?

Frequently, I get contacts from students panicked, sometimes legitimately, over one internship thing or another. I try to help in any way I can, but often, my answers may have a similar ring to them. It lead me to start wondering, both from the perspective of counseling interns and the perspective of the counseling industry’s culture toward them, what is wrong with this picture?

Here’s an email I got recently from a student:

(Only identifying information has been changed – the rest is verbatim!)

Hi Ryan,

I’m a desperate mental health counseling graduate student attending an online school. I have been searching, calling, emailing, and visiting potential internship sites with no success. I was a bit disappointed when none of the ten agencies I called returned my call, so I moved onto emailing directors. Again, no replies. I then went out to five different places (portfolio in hand) and was ignored or put off. Honestly, I am surprised that my future colleagues have been so rude and unresponsive.
A little about me: I have a 4.0, member of Chi Sigma Iota, have little work experience in the mental health field but a strong work history in administration and accounting. My schedule is very flexible, I’m willing to travel and I’m open to a practicum/internship anywhere at this point. I conclude my classwork in May and I am supposed to begin practicum this summer.

I am very worried that my graduation will be delayed. The word from other students in my town is that the local university has it in with all the agencies and they do no consider others. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. Any insight or assistance you can offer will be very much appreciated!


From my vantage point, there are at least 2 problems here.
• Part 1: How interns should be oriented regarding this sort of scenario.
• Part 2: Needed changes in intern culture in the counseling profession.

Part 1:

I still can’t get over how many of these kinds of emails I get. I mean, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. And as the above example makes clear, they are from bright, capable people. It’s not like this is the bottom of the barrel. I guess this should come as no shocker, given that Google finds itself the lucky recipient of some 10,000 global searches per month for counseling internships. So, what causes all this?

I’ve been accused of oversimplifying things before. That could be true. But I don’t think this is really that complicated. If I had to pick a consistent theme among all the contacts I get from would-be-counseling-interns, one item stands out head and shoulders above the rest. You cannot wait until the end of your counseling studentship to find and secure an internship. You must start that process now, and start working in the field.

Imagine the difference at the end of your counseling studentship if you’ve already been working in the mental health field. You’d have:
• An inside track – most agencies release vacancies to internal staff prior to the general public.
• An implicit network – working for a community mental health practice, for example, you’ll likely be in an and among some 100-500 other mental health practitioners!
• Experience (potentially leading to QMHP status) – students are always perplexed by this question: how do I get a counseling internship if it requires 1-2 years experience? Answer: You start several years earlier in a position that does not require it.
• Connection to other agencies – again, speaking primarily of community mental health (the largest employer of interns), most agencies are part of a network of other like agencies within 100 miles or so. This naturally increases the pool of job openings available to you!

Again, you must get your foot in the door now. Not tomorrow, not next semester, not next year. Now. If you’re working in some other industry full-time and going to school part-time and are otherwise occupied with life, something is going to have to give if you don’t want to find yourself in this position.

But, I pedal this message all the time. If you’ve read my other blogs, you already know that. Usually, there are 2 responses:

• You’re right! There’s no way I should’ve expected this whole thing to accommodate me. What was I thinking?!? Oh, wow. I’ve got a lot of decisions to make.
• You’re not being practical. I’ve got kids, a full-time job, and a house to take care of.

Both of these responses are absolutely correct. I am right, and I’m not being practical, if practical means trying to find a way that you can do everything you’re already doing and find yourself in a position to complete an internship at the same time. But the belief you could do such a thing is itself impractical, because no counseling agency worth working for is interested in hiring a person who can only devote a tiny fraction of their overall work week, and then only if it suits their schedules. From a counseling intern employer perspective, the cost of acquiring, supervising, and administrating for you is simply not worth the investment.

If this is you, I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just say it and the risk of incurring some angry responses – you’ve got to wake up. There are 100+ people applying for most counseling internship opportunities you find. Part of the reason is so helpful is that it gives you a much larger pool of opportunities to choose from, thus lowering the number of likely applicants. But even then, as I told the panicked student above – you’ve got to find out what this is worth to you and find it out now. Decide to make whatever sacrifice is necessary, and start prepping work, parents, spouses, children, family, friends, your church, your civic organization, etc. I think the best possible approach is just to ask for help.

Note: If you decide to have a conversation with your current, non-mental health, full-time employer, you might get fired, so use caution and seek specific counsel. But otherwise, and sometimes even then, you might be surprised just how much help you get by asking. But that’s the thing – most would-be-counseling-interns are looking for the mental health industry to bend to accommodate them. To be fair, I think it ought to (see Part 2), but thus far, it is not doing so. So, you must be willing to bend, and those around you, supporting you, will often be willing to bend as well. Try stacking the responsibility to accommodate this thing on your side, and on the side of those who say they love and respect you.

“Hey guys, I wanted to talk with you about the internship phase of my program coming up. I’m going to have to make some hard decisions about my time, because I really want to finish my program and step into my calling to help others. Intern sites are generally looking for people who can dedicate themselves to the task. I’m wondering if you could help me think through how I should best orchestrate my time.”

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of, and helps counselors-in-training and student counselors find internships and direction in clinical practice. Find a counseling internship now at

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  1. 12 Liz 20 May
    Counselors help future counselors. We all went through the process. Colleges and certification rules create the procedures for interns to follow. A full time job is needed to pay for school.  I shouldn't have to tell you this.  Mentors provide service to the profession and are usually offered free college courses or money. Stop thinking so much of yourself to write a column about what is wrong with interns. Just say no and move on. You will be doing a service for the future counselors.
  2. 11 Liz Snow 15 Jul
    I agree with Liz.  This article does not help interns.  The reality is that the system is set up to make it increasingly difficult to 1) make a living while paying $200-$300 a month for a supervisor, 2) find a facility who will hire new graduates without clinical experience (most if not all jobs require a master's and intern license), and 3) the long term prospects are not as great as let us say a psychologist or a social worker.  Why is this profession even still around, is the real question.  In fact, why was the LPC profession even created at all? 
    This article is critical of the intern when all they try to do is follow the racket and rules with little help from the ones who have been there.  
  3. 10 Merce 06 Aug
    I agree with Liz and Liz. This article only points a critical finger at counseling interns without providing the help that that many of us, like the student, are asking for. First and foremost, having to choose between a full time job, school and an internship is completely false. I've done it once, and have only one option to continue this route until I graduate. Every single one of my professors that I've ever spoken to can do nothing but relate to juggling a demanding school load, a tiring work load and a confusing and stressful internship load. It's difficult, but creates a well rounded, hard working and successful individual in the end (if only the end could come a little faster!) The only thing wrong with the counseling intern picture is this article.
  4. 9 Damita DeFreece 03 Jan
    My issue is that as up coming counselors in this field I too have an issue with Internships. I even tried asking about an internship with a Psychologist and was told that I have to be working on a degree in Psychology.  This is getting ridiculous especially when NYS requires hours and training before taking state boards.  When is NYS going to help people like us and OPEN doors for us to get the training. I too have a full time job to support myself and no where to turn to help in this area. So where and how are we supposed to get the help and follow procedures when no one wants to help us. I have been searching for some great period of time with no luck or resources!
  5. 8 M 13 Jan
    I see that the responses are exactly as you described. I agree that it's important to get your foot in the door long before the end of your classroom time. Get into case management, or a unit tech/staff position at a mental health center, not necessarily a 'counseling' position, but one that puts you in the middle of the field where you want to end up when you complete school. I worked at a substance abuse treatment facility as a case manager, and I currently work as a case manager at a community mental health agency. In my state, Certification requires a BS, several days training, $25, and proof of employment at a contracted mental health provider. You get experience working with clients, using many of the same skills you would as a counselor, it affords you the opportunity to practice psychosocial rehabilitation groups (I conduct several each week with groups of 4-12 depending on attendance). When I complete my classwork, I will do my internship here, while continuing to complete my case management duties, and continue to receive the same 36k salary and full benefits I have now. It's not rocket science people, yes school, life, etc etc. are taxing. I'm full time school online, full time job, 4 kids, a household to manage, etc. It can be done.  
  6. 7 Donna 16 Mar
    I had searched for a site nearly two years before graduation. Got one, but one hitch, I discovered a state registered intern was not using evidence based practice during my practicum. I discussed my concerns with my practicum instructor. From this point forward it became a reporting issue. Now a year latter no one in two counties will take me on as an intern to finish my degree. I have been up against so many people for placement, hit so many walls, attempted to connect and reach through advocating, and nothing. I mean not one person is willing to offer me an internship till I have graduated! I was even told by several people I needed to learn how to "keep quiet" and that I would never get placement in my county since the reporting issue. These are statements coming directly from other professionals who knew about the reporting issues. Compound this with my CACREP school being an online school, completed all course work, and no job I am exhausted. I had a placement and lost it all because I kept to the ACA Ethical Standards (which I do NOT regret)  and a whisper committee, I cannot find an internship to complete my degree. What now? How do I rebound from this?
  7. 6 CJ 27 Apr
    Quite honestly, this is where a lot of researching, planning, and budgeting BEFORE you start down the counseling education and licensing path will come in handy. It is possible to work and do your internship hours. You may not get the max to put toward your supervised licensing hours but that's a sacrifice and balance you have to accept if you want to be a licensed counselor. And honestly, do a CACREP brick and mortar program, where your grad program will find your internship sites and often have long standing relationships with institutions. I promise it'll be so much better in the long run. Online counseling degrees are missing a critical component - valuable in person interactions with your professors and classmates. I was given some great advice as a grad student - do your focus in school counseling (more jobs, higher income, and qualifies for LPC residency) and pick up evening and weekend hours at a private practice or community agency. 
  8. 5 Joan 27 Apr
    As an internship coordinator for a counseling program, I agree with this article. I have had students scoff at internship sites that were willing to host them but were 45 minutes away, or weren't with the exact population of clients the student wanted (but did offer evening and weekend hours and were highly recommended by former interns). Students need to remember that it is a short term commitment for an internship and they need to be flexible with their schedule and with their expectations. 
  9. 4 Tennelle 02 May
    I understand business is business however my problem with being an intern I find that my "mentors" or employers are cold and it appears that they lack compassion to the interns, I don't just see this as a problem for interns but for employees. It seems that business tend to forget their humanity. We work hard to complete our coursework while balancing a family and a 9-5 job. We are looking for assistance in the field because although we are trained technically there is nothing like being in the workplace and learning what school doesn't teach us. Such as many of the revolving medicaid policies. I believe we have major burnout not necessarily because of the clients we deal with but because of the lack of compassion from those whom have gone before us. I am not asking to be babied but it would be nice to have a program that assist in new counselors in guiding them with compassion in the work place. My family changed everything to help me get through this far and I almost died 2x due to unforseen medical issues during my program as well as lost several family members and I push through but when I entered into the work for I was couldn't believe the experience I had with those I looked to help me with entering into a career I am passionate about. I have even seen it in the way we handle cases. It is almost like we have to turn off our emotions just to survive this career. I refuse to do so and I will not bend. I hope to one day start my own organization and to b able to be the change I want to see. Until then I will keep pushing through until I get there. 
  10. 3 Faith 07 May
    I too have been seeking an internship program for over 2.5 years in the field of marriage and family therapy. Now, I've completed all my course requirements and is still find it rather challenging to get a position in this field.  I work full-time as a public school teacher which supports myself only.  I've read most of the previous emails and they express my concerns as well.  It's quite frustrating. But I keep hope alive by praying and believing that it will happen very soon.  But I'm very thankful for this forum to express my thoughts.  Much success!
  11. 2 Eva 08 Jun
    I am a clinical supervisor at a major counseling center that has on average 14 student interns and volunteer counselors working towards full licensure. We receive several applications for internship positions daily. As any prospective employer, we look for outstanding candidates. By the way, your GPA is meaningless to us.
    So what is an outstanding candidate?
    You have done your personal work. You are your instrument in counseling. You are committed to the profession and are willing to do more than clock your required hours. Extra skills, specially being bilingual in Spanish is a huge plus. Training in some modality as SE, TBRI, EMDR, IFS, etc. Some theoretical grounding as well that aligns with the agency's mission statement. Professionalism. Strong interpersonal skills. A questioning and open mind. Warmth. The ability and willingness to stretch beyond your comfort zone. Cultural competency.
    Counseling students need to understand that their master's degree is the bare bones and it is their job to build everything else on their own.
    You have rough competition and it is your job to prepare for that.
  12. 1 Nancy 15 Jun
    Ryan, I greatly appreciate your coverage on this topic.  Luckily for me, I entered a graduate program that has a dedicated counselor and process in place to begin and monitor the internship process beginning with enrollment the first semester.  I never even knew finding an internship could be so difficult until I started an internet search for more information on the process.  Although all students must be wise and forward-thinking, it is also irresponsible of an online program to leave their students unsupported and not inform them of this potential dilemma from the beginning.  Because of the attention we received from the internship coordinator at our school, 100% of our cohort who applied for internship had placed by the recommended beginning time.  More supportive programs might be very helpful in the future.


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