So, you have either just finished your first year of graduate school and are preparing for your internship or recently graduated with your MA degree and are interviewing for your first “real” clinical position. If you are like most folks you find yourself feeling overwhelmed at times thinking about how you will find placement in a field that has so many in it already who have years more experience than you. You may also find yourself feeling timid or even scared at the thought of what you are getting yourself into after listening to some of us old grizzled clinicians talk about our horror stories from throughout our careers or (GULP!) from our internships or first few years in the field.
You have no doubt heard about having to deal with level one sex offenders who are carrying weapons, deranged homicidal fugitives who are hold up in a room and having to go in unarmed to extricate them or of trips to the emergency room after having to break up fights (clinical supervisors/professors can be tough. Imagine the stories we could share about our actual clients). So here you are feeling like a deer in headlights, hands possibly shaking and wondering if it is too late to get your old job back at the sunglass hut in the mall. Well, congratulations my friend, for perhaps the first time in your life I can tell you that this all makes you perfectly normal.
Some vets to the field will happily share horror stories with you. They will happily regale you with stories where they are one emblazoned “S” on their chest away from being a superhero. They may tell you about the hardest, scariest, most dangerous assignments and make it sound as if they eat fire and spit out lightening. I mean, who wants to tell you about the mundane parts of their jobs? Who wants to tell you that one of the biggest issues with this field is lower back pain from sitting or perhaps carpel tunnel from all the writing?
Depending on your placement you will work hard, extremely hard or psycho in a diaperbin crazy hard. You will learn how to juggle ten things at once, while sleeping and maintaining an empathic look about you. How do I know, well you made it this far didn’t you? You will likely go through a phase where folks call you baby, newbie, new meat, greengills or some variation. You will likely get the “suckiest” hours, the worst days and get stuck covering every major holiday until you have crows feet and own at least one “sensible” sweater. You know the type, it is a button down that is two sizes two big, has pockets in the front and leather patches on the elbows. Nothing says “I’m cool, talk to me” like leather patches on the elbows.
You will likely get the worst office and depending on your boss become permanently assigned to doing urine screens or sitting at the front line of the walk in help center while also maintaining the “my life is crap” hotline. You will do all this with a smile for what feels like forever (ten minutes usually is enough to cause that feeling) until you finally get your first “real” client intake. Hands slightly trembling from a mixture of excitement and fear you will start your first chart. Chances are that while you get your client’s history you will feel like things are going well but you just fell down a well. Headfirst. Blindfolded. In the rain.
You will see clients, possibly believe in your ability to both diagnose and treat; possibly doubt every move that you make. “Please don’t let me kill this guy” becomes the mantra of many a newb. Relax. This makes you normal.
Some of the clinical staff will great you with open arms while others will treat you like you just got caught trying to smuggle doughnuts into fat camp (don’t ask how I know. Let’s just say that I was hungry and there was a bakery down the street. I wouldn’t say that putting a dozen bakery delights under layers of fresh lettuce constitutes smuggling but the director disagreed, though I noticed she didn’t hesitate to bring them back to her office while I was reassigned to latrine duty…).
The point is that this will often be a scary time. You will make mistakes, some clients will hate you, some will feel indifferent and some may like you. There may also be a few who “really, really like you” and you will handle that in supervision.
Be strong and carry on my friend as the days will get better. Starting something new can be hard but you have not shied away from hard work; you have proven that you deserve a shot in grad school. Listen to, observe, model, provoke, enlighten and enjoy this trip. Sure you could make more money at the sunglass hut, but in your new career you can and will make real and lasting change. I’m pulling for ya.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org)