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Ryan Thomas Neace Nov 26, 2012

How to Find a Counseling Internship: 3 Essential Characteristics

You CAN find an internship. Really!!! To some, this is the height of obviousness. They are well-connected by their academic program, family or personality, hard work, good politics, or just sheer luck. They’ve got any number of options come internship time. To others, this is the height of optimism. They are less-than-connected, by virtue of their online studentship, youth or senectitude, years spent in some other career, or just plain old bad luck. But even so – you can find an internship!

But we should start by asking…what’s it worth to you? Seriously. What’s this all worth? The $30,000+ education. The blood, sweat, and tears. The time away from family. The realization that you’ve chosen a career path that forces you to confront your own issues, or spend your life in denial of their existence every time you look in a struggling client’s eyes. What’s all this toil worth to you?

Because I wouldn’t blame you if you decided you’d had enough. If you decided that the effort and experience in counseling education was what you were really after anyhow, not the degree. If you changed from a clinical track to a human services one. If you decided that the career wouldn’t be as fulfilling as you thought. That this wasn’t your real calling. And that your struggle to find an internship thus far has been a proverbial shake of the Magic 8-ball, returning the bleak message, “My sources say no.”

And I’m not being patronizing. I’d understand.

But if it’s worth more than that to you, and if, come hell or high water, you’re going to finish this thing, I understand that too. I remember being there. And I remember really needing a lot of support during that time. In that light, here are the 3 essential characteristics of students successful in finding counseling internships.

1.Mobility: Willingness to Travel or Move

As I’ve said in previous blogs, the sheer volume of counselors-in-training looking to enter the work force at any given time may overwhelm the ability of a particular geographic locale to absorb. This isn’t rocket science, I suppose, but it is always worth restating because I still talk weekly with counselors-in-training nearing the end of their degree programs, frustrated in their efforts to find internships. When I ask, “How far are you willing to travel?”, the standard answers are quite revealing, and usually are some where in the neighborhood of “not” (willing to travel). Meanwhile, like most persons in America, many counselors-in-training live in rural or sub-suburban areas, with the nearest larger city being upwards of 50-60 or more miles away. It is no shocker they find themselves in a dilemma.

If you don't live in the heart of a major city, or in an immediate suburban neighborhood thereof, as a rule, you are going to have to travel or move if you want to complete an internship. I really wish this wasn’t the case. It would make my work with students much easier! But my experience suggests that by and large, there’s just no way around it. I do, very occasionally, meet students who manage to scrounge something up in their tiny corner of Iowa or Arizona or Georgia by sheer will and determination, but it is by far the exception.

So, if the local route doesn’t work, try drawing a 30-60 mile radius around your spot on the map (great tool: Start there. And expound your job search to those areas.

The most obvious “but” here is the price of gas. I get it. But my guess is that you’re not in the only one in your area who needs to commute to the next largest city. And, it isn’t like your trading something for nothing – if you’ve read my blogs before, you know I want you to find a paying job with supervision included. As students who’ve had to pay for supervision can attest, that’s a huge savings in itself. Imagine keeping your gas money but shelling out $100 per hour of supervision.

And if none of this works, you may just have to move. I don’t say that lightly – I had to move myself – twice!

2.Suggestibility: This May Not Look Like You Thought

Perhaps I should’ve started with this one. One of the most hand-tying characteristics of persons who are unable to acquire the final credit hours (internship) of their 60-hour counseling degrees is intellectual rigidity. They came into their programs knowing it all, they took classes knowing it all, and now, at the internship phase, they still know it all. They’re reading this right now and feeling their blood pressure rise. Their lack of suggestibility means that they have pre-determined what this phase of their counselor-in-training journey looks like, and no one, and I mean no one – not me, not you, not Irv Yalom or ACA President Brad Erford – is going to tell them any different. For most of the students I meet that fall into this camp, this rigidity is usually discovered when you suggest that, perhaps, private practice isn’t the place they’re most likely to end up fresh out of graduate school, and that they might actually benefit from a tour of duty through community mental health, in-patient, in-home, school-based, etc. settings.

And all of this is to say nothing of the official ACA position that private practice is not an acceptable setting for internships, both because of what can be a relative lack of attention and oversight, and potentially hand-tying financial arrangements. It can be a hairy situation when a private practice is getting free work from you but charging clients for your services, in addition to anything you may be paying for supervision. In short, having an intern on staff can be financially lucrative. The private practitioner is required to have the utmost scrupulousness to be able to provide solid, critical feedback regardless of the impact it may have on their pocketbook.

But I digress. The point is that really suggestible interns are the kind who can make it. They bump into snags on the road, but because they’re listening to people who’ve been down the road, suggesting different, albeit, sometimes difficult alternatives, they do really well.

While en route toward licensure, I worked in a therapeutic boarding school for emotionally disturbed boys (residential), in 2 different community mental health agencies, in the school system, in behavioral management, with a church youth group, in a therapeutic after school program, in a prevention-based family program, in a summer program for adolescents, in a court diversion program for first-time offenders, in-home, and for a counseling membership organization. Though I’m now full-time in private practice, it came after (not before) the rest. And I am really better for the experience. It helped me know what I want to do and what I don’t, what I am good at and what I am not, and just plain ol’ gave me clinical experience with a diverse body of clients.

Being suggestible to these ends requires that you hold loosely onto your vision of what this process is going to look like, and with an attitude of curiosity and hopefulness. Presumption usually leads to resentment and despair. This process is difficult enough without all that, precisely because it is an uphill climb.

3.Maneuverability: Taking Some Things Off Your Plate

While mobility primarily refers to the ability to geographically alter your approach to securing an internship, maneuverability refers to the willingness to rearrange your life to achieve your goals. As an online professor, I’m well acquainted with students who went to school part-time or online because they have 3 kids under 12, or because they already have a job working 40 hours a week, or because they’re caring for ailing parents, etc. All of these (and more) are perfectly valid reasons for taking anything but the traditional route to your graduate education. And yet, during this phase they must now be more directly attended to.

While you can arguably get all the required theoretical knowledge without being too massively inconvenienced, students effective in finding counseling develop within themselves an attitude and practical reality of maneuverability as they begin to consider the internship phase. This may mean long, hard discussions with spouses about their willingness to assume additional responsibilities, or getting your sister-in-law to watch the kids during the day for a fee that’s affordable but less than traditional day care. Or maybe you’ll need to process with your therapist (you have one, right?!) the implications of “letting go” a bit more with your elderly parents – visiting them 3x a week in the evenings at the assisted living center rather than daily. And bar-none, it will amount to a decision to begin disengaging from your current job, including the financial realities of doing so.

Ideally, fostering maneuverability in your life is something you’d have thought and talked your way through at the beginning of your counseling training, rather than the end. I always feel very badly for many of my students who don’t seem to have thought through it at all. Most of my them agree this kind of thing is a good idea, but still resist a bit, wanting to hang onto the dream of keeping their family, their finances, and themselves firing on all cylinders from now until they graduate. Surely, a statistically insignificant minority will pull it off. But beware – the longer you wait to begin developing maneuverability, the smaller your ability to do so. So, even if you waited too long, get started now. Better late than never!

I hope all of this is helpful. I realize that these characteristics in themselves are somewhat philosophical, but I’ve tried also to accompany them with some thoughts about practical application. In that vein, the last time I blogged I talked about a new community developing online for counselors-in-training to find counseling internships for a small fee. That is steadily becoming a reality, and will officially launch in 2013 at Feel free to check out the site now as it builds, or to write me for more information.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "All great masters are chiefly distinguished by the power of adding a second, a third, and perhaps a fourth step in a continuous line. Many a man has taken the first step. With every additional step you enhance immensely the value of your first." There is no portion of counseling studentship where this reality is more axiomatic than the internship phase. You must keep trying – it has been done by many less talented than you!

Please let me know if I can help in any way.

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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