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May 20, 2013

The 2 Kinds of Counseling Internships Explained

One of the largest mistakes would-be interns make in attempting to find internships is very, very easy to avoid.  Here’s how.

Firstly, recognize what an “internship” is. 

As a rule, an “internship” is any employment opportunity you can secure that would meet the requirements of your educational program and/or state licensing board, and among other things, allow you to do one on one and group counseling under supervision.  If you think it has to be anything more than this, generally speaking, you are mistaken. 

Secondly, recognize what kinds of opportunities meet the requirements to be an “internship”. 

Generally speaking, there are 2 kinds of opportunities that would meet the above thresholds:

1.  Bonafide Internship Opportunities: 

This kind of internship opportunity occurs when a mental health provider or agency has hung out a sign that says, “Attention: Interns Wanted – Apply Within!!!”  In contrast to the massive volume of graduates coming out at any given time in a particular geographic locale, there are actually very, very few of these opportunities. 


At the risk of being offensive, when a mental health provider or employer hangs out this kind of sign, they might as well be saying this:  “Have you got lots of education but no practical experience?  Are you potentially brilliant, but needing lots of attention, time, energy, and effort to supervise?  Are you a malpractice risk?  Is your experience and education likely well below the threshold of the increased regulations now being required by insurance companies and the federal government? Apply within!” 

In short, hiring interns takes a special kind of person, a special kind of disposition, a special kind of training, and of course, a special kind of position that needs to be filled.  These kinds of opportunities are out there, but they are not plenteous. 

Paying, Entry-Level Jobs that Would Meet Your Program/State Internship Requirements:

On the other hand, this kind of internship opportunity occurs when an existing, paying, entry-level mental health job happens to meet the requirements of your educational program and/or state board’s requirements.  There are way, way, way, way, way more of these out there!


Entry-level mental health work usually means working with underserved, high-risk populations in difficult circumstances.  It usually means a salary lower than the equivalent of a manager at McDonalds.  In addition to counseling regarding items such as relationships, nutrition, medication management, interpersonal skills, boundary-setting skills, crisis intervention, etc., it may also include direct care activities like housekeeping.  My first job as a residential counselor at a therapeutic boarding school for emotionally-disturbed boys included recreation, trash pick-up, recess monitoring, overnight stays, and more.

In short, these jobs can suck, and they have a hard time staying filled.  If you are humble and motivated, this is very good news.  Much to my amazement, so many would-be interns I work with think all of this a tragic turn of the fates, usually because they had woefully misguided sentiments about what intern work would really look like.  Even for very educated, very experienced, very skilled therapists who’ve long been in the field, unless they’re working on 90210 (the show, not the zip code), there are very few jobs with swanky leather furniture and high-functioning clients where the most challenging therapeutic task is to ask, “How do you feel about that?”  For interns, I’ve never seen an opportunity like this.


So….here’s my advice.  (P.S. Read this blog about what “experience” is.)

If you have no experience in addition to your degree:

Apply for #1’s when you find them, but unless the practice is run by your Uncle Goober, don’t take it as anything but normal if you don’t get hired.  Don’t spend all of your time looking for them.  There are just too few out there.  Wrap your mind around the long game (i.e., graduating and getting licensed!!!), and apply for as many #2’s as you can.  Get ready to learn, if nothing else, about the kind of position you don’t want to work in for the rest of your life.  It will only last for 6-8 months, and you may discover quite a bit more than that!

If you have experience:

You are a step ahead of your counterparts, and will find it more worth your while to spend lots of time looking and applying for #1’s.  However, if you keep getting turned down, would it really be so bad to spend 6-8 more months working an entry-level job?  I think not, if you keep the goal in mind.

Let me know how I can help you along your journey!

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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