The space between graduation and full licensure is a complex period in our field. After internship, many interns hope they have found a site that they can stay on at and complete their post-grad hours, while others may want or need to find a new site. From my experience, this period can be stressful and fraught with adjustments. Oftentimes, students transitioning from interns into postgraduate clinicians have to adjust their expectations of the field as well as themselves, conduct self-evaluations on what they have learnt about themselves and their interests from practicum and internships, and consider the opportunities available to them for placement.
I was hopeful to stay where I had interned but between spacing and budget issues, commuting and other responsibilities, this was not possible. It then became extremely difficult finding a site. I view this phase as a catch-22. Why? Most positions that I found wanted you to have at least 2-3 years post-graduate experience while maintaining an associate license, such as Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) in New Jersey. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many individuals graduating from their Master’s program. Another issue was that a lot of positions were looking for fully licensed individuals who can operate independently; this was especially true for full time positions. The other dilemma that I came across was finding sites that seemed as if they would offer consistent weekly hours but it did not work out in this way. New Jersey allows post-graduate students who are seeking the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) license six years to complete the clinical post-graduate hours. At first, I could not understand why it would have to take this long. However, throughout my own experience, I have definitely answered this question for myself. Also, I am grateful for this time as well as I did not factor in life. Within the first year of graduation, my family experienced some tragedies which immediately required me to take some time off. In addition, the above combination of scenarios have been some things I have experienced in my quest to complete my clinical hours. They have definitely prolonged my journey. Below, I discuss some of the things I have learnt in my journey to complete licensure. I still have about 3 of the 6 years to go and I am sure that the rest of the journey will teach me so much more.
The Path Following Licensure
Working on post-graduate clinical hours has been a challenging experience. In a way, I guess I wish I had more information on the process prior to starting the journey. For myself, when I started my program, I did not know anyone that was doing the program in my state. So I suppose my expectations were limited. I feel that this was the first issue for me. Working as an LAC now, I have spent a lot of time reading and researching, and adapting to the changes within the profession and also my state. During my internship, I found it necessary to do a lot of reading and researching also for myself. I started my Master’s at a brick-and-mortar school, Seton Hall University, and enjoyed being surrounded by others with similar interests. I eventually moved to an online program at Capella University for a variety of reasons. Maybe because of this move, I recognized the importance of being fully informed on the events going on within my chosen field. I had no choice but to be in constant communication with the licensing board, with my school and, and eventually the professional communities, such as American Counseling Association (ACA) and New Jersey Counseling Association (NJCA). I have found that many incoming individuals to the field have varying kinds of expectations, which is no different than I was. However, the unwillingness to learn and adapt is surprising to me. This is a field that is constantly changing as it is directly impacted by national and state regulations, not to mention varying ethical codes.
I have also had to adjust my views on this phase. When I initially graduated with my degree, my expectation was to obtain a full-time position right off the bat. I have realized that this is much more difficult than expected. I realized that I had to adjust my plan to complete my hours. I also recognized that I may start off in a particular position but that I may not complete my hours at that facility. There were a lot more curves in the road than anticipated. I also had to remind myself not to get discouraged because I had thought the hardest part was getting to graduation, I had sorely been mistaken. I can truly say that this phase has really been a defining experience for me. I began to understand the highs and lows of this profession. I also began to develop my identity as a counselor which did not come from the schooling experience as I thought it would have. One of the best gifts, this experience has given me has been cementing my purpose. There were definitely moments where I doubted my decision, but through it all, I really began to understand my purpose and this ongoing experience has cemented my decision to choose this field. For this, I am most thankful.
In this phase, I have had to constantly remind myself to think outside of the box and to be willing to color outside of the circle. During my own internships and working with interns now, I recognize that we have not been taught what to do with our degrees once we graduate. Yes, we will now be working towards licensure so that we can operate independently under our own licenses, but what area will we be operating in? This is another area where expectations and views are easily misunderstood. The general expectation that everyone seems to have is that we will obtain our licenses and then move towards private practice. Well, what if we don’t actually want to work as a private clinician? Are there not alternatives? For me, private practice is not something I aspire to. Additionally, I feel that we are skipping a whole step in the process. I, for one, want to work in a variety of settings so that I can learn and understand the different steps of care within this field. I feel that understanding these different types of care can help us understand the clients we seek to service in a different way.
Furthermore, from a business background, private practice is not just counseling; this is basically a business. I find that many of the people who are rushing to private practice have no experience in running a business. Ninety-nine percent of start-ups fail; so if we are all rushing into private practice with only the mind-set of a counselor, how do we succeed in private practice? Bryan G. Stare noted in his November 2015 article, Business Practices for the Beginning Counselor, information is limited regarding managing the business aspects of private practice. If new counselors are certain they want to go into private practice, where can they go to obtain information on the necessary steps to create a successful practice? In this setting, they are responsible for all areas of the business. How does one create an effective business plan? How many clients per week is needed to offset operating costs. How many clients are needed to make a profit so that counselors are able to successfully maintain a private practice? How do you build up clientele? What marketing initiatives should be undertaken? How do you get on insurance panels? Should insurance be accepted? Insurance payments can be delayed, how will this affect the business? What about client cancellations? How can social media be utilized to reach potential clients? Where can supervision or peer support be obtained? There are a plethora of things to consider. Also, for clinicians who did not go the private practice route or maybe the lecturer route, what are somethings they did or what are some areas they made their niche? Career pathways in this field deserve much more research and more awareness. Additionally, if counselors who have been able to become successful in this field would be willing to mentor new clinicians, I think this would change the way interns and post-graduate clinicians view the field. There is definite confusion about career pathways following licensure.
I recognize that private practice is a goal for many. And for others, this is not the route. During practicums and internships, and post-graduate experience, we have to be willing to think outside of the box. We have to be willing to pursue different options and different avenues. For example, in-home therapy was not something I would have ever considered a couple years ago. Now, when job searching, it seems to be the position that shows up in every search I do. At this phase, my goal is to complete licensure while considering agencies that I would like to work for after licensure. We also have to be willing to consider ways to market ourselves and differentiate ourselves. This is one of the reasons I pursued this blog. This is one way I can begin to build my platform and career. Working on this blog also requires me to explore the situations that I come across, conduct research on various topics, and expand on my clinical skills, and also my professional identity.
In closing, I am hoping that more new counselors will be willing to talk about their own experiences, difficulties and positives about the space between graduation and complete licensure. I believe that this is a growth phase as we begin to take the lessons and experiences learnt throughout our educational training into the real world. Here, we have to adjust our expectations and understandings about this field we have chosen to operate in as we learn and grow. I also hope that more experienced clinicians would be willing to mentor new clinicians as I believe we can all learn something from each other. This is a field that has been consistently growing and evolving and we all have to adapt to be successful and provide continued support for the clients we work with.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.