This semester, I have the unique opportunity of co-teaching Foundations of Mental Health Counseling at my Alma mater. As ten students begin their journeys, I’m eager to impart the wisdom that I gained (and a few things I wish I had known) during my own studies. For all the new trainees out there, here are some guidelines for navigating your graduate school experience:
Meet your advisor during your first semester. Even if it’s a mere introduction, make contact with your advisor early in your studies. You never know when you’ll need guidance, and it’s much easier to ask for assistance if you’ve already begun to build a relationship.
Find short-term volunteer gigs with your populations of interest. Students often begin their studies with vague notions of what groups they’d like to counsel. Before committing to a placement site, get exposure to your population of interest to confirm it meets your expectations, especially if it’s an age group with which you haven’t previously worked.
Attend any workshops or guest presentations hosted by your department. Even on the weekends. A 48 or 60 credit program is no doubt intense, but your coursework will only cover so much. Workshops provide more specialized learning and often touch upon material that you won’t encounter in class.
Get to know your professors’ specialty areas. See an area that interests you? Stop by during office hours and start a conversation. Consider getting involved in research.
Take electives that will prepare you for your field placements. My curriculum included three electives. I debated whether I should take these early in my studies to “test the waters,” or if I should wait until I had a more solid idea of my focus areas. Ultimately, I decided to align my course selections with my placement sites, so that my classwork could inform my practice, and vice versa.
Experiment during your field placements. Take advantage of the time-limited nature of your internships. Are you curious about a certain presenting problem or setting (hospital, high school, adoption agency)? Dabble in it during your placements. If you discover it’s not your niche, you’ve only committed for a semester.
Get involved on campus, outside of your department. Graduate students often forget that they are part of a larger campus community. Take advantage of all the benefits your university offers, whether it’s student organizations, on-campus employment, tutoring services, or counseling centers.
Aim for a high GPA, not a perfect one. Here’s where self-compassion comes in. Even if you are capable of getting an A in each course, you probably have more on your plate than just class. Balancing coursework with field placements, jobs, family life, and leisure is an ongoing challenge, so be kind to yourself. It’s a skill that will come in handy for the rest of your career.
Christine Hennigan Paone is a counselor in training at Monmouth University as well as an aspiring counselor educator. Her research interests include creativity in counseling, multicultural career counseling, and pedagogy.