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Shreya Vaishnav Headshot Dec 21, 2020

Developing a Counselor Professional Identity

As a Counselor Educator, I encounter many of my master’s level students struggling with understanding the importance of professional identity within our field. Students often do not understand why counseling professional identity is emphasized in introductory courses. But with some guidance, I hope that you can begin to understand the importance of a counseling professional identity.

One of the reasons for this confusion possibly stems from a lack of clarity on why counseling is different from other professions. This is because, in most undergraduate universities, counseling is not offered as a course of study. Most students interested in a career in the helping fields take up psychology. As a result, counseling as a profession is seldom introduced to students until they join a master’s program. I was in the same position as a student. The only option I knew was to receive a master’s in psychology or pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.  When I was introduced to the world of counseling, the scope of practice, and Counselor Education in my master’s program, I was sold and never looked back! 

But what exactly is professional identity? It is the understanding of values, attitudes, and skills that make up the counseling profession with an integration of your personal identity and interests. There are multiple reasons why we should develop a unique professional identity. It is crucial for us to understand our profession, what we do, and its distinct scope of practice. Further, when interviewing for practicum and internship sites and jobs, those candidates who have a stronger grasp on their counselor professional identity will stand out from other candidates in receiving job offers.

How does one cultivate a professional identity? I have outlined a few steps that can be great starting points to explore as you work on developing your unique identity as a counseling professional:

  1. Understand the similarities and differences between the different helping professionals. This will involve understanding the scope of practice for counselors by getting familiar with organizations like The Council of Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and The National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) that develop standards and competencies for counselors.
  2. Explore the different counseling specialties and begin developing your niche based on your interests. This is especially important as you start to develop your own unique identity as a counseling professional. Developing a niche will help you stand out in the profession and in your community.
  3. Become a member of a few of the counseling organizations within your specialty. The American Counseling Association (ACA) has various sub-divisions focused on specific populations and interests. Other organizations include the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), the Association of Counselor Educators and Supervisors (ACES), and many more. This will help you connect and network with other professionals with similar expertise. The professional development opportunities offered through organizations are excellent means to hone your skills and further develop your specialty.

Developing your professional identity as a counselor is a lifelong journey. However, it is integral to intentionally develop this identity as it directly relates to who you are as a person and how you wish to be perceived by clients and professionals that you interact with. Hopefully, with these few steps to get you started, the next time someone asks you about your profession, you can respond confidently regarding counseling as a field and your own counseling identity!

Dr. Vaishnav is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Palo Alto University. She graduated with a master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Arizona State University and a doctorate in Counseling and Educational Development from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Dr. Vaishnav is a 2020-21 WACES Emerging Leader, 2020-21 CE&S Fellow, and 2018-19 NBCC Foundation Doctoral Minority Fellow. She is currently the co-chair for the ACA Graduate Student Committee and the Awards Committee Chair for the Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD). In addition to her leadership experiences, Dr. Vaishnav has led several research projects on the impact of microaggressions on students from marginalized identities and facilitated workshops on navigating and responding to microaggressions in academia. Her research has also focused on effective mentoring practices for students and faculty, strengths-based approaches in working with students from marginalized backgrounds, and social justice advocacy.


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