It’s been said that the only constant in life is change. Counselors aren’t exempt from that rule, as anyone who has made the transition from graduate student to new professional, from one job setting to another, or from practicing professional to retiree can attest.
Sometimes the change is exhilarating, as when landing a long-sought-after position or graduating with a new degree. Other times change is difficult, such as when starting over after a job loss. Although each person’s transition is different, counselors say change regularly offers both challenges and opportunities.
In 1973, Nancy K. Schlossberg left a position with Wayne State University to move to Washington, D.C., to become the first female executive of the American Council on Education. It was a great move for her professionally and one she very much wanted to make. So Schlossberg admits she was confused when she arrived and felt a little “discombobulated.”
Schlossberg, now professor emerita at the University of Maryland Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, couldn’t figure out what was upsetting her. She was intrigued by her feelings, however, and that intrigue led her to conduct multiple studies of people in transition over the next 35-plus years.
Schlossberg, who developed what she says is the original transition theory and has authored nine books on retirement and other transitions, believes people need to be reminded that change naturally causes discomfort, even if the change is one they desired. “People always wonder, ‘Why am I feeling some unease when this is what I wanted?’” says Schlossberg, who is also a past president of the National Career Development Association, a division of the American Counseling Association. The reason, she says, is because anytime a person’s roles, routines, relationships and assumptions change, it is a little jarring. It takes time to establish a new set of roles, routines, relationships and assumptions, she says, and that’s what the transition process is — the period of time during which a person gets a “new life.”
What makes the transition process unique for each person is something Schlossberg deems the four S’s: situation, self, supports and strategies. Situation refers to the person’s situation at the time of transition and whether other life stressors are involved, she explains. Self alludes to the “person’s inner strength for coping with [the] situation,” she says. Supports have to do with the amount of support a person has available to him or her during a transition. Strategies refer to the coping resources one uses. “The more someone can use lots of strategies flexibly, the better one will be able to cope,” Schlossberg says.
After years spent studying the topic, Schlossberg advises those going through transitions that there are no shortcuts to a quick adjustment. “Don’t give yourself a hard time,” she says. “You will get your new life. It just takes time.”
Counseling Today recently asked four ACA members to share what they experienced and learned as they faced professional transitions common to many counselors.
The move: From student to professional
Stephanie Adams credits her supervisor with giving her the advice she says has been most helpful in making the transition from graduate student to professional counselor: Respect clients’ abilities to heal themselves and control their own lives.
Adams, who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling from Dallas Baptist University in 2009, says one of the most daunting aspects of transitioning from graduate student to counselor intern to professional counselor was worrying that she might let a client down or fail to say the “right thing.” Her supervisor, Carol Doss, told Adams that counselors must believe in the power of their clients. “We don’t have all the power,” Adams remembers Doss telling her. “We’re not God. We’re just here to help as best we can, and if we do that, that’s all we can do.”
That view not only is empowering to clients, Adams says, but also takes some of the pressure off of her as a new counselor. “I’m grateful to have learned that I get to help but [that] I’m not all-powerful,” she says. “I can’t control whether someone gets better. People who like to help put the burden on themselves to fix everyone. [But] it’s not all about me and what I can change.”
If she didn’t see clients as capable and competent enough to overcome their own obstacles, Adams says, then she would worry all the time as a new counselor, constantly agonizing over her decisions and her clients’ problems. Counselors must have faith that clients can handle whatever it is they’re facing, Adams says. “[Seeing it that way] frees me to be the best helper I can be,” she says.
Adams, who is in the process of self-publishing The Beginning Counselor’s Survival Guide, which she co-authored with Doss, has spent the past two-plus years building up her reputation and skills as a professional. Upon graduating in 2009, she continued working as an intern at a family counseling center in Fort Worth where she had done her practicum during graduate school. Soon after earning her license as a professional counselor this past April, Adams relocated to College Station, where she opened a private practice in which she works with clients in Texas online or by phone. She currently works with approximately five clients per week, but her goal is to build that to 10 to 12 clients per week minimum.
Making the transition out of school was scary, Adams says, “because it’s all new and it’s the first time you’re practicing without a net, so to speak.” Adams felt fortunate to have Doss as a great supervisor to lean on and to learn from, acknowledging that it can be nerve-wracking for a student-turned-professional to start making decisions concerning clients on his or her own.
Having experienced firsthand that making the move from student to professional can be daunting, Adams and one of her colleagues, Diana Pitaru, started a group for new counselors called Counselors and Psychotherapists Network of North Texas. The group meets monthly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to talk about issues, struggles, questions, problems, successes and more. Adams also started a beginning counselor’s social networking site (beginningcounselor.webs.com) where newer professionals can help each other by sharing ideas and concerns.
One of Adams’ biggest hurdles in moving from student to professional was feeling unsure of herself and her abilities as a counselor. The only way to conquer that, she maintains, is practice. “[The feeling] never completely goes away, but certainly the knowledge that you’ve successfully handled a certain problem or certain kind of client before gives you added confidence,” she says. “Giving it time to see [the] benefits you have helped a client achieve makes a difference, too. When you can see for yourself that something you said made a difference for a client, it gives you immense satisfaction and confidence.”
Figuring out the practical aspects of starting a career as a counselor was also challenging, Adams says, including how to sign up for the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification and how to locate and secure an internship. Once again, Adams says she was fortunate to have a supervisor who helped her find her way.
Both in her internship and now in her work as a private practitioner, finding clients has been part of the job, Adams says. The noncounseling aspects of business, such as putting a listing on Psychology Today’s online therapy directory and seeking clients in a variety of other ways, can seem difficult at first, she admits. To sharpen her skills, Adams read multiple books and attended numerous webinars on marketing. She points to books by Lynn Grodzki and David P. Diana and blogs from Deborah Legge and Tamara Suttle as particularly valuable in getting started as a counselor.
Through her social networking site, Adams says she hears stories of beginning counselors getting discouraged when they hit a bump in the road. She advises students transitioning into professional practice not to take their slight incapacities or areas of needed growth and blow them out of proportion, allowing these relative “weak spots” to define them. “Don’t give up and think you’re not suited for the field,” she says. “You’re here for a reason; there are people you’re supposed to help.”
Adams also encourages those who are feeling stressed during a professional transition to draw on their resources as fledgling counselors and take the advice they would give to clients. “If you’re having an anxiety attack, sit down and deal with it and think of what you would tell someone else to do,” she says. “That’s part of being who you say you’re going to be. You’re not going to be perfect [at it], but try your best to be a representative of a healthy mental lifestyle.” She says this effort involves taking care of yourself and dealing with any issues that arise instead of attempting to suppress them.
Adams offers a few additional pieces of advice for students-turned-professionals:
- Allow yourself to make mistakes, and don’t assume that a mistake is a sign that you’re not meant for a career in counseling.
- Surround yourself with supportive people, both inside and outside the counseling profession.
- Allow yourself some flexibility, but have an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Don’t expect things to resolve themselves as quickly as you would like them to be. For instance, Adams says, it can take eight to 12 months for a counseling practice to reach full capacity.
- Don’t ignore any potential networking connection, whether it’s someone who can offer business advice or a seasoned counselor who can offer wisdom from experience.
With future clients, Adams expects she will be able to draw on the perspective she gained while navigating through this transition. She will feel confident in assuring clients going through their own transitions that it is OK if they don’t have all the answers right away — that they will find the answers as they move forward. Adams also learned during her transition from student to professional that when she found herself avoiding a task, it was usually due to a fear of failure. She discovered that the more she did related to whatever it was she was afraid of, the easier it got.
The biggest payoff in her new role as a professional counselor, Adams says, is feeling the satisfaction that comes from working with clients. “Working with clients is the reward for all the book work,” she says. “That’s what we get into counseling for. That’s what we love.”
The move: From agency work to private practice: Kimberly Leandre
Kimberly Leandre already had a dream of going into private practice. But when the agency where she worked as a counselor closed because of economic difficulties and budget cuts, she was nudged toward that dream a little sooner than she had planned.
For almost eight years, Leandre worked for the Southern Rhode Island Collaborative, where she counseled adolescents in an alternative learning program. In the fall of 2010, her job was cut from 40 hours a week to 12 hours a week. Then this past June, the agency closed completely. Before her hours decreased and again before the agency closed, Leandre explored a variety of employment options: fee for service, community mental health agencies, group practice, teaching at the local community college and private practice as a sole practitioner. She began a limited practice in June 2010 and continued to work part time at the agency throughout its final year. When her job at the agency ended fully, she weighed the pros and cons and chose to put her efforts into a full-time practice.
“My practice is going well and the schedule works great [with] having a husband and three very active kids, ages 9, 11 and 15,” says Leandre, whose practice is in East Greenwich, R.I. “I went from having no clue what ‘CAQH’ (Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare) meant to now being on several insurance panels. My transition has been successful, and it’s largely because I focused on the silver lining in the clouds.”
Leandre is currently seeing between 20 and 25 clients a week while continuing to build her client base. She admits it’s very different from her previous agency schedule but says she’s making her private practice work by offering office hours on weekdays as well as on two weeknights each week and on Saturdays.
Leandre has some background in running a small business — her parents owned ice cream stores, which she managed as she was growing up. Her parents still serve as a sounding board for some of her business ideas. In addition, Leandre belongs to the Rhode Island Mental Health Counselors Association and attended the organization’s seminars on starting a private practice as she was getting her business going. Topics ranged from billing and marketing to the pros and cons of insurance panels.
Leandre also says she read The Complete Guide to Private Practice for Licensed Mental Health Professionals by Robert Walsh and Norman Dasenbrook from cover to cover more than once. She started a website for her practice through TherapySites, got Healthcare Providers Service Organization (HPSO) liability insurance through ACA and has a profile on Psychology Today’s online therapy directory.
In addition, Leandre reached out to a childhood friend who works nearby as a counselor in private practice. Leandre met with her to bounce ideas off her and to go over intake documents. Leandre also keeps the clinician on her referral list in case she can’t take a client who calls in.
The initial process of getting clients offered a bit of a hurdle, Leandre admits, in part because it took her a little while to adjust to marketing in a therapeutic manner. Leandre recently printed brochures, which she began dropping off, along with her business card, to area psychiatrists and other doctors.
There is added pressure when running a business to make ends meet because you’re solely responsible for your own paycheck, Leandre says. Addressing the issue of no-shows can be tricky, but Leandre decided to implement a no-show fee because she knew she had to make her practice financially viable.
It takes time to learn the managed care billing process, she says, but it’s necessary to have the patience and make the time to navigate insurance panels. Leandre does all her own billing directly through an online billing clearinghouse system that she uses to organize her client information and notes.
Leandre says the results can be gratifying for counselors who are open to dealing with insurance companies, doing the billing, coordinating the scheduling and handling all the other responsibilities that go along with running a private practice. She touts not only her increased schedule flexibility, which she can adapt based on the needs of her family, but says it’s also rewarding to reap the financial benefits of her own hard work instead of working for someone else.
As she was starting out in her practice, Leandre says she often wondered if she was doing the right thing. Her parents, who were very supportive of her efforts and could draw on their own business experience, told her that new businesses needed to be given five years to succeed. “I would say in the beginning I was nervous, but now I am sure I did the right thing,” Leandre says.
When asked what advice she would give to other counselors considering a move into private practice, Leandre responds, “Read and seminar yourself to death.” She says she remembers walking out of one seminar thinking she hadn’t learned anything new. At that moment, she knew she was ready to start her practice. “It wasn’t that the [seminar] information wasn’t great,” she says. “It was that I had all the information already.”
In addition to attending seminars, networking and talking to colleagues in the field, Leandre recommends securing a good accountant and lawyer, purchasing private practice insurance and getting supervision. Keep professional development at the forefront of your brain as well, she adds.
Finding the right location for your practice is another important element of success, says Leandre, who works in a building with two chiropractors, a massage therapist and an acupuncturist. Although they don’t typically refer clients to each other, being in close proximity to other like-minded professionals who have a passion for health and wellness raises awareness of the range of services offered in the building and increases client traffic, Leandre says.
Among Leandre’s other pieces of advice for those wishing to transition into private practice:
- Have confidence in yourself and your skills. “Have faith in yourself that you can do this,” she says.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t rush in without first doing all your research and homework.
- Invest in an informative website. Research shows that letting clients see the environment before they come in can ease anxiety, so Leandre includes a photo of herself and her office on her website.
- Maintain a list of other practitioners to whom you can refer clients if you can’t take them.
- Be prepared to handle any hurdles that come your way, such as having the confidence to follow up with an insurance company if it rejects a claim. “There is no problem that is unsolvable,” Leandre says. “You just have to figure out how to solve it.”
Losing a job and being forced to carve out a new career path can be stressful and anxiety-producing, but Leandre says she succeeded because she chose to focus on the positive. That lesson is something she says she can recommend to her future clients. “I really do feel like when one door closes, another opens,” Leandre says. “You have to try to find what good can come from something that feels negative at first. It’s looking for that and staying positive.”
In her case, Leandre couldn’t be happier about the end result. “I feel like I’m living the dream,” she says.
The move: From agency work to academia
Ever since graduating in 2008 with a doctorate in counselor education from the University of Tennessee, Ellen Carruth had been actively pursuing a position in academia. But when her persistence finally paid off this past year and she landed a position as coordinator for the master of arts in counseling psychology program at the City University of Seattle, Carruth admits she was nervous.
After graduating with her doctorate, Carruth and her family relocated from Tennessee to Seattle. Although securing a position at a university was her goal, the economy was struggling and academic openings were far from plentiful. So, Carruth ended up taking a position as a clinical case manager with a local community mental health agency, where she and her colleagues provided medication management, case management, substance abuse treatment, counseling and a variety of other services to mostly low-income clients.
When Carruth reached out to Counseling Today in September shortly after beginning her position at City University of Seattle, her feelings were bittersweet. “While I am finally where I have strived to be, I feel lost,” Carruth wrote in an email. “I have spent the last year managing a caseload of 100-plus severely mentally ill adults. I spent my time making sure they had medications, food, shelter and basic necessities. I worked with a group of the most fantastic professionals I’ve ever come across — they were boisterous and loud, but their passion for their work and their clients was contagious. They were my family for 12 months.”
“Now, I will build a new family,” Carruth continued. “I am slowly securing my footing in this new world, learning about the unique aspects of this school and learning the culture of these people. As I move into this role, I am aware of the internal anxieties I feel, my tendency to almost fall into the ‘imposter syndrome’ and the incredibly steep learning curve ahead of me.”
Fast-forward a few months, and Carruth’s outlook is decidedly steadier and more confident. She says she feels like she has found her footing. She has begun developing relationships with other faculty members and is receiving positive feedback from her students.
Looking back, Carruth admits that when she first arrived on campus, she felt there was a pre-existing expectation that she knew exactly what to do in her new role simply because she possessed a doctorate. “Over time, I realized it’s up to me to ask the questions I need to ask and to be a little more assertive,” she says. “Part of my transition was learning how to get what I need from the people around me. It was also a matter of pushing through my insecurities [and] realizing that I’m here because I earned the position.”
While Carruth was working at the community agency, she didn’t give up her hopes of finding a job in academia and kept her ear to the ground. “Persistence was key — staying on top of openings and jumping on them when they popped up,” she says. “I applied for several but, finally, [with City University of Seattle], the time and place was right.”
Much of Carruth’s final month at the agency was spent ramping down her work and ensuring that her clients were assigned to new clinicians so no gap in services would take place. Carruth also met with her supervisor at the university in the month before starting there to find out what the expectations were for her position and to begin preparing for those expectations. Carruth’s position is largely administrative, but she is also teaching one lecture class and supervising two sections of practicum. She’ll also be taking on the role of internship coordinator.
Although Carruth felt an overall sense of excitement upon starting her new position, she admits it was initially a challenge to get to know and understand her new environment. She found herself trying to figure out the culture of her new workplace, how people interacted and where she fit in to the existing dynamic.
However, this transition ended up being easier for her than her previous transition from graduate school to the agency, Carruth says. Upon graduation, she explains, she held the expectation that with a doctorate, she would be immediately hirable for the jobs she desired in academia. When she took the position at the agency, it meant adjusting her expectations. But Carruth is careful to point out that although she didn’t realize it initially, the experience she gained at the agency was invaluable. “I don’t regret spending the time there at all,” she says. “It prepared me in a lot of ways to do the job I’m doing now. With hands-on experience working with clients with severe mental illness, I’m able to relate the course concepts through the experiences I’ve had.”
So Carruth offers other professionals a different perspective on not getting what they think they want right away: Although she felt like she was taking a bit of a step back when she accepted the position at the agency, in hindsight, she says the experience was priceless. “It might not feel like it’s where you want to go at that particular moment, but stick with it, and there’s probably a lesson to be learned,” she says. “Be open and aware to how you can develop professionally.”
Carruth, who serves as the community mental health liaison for the Washington Mental Health Counselors Association, says participating in professional activities and networking helped connect her with opportunities during her job search. “It can be a competitive thing to find a job in your neighborhood,” she says. “Be persistent, and that will pay off. Don’t give up — that’s my advice. If you want it, go for it.”
And when you land a job, Carruth says, persistence is still important. “Approach the new situation with a bit of humility,” she advises. “You don’t know everything you need to know about coming into a college or university setting at first. It will take time and persistence to learn how things work.”
In pursuing and landing the job at her university, Carruth says she learned that no one will chase you down — it’s up to you to go after what you want. And once you arrive at your destination and realize that the transition is ongoing, it pays to remain confident. “For me, it’s remembering that I’m trained to do this work and I have the skills and abilities to do what I was hired to do,” Carruth says. “It’s taking that leap of faith that I will be successful.”
The move: From professional to retiree
Charlene Kampfe loved her job. She had spent more than 20 years as a faculty member in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, and at age 66, it wasn’t in her plans to retire.
But the university was offering a tempting deal to tenure-track professors who had worked at the university for a decade or longer and who were 65 or older. Any qualifying professor who was willing to retire would be given a year’s salary in exchange.
“It only made sense to me to take advantage of that,” Kampfe says, “but I loved what I was doing and I was worried I would lose my meaning in life. I loved working with students and I loved feeling like what I was doing was important. And I was afraid I would lose that feeling of doing something important.”
After a lot of careful deliberation, Kampfe decided to accept the offer and retired from the university this past May. Despite her initial worries, by the time her retirement date arrived, Kampfe says she had thought through the decision and had grown to be at ease with it.
Although technically retired, Kampfe hasn’t slowed down that much. She has contracted with ACA to write a book about counseling older people, is working as a consultant, has published several articles and has a few upcoming lectures planned. The university also gave Kampfe emerita status after she left, which allows her to retain a bit of connection to that community and a sense of pride about her contributions there, she says.
The biggest hurdle in transitioning into retirement, Kampfe says, was the amount of preparation involved. “When you retire, the number of things you have to deal with is overwhelming,” she says. The preparation wasn’t so much psychological, Kampfe says, but instead rather basic. It meant investigating Medicare, Social Security, how to manage her money in retirement — even things as mundane as what to do with her sick leave.
Kampfe says her area agency on aging offered a variety of resources, including monthly classes open to anyone planning to retire, counseling services and individual consultations. In addition, Kampfe and a handful of university colleagues who were also retiring formed a group, meeting once every three weeks to share ideas, ask and answer questions, and troubleshoot.
Time to process the transition psychologically felt lacking, Kampfe says, because there was so much to do from a practical standpoint, from making benefits decisions to finishing up her classes to cleaning out her office. But because she was worried she would lose her sense of meaning in life, Kampfe did seek personal counseling, which she found helpful.
Counselors or any other professionals considering retirement should first examine their priorities by asking themselves some questions, Kampfe says. “What do I want? What is meaningful to me? Do I have enough money that I don’t have to work anymore, or do I need to continue? Do I want to work because I love working?”
If a decision is reached to retire, Kampfe says people must then determine at what speed their retirement will run. She suggests that people ask themselves whether they simply want to ramp down in terms of the hours they work or whether they want to stop working completely and just focus on “play.” For Kampfe, the answer was a mixture of new work as a consultant and author along with a healthy dose of play.
“If someone can’t wait to get out and play, then follow your bliss,” Kampfe says. “But if you’re going to miss being a counselor, then find things to do.” Those options might include consulting, grant writing, volunteering or a variety of other alternatives, she says.
In considering retirement, Kampfe says she anticipated the most difficult aspect would be maintaining her sense of self after leaving her job. So it came as a surprise to her when her worry didn’t become a reality. Instead, she has found that transitioning into a consulting role and writing the book have kept her fulfillment needle high. She also maintains contact with some of her students and is working to finish up a few writing projects she had started with students before her retirement.
On the flip side, Kampfe says, the barrage of information and decisions that had to be made involving retirement were surprisingly challenging. One of the best ways she devised to cope with that process involved creating a calendar of tasks and due dates that she updated weekly to keep herself organized and feeling in control.
The biggest payoff of her transition into retirement is having the time to choose what she wants to do, Kampfe says. In fact, she has established a couple of rules for herself in retirement. First is to say yes to any fun activities that people ask her to participate in, and second is to decline any offers of work unless she gets paid and unless the work sounds like fun.
One consideration Kampfe wants to pass along to other counselors approaching retirement is that they should take the time to figure out what they want, determine what holds meaning for them and then figure out what they need to do to experience that meaning. “Make some decisions about that and then try to follow some of [your own] guidelines, but don’t be too stiff about it either,” she says.
Among Kampfe’s other tips:
- Know what you have to get done in terms of paperwork. Understand the guidelines, the rules and the benefits involved.
- If you have a partner, make sure that he or she is also doing OK with handling the transition.
- In determining how to make life meaningful in retirement, Kampfe suggests that people ask themselves the following question: Where is your joy?
- Be open to opportunities, but also know your boundaries.
- Lastly, for those in preretirement, Kampfe recommends saving early and saving often.
Kampfe’s own advice for herself in the future might just be, “Don’t worry, you’re more flexible than you know.” Although she was worried about the transition beforehand, Kampfe now happily realizes she’s truly enjoying her time in retirement. “That says to me that I’ve been able to make the transition without too much heartache.”
Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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