Cover Stories

Specialist, generalist or niche provider?

Compiled by Lynne Shallcross May 1, 2012

When budding counselors finish their graduate programs and head out into the world with degrees in hand, they face an often complex decision — whether to specialize in a certain area of counseling in hopes of working with a particular type of client or issue or whether to serve a broad swath of clients presenting with a wide range of issues.

In an effort to explore the thought processes behind individual counselors’ decisions regarding specializing or developing a more general practice, Counseling Today contacted six members of the American Counseling Association. Each opened a window into his or her chosen professional path and offered words of wisdom for other counselors concerning career direction.

 

Barbara Adams is a therapist in the children’s unit at a residential treatment program in Mobile, Ala. Adams’ career has included working both with diverse and specialized client bases, as well as a hiatus during which she retired her counseling license in her home state of Oregon after having a child with special needs. Adams has re-earned her counselor license in Oregon and is working on earning her license in her current state of Alabama as well. Contact her at badams@altapointe.org.

 

How did you decide whether to specialize or generalize as a counselor?

Part of it was my decision, but part of it had to do with the needs of the agencies for which I worked early in my career. Like good internships, the process of being assigned particular roles in various capacities over time allowed me to try on different clinical hats. It soon became obvious where my skills were more compatible with certain specialties. This led to years of specializing, although in a couple of different categories over the decades. I enjoy the comfort of intimately knowing the specialty, serving as a resource to others and engaging in cutting-edge practice. I don’t want to be out of touch with other areas, though. I want to keep myself open in case I go back to private practice or work in other settings, since my interests are so broad. Continuing education has helped keep me abreast of other areas, as well as being willing to be flexible within the company or seeking opportunities to familiarize myself with other “hats.”

What have been the pros and cons of your choice?

People who specialize must guard against burnout. It is very easy to fall asleep at the clinical wheel when you know the ins and outs so well that you occasionally find yourself cruising on autopilot. Specializing also made me less marketable when I returned to the field overall, although it was very helpful when I landed my current position working with children and adolescents. On the other hand, it is fulfilling to be so intimately acquainted with a particular niche.

With diversifying [generalizing], my high-energy personality enjoyed experiencing different aspects of the field, and it gave me fresh perspective. I also learned new things that I was able to apply to other areas, and it forced me to stretch myself. A positive aspect of generalizing is that it gave me an excellent core of experience on which to base future practice, whether specializing or diversifying. I have always been able to draw on my work as a generalist, even now in my specialty. An example is remembering some of the more challenging adult clients and now, working with children, being able to better visualize what interventions might be best at earlier ages in order to prevent them from ever getting to that point.

What lessons have you learned?

With specializing, I learned that it is important to follow your passion in practice. If you are drawn to and wind up doing what you enjoy, you are a more effective counselor, and those to whom you provide services are the real winners. You are never throwing anything away by changing specialties or crossing over into diversifying, since the very things that make you an expert in one role can often be applied in other ways in other areas.

In diversifying, I’ve learned so many wonderful tricks of the trade that I could have missed had I been focused on specializing. Working more generally is almost a specialty in and of itself. It demands flexibility, creativity and comfort with change. With both specializing and diversifying, solid clinical skills and ethics are a must. If these are well-established, one can do well in either capacity.

What advice would you offer to other counselors considering whether to specialize or generalize?

Counselor, know thyself! It is important to be able to assess your own skills and interests, to have a feel for what you might like — or not. Be acquainted with your personal beliefs and how your experiences have shaped you. These can help or hinder, and it’s important to be open to try new things. Counselors should list their goals for their career. For instance, if publishing a book or lecturing/teaching are goals, specializing would be important in order to be an authority on a subject. Those with a goal of private practice would do well to diversify. Read as much as you can about either path. Join a focus group online. Talk to other counselors in areas you might be interested in. Set up interviews or shadow them for a day. It will light your fire or send you packing, but either way, you’ll be a step closer to knowing what you want to do.

Lastly, fear no failure. Both specialization and diversification foster personal and professional growth through their respective experiences and will make you a better counselor either way. Both are critical to the success of the profession. You can never go wrong if you follow your passion because this is where you will put your best energy — a win-win. And passions can change. This makes us richer and provides us with more to offer the profession and those we serve.

Is generalizing or specializing more often a matter of choice or situation?

In my experience, it is usually dictated more by location and situation. Graduate internships in some areas may be limited to either more diverse or specialized settings; likewise for jobs in mental health. In today’s economy, it can also be dictated by a student’s or practitioner’s financial ability to pursue [his or her] preferred area. I have seen colleagues “settle” for an advanced degree in an area that wasn’t quite what they wanted to do or for a job they needed simply because of geographical or financial convenience. That being said, I believe there are always choices. If one is intent on pursuing [his or her] true passion, barriers tend to melt away, and we find those pathways.

Looking back, would you recommend that others follow your path?

Starting with generalization exposes us to a broad array of experiences in the counseling field. This helps us as professionals to gain insight into our clinical preferences — a valuable tool to carry into the future of one’s career. I believe there are risks associated with starting with specialization. Namely, possibly limiting oneself in the field. Even if you know where your passion to serve lies, you will ultimately be better in your area of expertise if you can fall back on experiences, both positive and negative, in generalizing. There is something to be said for well-roundedness and what it can contribute to specializing.

 

Tamara Suttle is a counselor in private practice in Castle Rock, Colo. In private practice since 1991, she now splits her time between clinical counseling work and consulting with mental health professionals who are seeking to build their own practices. Contact her at tamara@tamarasuttle.com.

 

How did you go about making the decision to branch out from your own counseling work to help other counselors grow their practices?

When I relocated to Colorado from Texas and started over at 40-something, I realized that I knew an awful lot more than I did the first time around, and my clinical practice grew quickly and easily. As I met colleagues in the area, I repeatedly heard narratives of struggle and hopelessness. I started looking around and realized there wasn’t anyone out there helping counselors to build strong and vibrant practices by emphasizing their strengths. Although there are a few others who can be found online now that focus on building practices, at the time I couldn’t find anyone doing this work for our field.

What lessons have you learned along the way worth sharing with other counselors?

  • That old adage about “find your passion and the money will follow” is true.
  • Counselors with the strongest practices diversify their incomes.
  • Out-of-the-box thinking always trumps the “tried and true” when it comes to marketing.
  • The F-word is fear, and it can leave you cold and hungry.
  • Finding your courage is imperative in building a practice.
  • There are many right ways, not one right way, to build a private practice.

What have been the pros and cons in this niche you created working with other mental health professionals?

I think the cons are the pros. One con is that there wasn’t a ready-made niche for this work. No one was doing it. The benefit, of course, is that no one was doing it. Another con is that there wasn’t a road map for how this piece of my practice should look. The benefit? I get to make it look exactly like I want it to.

Another con is that I had to create a new image and brand from scratch — one that was clearly separate from my image and brand as a professional counselor. The benefit is that it is an opportunity to highlight and play with an overlapping but different set of skills. It’s a refreshing balance to the bulk of trauma-focused work that I do as a counselor.

Another con is that the phone rings more and the online community I’ve built requires continual attention. Next to word of mouth, social media is what fuels this piece of my business. LinkedIn, Twitter, my online community for “Private Practice from the Inside Out,” Google+ and Facebook require focus and commitment. The benefit is that I have built tons of relationships both inside and outside of the United States. Some are professional, others have become personal.

Do you anticipate continuing down this path in the future?

I will continue working with counselors and allied health professionals in this niche. It feeds my spirit and balances out my clinical work. It’s about giving back to the field and mentoring new professionals. There are lots of counselor educators and institutions contributing to the clinical end of our field, but there are very few that are speaking to the business needs of clinicians. To continue feeding the clinical needs but neglecting the business needs is not serving our field in the long run. We absolutely need strong clinicians, but we also need business-savvy clinicians who can build and sustain their businesses as CEOs of solo practices, nonprofit agencies and for-profit institutions.

What do you see as the difference between specializing and having a niche?

Niching is a marketing tactic, and specializing can be both a marketing and clinical tactic. Neither restricts the variety of clients you work with. Nevertheless, most counselors do, I think, resist niching and specializing. I think we’re back to the “F-word.” For new counselors, they are often fearful of missing a potential client, so they think they need to tell folks that they “do it all.” More seasoned therapists often find it difficult to change their marketing strategies — how they describe their work, where they focus their work, etc. And that, too, often boils down to fear.

By choosing to specialize in an area, a counselor has learned about a specific subject matter in depth and has become competent in working with that particular issue or population. It’s possible to specialize in more than one area. And, in fact, I believe that this is exactly what seasoned therapists do. We develop bodies of knowledge, experience and competence — not just interests — in specific areas. One of the benefits of developing specializations is that counselors are then able to make fewer mistakes because they have that depth of knowledge. Specializing supports risk management. And, of course, another benefit to specializing is that you have more options for niching your practice, which is related to how and where you market your practice rather than to whom and where you choose to focus your actual daily work.

Can generalizing as a counselor  be effective as well?

Absolutely! And, how I practice is a generalized practice with a wide variety of clients. However, it’s important to remember that generalizing is not an effective marketing strategy. Generalizing is what most of us practice. It’s not how most of us get to be remarkable or memorable [though], and these two things are key to building a practice today.

Marketing research shows that we are a “boutique” society. We purchase our products and services for their uniqueness — think niche. Those of us on the providing end of services know that we do many things rather than one thing. However, our clients — think consumer — want to believe our services are special and unique to their needs. Thus the need to niche your practice [marketing-wise].

How do you market the clinical side of your work?

Among other things, I carve out time on my calendar every week to address marketing. I set goals. I meet new potential referrals sources every week. I follow up with current/old referral sources every week. I check in with my clients to make sure I’m doing a good job and to learn how I can improve my services. I create new “projects” that will use my skills in different ways. I look for opportunities to do public speaking and training. I look for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues on projects. I never go anywhere without business cards, and I pass them out liberally. And I am active on social media and actively network online around the country, always building relationships. Bottom line, I look for opportunities to meet people, be helpful, become a resource and build relationships with people. No one refers to a stranger. This is what counselors are trained to do, and most of us do it well. Unfortunately, most of us do not realize that it’s also necessary to run a business, especially one as personal and intimate as ours is.

What advice would you offer a counselor wanting to specialize?

When I work with therapists-in-training on how to build a private practice, I talk a lot about the importance of specializing. I take them through an exercise to help them brainstorm the stepping-stones and turning points in their lives, their interests and passions, and their mentors and teachers. By doing this, I help them “float up” some of the areas [in which] they may already be gathering special bodies of knowledge. If you are a counselor who is also a child of an alcoholic or a transgender woman who has experienced the journey of transitioning, you have lived experiences that can contribute to specializations in those areas.

Of course, that lived experience alone is not sufficient to declare a specialization in those areas. Formal training and consultation is also necessary to specializing. I tell my consulting clients that it’s never too early to begin that training if you know you want to specialize in an area. Even in graduate school, you have the opportunity to take electives and choose particular tracks of training. If you know you want to specialize in play therapy, take those classes as early and often as you can.

 

Daniel J. Weigel is an associate professor of counseling at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Weigel has worked in very rural areas where he served a wide range of clients. Both as a graduate student and as a counselor educator, he also researched the topic of general versus specialty counseling. Contact him at dweigel@se.edu.

What led you to work as a generalist counselor?

I ended up working as a generalist counselor due primarily to my upbringing in a rural city in South Dakota. My entire life, I have been educated, lived and worked in rural parts of the country. This is part of my personality. I have always been a rural person, despite my willingness to travel and work in many different states. And since so many rural parts of the country have such a shortage of mental health professionals, I did not have the option of specializing in a particular area. Rural areas are predominantly served by community mental health centers rather than specialty clinics. Fortunately for me, I found generalist counseling to be quite rewarding and a natural fit for my personality and professional counseling career aspirations.

What lessons have you learned from your work and your research?

I have learned several lessons in my work as a generalist counselor and supervisor. The first lesson has to do with ambiguity tolerance. Specifically, those who work as generalists face many ambiguities in their work [because] client populations and issues differ dramatically from one day to the next. If a counselor’s personality type is not one that allows for tolerance of these daily uncertainties, he or she will struggle.

Hand in hand with this ambiguity is an increased demand for counselor independence and responsibility. This is especially true when it comes to the unique demands of crisis management due to a lack of providers and referral sources to address around-the-clock mental health emergencies in rural shortage areas. Generalist counselors must know their limits and set their own boundaries. Issues of counselor competency are forefront in this regard.

In one research study I conducted, I examined the differences between rural and urban counseling. A surprising discovery was made. Specifically, when asked questions regarding a counselor’s willingness to provide counseling despite feeling “unqualified” or “not fully competent,” rural generalist counselors were significantly more likely to provide counseling services anyway due to a limited referral base. The struggle between client abandonment and stretching one’s definition of personal competence is a very difficult path to traverse for many counselors. Managing dual or multiple relationships amid the isolation of rural generalist practice also showed stunningly significant differences between rural and urban counselors. Such challenges related to managing unavoidable dual relationships due to lack of referral options, seeing clients in the community outside of work and client privacy amid community gossip.

Based on these findings, it is clear that generalist counselors have to be astute in following ethical and legal guidelines, seek supervision and consultation regularly throughout their careers and take special care to prevent burnout. Self-care for counselors in any setting is highly important. However, generalist counselors appear to need a carefully planned program of self-care due to the unique challenges of their work, such as isolation, crisis work, fewer colleagues with whom to consult, etc.

What are the pros and cons you see attached to generalist practice as a counselor?

The pro of diversifying is that your job is always changing, which provides opportunities for more flexibility, freedom and responsibility than specialization. Some counselors thrive in this work environment; others dread it. The cons of generalist counseling involve freedom and responsibility — also mentioned as pros — which require personality traits that accommodate increased levels of independence and ambiguity tolerance.

How should other counselors go about choosing between generalizing and specializing?

As a counselor educator, I encourage my students to complete their practicum and internship experiences in a variety of settings. I also encourage my students to complete a portion of their internships in a rural community mental health center. These recommendations help counselors-in-training find the client populations and/or issues with which they feel most comfortable providing treatment.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

Yes and no. Fortunately, I recognized my personality style prior to completing my internship and post-master’s hours. I found generalist counseling to be a good fit for me. I also saw great turnover in my colleagues who worked in the same setting. I knew I wanted to eventually become a counselor educator at a rural university. Fortuitously, things seemed to fall into place for me in both job settings — as a counselor and as an educator.

One thing, however, I would do differently in my work as a rural generalist counselor is to set up a better self-care system and network. I would spell out self-care strategies and follow them religiously. I would set up a network of peers also working as generalists for regular consultation meetings even if it would require miles of travel.

Lastly, I also learned to take time off for mental health days when needed. I know it sounds cliché, but I’ll say it here: Counselors cannot help others if they are not taking care of themselves. Burnout leads to impairment, and impairment leads to client harm.

Is there always a choice in generalizing versus specializing?

Most often it is a choice, as long as a person has geographic mobility. Counselors often end up working at the sites in which they have completed their internships. However, counselors who live in rural areas often have limited opportunities to specialize. In my case, I worked in a part of Colorado that was considered so rural that the U.S. Census considered it “frontier.” By accepting this job, I had no choice but to serve a very diverse client population. Specializing was out of the question. It was, however, my choice to take this job — a decision that was based on my recognized personality preferences.

 

Andi Edelman is a vocational rehabilitation counselor and licensed professional counselor who transitioned from a specialty working with individuals with disabilities to working in private practice with all manner of clients interested in career development. Contact her at aedelmancc@comcast.net.

What figured into your decision to move from working with a specific client population to working with a wider variety of clients?

Early in my career, I liked the idea of assisting individuals with disabilities with identifying and achieving successful life outcomes. I ended up working primarily with adolescents and young adults with disabilities, helping them come to terms with their disabilities and learn how to identify and capitalize on their strengths. Focusing on transition to secondary education and to the world of work, much time was spent on helping them develop their employability skills, learn about work, [assess their] expectations, explore occupations, etc. As my career progressed, the age of the individuals with whom I worked became more diverse, but it was still focused on individuals with disabilities.

I realized that my counseling was applicable to anyone, with or without a disability. The steps one takes to identify abilities, interests, strengths, limitations, learning style, preferences [and so on] are basically the same. For people with disabilities, there was the additional consideration of the disability and how it impacted them, necessitating additional discussion, helping them understand rights and laws that protect them, and learning about accommodations that could be put in place to enable success. When I decided to go into private practice, I made the decision to offer services to everyone — all ages, with or without disabilities — because my skills were applicable to all. I was hoping for a greater variety in individuals and the type of assistance sought.

What were the pros and cons of your switch?

I don’t think there were any cons for my diversifying. There is a need for people to specialize and really become experts in what they do, to know it intimately, because there are many folks who require specialized guidance. Diversifying does not take away your specialty. It just adds to the breadth of whom you serve and attracts a greater pool of individuals. I have found that many individuals with whom I work — those who aren’t seeking disability-related expertise — actually do have different learning styles [and] exhibit signs of attention deficit disorder, have chronic illnesses, depression, mental health issues, etc., but don’t consider themselves “disabled.” For those people, my knowledge about disability, disability resources and accommodations is an added benefit. The biggest pro for me is it has increased my network and engaged me on a broader level.

Moving from diversifying to specializing or vice versa moves you out of your comfort zone and stretches you in many ways. To me, that’s a pro. For others, it could be a big con. Also, depending on what you do, you may need different certifications, and different education and training might be required. Your professional support networks may change and can become more restricted, which could be a pro or a con, or may widen — again, this could be a pro or a con, depending on the person.

What lessons have you learned along this path?

When I was just providing disability-related services, the pool of individuals with whom I worked was smaller — both the individuals I counseled, as well as the professionals with whom I interacted. To me, in retrospect, being specialized was limiting. To meet the needs of the population I worked with, I spent most of my time pursuing continuing education and training focused on disability, keeping up with resources, technology, services and programs that could benefit my clients and my ability to provide them with the best service I could. If and when I had time, I kept up with the larger piece of counseling, theories, programs [and so on], but my focus was more narrow than broad.

When I made the decision to diversify, I made the conscious decision to increase my scope of reading, resources and course offerings, and I also expanded my professional network beyond those focusing on disability issues. As I broadened my reach, I found that I was excited by the variety of people, techniques and resources I was accessing. I met terrific people whose thoughts and ideas were a valuable addition to my thinking and my work, and I found greater satisfaction in my work. I think broadening my scope makes me a better, more well-rounded counselor.

What should other counselors consider when deciding between serving a specialized client base or a general client base?

I would recommend that they consider where their comfort level is and how they want to utilize their skills and abilities. Sometimes people want to excel in one area only, and that’s fine. Sometimes people want to excel in a broader context. Any and all of it is fine and productive. It boils down to personal preference.

If they specialize and want to diversify, it is important to objectively consider the skills that transcend any population and what you can offer. It’s important to identify any education and training needs that might be unmet to meet the needs of a more diversified client base. Marketing is another consideration, as is strategically broadening their professional/peer network. Also, I think it’s important to consider the population for whom you want to provide services, where you will find the target population and if there is a need for your services.

Do you think you possess a counseling niche?

When I specialized in working with individuals with disabilities, I would say that could have been considered my niche. That is what I wanted people to know, and that is what I marketed. Now that I am broader, I don’t believe I have a niche other than providing career counseling to individuals in need of assistance. But on my website, I do mention my specialization of being a certified rehabilitation counselor and a licensed professional counselor and my having experience in working with people with disabilities. I no longer market that, however. My reach is broader, my networks are broader, my referral sources are broader. I have done extensive outreach to social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and other professionals, as well as to broad organizations, to identify referral sources for my clients as well as market myself to them. That said, I did include people, services and organizations that specifically provide assistance to individuals with disabilities, but that was because I wanted to be inclusive and capture the broadest group possible, not because of my specialization.


Grace Bell is a counselor in private practice in Seattle. Her work with clients focuses primarily on the Work of Byron Katie. Contact her at gracebell@comcast.net.

Give a brief description of the Work of Byron Katie.

The Work of Byron Katie is a modality of self-inquiry somewhat like the Socratic method of inquiry. People use it in the therapeutic process as a tool for change. It is simple in that there are actually only four questions, and then the final piece is finding what is called the “turnarounds.” The very first step is identifying painful or stressful concepts, in writing. Examples of painful beliefs that people have when they come to counseling include the following:

  • He shouldn’t have left me.
  • I had a terrible childhood.
  • I will never get over the trauma I experienced.
  • I need more money.
  • She is too critical.

These concepts are basically judgments, beliefs or sayings that we’re telling ourselves that produce grief, rage, fear, sadness or any kind of stress whatsoever. This questioning process known as The Work stops this first painful experience going through our minds and investigates it very carefully.

The four questions, which Byron Katie organized in about 1986, are Is it true?; Can you absolutely know that it’s true?; How do you react, what happens, when you believe this thought?; and Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn your painful concept around. So, “He shouldn’t have left me” becomes the opposite: “He should have left me.” The client thinks about this and finds some examples of how this is true also. Then there is another turnaround where the client trades places with the person they are feeling badly about — “I shouldn’t have left him” — and finally, there is a third turnaround all to the self — “I shouldn’t have left myself.”

How did you find this work and come to specialize in it?

Byron Katie is an odd name, but she’s actually a woman who is nearly 70 who lives in Ojai, Calif., and teaches her work to thousands of people each year. I became interested in her work when I attended her nine-day School for The Work in Los Angeles seven years ago. I found it to be one of the most profound workshops I had ever done in my life, absolutely life-changing, and I am not easily swayed by teachers, gurus or inspirational speakers. I decided that as a practicing general part-time counselor at the time in private practice who often worked with clients with eating disorders, I wanted very much to bring this model to them.

How do you attract clients to this specialty?

I find clients by building an email list, spreading the word through Facebook groups and my professional and personal Facebook pages, tweeting, being on LinkedIn and sending out a daily post/blog called Grace Notes about living with these questions. I also teach a lot of local workshops and print fliers for those, and I get clients and participants through word of mouth.

Have there been pros and cons to your choice?

The pros are that I get paid well by people worldwide who already have read Katie’s book or know The Work and have had success using it. The method really cuts to the chase for personal issues with others and in a greater, spiritual sense. Another pro is that I can offer groups and classes and workshops in this method, and people sign up from all over the place, traveling from fairly far distances to attend. They may not know who I am or have only a referral for me, but they know they want to do The Work. The cons are that people usually need to read Katie’s book Loving What Is or have some kind of contact with The Work in order to get it and want it.

 

Emelyn Kim is a counselor who specializes in gerontological counseling. She provides counseling to family caregivers of older adults in Hawaii, in addition to working in the continuing education department at her local community college. Contact her at eme@eccehawaii.com.

How did you end up specializing in this area of counseling?

I had worked as a case manager for older adults at the Hawaii State Department of Health, as a senior program specialist developing wellness education for Blue Cross insurance members 55 years and older and as a coordinator of a new case management program for family caregivers of elders at a large nonprofit agency. In my work with family caregivers, I found that they needed help relating to and communicating with their older relatives. This nonprofit agency wanted untrained case managers to offer counseling to their clients, but I did not feel qualified as their supervisor to provide counseling. After two years of developing and implementing this program, I felt it was time to learn more about the counseling field. Getting my master’s in gerontological counseling in 2006 meant progress because I would improve on the counseling I was doing intuitively. It felt like a natural step to take in my career.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

I learned that I had to believe in myself and trust that I would be able to handle going back to school at age 55. Making this decision at any age is a commitment and requires you to be passionate about your specialty area. If you are uncertain or ambivalent about going into a counseling specialty, you may not find it rewarding or even interesting. I already had a variety of work experience with older adults as well as being a family caregiver to my parents and other relatives. I consider counseling as a skill learned in order to be better able to help others care for older adults. The lesson is finding your passion, whether in a specialty area or just counseling in general.

What have the pros and cons been of following this path?

The pros are being at the cutting edge of a specialty that will soon be in demand as our baby boomers age and need more family and professional caregivers. The cons are that many caregivers and elders are unable to pay for counseling services because they are on a limited income and health insurance does not reimburse for this specialty. Usually, the adult children who care for their parents do not understand or value having a counselor assist them in overcoming the many obstacles that occur when providing 24/7 care. They are so focused on the physical and medical needs of their frail elders that they tend to neglect their own physical and mental health.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

In hindsight, I should have talked to counselors already in private practice. I could have gotten more practical tips on what to do or not do in establishing a private practice. Marketing my counseling business has been difficult, as I was not comfortable promoting myself.

Where do you see the future taking you?

I anticipate doing more education of both family and professional caregivers and hope to expand to the neighbor islands. I would like to offer both individual counseling and educational seminars to informal and paid caregivers of older adults. There is a need to increase public awareness of caregiver stress and the potential for elder abuse. I think that creating partnerships with other businesses and nonprofit agencies can help to spread this message.

Is there always a choice concerning whether to specialize or generalize, or is the decision often dictated by a person’s situation?

I believe that counselors always have a choice to specialize or diversify. By not choosing, the counselor allows the situation to dictate the choice. If you don’t like the situation, you should look at what you can control to make a change in the situation, or perhaps it just takes a shift in your perception of it. Either way, counselors should feel they have a choice and not allow anyone or the situation to say that they have none. The key is to know what you want, believe in it, and then you will see your path. Believing is seeing — not the other way around.

Do you feel you have developed a niche that you tailor your marketing to?

I agree that specializing in a certain area of counseling is a little different than niching. In the beginning, I didn’t realize that and promoted my counseling services to those organizations I already knew in my aging network. I found some resistance among older adults to accepting counseling because they consider it as psychotherapy for mental illness and say they are not crazy. I tend to agree that the medical model of looking for disease does not fit with caring for older adults. I narrowed my target market to the adult children of older adults and found my niche there.

Because I work mostly at the community college, my practice is limited to part-time hours. I offer flexibility to accommodate caregivers. Usually, I meet clients at their homes in the evenings and on weekends. I can rent a meeting room for those occasions when a formal group meeting of family members of the elder person is needed.

Now I’m actively marketing or promoting my counseling services to those agencies that deal with caregivers of older adults. At the nonprofit agency where I had developed the case management program, I offer to do family counseling at a discounted rate, and their case managers apply to a funding source, a third-party grant, to pay for my fee. I also advise and mentor their case managers on a pro bono basis to help them deal with difficult cases

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:  ct@counseling.org

 

6 Comments

  1. Olusola Owolabi

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  3. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Lynne, this is the third time I’ve tried to leave this comment but it isn’t showing up. Trying once more . . . :) Just wanted to say “thank you” so much for featuring me in this article and also for your journalistic efforts. I so appreciate the topics you tackle and the information / inspiration that you bring to counselors around the globe!

    If I can support you in any way on your journey, please do not hesitate to let me know. Wishing you a lovely 4th of July!

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  4. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Hi, Lynne, I’ve been thinking about the differences in perspective that you have highlighted here and wanted to drop back in to take a moment to share an observation that I have . . . .

    Although those who have 20+ years in the same geographic location in a private practice may be the exception, for the rest of us in private practice nicheing can be a game changer when it comes to marketing our practices.

    On the other hand, those who are employed by others in agencies and institution have more leeway in choosing to specialize or not. Some counselors may find that they are consistently drawn to working with a certain population or working with a specific issue and thus deepen their knowledge in finite areas. Others may prefer to keep expanding the breadth of their knowledge and skills by working with many populations and issues. And, certainly, there are some real benefits of having that foundation as a generalist.

    Just wanted to point out those distinctions to those in private practice for consideration. There was a time when hanging out your shingle in private practice as a generalist was, from a marketing standpoint, an ideal thing to do. You were considered to be competent enough to handle anything. But for at least the last 10-15 years, the market has changed . . . in clothing and kitchen supplies, in cooking and, yes, even professional services like counseling . . . . Today, customers and clients alike are looking for those who have bodies of knowledge and special skills to help them solve their problems and support their goals. That translates – again from a marketing (and not clinical) perspective – as nicheing your practice.

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