Counseling Today

A counselor’s education

Jim Paterson November 14, 2009

After being admittedly unfocused during her undergraduate years, a stint as a temporary employee at an outpatient drug treatment center in Sacramento, Calif., nudged Kate Farrelly toward a career in the counseling profession. She recently graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with a master’s in marriage, family and child counseling, then moved upward at the center, taking on the role of supervisor, and began work on her doctorate in clinical psychology.

At one point, the 28-year-old left her job to study full time. “It wasn’t the same,” she says. “I really felt there was something valuable about doing the two of them (working and attending graduate school) together.” Like many students and educators, Farrelly says that experience has helped her realize that a counselor’s true education requires a careful blend of good classroom information and hands-on experience — both supervised and independent. In many cases, she says, counseling students may not understand the value of the information being presented to them in class until they encounter a real-world application for it.

For example, Farrelly, a member of the American Counseling Association, remembers learning about narrative therapy in class. “At the time, I just didn’t feel like I connected with it much and hardly considered using it,” she says. “I spent more time focusing on theories I felt comfortable with — dialectical behavioral therapy, Gestalt, person-centered. But recently, I was in a session with a client and it struck me that using narrative technique might work best. I think it was one of the most effective sessions we have had. That’s not the first time something I dismissed (as a graduate student) became valuable to me later.”

The learning process

Farrelly has discovered what counselor educators have known for a long time, even as they continue to tinker with the “formula”: A dynamic counseling education must provide counselors-in-training with the right blend of classroom work on theory, structures and practices, together with practical, applicable, hands-on guidance and practice in mock sessions and on the job.

“Learning is best facilitated through practice,” says David Kleist, professor of counseling at Idaho State University and immediate past president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of ACA.

But even beyond hands-on experience and information from textbooks and lectures, counselor education has to prepare future professionals to adapt to the “ever-changing landscape of counseling,” Kleist says. “The core of counselor training needs to be more on process than content. We will never be able to present and teach all the relevant clinical content required for a successful counseling practice. What we can do, however, is help teach and develop a process of thinking that counselors-in-training can hone during their education.”

Judi Durham, associate professor of counseling education at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., says that although the core content in most counseling programs is excellent, it’s the manner in which that content is delivered that often proves critical. “What I personally think is equally important is not so much the content of the courses, but rather the manner in which the information and courses are taught. Students need to have information presented in an applied manner that is integrative and illustrative of how it might be used in practice,” says Durham, a past president of ACES. “An applied focus to counselor education helps beginning counselors bridge the gap between theory and application.”

“I wanted to grasp a theory and its techniques, and at the same time, I felt I needed to discover the theory or style that best suited me,” says ACA member Susan Onofrio, a recent online graduate from Capella University who is working on her doctorate. “That discovery was clear once I graduated and began to practice in earnest.”

“In some ways, theories are kind of antiquated ideas,” says Leah Brew, chair of the counseling department at California State University, Fullerton, “but I also see some utility in terms of theories directing your work with clients. The challenge as a teacher is deciding which ones are most useful.”

Farrelly appreciates the approach her counseling program took. She says that while the program taught students theory, it also challenged these future counselors to learn how to investigate theories they found interesting or that might apply to specific clients. Graduate students were then encouraged both to develop their own ideas about the theories and to put them to use, first in a supervised setting and then on their own.

Apart from making content applicable, Durham believes counseling courses should be delivered in a way that stretches students’ abilities to think on multiple levels simultaneously, building “cognitive complexity.” Says Durham, “It has been well documented that this is a necessary skill for counselors who need to hold the client’s truths in perspective while also considering the larger frames of growth and change.”

Experience is best

Although there is certainly worth to making theoretical material as practical as possible, Brew and others say the most valuable classes are often those that help students develop specific counseling skills and that offer real experience.

“Students should utilize supervision during their internship and practicum experience,” says James Devlin, assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Seattle Pacific University and a past chair of the ACA Graduate Student Committee. “Doing such work at a site, at the university or with peers is not used effectively as much as it should be. These are the times when students have the support to learn from their mistakes, and they should be looking for as much guidance and feedback as possible.”

“In some ways,” Brew says, “this is more of an on-the-job-training kind of field. You can learn all you want (in graduate school), but until you are supervised and seeing clients, you really don’t know what you know.”

Kleist notes that student practicums and internships also provide built-in opportunities for counselor training programs to give something back to their communities by offering easy access to much-needed mental health services. That in itself is a valuable lesson to pass on to counseling students, he says.

Still, Durham warns that job-site training is only as useful as the individual student makes it, especially in busy clinics or schools where supervision may not be forthcoming. “If students adopt an attitude that there is always something to be learned, even if it’s not in the manner they had hoped, then even a less-than-stellar site can be a source of learning,” she says.

Areas of emphasis

In interviews for this article, recent counselor education students said that their most useful classes had ranged from internships to courses that were entirely theoretical in nature. Looking back, they also offered opinions on the types of graduate classes and training they believe would have served them well as new professionals.

“I would have liked to take more classes on diversity,” says Catrina Sundvall, a former Air Force communicable disease counselor who now works as a therapist with Associated Therapeutic Services in Enid, Okla. “There is very little training in this area to help people who are not the norm culturally.” She also suggests more specialized courses in abuse and trauma.

Speaking about the multicultural course work that was a requirement in her program, Onofrio says, “It gave me an awareness of differences and similarities across life spans, development, traditions and cultures.” One particularly valuable exercise required the New York City native to role-play as a counselor in rural Maryland.

Albert Lawrence, a 2007 graduate of the mental health counseling program at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, says he found his education provided him with “the skills and understanding of abstract ideas that may or may not be of use in practice.”

“I found advanced practical exercises, skill teaching and theory classes to be of maximum helpfulness, while more specialized courses such as career counseling (held little value for me),” says Lawrence, an ACA member who is now a counselor at a secure treatment facility for youth. While not all graduate students see the benefit of learning about career counseling, many veteran practitioners point out that jobs and careers play such a major role in various aspects of clients’ lives that some knowledge of the field is important, even if the student is not planning to become a career counselor.

Lawrence also says that his group counseling and diagnostics classes have proved to be particularly helpful in his work, while not enough attention was paid to family counseling. Other new counselors agreed, explaining that the study of family counseling was included in their programs, but often only as a portion of another class.

Because diagnosis is so critical for counselors practicing in a clinical setting, Farrelly advises graduate counseling students to spend more time studying that process as well as treatment planning. Most community agencies expect a diagnosis after the first one to two hours of assessment, she says.

Jane Marrone, a veteran teacher and ACA member, thinks completion of the master’s in school counseling program at Fairfield University in Connecticut last year prepared her well for her job as a school counselor in an inner-city school, particularly when a crisis unfolded. She says counselor educators should emphasize the need for graduate students to prepare for such situations.

“It all worked,” she says. “I learned how to put my life experience and the gift of a great foundation from the school counseling program at Fairfield University to use. What I learned was effective in difficult situations.”

Marrone also advises aspiring school counselors to make acquiring information about handling groups a priority, along with courses on human development and multicultural counseling.

Advocacy in the future

Durham believes the core content of counseling programs has been well devised thanks to the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. However, she says, students and instructors must continue pursuing the right blend of theory and practice and remain consistent in striving to improve training, including making advocacy part of the mix.

“Counseling has begun to more fully embrace the role of counselor as advocate, but heretofore, little counselor education and training has focused on having students develop advocacy skills,” she says. “We cannot assume that the training across core areas established by CACREP is sufficient to develop the skills necessary to either advocate for the profession or become a social justice advocate with or on behalf of our clients.”

That, she says, remains another big challenge for counseling education.

Jim Paterson is a writer, editor and school counselor living in Olney, Md. Contact him at

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