This past May, I stumbled out of my university’s basement counseling clinic and into the sunlight. The unremitting winter had spanned my work as a doctoral intern as I supervised master’s students, counseled clients and conducted administrative work. For the sum total of zero dollars and zero cents.
Ready to embark on the last and longest leg of my graduate school journey — my dissertation — I groaned at the fork in the road. At one end, a low-paying counselor job at a nonprofit awaited me. Or, newly licensed, I could take on a caseload at a group practice that would take a giant bite out of my paycheck.
With either option, would I have energy left to do research? A future of scuttling around mountains of paperwork or becoming absorbed in the emotional field of the consulting room seemed like a sure way to leave my degree on hold until the end of the decade.
“Sometimes you just have to pay your dues,” more than one colleague advised me. This was a phrase I knew well. I had recited it myself to graduating master’s students who worried about how they would find employment and pay the rent until they earned the 3,300 hours they needed for licensure, as well as to fellow doctoral students paying money out of pocket to do free labor for course credit.
Experience is precious in the counseling profession. Internships, supervision and apprenticeships are fundamental to serving our clients and promoting knowledge in the field. But money is valuable too, and all too often we forget to remind each other of this simple truth. During my quest to earn my Ph.D. — all those hours spent researching and supervising — I slowly became numbed to the assumption that the experience alone was worth the work.
In the counseling field, we ask our students to be advocates for clients who don’t have the power or ability to speak up. But somehow we have lost sight of how to campaign for ourselves. Negotiating a salary or the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship are unheard of subjects in the counseling classroom. The emphasis on experience alone teaches us that when we graduate, if someone is willing to pay us to do what we love, any amount of money will suffice.
Not being valued is more than just a professional issue. It’s a women’s issue as well. We may bemoan the lack of men in the mental health professions, but there is a long-standing connection with low-paying salaries among professions traditionally taken up by women. We attribute lopsided gender representation to the “feminization” of mental health rather than consider that men more often seek professions that value their worth in dollar signs.
In the age of Sheryl Sandberg and glass ceiling metaphors, we assume that because a counseling classroom is full of women that they won’t face the same challenges as women in male-dominated fields. We tell young women that getting married is the smartest way to support themselves through graduate school. And we teach our counseling students to joke about not being in the field for the money.
Over the winter break, in an effort to detox from the first half of my internship year, a therapeutic TV binge resulted in my consumption of four and a half seasons of CBS’s The Good Wife. Captivated by the show’s clever insights on office politics and self-confidence, I sat up straight and began taking notes. When one of the female characters was negotiating for more money, she uttered five words that I will never forget: “I want what I’m worth.”
Over the next few months, I took a few shaky steps toward starting a career as a mental health writer built on more than just experiences. I turned down writing opportunities that weren’t compensated. When strangers emailed me for feedback, I kindly but firmly explained to them that I offered rates for editing. I said no to jobs that wouldn’t value me, and I asked editors to start paying me for my work.
Rather than take either fork in the road, I mapped out a niche for myself as a mental health writer. I learned that when you value yourself, other people will start to believe your work is really what you say it’s worth, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed to remind people that you can’t pay the bills with gratitude.
I learned more about my worth from two weeks of fiction than five years of graduate school. But no university is at fault in this story, as negotiating worth is an issue that counselor education in its entirety has neglected to address. We may advocate for our inclusion on a legislative level, or discuss it at conferences, but we need to start the conversation from the ground up, and it starts in the classroom.
As a journalist, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many entrepreneurs in the field, and their advice all boils down to the same message — graduate programs have to start teaching business sense and marketing skills or the future will be financially grim for the thousands of graduates pouring out of programs.
There are always financial realities to the helping professions. We may never have a majority of our students receiving paid internships or reaching their ideal salaries. Most of us will never live like we work on Wall Street or at a big, scary law firm because that life simply isn’t for us. But we can educate our students that they are of worth and that they should not be ashamed to want more than the warm feelings they get from helping others.
I believe that sitting across the room from someone and being accepted and heard unconditionally is of value. And I believe that studying about how people change and asking hard questions about the human experience is of value as well. Because I know the worth of these pursuits, I’m no longer afraid to tell others that I value my time and my talents. I want what I’m worth, and there’s no shame in that.
Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., a mental health writer and a frequent contributor to CT Online. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.