Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

I want what I’m worth

By Kathleen Smith July 17, 2014

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 — Money2I 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 money1business 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


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


  1. Kay

    Most human beings in any job are worth much more than they are paid. And if you need validation of your worth in green paper, then perhaps you aren’t worth as much as you think you are. Where is your compassion for clients who need your services desperately and CAN NOT afford them? Aren’t you concerned about their worth and their health.
    I hope you are cognizant about the fact that insurance covers their treatment—not by a long shot. And if you need to receive aa much as you think you are worth, then the price they will have to pay will rise exponentially, and they will not be able to afford the help they need.
    Would that we ALL received what we are worth. But if we are looking for it mainly in dollars, then we are all doomed to despair. The gratitude and progress of those you work should mean something to you and that should tell you what you are worth.

    1. Brandon

      I respectfully disagree with the premise that asking for what we are worth fails to meet client’s needs. I have almost fifteen years in this field and have served as the primary bread winner for a family of four. I chose this profession because I have a passion for helping others. When I started out I felt bad even charging people for helping them, but as a physician friend of mine (who still shakes his head that I did not go to medical school with him) pointed out: Every time we give away a piece of ourselves we ask our families to make that sacrifice with us. Maybe it is a male thing, but I have a responsibility to bring something home for my efforts. When I give away something I don’t just take it out of my wallet, it comes from the family coffers. As you have pointed out, sometimes it is worth it, and my family and I are glad to sacrifice.

      Clients should not have to pay for inflated egos, but if a counselor cannot make a living (and pay back the loans we borrowed because unpaid internships don’t pay the bills and not everyone has a benefactor that pays for school) then it can begin to affect our wellness and effectiveness. I can be compassionate toward a person that I chose to help, but when I draw my living from that work the person who is taking my time and resources feels more like a thief than a client. My clients deserve a fully present and a fully compassionate counselor, not someone who is at the mercy of my guilt-driven emotions. Restaurants aren’t expected to give away food, banks aren’t expected to give away money, and lawyers aren’t expected to give away time, but in all of these professions they carve off a little of their living to “give back” to others.

      The truth is, that our skills are worth something to our clients. They will find the money for the small luxuries of life like televisions, a dinner out, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. It just stands to reason that if there is value in what you offer, people will make the sacrifice to get it. You only have to give it away if it isn’t worth paying for. For the very few that are in despondency, a thriving practice can afford a few pro-bono slots. One of my first positions was in a university clinic with a sliding scale. One of the counselors consistently required the clients to pay the full amount (still significantly less than a standard fee), while the rest of us had tons of five and ten dollar clients. She consistently had the highest success rates, the lowest no shows, and the lowest rate of clients quitting on her. Consistently in the research you find that clients value what they pay for.


  2. Kay

    In my previous post, I should have said: I hope that you are cognizaant of the fact that Insurance DOES NOT cover their treatment—not by a long shot.

  3. Clare Slaney

    Thanks Kathleen, it’s the same in the UK. And it’s about time we spoke out about it. I would add that, in the UK at least, this is, as well as a gender issue, an issue of class. Only a certain class of woman can now afford to train and practice.

    Kay – did you miss the bit about 3,300 voluntary hours? Your doctor doesn’t work for gratitude and neither do therapists.

  4. Amy Maricle

    HI Kathleen:

    Amen to you. I have been beating this drum for quite some time. Obviously we have chosen a career that is not known for being lucrative, but it doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied to make just enough to get by, or be saddled by our debts for years on end. Other professions that are really hard in similar ways, such as some medical doctors, eventually pay off in large sums. Our work is emotionally hard. It’s important to have time and money to get away for vacations, relax, and take care of oneself. I completely agree that there is a gender element to this equation, but I also feel there may be an ongoing cultural taboo about mental health treatment. It’s completely acceptable to need medical treatment, it’s still somewhat stigmatized to go therapy, though far less than in the past.

    I also don’t believe that doing good work and getting paid a fair salary need to be mutually exclusive. I agree also that we need to teach our counselors and psychologists far more about owning your own business, especially since so many of us go into private practice, or could. Having started one myself a year and a half ago – I can say it’s a huge learning curve, but a change that I have never regretted. As an art therapist, I have been learning how to craft my own style of private practice that plays to my strengths and interests – this is all new to me, but it’s working.

    Thanks so much for your voice.
    Amy Maricle

  5. Melissa Martin, Ph.D., LPCC-S

    I too, support you 100% on your words in this article.
    Thanks for the courage to speak up!
    Melissa Martin, Ph.D., LPCC-S

  6. Aaron

    Love the article Kathleen. You are exactly right and have great insight in the gender issues regarding pay as well. The reality is that counselors are not valued as a profession. We are expected to have quasi-medical experience and education but then are buried in debt from loans with a barely living wage job that carries more emotional baggage then a U-haul. The requirements for license have made it not a possibility for myself as a married person with a young child. And it’s really the profession and clients that suffer for this. I have years of professional experience doing crisis interventions and evaluations that exceed what most therapist have experienced. I have a Master’s degree. It would be a huge step backwards professionally to seek license at this point because of the lofty supervision regs and additional coursework. I can make just as much money if not more without specializing anyway. It’s really true. You are worth what you are willing to settle for.


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