You have your sheepskin in hand, your name in large letters and the words “Master’s Degree” seemingly beaming out for the whole world to see. The high of the ceremony is still floating in your head when it suddenly hits you: I NEED A JOB!!!
You may start off confident enough, but then realize that you are competing with everyone else that just graduated and those who are already in the counseling field. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, possibly hyperventilating and contemplating curling up in a ball while waving your hands in front of your face. (What is it about that hand motion that helps folks find calm? That so could have been your research project …)
I mean, you could do that or you could develop a cogent plan for success. The choice is yours.
I’m making a couple of assumptions here. The first is that you are looking to make a real and lasting impact in the counseling profession. The second is that you realize you need to get a start somewhere before you can make great strides.
The first real option is to take a job ANYWHERE that will hire you. This often means the HUGE nonprofits that seem to chew up and spit out clinicians with abandon. You know the type. They are often referred to as the Wal-Mart of mental health care in your state. They often pay 20-30 percent more than the smaller places and may offer as much as a $50,000 bonus if you stay two years past licensure. Yet few folks make it to that point. You have to wonder how bad the working conditions are if they pay so well and offer so many bonuses yet still have a turnover rate of 60 percent or more.
Still, they are a viable option that should be explored. God knows I worked in some hellish conditions while cutting my teeth in the profession, and you likely will too, so why not make a few extra bucks in the process? (I never did because I always chose to work at the underdogs.) If you have a degree, a warm smile, a pulse and a few references, you have a good chance of being able to enter the mill. If, however, you are striving for a bit more, read on.
Smaller counseling nonprofits often lack the pay or benefits of the Wal-Marts but often provide you with the chance to hone your craft alongside a dynamic group of folks who are not as caught up in red tape, position, power and hierarchy. These smaller nonprofits give you a chance to learn on your feet and work beyond the confines of a “normal” clinician to better prepare you for all phases of programming. Of course, you need to want to take on this kind of challenge or it won’t be a good fit.
Take my position, for instance. I direct two small programs, one that is a “regular” counseling setting and one that is a therapeutic farm. In the past week, I have done dozens and dozens of clinical sessions, consulted with a few programs, installed and reengineered drip and regular irrigation, worked with heavy antique equipment, done some electrical work, conducted interviews and dabbled a bit with music in therapy. Oh, I also worked with animals.
Not quite what they prepared me for in the seven educational programs from which I graduated, but totally what I love to do.
So, if you want to try to get a place in a smaller nonprofit — one that lets you experiment and leave the confines of a cubicle or office and one that does dynamic things — you should probably start by showing the nonprofit that you are a dynamic person.
As an interviewer, I often see folks who can be described as one-trick ponies. Sure, they know at least the basics of counseling, but their résumés or curriculum vita don’t typically show me other talents or interests. Your interests may not relate directly to your counseling job, but they may help you relate to clients.
Years ago, I was called to consult/debrief and perform crisis work with a welding crew that had just seen a co-worker die in the field. When the team leader learned that I had once been certified as a welder, he welcomed me into the crew quickly. Even the most resistant worker said they felt comfortable with me because I was “one of them.”
So let potential employers know about some of your nonclinical skills because it may help you get the job. Your work at a teen center or cleaning crew, your hiking adventures, your handyman skills and so on may just fill a void in a nonprofit’s current team dynamic. My wife once got a job in part because she was an avid quilter — and so was the person interviewing her. Sure, she had all the right qualifications and more, but so did others. Having something that the team needs and or that the interviewer personally cares about can make a real difference.
As a new grad, you likely lack a proven track record or reputation. This can hurt you; let’s not pretend otherwise. But what have you done besides take classes? Were you in the student government? Leadership skills totally impress most folks. Did you help organize a rally, benefit, public event or related activity? This shows eagerness, dedication and organizational skills. Maybe you took the summer off and hiked the Appalachian Trail. This demonstrates an ability to get things done and to perform self-care. That classic car that you rebuilt with a friend shows the ability to delegate and problem-solve and that you are unafraid to take risks or get dirty. Were you in ROTC, Police Explorers or a similar program? If so, that shows that you can follow directives. Military experience is always a plus too.
How is your eye contact in interviews? It’s important to maintain good eye contact without looking like you are challenging the interviewer to a stare down. Yes, that has actually happened to me and, no, that person did not get the job. Be friendly, be confident, be real.
What can you offer your potential new boss that the other applicants may not? I always tried to sell that I could work alone or in groups and that I could work well under good supervision, but that I could also excel if left alone to get the job done. I also sold that I was multifaceted and calm under fire.
When asked to give an example of how I handled stress, I shared a true work story. I was once trapped in an elevator because of a power outage. There was also a possible fire in the building, and the folks trying to get me out had no idea about how to open the elevator doors. They were starting to get really anxious. When they started to rev up, I calmed them down through the door and helped them regroup, refocus and prioritize. (“You know, as the guy trapped in the elevator, I would really like to know if there is a fire and how bad it is. Why don’t you go check on it and then come back. You know where I’ll be.”) In the end, power returned and I got right back on the elevator so that I wouldn’t have a lasting fear of them. I then went straight back to work.
OK, that was a bit dramatic, but you get the idea. Sell them on you. What can you do that few others can?
As a job interviewer, I will also Google you. What will I find? Those pics of you doing a keg stand will not help you get a job in this field. Overly angry posts about certain politicians, religions or individuals are not a help either. Seeing you dressed in a silly costume and playing around will likely be neutral at best (after all, we do realize that you have a life). Just think before you post.
One person who applied for a job with us years ago did not seem to realize how easily these web searches can be done. I was able to see the person’s posts clearly. I stopped reading after the third “Dude, last night I got so freaking wasted” post.
Of course, the best way to get a job at graduation is to start thinking about it on the first day of your first class. It’s never too early to start planning on building a solid foundation for employment.
Keep up the faith, send out the résumés and interview, interview, interview. You’re unlikely to find your dream job at first, but even a second or third choice can help build toward THE job. I’m rooting for ya.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.