Counseling Today, Features

Starting a counseling career in the time of COVID-19

By Lindsey Phillips March 30, 2021

Many counselors can easily distinguish between what their professional career looked like before the coronavirus pandemic started and what it resembles now. But for most new professionals, counseling in a pandemic is all they have known. COVID-19 has shaped almost every encounter they have had with clients and colleagues alike. And the careers that have greeted them upon graduation have looked dramatically different than the ones they prepared for in school.

Hannah McGrath, a recent graduate from the Master of Divinity/Master of Arts in counseling dual degree program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, always wanted to be a counselor. But as she acknowledges, “This [experience] is not how I thought things would go after I spent four years in graduate school.”

In March 2020, McGrath returned from spring break to discover that she would have to finish her counseling internship virtually. Many of McGrath’s clients, who were university students, had gone home for spring break and did not return to campus because of the pandemic. Some of them were out of state, which meant she was unable to provide counseling to them. Professors and supervisors scrambled to make sure she had the documentation she needed to do telebehavioral health and to help her find clients so that she could complete her internship hours in time.

It’s difficult to anticipate the long-term implications of beginning a counseling career in the time of COVID-19, but McGrath and four other new professionals agreed to shed light on the ways the pandemic has shaped them — and their future outlook on the profession — thus far.

Rethinking a counseling career

Kathryn Beskrowni, a provisionally licensed professional counselor, had concerns about starting her new counseling career even before the pandemic reached the United States. In January 2020, she had just finished her internship at Terrace House, a group practice located in St. Louis. She was apprehensive about leaving a steady job as a learning and development manager at College Bound St. Louis, a nonprofit that empowers students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve undergraduate degrees, to become a counselor clinician — a career she knew would depend heavily on building a suitable caseload.

Before graduating, Beskrowni, an American Counseling Association member who specializes in relational issues and life transitions, applied to a few jobs in private practices, hospitals and other mental health organizations. After not hearing back from anyone for over a month and a half, her career anxieties only solidified. “I had a two-month period where I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Beskrowni recalls. “I had to emotionally prepare for this new life I was stepping into.”

She decided to reach out to her former intern supervisor, Christina Thaier, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and the founder and director of Terrace House. Together, they discussed Beskrowni’s future as a counselor. Through their conversations, Beskrowni realized that one of her biggest hesitations revolved around the limiting feeling of only doing therapy.

Fortunately, Thaier worked with her to create a position that addressed all of Beskrowni’s goals and concerns and would allow for her to grow professionally. So, Beskrowni joined the team at Terrace House both as a therapist and assistant director of community relations (a role in which she helps to oversee and recruit counseling interns).

A few weeks later, COVID-19 made its way to the United States, and all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic heightened Beskrowni’s career anxieties and concerns about financial stability yet again. Ultimately, she decided to keep her job at College Bound St. Louis, which provided steady pay and hours, while also transitioning into her new role as a professional counselor.

For about six months, she juggled both jobs, switching back and forth between her two work laptops — a privilege she had because of the ability to work from home during the pandemic. “It took me a really long time to feel safe and comfortable enough to fully commit to the unpredictability of a counseling career, so I held on to [the nonprofit job] for longer than I needed,” Beskrowni says. But she’s happy that she finally did become a counselor, and she’s excited about the future direction of her career.

Readjusting career plans

Before the pandemic, Darius Green, a recent graduate of James Madison University’s counselor education doctoral program, planned to find a full-time position in counselor education. He was willing and able to move anywhere. But the pandemic changed things. He wasn’t sure how much the pandemic would affect college enrollment and university faculty hiring, and he was anxious about the job search process and his own financial stability. “I worried if I would be able to find a job in counselor education, and if I did find one, I worried about the risk of that position being eliminated,” he says.

Green, an ACA member whose research interests include wellness, diversity, social justice and counselor education, did apply to some counselor educator positions, and he even scheduled a few interviews. But he ultimately decided not to pursue that career path because he didn’t feel prepared for the several hours of virtual interviews and teacher demonstrations, and given the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, his willingness to pick up and move just anywhere had dissolved.

“Originally, I felt willing to move just about anywhere to get my foot in the door, but the pandemic shifted my priorities and values,” Green says. “My top priority wasn’t having a job in counselor education [anymore]. My top priority was having a job with benefits and a stable income.”

In part for that reason, he decided to continue working as the assistant coordinator of the James Madison University (JMU) PASS Program, which supports student learning and success in challenging courses at the school. Although he applies some of his counseling skills to this position, the job itself isn’t counseling focused. So, he also works part time as a counselor at the ARROW Project, a community mental health organization in Staunton, Virginia.

Even this part-time position came with new challenges. “I was nervous because I hadn’t been trained to do telebehavioral health,” Green says. “I’m fairly tech savvy, but [with telebehavioral health], there’s just a lot more to think about.”

The pandemic caused Green to readjust his career plans, but it also gave him the opportunity to work from home. This has allowed him to balance his full-time job at JMU and his role as a counselor at ARROW, which otherwise would have involved a 20-minute commute.

Green isn’t sure if a career in higher education is sustainable or obtainable right now, so he wants to keep his options open by working toward his counseling licensure. He also knows his experience as a counselor clinician will strengthen his curriculum vitae if he does decide to pursue jobs in counselor education down the road.

Growing pains

Rachel Wyrick, a master’s student in the counseling program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), was looking for an internship position right when the pandemic hit the United States. Wyrick wasn’t sure if they would be able to find placement with so many agencies focusing on switching their practice to telebehavioral health. After a few weeks of silence, Wyrick finally got the email they had been hoping for: Terrace House offered Wyrick a position as a counseling intern.

Wyrick had felt like they were hitting their counseling stride during their practicum a couple of months before the COVID-19 pandemic. Wyrick had become more comfortable with clients, and Wyrick’s initial nervousness was slowly waning. But when everything went virtual, Wyrick’s anxiety shot back up. In many ways, Wyrick felt like they had to start over by learning how to do therapy using telebehavioral health — something that was not on their radar before the pandemic.

Wyrick specializes in relationship issues, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder and LGBTQ+ populations. Because Wyrick works with clients experiencing trauma and uses somatic therapies, Wyrick had reservations about how effective telebehavioral health would be. But Wyrick embraced the change and discovered they can still build a strong rapport with clients virtually. In fact, in many ways, Wyrick finds it more intimate. Because they are sitting face to face with clients, Wyrick can easily read the microexpressions on the client’s face via screen.

“And for my style of counseling, it actually really suits me and the populations that I serve,” says Wyrick, who was named UMSL’s clinical mental health master’s student of the year this past December. It can be comforting to clients to be in their own space and to see their counselor as a “real” person in their own space, Wyrick explains. Wyrick notes that when clients ask about Wyrick’s plants or artwork in the background, it often seems to jump-start a stronger connection.

Wyrick still oscillates between weeks of feeling connected to clients and weeks of feeling unsure and inadequate. “Will it always feel this way, or is this a normal part of the process of growing as a professional?” Wyrick wonders. Wyrick hasn’t had much practical experience outside of the pandemic, so it’s hard for the counselor-in-training to know what might be unique to the pandemic and what is simply typical growing pains.    

Difficulty finding a job

After moving to New York, McGrath noticed there were more jobs for social workers than for counselors. That’s when she learned that some states privilege different mental health workers. Social workers have a longer history in New York than do licensed professional counselors and, in turn, more job options. Many of the types of jobs McGrath had assumed would be open to her — such as being a counselor in a hospital — were not.

McGrath applied to every counseling job she could find, but many of the places didn’t respond or told her they were hiring only fully licensed counselors. “I felt like I had no job options,” she says. The fact that New York City had to shut down because of the pandemic didn’t help, she points out. Nothing was business as usual.

Finally, in June, she found a job working with a foster care agency as a mental health counselor-limited permit.

Looking back, McGrath realizes the pandemic heightened her anxiety around her job search. She felt a sense of panic and urgency to find a job. If she could do it all over again, she says, she would slow down and take her time during the process.

During graduate school, a visiting speaker told McGrath, “Your first job doesn’t have to be a perfect job, but it can be the perfect teacher.” She is taking that advice to heart as she continues navigating her counseling career during an uncertain and challenging time.

Building a caseload

After graduating with a master’s in counseling from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in spring 2020, Mika Smith-Tjahja, now an LPC associate at Firefly Therapy Austin in Texas, put a lot of pressure on herself to instantly build up her caseload. “I was hard on myself at first,” she recalls. “I had high expectations about getting a certain number of clients each week.” When that didn’t happen, she felt discouraged.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Smith-Tjahja was averaging one to three clients a week for about two months. Her supervisor reminded her that it takes a while to find clientele, so she trusted the process. Smith-Tjahja’s caseload has since doubled, but it is still below the number of clients she would like to average per week. She recently accepted a second counseling job at Connected Heart Therapy in Austin and hopes this will build her client base even more.

Smith-Tjahja, who specializes in anxiety, depression and trauma, wonders how much the pandemic has affected her ability to build a caseload. A few referrals have told her they prefer to wait until in-person therapy resumes, so she knows that it’s a factor.

Smith-Tjahja has started thinking outside the box to find people who need help right now. She joined a Facebook group for mental health professionals in Austin to share and request referrals. She has found the group to be a great resource both for referrals and networking.

She has also suggested to her supervisor the idea of creating a low-fee closed counseling group for individuals who are interested in therapy but can’t afford the higher fees. The group would benefit the community while simultaneously teaching Smith-Tjahja more about the community’s counseling needs and informing others that she is available and eager to help, she explains. Smith-Tjahja is also interested in doing pro bono work in the future, once she feels more settled in her role as a professional counselor.

Finding support amid the isolation

Smith-Tjahja says her biggest challenge throughout the pandemic has been the isolation, especially in terms of not being able to interact in person with colleagues. She imagined trading her graduate school cohort for colleagues in an office or hospital. Instead, she works from home, alone. Because that feeling of community isn’t there anymore, she created her own virtual community — a support group for LPC associates like herself. When she reached out on social media to find others to join her group, she was surprised by the response: More than 50 people joined. They meet once a month, and they recently invited a certified public accountant to present on how to manage taxes for one’s private practice.

She also reached out to her former cohort and formed a peer support group. In their last meeting, they all echoed Smith-Tjahja’s sense of isolation and agreed that they needed this group because they had missed the sense of community it offers.

McGrath acknowledges that it can be challenging to feel connected to other mental health professionals right now. She communicates with her colleagues through emails and phone calls. Sometimes, she says, when she doesn’t get a reply within a couple of days, she wonders if her colleagues are busy, if they are ignoring her or if they think she is a bad therapist.

Wyrick likewise admits that it’s easy to fall into self-doubt, especially when everyone is isolated from each other. The Terrace House internship program tries to address this by pairing new professionals with other new professionals who are a few months or years further along in their careers. Wyrick has benefited during their internship at the Terrace House from having a mentor. Wyrick has had virtual coffee dates with their mentor, which provided a semblance of an in-office interaction.

Supervision is also critical. “It’s hard to know where you stand as a new professional right now,” Wyrick says. “Having a well-seasoned professional reflect back what they see — whether it be strengths or growing edges — is really helpful.”

“Normally we’d have these [professional] experiences with peers and be able to compare … and all develop together,” Wyrick continues. “Without that, our supervisors are our main source of reflection and validation … of how hard this experience has been and the strength that we’ve shown.”

Green encourages counselors to remember that not everyone comes from a privileged background and has the same opportunities and resources. Therefore, it is important for established counselors to reach out and support new professionals, especially as they try to find their footing in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, he says.

Professional connections provide not only career opportunities but also emotional and social support, notes Green, a member of both the Association for Humanistic Counseling and Counselors for Social Justice, which are divisions of ACA. People are less inclined to reach out virtually, so it can be isolating at times, he points out. He had several mentors schedule virtual meetings in the fall, but those meetings have slowly decreased in the succeeding months. Green tries to lead by example, taking the time to message his colleagues as well as other new professionals.

After the pandemic, McGrath looks forward to meeting her colleagues in person and building work relationships that will help her grow professionally. She says she wishes she could just pop into a colleague’s office right now and ask a question or chat about how their week is going. But until that is possible, she advises her fellow new professionals to make efforts to connect with other mental health professionals in whatever way they can.

Establishing work boundaries

Working from home has caused the boundary between work and personal life to become blurred for many new (and seasoned) professionals. As McGrath points out, it’s often difficult for counselors to have set work hours when they are seeing clients six days a week. “The longer the pandemic has gone on, the harder it’s been to keep those boundaries,” she adds.

“Establishing work boundaries is already a struggle for new professionals,” Wyrick says. The pandemic only adds to this problem. Wyrick’s workspace is in the bedroom, which means they can answer emails at all times of the day. It’s also tempting to take on clients outside of scheduled work hours, Wyrick points out. Wyrick often thinks, “What’s one more hour?”

Wyrick has had to create a routine because their partner is a professor who is working from home as well. When Wyrick is working, they shut the door and turn on a white-noise machine. This signals Wyrick’s partner not to interrupt.

Green says the amount of email he receives seems to have increased during the pandemic. It often overwhelms him, he confesses, and he spends a substantial amount of time sorting and prioritizing these messages. Smith-Tjahja also finds herself checking her email constantly because she is trying to build up her clientele right now. She says she hopes to establish a better schedule for checking and responding to emails after she has more clients.

Wyrick says working from home has taught them a lot about their personal work patterns and values. Before the pandemic, Wyrick took pride in always being plugged in, but now they realize that mindset is not in line with their values.

“At the beginning of this [pandemic], we had no idea how long it was going to be, and the optimists of us thought it was going to be a short time. So, that allowed things to be a little chaotic and wild at first,” Wyrick says. “I was thinking very much in emergency ‘go’ mode, but now I’m trying to be very mindful about creating habits that are going to be sustainable over time.”

Finding opportunity in the chaos

Smith-Tjahja experienced several significant events in her life during 2020, but they looked different because of the pandemic. She graduated with a master’s in counseling, but the ceremony was virtual. She got married, but it was not the ceremony she had hoped for. She and her husband bought their first house, but her parents weren’t able to go look at houses with her. Smith-Tjahja feels happiness for these milestones but also a simultaneous sense of grief because these events didn’t follow the traditional route she had expected.

But the pandemic also opened up new career possibilities for her. A year ago, Smith-Tjahja assumed she would probably work in a hospital until she was licensed. Working in a private practice was a distant dream, but that dream became a reality this fall. After getting her provisional counseling license, she reached out to a counselor she had kept in touch with throughout her graduate program to see if the counselor needed any help at her private practice, Firefly Therapy Austin. The counselor offered her a job.

During quarantine, Smith-Tjahja also decided to get trained in eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). She could easily take the classes from her home and didn’t have to spend money on travel, food or a hotel. This training has opened up another career opportunity. She reached out to another counselor who just started Connected Heart Therapy, a private practice offering EMDR to the Austin community. They offered Smith-Tjahja a job as a part-time counselor, which will allow her to continue her EMDR training.

Wyrick describes their initiation into professional counseling as a trial by fire. Although it wasn’t the start to Wyrick’s career that they had hoped for, it has given Wyrick confidence in their ability to rise to the challenge and their capacity for growth. Wyrick hopes the experience of practicing during a pandemic will encourage and allow new and seasoned counseling professionals alike to rethink the ways that they do therapy and how they can best serve their clients.

The uncertainty that the pandemic generated and the sudden shift to telebehavioral health muted some of the traditional milestones for emerging counselors, including graduating and starting a counseling career, Beskrowni points out. She hopes that other new counseling professionals will still take the time to celebrate their accomplishments and find a sense of freedom in their evolving possibilities.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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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.

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