Choosing the right graduate school for counseling can be both a challenging and exhilarating experience. Applicants have many motivators to weigh when making this decision and often have many choices concerning which school and program will best fit their needs. This article shares the stories of four students who recently chose to enter a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling. Additionally, each student provides tips for other individuals who are contemplating the decision to enter a graduate program in the mental health field.
Before entering graduate school, I found myself caught in a dilemma. I had just finished my bachelor’s in June 2015, and here I was in August 2015 not making enough money with a bachelor’s degree to independently support two children.
I always wanted to complete graduate school, but I was nervous and hesitant about the debt that it might cause. After much consideration, I decided to enter graduate school and view the debt in a different light. Either I was going to put myself in debt by struggling to care for my children, or I could put myself in debt because I invested in my education to get to a better situation financially.
I set my fears aside and began to research schools that interested me. I knew that in my future career, I wanted to have the knowledge, skills and training to counsel all individuals, not just children. I decided to complete a master’s in clinical mental health counseling because I wanted to counsel children, adolescents and adults with developmental trauma.
When choosing a graduate school and field, I knew that I had to choose a field that I liked because it would be hard to invest myself in a school or field that I did not care for. As my graduate school experience began, I felt nervous and anxious. I had to remind myself that nothing comes easy and that the rewards would be worth it in the end. I noticed the further I got into the program, the less scary the experience became. I was more scared of the title “master’s degree” than anything else. The moral of this story is to overcome fear, because fear kills so many dreams and aspirations.
Currently I am a full-time worker with two small children. The support system I have is amazing. Graduate school became more stressful toward the end of my first term, but it was still manageable. In the future, I hope to have my own practice, and I would like to be involved in consulting. I would like to counsel adults with developmental issues and children who have experienced sexual trauma and physical abuse.
Graduate school will challenge you and reward you. In graduate school, you will learn how to master your writing and time management skills. My first tip to readers is to stay totally invested in your education despite your doubts. My second tip as you struggle through graduate school is to remember that to whom much is given, much is required.
My first encounter with the counseling world happened when I was 8. My parents took me to see a counselor so that I could work through my confusion about their divorce, among other things. At 8, I was far more aware of the world than most, and I really didn’t care to spend my time in a counselor’s office once a week, especially because I felt belittled by my counselor. He spoke to me like an unaware child who couldn’t comprehend my emotions. The anger I felt toward my counselor turned into a sympathetic compassion for others like me — for others who felt like they weren’t being heard.
I turned this compassion into a career path and have aimed to change the system and those who work in it ever since. In my path, I have encountered terrible testimonials that made me weep for those who turned to the mental health and substance abuse care systems. They expressed to me that they too felt belittled. This has driven my passion even further and motivated me to continue my education beyond my undergraduate degree.
Deciding whether I wanted to go to graduate school was a long process. I had to consider if school was necessary to achieve the goals I wished to accomplish. I had to first make sure that the school I chose had an accredited degree program that would prepare me with the knowledge I need to pursue my goals. Finding a school that was CACREP accredited but also helps students obtain licensure was very important.
Currently I am pursuing my degree in clinical mental health counseling. I wanted a school that would build not only my fundamental knowledge but my professional knowledge as well. Not only is the school providing me with the basic knowledge I need to be a counselor, but it also provides me with opportunities to be experienced in the counseling field, which is a bonus. Having proper knowledge about the legalities of my career choice is very important in my pursuit to change the current systems.
I hope to open up more doors for people not only to get the help they need, but also to feel comfortable enough to do so. My future goals are to motivate counselors to take the time to listen to their clients and figure out what their problems are before diagnosing them for life.
Since being in graduate school, I have learned two things that I believe all those in pursuit of higher education should know. My first tip for those considering or starting the graduate program is to always use your resources. Making connections with the faculty around you and using the educational resources provided on campus are good ways for you to excel academically and to grow your network. Talking to people who have already achieved the professional or educational goals you are pursuing is a great way to learn the customs of pursuing professional and educational goals.
The second tip all potential graduate students should know is to develop time management skills. Depending on your school choice, the pace of the school may be more or less than you are accustomed to. This can cause you to become either overwhelmed or stagnant, either of which can have large effects on your grades. It’s important to schedule time to complete and comprehend your assignments while also providing yourself with downtime to prevent burning out.
So, the next time you consider whether graduate school is worth the effort, it is. Taking the time to advance yourself in life, in any facet, can open doors far beyond what you might imagine.
I was led to counseling in high school after taking an intro to psychology course. Learning about the mind and the way it works piqued my interest because I was coming to accept the fact that I was gay.
Children are very conscious, and as a child I came to the understanding rather quickly that being gay was not acceptable in society. I discovered that I was considered mentally ill until 1987, when the decision was made to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I felt like a normal, conscious person, but society told me that my thoughts were not normal or conscious. I knew that something was wrong with this idea. When I made it to a bachelor’s program in psychology, I realized that I was not alone, and I wanted to help others like myself.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I felt that I was equipped with the foundation I needed to start my journey, but I wasn’t qualified to provide help in the context I desired. I quickly realized that I would not be able to fully fulfill my purpose without an advanced degree. My reason for choosing a master’s in the clinical mental health counseling program was because I enjoyed the idea of sitting down and helping people work through their problems as a clinician, as opposed to the assessment and testing angle that a psychology master’s would provide.
I have always been ambitious, and the idea of continuing my education has always been a driving force in my life. I relocated from Florida to Georgia in 2009 for a job opportunity at a residential treatment facility, and I decided to continue my education. Of course, life doesn’t go exactly as we plan it out, and establishing a life for myself via full-time employment prevented me from starting school right away. But I knew the stars would align when it was my time.
It was a difficult decision because I had to continue working full time and needed flexibility. I was determined to make it work, and I was accepted into graduate school for my master’s in clinical mental health counseling in October 2015.
Currently, as a student in my first term, I am surprised at how much I am analyzing myself while learning the material. I realized that counselors must explore their own lives and personal experiences to effectively help others understand their experiences. Realizing things about myself and how I fit into the spectrum of life gave me a sense of purpose and opened my eyes to the importance of helping others realize their purpose. The curriculum in my Foundations of Mental Health Counseling course definitely helped me solidify and understand my professional identity and equipped me with a wealth of knowledge about myself.
My future now gives me a sense of success and fulfillment. I’m looking forward to studying counseling theories because my goals involve implementing strength-based modalities to help gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning at-risk youth achieve success.
My tips for those considering or starting a graduate program are to be ready to face yourself and any issues in your personal life, such as your sexuality, that may be barriers to your own success. Students should use the experience as a sense of self-therapy in an attempt to prepare to help others. Also, to ensure success, students should become comfortable with writing. I have always been a writer, and I love to express myself through words. With the help of the available resources for writing in graduate school, students should graduate as better writers than they were when they started.
My interest in the world of counseling embarked when I decided to leave a life and career in the music industry that was full of glitz and glamour. However, I strongly believed that I was choosing a path that felt much more rewarding. A path filled with light. A path that has purpose and endless possibilities to make a difference in the lives of other individuals who are in need of some guidance and encouragement.
My decision to enroll in the clinical mental health counseling program derived from the passion I have to help at-risk youth gain skills to overcome their struggles and obstacles. This passion came from the struggles I personally faced as an at-risk child. Fortunately, I was lucky to have two individuals who helped me learn the skills I needed to be able to succeed in life, and I was inspired to do the same for other at-risk youth.
My decision to enroll in the clinical mental health counseling program came close to three years after I had received my bachelor’s degree in psychology. My passion to succeed in life and help those individuals who need that extra push or guidance was far stronger than the doubt and obstacles I had about enrolling in graduate school. Additionally, I realized that with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was limited from being able to achieve my future goals. Furthering my education became almost impossible to ignore.
After doing extensive research on graduate schools, I came across one school that really stood out to me. The flexibility of the program’s schedule, the scholarly faculty and the fact that the program was CACREP accredited was very influential in my decision.
My current experience in my first class has come to an end and has proved to be very informative and motivational. This class is called Foundations of Mental Health Counseling and truly embodies the foundation of everything the clinical mental health counseling program consists of. In all honesty, I was extremely nervous when I first started this class because I had no idea what to expect. I also had reservations about how it was going to affect my personal and work life. Fortunately, now that I am at the end of the course, I can say that this class has helped calm my nerves and given me some insight on what to expect in future classes and in the counseling field in general.
My future goals consist of running my own practice; playing a major role in implementing a program inside school systems to either replace suspension or work hand in hand with suspension; and starting a nonprofit organization that empowers at-risk youth and troubled families while positively influencing school systems and communities worldwide. To some, it may seem as if I am biting off more than I can chew. However, in my eyes, if you truly want something in life, it is up to you and only you to make that dream turn into a reality.
My tips for those considering or starting a graduate program are to make sure you engage in self-care and to study smarter, not harder. Engaging in self-care can help you avoid burnout and keep a healthy balance between work, life and school. Some examples of self-care are working out, meditating and practicing mindfulness.
Learning how to study smarter and not harder is also very important to your success. Staying organized, using good time management, taking good notes and reviewing them consistently are all ways that you can study smarter and not harder. In the end, remembering why you entered the graduate program should be your biggest motivator.
The backgrounds, personal stories and inspirations behind counseling students’ decisions to attend graduate school are unique to each individual. Whether those experiences are as a mother, a former patient, someone accepting his sexual identity or just someone with natural talent, we all share a passion to learn about what it takes to help bring about the best in all of us.
Counseling students share a set of values that all people in helping careers possess, including empathy, passion and a nature of selflessness that ensures we are helping our clients reach their full potential. Future counseling students should know that this career is about more than personal gain or financial stability; it is about changing the world one client at a time.
The authors of this article were students in a Foundations of Clinical Mental Health Counseling course at Argosy University, Atlanta, taught by associate professor Allison L. Spargo. Tanisha Johnson, a doctoral student, served as a teaching assistant. Both Spargo and Johnson are members of the American Counseling Association.
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.