Episode 47

What should I be looking for in a grad program?

Does it matter if the school is online or in-person?

How can I make sure I’m on track to get licensed?

Getting a Master’s in Counseling seems like it should be a simple thing. If you do a google search, you’ll be presented with a ton of recommendations. In this episode my goal is to help you narrow things down and get really focused on what you want and need out of a program. 

You are about to spend more money than any single purchase other than a home. This isn’t about what the school is willing to give you and you just take it. This is about you choosing to get the most bang for your buck. This is about you getting the best experience you can both during the program and preparation for the career to come.

In this episode are things I learned, things I heard from other therapists and students and things I wish I  had known before getting a masters in counseling.

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You’re listening to the All Things Substance podcast, the place for therapists to hear about substance abuse from a mental health perspective.  I’m your host, Betsy Byler and I’m a licensed therapist, clinical supervisor, and a substance abuse counselor.  It is my mission to help my fellow therapists gain the skills and competence needed to add substance use to their scope of practice.   So join me each week as we talk about All Things Substance.

Welcome back to the All Things Substance podcast. This is episode 47.  On today’s episode of the Student Edition we’re going to be talking about which masters in counseling program you should choose. There are a lot of things to consider when you’re thinking about going back to school.

We pick up where we left off last month. If you haven’t listened to the last Student Edition episode, you should head over to the website to listen before you start this one. They build on each other and I don’t know that this will make as much sense or be as useful if you haven’t heard the other one.  You can find that episode at betsybyler.com/podcast.

It can be hard to decide which school you want to go to. If you type in master’s in counseling, there is a ton of information that pops up. A lot of them are aggregate sites, meaning  they’re meant to pull together links from other places and sort of farm them out. They’re not necessarily doing an extensive amount of research so much as they are trying to draw people to their original website. That is unhelpful for most of us, because we need real information to make this kind of choice.

As we start this discussion today, I want to say something about choosing a program. Don’t half-ass this. I’m not suggesting that you half-ass things in your life. I’m suggesting that people think that programs are essentially the same and the truth is they are not. They do have an impact on how you’re trained and your job prospects afterwards.

So even though it’s confusing, I’m going to encourage you to dig in and really know the programs that you’re choosing between. You want to be sure that you have chosen the right one for you. Outside of buying a house this is the thing you’re going to spend the most money on pretty much in your lifetime at one go.

My master’s degree was probably around 80 grand. That’s a lot of money. I’m really confident in the choice that I made, because I believe I had really great training. I want you to be just as secure in that knowledge that you chose a great program. I don’t represent any one program. I’m not going to steer you in any one direction. I’m going to give you information from my perspective as a therapist, but also as a director.

I was responsible for hiring therapists and forming a team for 12 years out of my 18 year career. I interviewed countless therapists over the years. I have been accused of being too picky by a former boss of mine and my response is I don’t want shitty therapists. There’s a lot of shitty therapists running around. I don’t know that it’s most of them, but the number of people who have a license versus the number of people truly gifted to do the work. Those are very different things.

When I have looked at masters in counseling online, my eyes glazed over a bit. Even to me, it was really a lot of information.  So I feel for where you all are at. And if you dig in a little bit, you will be able to determine which is the right fit for you. So let’s start with the biggest question of all:  online schooling versus in-person.

I want to start by saying that I am in a place in my life where I fall between those who did everything in person and those who do a lot of things online. My age and experience is straddling a shift in the field and I recognize that. I can only give you my experience. I was a director before COVID. When COVID hit, I was three months into private practice. So my experience is going to be in a pre COVID world and that does change things.

How which degree you choose intersects with hiring decisions

Before we talk about specifics about online or in-person, let me talk to you about hiring decisions. Forming a team of therapists is a difficult task. It’s different, I think, than hiring someone for a different kind of job, someone to work in a billing department, someone to do the intake calls at a clinic. Those are different jobs that if the person doesn’t work out, someone else can cover for them. And there really isn’t a ton of fallout except some extra work to catch up on.

When we’re replacing a therapist that is a huge deal. We’re talking about a caseload of real people and their lives. If that therapist isn’t good at their job, you’re also going to have to be trying to assess that at the same time as not letting the clients know what’s happening behind the scenes, because they need to have some confidence that they’re safe.

I would much rather be picky than choose someone that I’m unsure about and end up regretting it later. I can say with complete confidence that The majority of the people I hired turned out beautifully. The one time I was forced to make a panic decision, it didn’t turn out real great. It wasn’t awful, but  it wasn’t the beautiful fit that it could have been.

In the small area in which I live, we were the biggest place in town, which isn’t hard considering we were one of the only places in town.  But we were the place to go for mental health therapy. It was a big deal to me to provide really solid therapy for our community. 

So here’s what happens when I post a job. I would get resumes from all sorts of different people. At different times in the year, there would be a flood of resumes and other times not. I would have to choose if it was a slow time, if I was going to wait for more applicants, or  if I was going to choose from a small selection.

For me, it was more important that I got the right person than I got a person into a job. Sometimes this caused conflict for the higher ups who weren’t super excited about my process, I’ll say. And I didn’t care then and don’t care now. I believe I did the right thing.  So when I look at an application, I’m scanning it for a couple of things and it’s different from what an HR person will do, because they don’t totally know the words and the lingo that I’m looking for.  

What resumes show employers

I want to know if they’re licensed or not. I want to know when they graduated, and how long ago. I want to know where they graduated from. I want to know what their experiences were like, and if they don’t have a ton of them, then I want to know what their internship was like. 

I want to see how they presented the information. I want to read the cover letter and see if they know what they’re talking about, or if it is something that they kind of threw together and just changed the name. I want to know that they actually care about working for my organization. I can tell most of that from the cover letter and the resume.

Sometimes I would have a number of applications and would have to choose between people to interview in ways that you might not expect. For instance, there was a time where I had so many applications that I eliminated a few people because their emails were stupid. I know that sounds harsh and it’s the truth.

One email had something like baby princess71. First of all, if you’re born in 71, you’re way too old to be a baby princess and there is no way you should put something like that on a resume. Your email address needs to be something professional: first and last name, initials and last name. If you need to use a number because your name’s really common, then choose the year you graduated from grad school or something like that. Not the year you were born. Age is a thing that can be really sensitive. You don’t want to be giving that to somebody who might have some prejudice against young people or people who are older or whatever the case may be. Pick a number that doesn’t correlate to your age.

If someone recently graduated from grad school and they have their student email address, that’s fine. But if they’ve been out 10 years and they’re still using their college email address, I don’t know. That shows a level of not moving on and not really caring about that part of your life. It’s not necessarily why I would reject an application, but it’s just something to think about.  What I want to give you here is a look inside the mind of people who are making the choices to hire you so that you can understand how to present yourself.

How COVID is changing perception about online programs

Probably the most important thing I look at besides the license is their experience. If their experience isn’t very long in terms of they haven’t been practicing forever, then I’m going to look really closely at their school. In a pre-COVID world, online programs weren’t that great.  I’m not saying that I’m not a fan of them. I’m saying that in a pre-COVID world, online programs just couldn’t compete with in-person programs. 

What training you have is actually really important to a good agency. Remember, I was not looking for a rank and file therapist. I was not looking for someone to just meet productivity. I was looking for a team member, a colleague, a good coworker for my other team members and someone that was going to be with us for quite a while. So the training tells me how they prepared to be a therapist.

Some of the programs that are widely circulated from colleges that aren’t actually any brick and mortar college, those don’t look as good to me. I don’t know them. They don’t have a reputation. They’re this online entity that I don’t know if I can trust. Let’s say, we have an array of applications, let’s say they’re all from an online program. If there are online programs that are attached to a real, and by real, I mean in-person brick and mortar school. I’m going to choose those over the one that’s from an online only entity. I’m not going to name those entities. I’m not saying that I know what their programs are like. I’m talking about impressions. 

When you’re hiring people that is less than 1% of a job of a director. I do not have time to fully research everybody’s resume and school and background to give them all a fair shot. I just don’t. . I’m going to glance and see the things that I’m looking for and then I’m going to tell my HR department, these are the people  I want to interview.

So please hear what I’m saying. If you need to go to an online university, then you need to make that choice for yourself. My goal is to help you understand the perception and to help you overcome some of the prejudices that are out there. Because a lot of the people in hiring positions are going to be my age or older and they’re going to have opinions about this.

Now, 10 years from now, after we’ve all been through this COVID thing and everything went online attitudes will have changed. And indeed my attitude has changed quite a bit.

Online courses seem easy

So let’s talk about the differences between online and in-person school. From the perspective of being a therapist. Going to school online for a class here and there makes perfect sense to me. I took psychopharmacology and career and lifespan development online. They were courses that I needed specifically to have for a particular license.

I didn’t learn much from the courses. I did the work and got A’s in both of them. They were a means to an end.  That doesn’t bode well for a counseling program if I was able to go through those classes with extremely minimal effort. Now I understand that online programs have taken a huge change and they’re doing a lot better in being more comprehensive, I guess, is the word I want to choose.

I will say that I had some concern when thinking about this episode. It is not my goal to offend people. It is not my goal to ever criticize someone else’s training. I know that  some of the things I might say, or my opinions might cause people to not want to listen anymore. My commitment though, is that I will always tell you the truth, as I understand it and I will always be  blunt. Even if that risks people wanting to hear what I have to say. You are here most likely because becoming a therapist is a dream and a goal and it feels confusing.  My job is to tell you what’s real.

What grad programs should accomplish: Educate

I think a graduate program serves a number of functions. Number one of course, is to educate. The purpose of your grad program is not just to get you a piece of paper. In a lot of ways getting your bachelor’s degree is a little bit like that. Get your bachelor’s degree,  get through it as easily as you can and then get into the real world. Graduate school for therapists. That’s a different thing.

Your training will stay with you your whole career. I still think about things that I learned in graduate school close to 20 years ago. I still feel the underpinnings of my training at the base of my clinical knowledge. This is not no big deal. This is not just a piece of paper. This is incredibly important.

So the education piece is important. You do need to have that piece of paper. Otherwise you can’t do this. But the content, the process by which you get that piece of paper does actually matter. Beyond education. Beyond the piece of paper. I believe that one of the important functions of a graduate program is to help hold up a mirror for your own stuff.

What grad programs should accomplish: Encourage self-reflection

Every one of us  comes into the graduate program with our own shit. If yours isn’t getting triggered by any of the stuff you’re learning, then something isn’t right. Whether it’s in a family systems class that you start realizing, oh, this is why things were fucked when I was growing up. Or when you’re talking about trauma and learning about different responses. And you’re like, oh, that’s why that happened. Or, oh, that’s why I felt that way or, oh, that’s why I am that way right now. It should trigger things in you so that you can look at them. 

I firmly believe that therapists should do their own in order to do any good as a therapist. I think it is irresponsible to not do your own work. Perhaps there are people who had really good and untroubled lives, who don’t have a lot to talk about in therapy. Okay. You still go though, because you need to know what it’s like to be a client. Secondarily, the majority of us, because we live in communion with other humans have had pain and grief and loss and who have developed coping skills that maybe aren’t as adaptive as they should be and who carry our own wounds and we need to know what those are. A graduate program should be showing you what those are.

What grad programs should accomplish: Experience with classmates

A graduate program should also be giving you experience with real people. I’m not talking about the internship yet. That is an entire topic in and of itself and probably the most important thing in your grad program. But for now I’m talking about the other students in the class. 

I learned a lot by listening to the other students in my class, I learned what was triggering them. I watched how people handled that. I watched how the professors who are also therapists handled those situations. I watched in-class demonstrations. I watched professors demonstrate  techniques with other classmates, I had it done with me. And those are experiences that were really important in helping me understand the work of being a therapist. 

One of the most influential things I did during grad school was the work we did in our triads. As part of our humanistic psychology class, we had to form a triad. So three students would get together and we recorded sessions where one student was being the therapist. The other student was bringing a real life issue, although not something super intense, but a real thing to the session.

They would do the therapy session for 10-15 minutes. And the third student would be watching from outside the room. We each took turns being the observer, the client, and the therapist over the semester. We did it a few different times.  When it was my turn to be the therapist, I would take that video and I had to transcribe the whole thing. Which is a giant pain, by the way. If I had to do it again today, I’d probably be able to use some kind of transcription program, but this was VHS tape and that wasn’t possible. This was a whole lot of sitting in front of the VCR. pressing pause and play and pause and play and getting it all written down. 

It was by far the most eye opening experience for me. I talk about this in one of the earlier episodes where I had my first and most memorable consciously incompetent moment.  I watched that tape and had this thought of “holy shit, I suck at this”. It was a turning point. It was humbling and incredibly important to my development as a therapist. I was able to see what I did wrong. I was able to see what I did right. I was able to see what I had missed that the observer was able to notice. I was able to watch body language that I had missed. I was able to see how I was looking, what my facial expression, what my body language was.

It was a huge deal. I don’t know that my program would have been nearly as good if I didn’t have that experience. As much as I did not want to do that and I do not want to do that again. It was the best thing that they did for us.

So the grad program isn’t just about education and it isn’t just about showing you where your own stuff might get in the way. It also is giving you some very real life experience pre-internship in a place that is safe. That is really important. 

What grad programs should accomplish: Testing fitness for the field

I also believe that graduate programs have the responsibility to weed out people who are not suited for this work. People believe that they should be therapists for a number of reasons. Sometimes those reasons aren’t super great. Sometimes it comes out of someone’s brokenness and they’re looking in a way to heal themselves. Sometimes it comes out of someone’s arrogance and they’re going to do damage to people.

When I was in grad school, there were at least two people that were weeded out of the program and I agreed. We didn’t know the circumstances. I don’t know exactly how these people left, but I do know that every time I was in class, I was like, holy shit. I don’t know that that’s great. Or, wow I can’t believe she said that out loud. I believe that our professors likely coached those people out of the program. 

What grad programs should accomplish: Explore the power differential

Which brings me to the second part of that point and the other thing I believe grad school should do, which is show us the gravity of what we’re doing. We are placing ourselves in a position where we are encouraging people to bring us their brokenness, their pain, their trauma and we are saying that we can help them and we can show them how to feel better and how to move in a different direction. The amount of power that that is is sometimes staggering.  

There are people who are going to come in for therapy who have really solid senses of. Very solid. Won’t be swayed. If they disagreed with us, it wouldn’t really make a big thing for them. They would just do what they were going to do anyway. I’m telling you that that’s not the majority of people. Most people, when they’re bringing us their vulnerability genuinely need some guidance. 

Our codes of ethics are not just pieces of paper that we never refer to. They guide everything you do as a therapist. When the ethics aren’t clear your job is to do what most therapists would do. We can get reported to the board for any number of things. Even a perceived slight. We can have a tremendous impact for good and for bad. I feel like we need a good grad program to help us face that reality, get comfortable with it and understand how to manage it without being overwhelmed.

I’ll have people come to see me and I always ask them about previous therapy experiences and if they found it helpful. If they did, I want to know what was helpful. If they didn’t find it helpful, I’d like to know why. Sometimes a client will share with me something that a previous therapist said. Whether or not that therapist actually said those specific words in that order. I’ll never know.  What I know is that that is what my client heard. When they tell me that thing, it almost always caused significant distress, if not outright pain or a compounding of their symptoms.

Here’s an example, a woman talking about having had an abortion when she was younger. In this case, the client had a child and ended up choosing to have an abortion when she had an unplanned pregnancy. It was a difficult decision and there were a number of factors as there always are. The therapist asked her a question. She said, “why would you have an abortion if you already have a child?”

Someone could say, oh, that’s just a question. Nope. That has a definite connotation to it. That has judgment and that has bias and some of the therapist’s values. That statement was carried through for 20 years in that client’s heart. That is hard to undo. A person in authority basically told her that she was choosing the easy way out and that is inexcusable. 

The work we do is difficult because we have a lot of power and with great power comes great responsibility. I believe that our graduate programs are very important in helping us understand this and helping us prepare for it.

Your school will matter to a good agency

So when I’m looking at applications to fill a therapist position, these are the things that go on in my mind when I’m thinking about the school that somebody went to. This is not about just a piece of paper. This is about what went into getting that piece of paper. There may be places that don’t give a rat’s ass, what your training was like, all they care about is do you have a license and are you a warm body that will show up for work? That is not the kind of organization that I want you to work for. 

I believe if you are here listening to this podcast, that you want something closer to what I’ve described than just punching a clock and this is how you earn money so that you can live the rest of your life.

Online, Hybrid and In-Person

If I had a choice and if the world was perfect. Every one of you would be able to attend an in-person school in a decently small sized group, say 30 or less with excellent professors. And I realize that that is not feasible for a lot of people. Graduate programs have been adapting over the last several years and they continue to adapt to try to meet the needs of their students.

When I went to school, my classes were on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Monday and Wednesday were full days. Tuesday was a half day and we were off Thursday and Friday. I was a single person at the time so I worked Thursday and Friday and used student loans to cover the rest of my bills. I didn’t have children, I didn’t have a partner. I was. And so I was able to do those things.

For some people, they weren’t in a position to have three people living in an apartment and splitting bills and having a part-time job was enough. They have full-time jobs, they have previous careers, they have children, they have families.

I am aware that not everybody is going to be able to do the in-person school. If you are able to, that is my recommendation. There are a number of schools who do things to work around, someone who is working full time. There’s a graduate MSW program up here with a clinical concentration that does their work on Wednesday evenings and all day Saturday and they go through the summer. It’s all in-person. Now I’m sure that there are side classes that they offer online, but those in-person times are pretty important. There are other programs that are fully in person that are on weekends. And those are an option for people who are working full-time or  have some other kinds of obligations.

I recognized that when I went to school That I had privileged to be able to do that. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was in my early twenties and I hadn’t quite, I don’t know, figured it out about how everyone else lived. All my friends were my age and going to school.

I did have some people in our program who were older and who had children and families and whatnot. They worked it out in the ways that they were able to. In person programs are not the same as online. I believe that universities and colleges are trying to make it as close to that as they can. I believe that they are probably coming up with really interesting and innovative ways to make the online experience as close to being in person as possible.

Like I said, in a post COVID world, I’m guessing that that’s even more so the case. I also know that post COVID my opinion of what happens online has changed. A year and a half ago. I would have said that I would never, and I would have used to never, do video therapy. I had a bias because I’m a really relational person that only being in the presence of the other person would be acceptable.

I have been fully online since March 13th, 2020, and I am still doing EMDR trauma therapy by video. I am seeing clients that I literally have never met.  I realize how much, even at my place in my career, I still have change to do. I now have greater respect for things that can happen online when people are really intentional

Fully in-person programs are not the only option. If you want a fully in-person program, you should check to see if there are some around you. Even if they’re a couple hours away that run on weekends or intensives, or have some other kind of schedule that would work for you. There are also hybrid programs that are partially online and then a few weeks or weekends out of the year,   you go to do in person work.  Those can be really good options. 

I would encourage you not to close your mind to the idea of doing some of the work in person. This training that you’re getting is the single most expensive and important investment of your career. Hands down. I encourage you to do what you need to do to make it great. You will not regret adjusting your schedule, figuring out how to do things in a way that fits you best. 

If you’ve looked at the programs and your time and your commitments and whatnot, and just feel like it has to be all online, then that’s the choice you make.  If that’s the choice that’s right for you, then I would say that your internship and the experience therein is going to be probably one of the most important things that you do, and that will be really important for your resume. We will get to that in a different podcast.

I do not think online programs are bad. I think there are some that are bad. I think that for-profit educational institutions aren’t able by nature to have your best interests at the very top, because they have investors who require money to be made. I’m not saying that universities don’t make money or need to make money because they do. However, that distinction is really important. 

I would encourage you to look at the online program and the way that they’re talking about it. If they’re making it sound easy and that’s their primary thing, I don’t know that that’s great. Yeah, you want it? Easy ish, but you also want it to be solid training. That’s what I meant earlier when you do a search for master’s in counseling or whatever you put into Google and you come up with all of these choices, that’s, what’s hard. 

Other things to ask and consider: Accreditation

As you’re thinking about a grad program in person or online, there are some things that you need to pay attention to. One of them is accreditation An accreditation is something that is a governing body that has looked at the program and put their stamp on it. There are lots of accreditations. Some of them matter, some of them don’t.

In this case, there are accreditations that are important for MSWs, MFTs, and LPC. I don’t pretend that I’ve done extensive work on researching this. What I did do was reach out to an MFT and an MSW that I know to ask them about their governing body.

Because the first thing you did is decide which route you want to go, right? MFT, LPC, MSW. So based on that, you’re narrowing down which program you’re going to choose. Next, you need to know what accreditation is important. For you MFT hopefuls out there the accreditation that we’re talking about is the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education  the acronym, COAMFTE. There’s probably a unique way that they say that out loud rather than having to spell it every time. But I don’t know what that is. So that accreditation, the  COAMFTE is kind of the gold standard. 

There are other ones that are acceptable as well, but  the reason this one stands out is something really specific. There is a loan repayment program. Called NHSC the National Health Service Corps. Think like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, but for therapists and other healthcare professionals. It is an encouragement to work in underserved areas and only certain agencies can get it. Not a for-profit gig, not a private practice. We’re talking about community mental health. 

I had a therapist that worked for me, who  was an MFT and wanted to apply for that loan program.  She found out right when she got her MFT final license, that her school didn’t have the right accreditation for that program. So she had to start an entirely new license to get an LPC because there wasn’t that requirement in the government regulation. This has nothing to do with licensing. It has to do with getting that loan repayment program. NHSC is a huge deal. I have zero student loans because NHSC paid for $125,000 of my education.

So it’s a big deal. If you are an MFT and you think you might want to work for community mental health and seek out that loan repayment program, assuming it exists then. It’s been around for a long time. And if there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to do an episode on NHSC for people as it can be kind of confusing. But the payoff pun intended is really great because all of that money is not taxable. So MFT is when you’re looking at programs, make sure that you look  at the accreditation and whether it’s accredited by the commission.

For MSWs, you’re looking at CSWE. The Council on Social Work Education I don’t have any more to say about the MSW certification accreditation, because it’s pretty standardized.  I don’t know that you have to worry too much about it, but I would just double-check before you enroll in an MSW program about their accreditation.

For LPCs. You’re looking at what’s called CACREP. Which is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. So the CACREP  accreditation is something that is coming to be the gold standard.  It hasn’t been before, but in the last 10 years or so, it’s been something that’s been becoming more important and more states are adopting it as part of their regulation. 

You don’t have to go to a CACREP school. However, that depends of course on which state you’re in. So here’s an example. The program I went to when I went to it was not CACREP accredited. That didn’t make it a bad program. I’ve been practicing for 18 years. I have a license. Wasn’t a big deal. The program is accredited now, but it wasn’t then.  They sought that accreditation and the incredible process that it is to get there because it was important and more places were requiring it.

So here’s why it matters. If I wanted to get licensed in another state, that lack of CACREP accreditation could stop me. So let’s take Ohio for instance. If I wanted to get licensed in Ohio, they have an LPC license. They even have an LPCC. I can do reciprocity and get my license. However, since I did not go to a CACREP accredited school, they want me to fill out what’s called an education form. They have domains that they want you to have classes in each domain.

So I would fill out that paper saying in development I had these classes and in ethics I had these classes. Basically showing them that my program, while not CACREP accredited, meets these requirements. This is a side note for the love of all that is holy keep every syllabus that a professor gives you in grad school and keep it for forever. 18 years down the road they could ask me for those syllabi. They could decide that the title of my class doesn’t sound right and they want me to prove that what I learned in that class meets their requirements. Even though I’ve been practicing for 18 years, it doesn’t matter. I would still have to prove that I met those requirements and the syllabus is the only thing that I can show them.

You can’t just use any syllabus from the class that’s happening now. You have to use the syllabus from the class that you had back whenever you had it. The university is not going to love it if you come to them and ask them for that. They get asked all the time, but that is not their job to keep those on file for you. And so I have a file. I have a backup file and an electronic file of those syllabi so that I have them, always. 

So the CACREP accreditation, while it didn’t matter at the time that I got it, matters now. A lot of states require it. A lot of them do have a way to get a license without it. But this is what’s really important about the licensing standards in your state or in the state in which you hope to practice.

We’ll talk about licensing in next month’s podcast, because there’s a lot of things to consider. But for accreditations, this is what you need to know. You choose your program path,  then you look at accreditation. Here are some other tips about looking at graduate programs  and evaluating them for what fits right for you.

Information to know about the program before you commit

First, you want to look at the length of time it takes to get through the program. And whether or not it’s only full-time or whether there’s a part-time option as well. I would encourage you to do whatever program path time-wise. That is right for you. Yeah. It could take you four years, but four years is going to pass and either you’re going to have a degree or you’re not.  Might as well take the time you need to get it. If you can do it in a two year timeframe. Great. But you want to see if there’s flexibility because life happens and you might have decided you’re going to go straight through, and then something happens good, bad or indifferent that makes it so you have to change that and you want to know what the options are.

Next make sure you talk to the admissions department and not just in email. You don’t want their promotional stuff. Yeah. You want to read what they have to say, but you want to talk to an actual person and ask some hard questions. Are they preparing you for licensure? I know that seems like a given, but it’s not.

Academia does not care about licensing. The only reason they care about licensing is because their students care about licensing. There are people who have gone through masters programs who got out and realized they didn’t have what they needed and went to the school. And the school’s like, it’s not our problem. We’re not tracking relicensing recommendations. Then that person is stuck. So you want to ask that question specifically. Are they preparing you for licensure? 

Then you want to ask them about graduates from the program. Are graduates from the program getting licensed? Are there any issues? What’s the job placement rating like? What happens with their graduates? How successful are they? Because trust me the schools know these things and if they don’t, that’s probably not a great sign. 

I would ask what kind of demographics there are on the students? Are they mostly non-traditional students? So people my age going back to school, or is it a lot of younger people who are straight out of undergrad? You just want to know that information.  If it’s mostly students right out of undergrad and you’re my age, is that what you want? Or does it matter to you? Not putting down people who are in that age range, It’s just a different place in life. Or if you are a 20 something and you’re in class with mostly 40 and 50 year olds, I don’t know that that’s going to feel as great either because having people who are in the same place in life is actually really nice.

So when you talk to the recruiter or the admissions department, these are the things that you want to know. You also want to know about the pre-reqs for the program if there are any. There may or may not be things that you have to have had before you start their program. That’s kind of a nasty shock if you’re planning on going to grad school in the fall and find out that you need a couple of classes.  Those classes aren’t necessarily hard to get, but prereqs are very hard to waive. So you want to check on that.

Undergrad Majors

Now we’ll take a side note here to answer a question about undergraduate programs. A lot of times I see students asking what should my major be in an undergraduate school? And the truth is it depends. If you know you’re going to be an MSW, then you get a BSW, a bachelor’s in social work. Because the benefit there is that if you have a BSW, you only have to do one year of grad school instead of two.

It’s called advanced standing. They assume that you’ve already had the core social work classes and so you only have one year. That’s a huge deal. If you are not sure about that or are going to go in a different route than some sort of social science related thing sociology, psychology, those types of things. You will have had a lot of the social science classes that they require. If you have a really weird undergrad in terms of maybe you were going to be a mechanical engineer, and now you want to be a therapist which happens, then you want to take a look at what the prereqs are. If there are any.

Is there the pre-grad school test?

One of the last things you want to ask is whether or not you have to take the GRE, which is the graduate record exam. The GRE is like the act or the sat, but for grad school. Now, when I took the GRE, there were three sections: quantitative math, qualitative math, and basically an English. Quantitative math and qualitative math were different. One was about literally numbers and algebra and problems and the other one was more logic puzzles, which I do well at logic puzzles and the English part. There was a 400 point difference in my scores between the logic puzzles and the English and my math, because I suck that bad at math.  They still took me, which was great, but it freaked me out. 

If you don’t want to have to take the GRE you want to pay attention to that too. I did not study for the GRE. I looked at it and I was like, um, no, I’m not going to do this. I either know it or I don’t. You can sign up to take it. They give you your score right away these days. And then you’ll know what you’re looking at. I don’t know how many schools are requiring it now. I’ve heard mixed reviews on that.

Internship is #1 priority

You do not need a thesis. When I went to school, there was a choice between doing a thesis or an internship. Do not make that mistake. You do not need a thesis. You need an internship. Back to my Ohio example, I would have to provide them information about my internship. I would also have to provide them information about my supervised hours that occurred 16 years ago, but that’s a different conversation having to do with licensing.

Internships are incredibly important. You would think that the school would do a great job of helping you secure one. And the truth is most of them don’t, especially if you’re online. Part of that is because you can’t just show up in their office and demand that they do better. It is very hard when they are in a different place, in a different town, online only, and don’t have any connections to local places for internships.

Our local universities in my area have relationships with all of the mental health centers. They have a list of people  who you can contact. They have previous experience with them. There are places that take a certain number of internships from a specific school every semester. You want that help. When they tell you that they will help you, please do not just take that at face value.

You will be doing much of the legwork.  They might give you names and numbers, but they are not going to handhold you.  It can be really hard to get an internship and it can feel really overwhelming. It is really, really important.

I would say from the beginning of your grad program that you are thinking about internship and what you might like to do. Because what your experiences is, is going to matter, especially in your first few years when you’re looking for jobs. I applied for my internship two months into my graduate program, which is rare. So I’m not overachieving here or anything, but I decided to do my internship in Montana, even though I was from Chicago and do it in the summer after our graduation. I wanted to spend that time in a fully immersive situation where I was working at a facility that was inpatient and I lived in an intern house.

I did it specifically because of the work that they do and how it aligned with what I believed I wanted to do. It was the best experience I could have had. And it was uniquely suited to me. You could think outside the box about what kind of experience you want.

It’s not something you want to do at the last minute when everyone is panicking about getting an internship secured. You want to be thinking about this ahead of time. In the end, the school will help you find one because you won’t graduate without it. But it is a little bit of first come first serve. And so it’s just something you want to be thinking of and keeping your ear open about places that you might like to go. There are ways to set yourself apart to an agency to take you for an internship.

Each semester has a plan, you should know it

When looking at grad programs, you should know enough to know exactly what every semester will look like. They know that because they offer the classes  on a certain schedule. The admissions person can help you find that information. You should know exactly what classes that they have that are required, and which ones are going to be optional.

You should have the description of those classes. You should be able to tell with relative ease what your actual school schedule will be. There are not going to be multiple options for a class like there usually are. This isn’t like taking algebra one and there’s like 40 different sections of it.

There will usually be one section of a class. There might be two and that’s important to know so that you’re aware of what you’re after, especially if it’s about in-person or hybrid or however you’re going to do it. This should not be a wait and see situation. Now it takes a little bit of work, but if you’re going to invest $80,000 or however much it is by the time you’re done into a program, you want to know exactly what you’re getting into.

There will be some questions that you can’t get answered and that’s okay. But a solid program will know the answer to these questions. If they don’t, then they’re just selling something and they don’t really know and or give a shit about it. This is your career and your life, and likely you will go to graduate school once. Make it count.

I hope that this has been helpful. I know that it’s probably a little stressful because there are so many details. Take this step-by-step. Choose  which path you’re going to go. MFT, LPC, MSW.

Look at the programs in the universities and colleges around you and see what’s there. Check out the schedules and decide whether one of them has one that you think is going to work. Then you dig into the other things that I’ve mentioned in this podcast. Come back to it if you need to. 

There’s also a transcript in the show notes. So you can read and find what you’re looking for rather than going back and listening and trying to find it. You can do this and you can find the right program for you.

In the next student edition episode, we’re going to tackle licensing. I’m anticipating that it’ll probably take more than one episode, but we’ll see.

Next week on the podcast, we’re going to be talking about a class of drugs called Roofies.  I hope you’ll join me for that podcast and until then have a great week.

Thank you for listening to the All Things Substance podcast. For show notes, links and downloads, please visit betsybyler.com/podcast. If you loved what you heard today, it’d be great if you would share those with your therapist friends and colleagues. If there are topics that you think would be useful and you’d like to hear me cover them, please let me know.  Just send a message to podcast@betsybyler.com. I’ll see you on next week’s podcast. And until then have a great week.

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