What kind of a therapist will you be?
Which theoretical orientation should you adopt?
Will you work within a certain framework only, or are you eclectic?
Alongside concerns about comprehensive tests, serving your clients, and doubts about your competency, questions about your identity will also compete for mental space during grad school.
Fielding these questions may seem like walking into the slew of options at a scrumptious buffet. Where to even begin?
Thankfully, time is on your side. When you graduate with that shiny new degree, you will have had many opportunities to ponder and practice different styles and think about what facets of the field you’ll be involved in, courtesy of your various supervisors and mentors.
At least that’s the hope.
And if that’s not the case, then you can use these tips to figure out how to develop your own professional foundation.
1. Unearth Your Uniqueness
What’s your personality like? The way you think, conceptualize, and operate can point you to the theory of personality that you would most enjoy. If listening to your buddy’s woes naturally drives you to problem solve, for instance, it makes sense for you to gravitate toward Solution-Focused Therapy, or other theories that emphasize working on facts and the future.
Also, now is not the time to foreclose on domains of expertise. Your status as a student means there may be areas you’re still developing affinity and aptitude for. Explore new opportunities before you decide they’re not right for you.
Take my supervisee, for example.
My supervisee was, at first, reluctant to tackle couples therapy. Her history fueled this hesitation, given that she’d only seen one couple when she began training. But a little bit of prodding was all that was needed.
She gamely agreed to see the couples that came to our counseling center – and eventually, one-third of her caseload was comprised of couples! These couples had different personalities and presenting problems, as well as varying degrees of openness to the therapeutic process. The fact that they all remained with her, rather than dropping out, confirms her growth as a couples therapist.
2. Invest in Your Own Therapy
A professor in grad school once shared that many people are attracted to the helping profession because of the wounds they have suffered. If this describes you, find your heart the help it needs first. After all, how can we help those who are hurting when we’re bleeding ourselves?
Granted, the wounds are likely emotional instead of physical, but the fact remains: until they are properly cared for, unattended emotional wounds will continue to dog our attention and distract us from the task of remaining present for our clients.
Pursuing your own therapy will translate into a host of personal benefits. But as a therapist in training, therapy will also grant you perks that aid toward your professional growth. The process of being a client can:
- Demonstrate how a professional therapist runs his or her session. This is an excellent way to learn up-close whether cognitive-behavioral therapy works for you, or if you appreciate depth psychology more.
- Unlock your previously unknown beliefs, whether about yourself or the world. In other words, being in therapy helps clear the path toward self-awareness, which will add much-needed light to your journey of professional development.
- Create a first-hand experience of the life-changing process of psychotherapy. This includes experiencing the fears most people have about being in therapy, the hopes about the therapy and expectations placed onto the therapist, and the joys of seeing personal change take place. These firsthand experiences as a client will help you empathize with your clients in a way that no didactic can.
3. Build on Your Beliefs
Reflecting on your personal values about psychology is a way to help you narrow down the number of theories you might most appreciate, and therefore practice. Use the following prompts to jumpstart your thinking process.
- What prompted you to train in the helping profession?
- What constitutes healing? Do you think a mental disorder can be “cured”? Or is symptom management the best we can hope for?
- Is psychology a study of that which can be empirically verifiable and examined? Then you would likely favor more behavioral approaches.
- Do you view clients as possessing an inherent tendency toward developing their capacity to the fullest? Person-centered therapy could be a good fit.
- Does the quote “no man is an island” resonate? Family Systems may be your cup of tea.
- If you believe that everyone has “an internal world that is affected by the past and which, in turn, affects one’s functioning in the present, external world” , then you may find a good fit in the psychodynamic orientation.
4. Have an Open Heart
No supervisor is perfect. In fact, you may get paired with a supervisor whose disability, accent, gender, beliefs, theoretical orientation, inexperience, or all of the above dock off several points of respect in your head. You may even be justified in thinking that you have more to teach your supervisor than the other way around.
Regardless of their flaws, however, realize that supervisors are positioned to help you grow into a better therapist. So be open.
For instance, if feedback rubs you the wrong way, analyze why. If the reason is purely cosmetic – perhaps her style and yours don’t mesh – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Think about whether there’s some truth in her feedback. If the reasoning behind her proposed intervention is solid, take what you can and discard the rest.
5. Cling to Correction
It would be ideal for grad school to be dreamy and devoid of any kinks. (Then again, it would also be great to have zero student loans, unlimited time, ample energy around the clock, and free pizza every Friday.) But since the real world is full of challenges, don’t be dismayed by error. Simply make the needed corrections – no matter how major they may seem at the time.
Take it from me.
I entered graduate school as a student in the PsyD program. As my first year progressed, however, I became convinced that I had made the wrong choice. So I cranked up my courage and pursued a switch to the PhD program.
Can someone say “difficult”?
That word described the process that followed. I had to hunt for a new advisor, interview many different faculty members, and secure three advisers from different schools to serve as members of my dissertation committee. All by myself.
I didn’t need the extra stress that attended the switch in my program, but guess what? The stress passed, while the benefits persist. Years later, I’m still glad I made the switch.
6. Cultivate Community
Surround yourself with seasoned therapists. And since licensed professionals are required to take continuing education courses (in most states and provinces), attending these seminars will place you in close proximity with potential mentors.
The added benefit of attending such meetings, of course, is the wealth of lectures you’ll hear. Make sure you keep an open mind – each school of thought has valuable insights into the human psyche.
Do enroll in organizations that represent your field, such as the American Psychological Association and your state or region’s division for graduate students, such as the California Psychological Association of Graduate Students. Look for their local chapters and attend their meetings.
Graduate school may be taxing – but it’s also rewarding. Celebrate it, among other things, as the time to lay a firm foundation for your future career.
 Jones, S. L. M., & Butman, R. E. (1991). Modern psychotherapies. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.