Supervisors are central to training in graduate school, and every supervisor has their own style. Some supervisors prefer a hands-off approach and expect a trainee to take the lead in raising concerns. Other supervisors are much more hands-on and provide detailed feedback on a regular basis. Others may vary in terms of focus, with some supervisors most concerned about teaching particular approaches and some more interested in your own ideas about theory, or your growth from a developmental perspective. Some supervisors are formal and task-oriented, while others are less formal and open-ended.

Of course, supervisors are also different in regards to availability, and approaching a supervisor can be fairly anxiety provoking. After all, supervisors play a key role in your evaluations and overall success in graduate school. Here are a few things to consider in making the most out of your supervisory experience with any type of supervisor.

The Open Door Policy

“We have an open door policy here.” This phrase sounds like a wonderful opportunity for any trainee to hear from a supervisor. However, it can sometimes be difficult to place this invitation into context and feel comfortable approaching a supervisor during a busy day filled with clinical obligations.

After all, supervisors hold what often feels like immense or unlimited power over a trainee. It can certainly be difficult to present any indication of uncertainty or ask questions that suggest one might not be fully deserving of a stellar evaluation. It is also very common to feel that you are creating more work or causing more stress for an already busy supervisor.

Will they think I’m incompetent? Will they question my education or background? What if they are annoyed that I have questions or interrupted their day? My questions are not really important, and I should be able to figure this out on my own.

These and many other uncertainties may arise when approaching a supervisor for support. However, it is often helpful to remember that supervisors were once also in training, and good supervisors understand how asking for support can be intimidating. Beyond that, supervisors have a vested interest in the services you provide, and it is in their best interest to provide attentive supervision that translates into good clinical services.

How Do You Approach the Open Door Policy?

As a supervisor of graduate student trainees, I am always appreciative of a trainee asking questions or requesting time to process a recent evaluation or therapy session. This actually displays a number of positive things about you.

First, you are willing to ask for help. Just as we view a willingness to ask for help as a positive behavior in our clients, asking for help as a trainee demonstrates a willingness to admit that you have more to learn.

Second, this shows a supervisor that you have good self-awareness. The ability for self-reflection is hugely important for good clinical work, and showing a supervisor your ability to self-evaluate or compare and contrast your current knowledge and skills with points of growth should get high marks.

Third, seeking appropriate supervision is an opportunity to demonstrate good clinical judgment and ethical behavior. As a trainee, it is expected that you will need supervision. Therefore, asking a pertinent clinical question or consulting about a high-risk client is not only good judgment, but it shows that you are willing to act in the best interest of your client as an ethical practitioner.

At the end of the day, you are a trainee, and a trainee who is not asking questions can feel puzzling to a good supervisor.

The Cracked or Closed Door Dilemma

What is the best thing to do when the actual door does not appear to be open? As you may have guessed, the best approach to this question is simply to ask your supervisor: “I noticed that sometimes your door is closed when you are not with a client. Would it be okay to knock, or should I come back if it is not urgent?”

Asking such questions is in everyone’s best interest. Not only does this allow you to clear up any unhelpful internal dialogue that could fuel self-doubt, but it also helps build a positive relationship with your supervisor by allowing an opportunity to connect and be on the same page when it comes to developing norms for interacting.

In the end, every supervisor is different and has unique preferences, so it is always best to ask. It will often be most appreciated.

I’m Through the Door, What Next?

Whether you have come to your supervisor for a brief consultation or you have arrived for a planned hour of supervision, there are a number of things you can do to maximize your time and obtain optimal supervision.

Returning for a moment to our previous dilemma, we all know that communication is important, and setting up expectations or norms for supervision is helpful to both you and your supervisor. Therefore, if your supervisor does not initiate a discussion about the structure or content of supervision or provide specific goals for each meeting, it is in your best interest to raise this issue early.

It is best to come prepared to this discussion, so take some time to reflect on previous experiences or consider what you might find most helpful for your style of learning. Would it be most helpful to spend the first five minutes of supervision conducting a check-in to review your week and set an agenda for the hour? This can provide the often needed benefit of focusing the hour on what is most important to you.

You might consider writing down questions about a case, treatment approach or other clinical questions throughout the week as a way to help track your most important concerns. Taking time to check in and set an agenda is also a great opportunity to list one or more clients that may present with a higher level of concern and therefore necessitate supervision time.

Ultimately, most supervisors will want to be aware of your entire caseload so it may be helpful to highlight the clients whom require the most attention first.

Going Deeper

Checking in about your clients and reporting your clinical concerns often satisfies the most basic needs of supervision. However, supervision can go beyond this by providing opportunities for working through more in-depth case conceptualizations, discussing specific treatment sessions, interpreting seemingly conflicting test results and exploring professional identity development.

It can be helpful to use evaluations and goal setting as a context for letting your supervisor know what else you hope to gain from supervision. For example, you might highlight how conceptualizing more clients from a psychodynamic perspective or using a systems approach to understanding clients is a personal goal for your training.

You might also frame similar goals around certain presenting concerns or interventions. This can provide a basic reference point for supervision as you set an agenda that includes time aimed at your specific goals and interests.

Last but not least, supervision can provide an opportunity to build a mentoring relationship that helps support both your personal and professional growth. This will, of course, depend on your supervisor and might be limited in certain settings. But in many cases, your supervisor can serve as a helpful mentor as you learn more about yourself and a career in the field.

Ultimately, many supervisors will appreciate the opportunity to provide this for you, and it is often one of the more rewarding aspects of supervising trainees. Therefore, as you begin to develop a relationship with your supervisor, consider asking some larger questions related to your professional growth. You may also invite them to provide feedback on how they navigated certain aspects of graduate school, internship or how they came to develop their understanding of change in the therapeutic process.

Often, such questions are a breath of fresh air for supervisors and leave both you and your supervisor feeling more connected and appreciative of your work together.

What If Your Supervisor Seems to Have a Closed Door?

Although I would hope that every clinician providing supervision would be willing to adhere to an open door policy and be further willing to provide feedback and instructions to a trainee on how to best approach them with questions, it is not realistic to expect the ideal supervisor throughout our many years of training across multiple training sites. When this is the case, there are several things that might be helpful to keep in mind, and a few things you can do to maximize your experience and ensure that you are receiving adequate supervision.

Once again, communication is always an important component of getting your supervision needs met. Therefore, strive to be clear with the expectations of your training agreement and graduate program requirements.

If there is an issue with supervision, a seminar leader or a training director in your program is a good place to start. If you find yourself getting your basic supervision needs met, but feel less connected to your supervisor or find yourself desiring a different form of feedback, consider consulting more frequently with other clinicians at your training site. This type of consultation is often encouraged and well received. You can also apply the same open door strategies and insights when approaching other clinical staff for consultation.

Ultimately, what they don’t teach you in graduate school is that supervision has the potential to be one of the most formative experiences of your professional development. What is also not often discussed is that supervision can take several forms.

Beyond a traditional supervision hour, there are often many opportunities for less formal supervision. This may come in the form of an open door policy or through informal consultation with staff. You may also benefit a great deal from opportunities to observe other clinicians or co-facilitate group therapy.

Likewise, the opportunity to be observed and provided with feedback, although sometimes intimidating, is often one of the most helpful experiences you can have as a trainee. It is also possible to gain a vast amount of clinical knowledge and skill through clinical consultation meetings or training.

In the end, it is in your best interest to take advantage of any opportunity for supervision and remember that asking for appropriate support from a supervisor is a sign of competence and good clinical judgment.