Students starting their first field course (i.e., seeing clients for the first time) typically experience nerves, confusion, and/or worry. Worry that they won’t be helpful to clients, or don't know enough to provide effective therapy, as well as general anxiety about managing their studies, sessions, and often, the necessary assertiveness required to complete their clinical hours.
An email subscriber in her first field experience emailed me recently to request an article on tips for first-time counselors. In this post, I cover tips that I’ve learned as a therapist and supervisor, as well as those offered to brand- new therapists by members of the Get Refreshed Facebook Group.
Direct quotes from seasoned therapists:
1 | Keep the Faith
"During a particularly challenging internship, I met a licensed therapist who told me: 'When you're done in private practice, it will all be worth it,' and it was. Keep the faith." --Lori
2 | Ask away!
"No question is ever stupid. Ask, ask, and ask again! Your job as a student is to learn, not to know it all. And if someone does minimize your question, go seek out an answer from someone else until you understand." --Noreen
3 | Work on Your “Stuff”
"I always recommend to interns: Start working on your own 'stuff' as soon as possible, if you haven't already. All the education in the world can't stop our own issues from interfering with the help we offer. Walk the path that you are asking others to walk. I had a supervisor who required that his supervisees be actively pursuing their own healing. I am so grateful for that now." --Michael
4 | Embrace Business
"Find your entrepreneur self in whatever work you do. The business side--whether at an agency or private work--can be so exciting and fulfilling." --Jessica
Three tips from me
I've served as a practicum supervisor and professor for five years. The following tips are based on the skills and habits I've come to pinpoint as most necessary for a successful transition to field experience (i.e., practicum and internship).
For the first time in your studies, you are in the driver's seat. This means you have increased flexibility along with increased responsibility. While your professors and site supervisors are committed to your success, accruing your required hours, while managing client and supervisory relationships, are mainly your tasks.
5 | Be Assertive
Ask for what you need. Many times, site supervisors are managing several internship and practicum students, which means they are keeping track of a variety of student requirements. Make sure to meet with your site supervisor regularly, update him/her on your progress, and ask for the information and feedback you need.
6 | Ask for Help
There are times when you may not be able to manage a situation on your own. Ask for help from your site or faculty supervisor, especially when you need someone to advocate on your behalf (after you've advocated on your own behalf). Also, always ask for clinical help via supervision.
7 | Be Intentional
Your initial field experience will most likely serve as a general training ground, where you are exposed to a variety of presenting problems. You'll notice what clinical work you enjoy most, as well as what you appreciate about your site context (private practice, agency, crisis, etc.). Trust yourself. Use this information to choose future internship sites that align with your interests.
Additionally, be intentional in your sessions. This is the time to experiment, try techniques and theories, have fun!
8 | Give Honest Feedback
Most likely, you'll have the opportunity to formally evaluate your site and supervisors during your placement; however, formal evaluation periods should not be the only times you offer or receive feedback. Try to practice ongoing informal evaluation, by asking for what you need, being curious, and requesting clinical direction.
Similarly, redirect supervisors when you need something they are not providing, so that they can make corrections before it's too late. Reading critical feedback in an end-of-term evaluation, when there were opportunities for improvement during the term, can be disheartening for supervisors. Use your budding joining, empathy, and relational skills not only with clients, but also with supervisors, colleagues, and faculty.
9 | Knowledge is Secondary
Your practicum experience will likely heighten feelings of inadequacy about your counseling skills. This is normal. Remember, success as a therapist is not found in doing something for the client, but rather in being someone for the client. Let go of the need to create change, and allow yourself to be present with your clients. What you need any given moment will flow from the presence.
Read, prepare, and learn. But, once you enter the therapy room, let the learning go; don't let it lead. It will return when it's needed. (I recognize this advice may be challenging, so please reach out with any questions.)
10 | Slow Down!
Focus on depth, rather than breadth. The first tip I give practicum students is: Slow down. Ask questions that clarify important information, rather than ones that give you more content. More content can distract you from important dynamics.
Use circular questions, tape your sessions, transcribe your work. These practices tie your clinical ideas to how you verbally participate in sessions.
The Importance of Support
Being a student therapist brings many challenges, including anxiety about providing counseling for the first time, time management, juggling personal and school responsibilities, among others. Before getting started, take some time to plan how you will meet the time demands of your field experiences. Ask for support from significant others, if possible.
Know that sometimes, you'll be surviving to get through. Many of us felt this way through all, or a portion, of our field experiences. Do what you can, when you can, and give yourself some grace.
I have lots of resources to help you in your training stage, including a First Session Checklist, Transcript Template, and Niche List. Register for the free resource library, and gain access to all the downloads:
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- If you're a seasoned therapist, what is your #1 tip for student therapists and/or interns?
- If you're a student therapist, which tip was most helpful to you?