I am frequently asked for advice from graduate students in counseling and psychology. Here are my top three tips for graduate students studying to become MFT’s, LCSW’s, psychologists, and counselors. If you keep these things in mind, you can learn to care for yourself – not just your patients!
1. Learn balance & self-care strategies early
It’s common sense that we can’t really care for others if we are unable to care for ourselves. But this lesson can be a difficult one to learn as a beginning therapist. It is a huge adjustment to learn how to manage a full caseload of different people with different personal stories and challenges. When you’re just starting out and also working extra hard to master different techniques and approaches to different problems, you may be especially vulnerable to taking your work home and thinking (perhaps even obsessing!) about your cases and how you might better help your clients.
Interns are especially vulnerable, and they can sometimes feel abused by the training process: you will be working long hours, frequently without any financial gain, and sometimes with challenging cases or groups of people. This is a great time to learn what you need to re-balance yourself. Perhaps it’s yoga and meditation or exercise. Maybe it’s time with friends and family. Maybe it’s a warm bath by candlelight at the end of the night, or cooking dinner, or engaging in a marathon of your favorite TV shows on DVD. But self-care can also include rituals that help you re-charge between sessions too, such as a five minute breathing exercise or stretching.
If you feel overwhelmed by your cases or you believe that your caseload is unbalanced (too many clients dealing with trauma, for example) talk to your supervisor and try to get help reducing your number of intakes or see if you can create more balance in the different types of new cases you take on.
2. Avoid isolation & try co-working
One of the other painful lessons of graduate school can be learning to say no. If you are also juggling a dissertation, family life, or a part-time job, you may find you have to say no more than you’d anticipated to a lot to social activities and fun. After just a few weeks of this, you may feel extremely socially deprived.
Don’t forget that socializing can be a huge stress reliever and that there may be ways to integrate social contact into productivity. Co-working is one way to do this. Try studying with a pal or with a small group. Make work dates in coffee shops or set up a work date that includes a dinner break. You may feel less isolated and socially impoverished if you are able to connect with a friend and get some work done.
You may also find that you have other friends who are not in school but who have projects they need to work on. Learning that you can connect with someone else and keep company while being productive or working on different tasks is a nice compromise and can avoid black or white thinking around whether you can make plans.
3. Start a consultation group
“Why would I need a consultation group?” students ask me. “I already have group supervision and other classmates.” Sure, you have several built in support groups, but sometimes it’s nice to develop a smaller team of people to meet with who are not affiliated with a class or an agency. If you have tension with another intern or if you ever wrestle with how to communicate about something challenging with a supervisor, a consultation group is a great way to learn to formalize professional consultation and get ongoing support and feedback from your peers.
I started my own consultation group in my second year of graduate school and we have met every 1-2 weeks for the last thirteen years. I think it’s safe to say that no other clinicians know my clinical thinking better than those in this group. As we developed from graduate students to licensed clinicians, our group provided feedback and support for professional milestones including the dissertation, licensing exams, and job-seeking (we have served as professional references for one another).
My recommendations for starting your own consultation group are to try to find a balance between safety and growth. Of course, you need to find people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your biggest struggles, challenges, and vulnerabilities. This may make it tempting to select others who have similar approaches. But it can provide great richness to consult with people who represent other theoretical and sociocultural perspectives.
Learning how to respectfully engage with other colleagues who have different approaches or areas of expertise is an invaluable experience. Of all of the professional commitments I’ve taken on, I feel that starting my own group as a graduate student was one of the wisest investments I ever made in my future as a psychologist.
Graduate school is hard. You’re putting part of your life on-hold to learn something new and invest time, money, and a good piece of your heart in developing new skills. Learning to provide psychological care to others has its own unique stresses and challenges. I hope that my tips can help graduate students to support their own mental and emotional health and move on to becoming successful post-graduates.