How do I decide whether to become a psychotherapist?
June 7, 2011 11:14 AM   Subscribe

How can I actually decide whether to go back to school and become a psychotherapist? Is there anyplace in NYC where I could get some hands-on experience to help me decide if I want to do this?

I live in NYC. I've been seriously considering going back to school to get an MSW in order to become a psychotherapist. The thing is, I don't want to spend the money on the degree unless I'm really sure this is a career I want to pursue. I recently finished paying off my law school loans after 11 years, and I'm reluctant to rack up more debt unless it will really be worth it.

So how do I decide whether I really want to do this? I've seen several therapists over the years, so I know what the experience can be like from the patient's/client's point of view, although of course I have only my own experience. And I've read a couple of books from the therapist's point of view, which I found very interesting, particularly the latter.

But there's reading about it, and there's doing it - day after day, month after month, year after year. How can I "try it out" to see if I would even like doing it?

Several years ago I volunteered for an HIV telephone hotline. I enjoyed the training, but after finishing the training and starting at the hotline, I quit after 2-3 months because it wound up triggering my own fears about contracting HIV. On the other hand, a hotline is not the same thing as psychotherapy. It's anonymous and you never get to follow up with any of the callers, you don't have the experience of getting to know clients over time, developing relationships with them, and working with them to improve their lives. Also, the hotline was focused on a single, narrow topic, whereas I'd be more interested in dealing with people who have a variety of issues.

I should point out a couple of things, which may or may not be relevant: (1) I'm a very cautious decisionmaker; (2) I have a history of glomming onto some career goal as "the answer" and then losing interest after thinking about it for a few weeks. Which of course makes me even more cautious about committing to something like this.

At any rate: is there any way in NYC to get some experience to help me decide if becoming a psychotherapist is really for me?
posted by chameleon to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, you can't really get the experience of being a therapist without the education and credentials (for good reason, obviously), but there are places where you can be a 'milieu counselor' which is basically babysitting kids in a residential facility and playing games with them, etc. -- most places would want you to have some experience with similar work, but this is just about the closest you can get without actual qualifications that I'm aware of. You could also do a mentoring thing like Big Brothers/Big Sisters if you're interested in working with kids. I work as a therapist with at-risk kids, and (based on my experiences doing so) BB/BS is actually a similar enough experience that I would really recommend it.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:52 AM on June 7, 2011

The various institutes in NYC have open houses (I think you missed the ones for this year) where you can discuss with other therapists what training is like and how they all like doing the work. (First they'll all say they love their work so you need to push them further). Also, what so_gracefully said about mentorship. I'm sure there are opportunities of various varieties around the city. Does your therapist think this is a good direction for you?
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:03 PM on June 7, 2011

...and there is no way to find out how you'll feel about it after doing it for years, day in and day out.

If you're a lawyer, would you consider something like divorce mediation?

Personally I'd think long and hard about becoming a psychotherapist at this point. With managed care, a recession where people don't spend as much for "luxury items" (and psychotherapy is often the first "extra" to go when people are scared about money), psychopharmacology becoming the first choice treatment for many patients (yay the medical model won!*) this is a really lousy time to become a psychotherapist in my opinion.

posted by DMelanogaster at 3:02 PM on June 7, 2011

Response by poster: hal_c_on and Obscure Reference: My therapist is generally supportive of the idea. Or at least hasn't discouraged me from it. My therapist doesn't have any advice about places to volunteer, though.

so_gracefully: Unfortunately, I'm not really interested in specializing in kids.

DMelanogaster: Why divorce mediation?
posted by chameleon at 3:57 PM on June 7, 2011

Volunteer to do grief counseling. It is a peer relationship, not a professional one but it lets you have on-going interactions and it builds the basic skills of being present, empathetic, and nonjudgmental.
posted by metahawk at 5:03 PM on June 7, 2011

Also, I would suggest a combination of career counseling and informational interviews. Career counseling to look at the questions like: what kind of specific skills are your strengths and which ones do you enjoy using? what kind of work environment works best for you? As a career seeker, I found the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory to be very helpful in identifying what qualities I wanted in a job - even if the specific matches it proposed were irrelevant.

Then find a way to do some informational interviews with practicing psychotherapists. What do they actually do all day? What do they like and dislike about their job? Are they able to make a living at it? How does that match up with what you know about yourself.
posted by metahawk at 5:11 PM on June 7, 2011

Apparently I have a lot to say about this question....
I have a history of glomming onto some career goal as "the answer" and then losing interest after thinking about it for a few weeks.
I suggest that this is a process that you should respect. Give yourself plenty of time to try on the idea in your head. If it won't go away or it goes away but keeps coming back then go on the next step of doing more research (volunteer work, career assessment, looking at schools). Last time I did a career change, it took me a year to finally commit to a new direction. And if you drop the idea, that's OK too - you learned about something else you didn't want to pursue.
posted by metahawk at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2011

I said divorce mediation because you said you were paying off law school loans, which made me think that maybe you were a lawyer, and divorce mediation seemed like a kind of counseling-ish way of your using your already-obtained lawyerly skills -- if you're a lawyer, that is.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:31 PM on June 7, 2011

Response by poster: metahawk: Thanks for the helpful tips.

DMelanogaster: interesting idea. Thanks as well.
posted by chameleon at 8:31 AM on June 8, 2011

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