Should I bite the bullet and start this counseling MA?
August 5, 2018 11:58 PM   Subscribe

After a long period of unsuccessful job hunting, I'm debating whether to start an MA in counseling psychology (that would lead to an MFT certification) this fall. I have a lot of ambivalence about the program but have been crushed by my experience trying to find a job. I feel really lost and don't know how to move forward. Your help would be appreciated.

So here's the situation: I've had a rocky path since leaving academia after finishing my PhD ten years ago. Due to serious depression, I haven't been able to pursue a sustained career and have spent my time stringing together a series of freelance gigs- some of them truly amazing projects which both required and deepened a lot of skills like strategy, organization, editing and project management- which I formulate in a way that looks impressive on a resume but doesn't amount to a clear trajectory and has left me financially insecure. I currently survive on freelance work, but it's inconsistent and not financially sustainable, so I've been living with my mom (I should also add here that I live in a region with the highest cost of living in the country, especially housing, so even if I had a job I might still continue to live with her). I've been looking for full-time employment for a couple of years at this point and have had only a handful of interviews. My job search has been marred by a lack of clear direction (I don't even know what search terms to input into search engines like Indeed) and recurrences of my depression, which has fed on the structurelessness and insecurity of the situation and has been very paralyzing and impairing. I should add here that when I have had stable, solid gigs and some sense of security, I've been very psychologically stable. I crave a sense of vocation and direction, but I'm not sure if my current credentials can get me a job.

I am also an empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intuitive person who gets genuine enjoyment from being able to provide support to friends and talk through their problems with them. This spring, I applied for an MA in counseling psychology from a locally well-regarded institute (I plan to stay in the area due to stable housing and an elderly parent). This seemed like a possible career direction that would be satisfying for me and offer me a path forward. However, I'm feeling horribly ambivalent about committing to the program, which starts in a few weeks.

If I did the program, I'd want to pursue a private practice, and while I know there are many people who do that successfully I'm worried about a bunch of things: that it would take a year of certification after the two-year program to become licensed, that I'm not entrepreneurial enough to build up a private practice, that I'd feel chronically insecure from being dependent on maintaining a steady stable of clients, and that it would be isolating and not structured enough for someone with my specific issues around depression. I am in desperate financial straights, and although I have family support, I have no savings and am scared about not building a future for myself. I also am single at age 43 and it doesn't look like that's going to change, so I can't rely on another income. I'm scared that while this degree program offers a path forward and could be enormously satisfying (and there's a lot to be said for making your own hours, having a decent commute, not having to deal with potentially toxic co-workers), it doesn't have a clear direction to a structured, stable career that will allow me to support myself. I definitely need a change in direction and some structure, and maybe I'm at a stage in life where I found feel ambivalent about anything, but I'm worried about blowing large amounts of financial resources on a program I feel conflicted about.

The alternative I've explored is working with a career coach to radically re-envision my job search, both from the existential/broad-based perspective of finding a new career direction- and that could include pursuing a different graduate program, if necessary, though I have no idea what that would be- and from the nitty-gritty tactical and strategic perspective of revising my resume, networking, finding jobs to apply to, changing the approach I've been taking in my cover letters, etc. If I knew that I could get a job in six months that I'd be reasonably happy at I'd much rather do that, but I'm really scared by my long-term unemployment. I'd like to believe that I have a solid core of really valuable experience in my freelance work, but I feel so out of touch that it's also entirely possible that my experience is just too diffuse and incoherent to get me a satisfying job and that my long-term unemployment is not a result of my depression and approaching the process from the wrong angle but that I have no choice but to retrain. Which would take a lot of money regardless of the program. And maybe the counseling MA is just as good as anything at this late point in my life.

I'd be very grateful for your perspective.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You don’t sound confident in your choice to go into counseling so i think you are wise to reconsider it.

My friends who are therapists are as you describe yourself —thoughtful, compassionate— and they all love being therapists. And they don’t all work in private practice. One works at a school, another at a jail. Another who is still working on getting credentialed is trying to build his private practice, and yes, that has been challenging for him. But he still enjoys the work and is steadily carving his own niche.
As far as I can tell, they all love that they get to do meaningful work helping people. It sounds like that is also what attracts you to the field.

Counselors can work in nonprofits, institutions like schools, or in research facilities. In these places they would have an employer, rather than work for themselves. I think you could research what sort of companies or organizations hire counselors. Have an eye toward that direction. Find counselors who are doing something that really sparks your interest, and ask them for advice (such as what program they graduated from, etc). Most people are happy to talk about themselves and give advice to rookies in their field.

If you do choose to go private practice, you already have a skill set from your years of freelancing. Your experience up to this point was preparing you well (even if it seemed directionless at the time). Your failures if any were lessons that you now get to consult from.

You sound kinda similar to somebody on Ask who posed a question about how to market or position themselves when they didn’t have a specific enough skillset. If I recall, in that thread most people told the Asker to try to have a bit more confidence. It seemed like the Asker was having doubts about their own abilities that were unfounded. Sorry I can’t remember the exact thread but if you do, it might be worth a read.
posted by shalom at 12:56 AM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I say go for it. When I was in a similar wilderness, I went for a master's in education, and it did help me find meaningful work.

Going to school can also be a great networking opportunity, and you will develop academic references and clinical experiences that will enhance your employment options. Also, your school may have a Career Services department that can give you more information about job opportunities during school and after your graduate, and that might help reassure you.
posted by Little Dawn at 1:14 AM on August 6, 2018

If I did the program, I'd want to pursue a private practice

Umm. This seems like a very bad idea for all of the reasons you've outlined around job security and depression. Please look at your job market and determine if there are roles in full-time employment where you can put this MA to work.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:35 AM on August 6, 2018 [9 favorites]

that could include pursuing a different graduate program, if necessary

If you do end up working with a career coach and they recommend this fire them. You hold a PhD and you have worked in various roles over the years and were successful in these roles. You have plenty of skills people will pay you for. Unless further education or qualifications are a direct requirement for a license you require to do your dream job this is not going to help you. So for example, the counselling certificate relates to a field that should work for you and a requirement to get hired. Spend time exploring that more. Another example would be that your life coach helps you realise that really, your true calling is to be an actuary and well, you don’t know anything about actuarial science so you’d have to learn how to do that before you can get a job in the field. And yes, the use of a fairly unlikely example was intentional.

Learning is something you’re comfortable with and can do well. The only problem is it will cost you money and you’ll be just as unfocused at the end of the next program unless the program is a means to a very specific and clearly defined end. Otherwise it just buys you more time to find a focus.

My next steps would be to have a few informational interviews with counsellors. And have a look at the job market for certified counsellors in your area and go from there.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:11 AM on August 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

Counseling credintals vary between states and I'm in IL. Here I think a Social Work degree is more valuable as the number of roles expands (you can do counseling but also a thousand other things).

The thing with counseling degrees is they take alot of unpaid work prior to graduation, and then SUPERVISED work after. I capitalized that, because the rarer the licence, the harder it is to get those supervised hours. And if it's nor directly through your job, you'll have to pay for the supervision (I had a job that banned outside supervision, they wouldn't sign off on some form citing confidentiality but I hear that's very uncommon,. But my supervisor wasn't a social worker and couldn't do it herself). The pay can be very low when your under supervision. It Took me 3.5 years from graduation to get my clinical licence.

It's good work, but it's also emotionally draining work. No matter thr type of counseling you will hear alot about other peoples problems, which you may be good at, but you really get to miss out on some happy stuff. The tone of the work, depending on where you land, can be super dark. And it's hard with the best self care plan in the world.

Counseling requires a ton of consistency, which is something you may need to explore more (i don't know you, so I'm just commenting on this) Not just showing up, but emotional consistentsy for each of your clients. If you take lots of sick days, or have difficulty engaging during your depression, counseling may not be a good fit.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:05 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

My opinion is that if a PhD didn't give you the career you want then more (expensive) schooling followed by various licensing experience requirements, etc is unlikely to do so as well. If you were really excited about it and had a clear path and a solid plan, I could see it working but with the amount of internal conflict you exhibit, I don't recommend it.

Running a business is hard work, requires money to get started and to survive while you're building a client base and can be isolating and stressful. I'm not sure how therapists react to their day-to-day work but my gut feeling is that working with people on their problems can be emotionally draining (and fulfilling, hopefully). If, as you say, your serious depression kept you from pursuing a sustained career, it's not clear to me how running a business would be any better. Starting a practice seems very far from a 'stable, solid gig.'

Do you live in a place with a solid job market and lots of opportunities? If not, I suspect that moving somewhere where jobs are more plentiful may be a better way to kick-start your career.

I've seen people do other degrees after getting a PhD and get wonderful results; in all those cases, those people were already successful in their career and had a clear path on how the next degree will help them. I've also seen people with advanced degrees who haven't seen much success go back for a different degree; I've never seen that work out well. It's too easy to use going back to school as an excuse to avoid the real world for a while. In considering other graduate degrees, etc be honest with yourself -- do you have a clear plan, a clear goal and a clear vision of why this would be different than the results of your PhD.
posted by bsdfish at 7:28 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Listen to your ambivalence and go to the job coach. Making a successful go of private practice is hard and takes a long time. The hoops you have to jump through in most places to get there are substantial, and maddening. Master’s programs rarely offer much funding so you’d be going into quite a bit of debt for something you’re not at all sure about. Though I really get the appeal of a new path when the current one is making you feel beaten down, this does not sound like a great idea.
posted by Smearcase at 7:36 AM on August 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

My husband has an MA in counseling and really regrets not getting a social work degree instead. He'd be able to do the same work without all the licensing headaches. He has never done private practice, but has worked for the state, a foster care agency, and now at a prison. Everyone he knows that has gone into private practice hasn't been able to make it work without getting into an established shared practice. He spends a significant amount of money and free time on CE classes and supervision. In our area, it's easy for counselors to find jobs in alcohol recovery and family outpatient programs, but they involve long hours and lots of commuting for relatively low pay. If we want to move to a different state, he has to go through the licensure process again, which could mean taking more classes and/or getting more supervision hours depending on the state. He loves the work, but he definitely doesn't set his own hours, has a long commute, and has always worked with at least a few toxic coworkers. As on outsider who has watched my husband and many of his colleagues struggle through the profession, I wouldn't recommend putting yourself in debt and spending years of your life preparing for this type of work.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 9:14 AM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I hate to be yet another naysayer, but a counseling MA in particular seems like a bad idea: it's a looooong process between starting the MA and completing your certification, and there's no guarantee you'll start earning income the moment you're certified. It's expensive (and even when you're done with school itself, the certification process is often unpaid/unfunded, which means working part-time or taking out loans to cover your living expenses then, too), and all this will lead to a relatively low-paying job. Since you're in a high-cost-of-living region of the country and you'll have student loans to pay off, you may find it hard keep your head above water, even if you continue to live with family. This without going into any of the ways that your particular circumstances or selfhood may make you unsuited to the goddamn hassle of small business entrepreneurship that private practice demands. Employment opportunities beyond private practice will often have a social work component (working with at-risk kids in the public schools, in prisons/jails, etc); would you be able to successfully build connections with people who are very different from you, in terms of class, cultural context, available life opportunities, etc? // Given what you've written above, and the realities of the licensing process, a counseling MA seems like a bad choice -- but if you're still feeling conflicted I'd reach out to as many counselors as you can for informational interviews--and also, realistically, to anyone you can find who holds a similar MA and isn't working in the field.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:42 AM on August 6, 2018

Reading through your post I would encourage you to go for door number 2, as in a career coach, making sure it is somebody who is well equipped to help with post-PhD transitions ( is a good resource for such coaches). It doesn't sound like the MA in Counselling will give you the stability you desire, at least not for a very long time; as a fellow PhD I do recognise the temptation to go for more education, however as others said, if the education you got via PhD didn't lead to the stable career you wanted, then maybe it is time to change tack. I graduated almost ten years ago, decided not to go into academia (given the job market in the UK the feeling was mutual) and managed to reinvent myself as project manager. I wanted stability, too and I finally found it, the only education it required was a couple of project management certifications. There are days when I struggle with what sometimes feels like lack of meaning and I have thought about qualifying as a therapist myself, which I still may do, but on a very slow, part-time basis whilst remaining in my day job which is keeping me grounded. Good luck with whatever you do and feel free to PM me if you want to talk about life outside of academia.
posted by coffee_monster at 1:51 AM on August 7, 2018

If you were in NYC, I'd recommend you check out the Teaching Fellows program. You'd have been far from the oldest in my cohort, and within a year you'd be in a unionized job with great health care benefits and a definite benefit pension waiting for you at retirement. The required educational credentials are subsidized and you do them concurrently while working, with no debt. Your education, caring, and management skills could serve you very well. I would only recommend this in a unionized district. If you think you might like the work, which is different from most any other kind of work in good and hard ways, it is worth exploring. I can't say what wonders it has wrought for me emotional well bring to be in a stable job where demand outstrips supply (especially special education, English as a new language, and science, at the high school level).

I had a chance to strike out in an entrepreneurial way. I had saved enough money to make it now crazy. But I too am single without the safety net (or health insurance) of family, and, I realized, without the taste for the thrill/risk. I still miss that field but at a certain point it makes sense to play to one's strengths.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:34 AM on August 12, 2018

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