Does this path to an art therapy counseling career make sense?
May 1, 2021 4:30 AM   Subscribe

Does it make sense to seek lower student debt by going through a state school generic MA in Counseling program and then tacking on a post-Master’s art therapy certification, versus going through a private MA in Counseling/Art Therapy program that costs more money but is faster?

I’m contemplating a mid-life career change from under-employed artist to Art Therapist. In my state this requires a face-to-face Master’s in Counseling (or social work) to become licensed as a Professional Counselor, and to call oneself an Art Therapist requires board certification, meaning attending an approved Counseling/Art Therapy Master’s program or a year-long post-Master’s certificate program.

I have been accepted to one of two MA Counseling / Art Therapy programs in my area—the “less expensive” one, but it still requires taking on a staggering amount of debt, on top of my remaining debts from undergrad and an MFA. This program takes 2 years and prepares me for initial licensure (LPC) and to apply for board certification as an art therapist.

At my age, and with the modest earning potential of a counseling therapist, taking on additional debt at all directly impacts my ability to save for retirement or my child’s education. I’m rethinking the entire plan, plus wondering if it would be smarter to attend a cheaper, general MA in Counseling program (or MSW—I’m aware of all the previous AskMe’s in which this recommendation comes up). I would take on less debt in a 2-year public program and then after graduating, while I complete the supervised hours for LCPC licensure (and with it the ability to practice on my own), I would attend a year-long art therapy certificate program, with classes online and hopefully combining the supervised hours for that program with the other supervised hours, by doing all my work under the supervision of a board-certified art therapist.

That year-long certification is costlier than a public school MA in Counseling itself, but hopefully I’d be earning at least a little at that point. I could give up on the board certification entirely and integrate art on an ad hoc basis without calling myself an “Art Therapist,” but the idea makes me sad.

While both scenarios leave me with a sickening amount of student debt, the state school/post-Master’s certificate option leaves me with ~$40k less total debt. (Debt would be six-figures under the private school route, high five-figures with the post-Master’s option. Maybe Biden does something radical and erases some of my existing debt but I’m not banking on it.) I’m in a decent financial situation otherwise, with some retirement, a home I own and (almost) no mortgage.

Here are my concerns and questions for anyone brave enough to make it this far:
  • Art is my native language, and the idea of visual art being woven throughout the study of assessment, diagnosis and treatment is more exciting to me than learning those things through traditional talk therapy
  • On the other hand, I’ve studied art to death, read a number of books on art therapy, and it’s the nuts and bolts of counseling people that I really need to learn
  • Am I likely to face resistance in a generic state Counseling or Social Work program if I want to talk or write papers about the use of expressive arts in therapy? Would it be a non-starter to attempt my practicum requirements within a counseling/art therapy studio?
  • Are there other benefits to getting the initial LPC-plus-board certification done in 2 years, or being in a program with other budding art therapists, that I’m not thinking of?
  • Does either option obviously lend itself to better employment outcomes? I’m aware that whatever way I go I am likely to do a lot of traditional talk therapy, at least at first.
  • In a city with “known” Art Therapy programs, will I face a significant disadvantage competing for what art therapy positions there are, if I have taken the generic Counseling route?
  • Neither degree is going to be a real “top notch” education, which makes me resent the cost of the Art Therapy program all the more. (“Top notch” is financially impossible.)
  • Assuming I eventually go into private practice and continue doing this until I keel over, is the $40k difference in debt very significant?
I appreciate any well-meaning suggestions of “have you thought about an X career instead,” but please assume I have thought of every possible career; I minored in Psych and have been vaguely wishing I had pursued some kind of counseling career for half my life. The plan when I was young was academia, which… hasn’t worked out.

(If it's important, I'm in the U.S., in a large midwestern city with a dysfunctional state licensing system)
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Can you talk to current students or recent graduates of both programs?

I'm not in counseling myself, but I have several friends and family members who are. In my observation, if a counseling education is going to go wrong, it does so not at the coursework stage, but at the required internships and externships stage. These can be competitive, and if your program doesn't support you in the quest for a supervisor, you can be derailed with all the debt and none of the legally required experience. Recent students should be able to tell you more about this part of the process.

Talking to current students and recent graduates should also give you a sense of what your peer group will be like if you do decide to pursue the degree. Counseling education involves a certain amount of practicing therapy skills with your classmates, and if you don't feel you can be open and genuine with the other people in your cohort, that will make everything tougher.
posted by yarntheory at 6:51 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I'm currently doing a MA in mental health counseling. I decided to do a longer course (3 years), because I felt I personally would be more confident if I'd had in-depth training and I really liked the particular course. I realize this was a bit odd on my part).

However, something I hadn't factored in to my cost calculations was that the required internship (one year in my course) would be unpaid. I had counted on working full time while studying, but am now trying to figure out the costs of working a full time internship for free for the last year. So maybe include that in your calculations.

A couple of other thoughts:

- Could you plan to apply for loan forgiveness, by working in a high-need job for two years after graduating?

- 100% of the people in my program are studying while working full time. Could you be working as a counselor while doing the post-MA Certificate?

- Many of my fellow students have said this book by Irvin Yalom, The Gift of Therapy, inspired them to become therapists or opened them up to what it would be like. Perhaps it might help you figure out if the counseling nuts and bolts side is more interesting than you expected?

- I would say about a third of the students in my program came in with an idea of what kind of therapy they want to pursue already, and are structuring their coursework and practicum around that plan. You wouldn't be weird or unusual if you came in with a plan to be an art therapist. This seems to be a degree path that attracts a lot of later-in-life career changers, who are in very similar situations to you.

- Can you go to an open day or talk to someone *within* each program (i.e., not just an admissions officer)? I had a specific plan of what I wanted to specialize in. I went to an open day at the potential MA program and got to meet one of the faculty, and it helped to ask her directly 'is this realistic/is this possible in your program'? Your question about "can I do my internship in an art therapy setting?" is direct and simple enough you could probably ask the department if there is someone you could have a zoom-meeting with to ask this question.

- Getting the more general degree may end up being more useful in the long term, if art therapy jobs happen not to be available. If you need to get a job 5-10 years from now and there are a lot of qualified Art Therapists in your city, it might be helpful to have the qualifications to apply for less specialized jobs. You'll have more flexibility.
posted by EllaEm at 7:01 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


P.s., in terms of loan forgiveness programs I was thinking in particular of this one: National Health Service Corp Loan Repayment Program.

I was surprised when I looked up what qualifies as a high-need site, to find there are many more than I would have expected. You can search for where you live here.

Note that you would be able to apply for this program, which refunds up to $50,000 of your debt, if you work in a qualifying discipline (see below). So check out ahead of time if either/both of your potential courses would qualify.

Mental and Behavioral Health
• Health Service Psychologist
• Licensed Clinical Social Worker
• Licensed Professional Counselor
• Marriage and Family Therapist
• Nurse Practitioner – Mental Health and Psychiatry
• Physician Assistant – Mental Health and Psychiatry
posted by EllaEm at 7:09 AM on May 1


On the last question the $40k in debt is about $400 in repayments paid over 10 years, (by rule of thumb). There are a bunch of financial calculators that will estimate your repayments for you based on your debt load. I think that it's your repayments, and the limits those will place on the jobs you can take, that is the key consideration in the debt.

You do also have the opportunity costs of taking an extra year over qualifying for what you really want to do. You might want to think about how much you think you would earn in that year, and whether that helps make up for the extra debt.

Do you know what the employment and private practice market is like for art therapists? I would worry that with two programs in your city for art therapists, the market locally might be saturated with qualified therapists which would be a problem if you are not geographically flexible. In that case, the flexibility that the generic qualification gives might be essential in keeping you in work. Even though that might not be work that you enjoy as much, you'll still have those student loan repayments to make, on top of bills to pay.
posted by plonkee at 8:05 AM on May 1


I am an LPC therapist and a career counselor, I am not your career counselor. I have helped people with similar decisions, navigated it myself, and have contact with other practitioners and group practice owners around the country. I have known a few Art Therapists.

You should attend the least expensive counseling program that has connections to local organizations for internships, and will allow you to get licensed in your state. No one, really, no one, cares what counseling school you went do. Do the Art Therapy cert/training later, or don't do it at all if you find you are able to integrate art in the way that you want.

One caveat to that is that "no one cares what school you went to" is if you planned to attend a poorly regarded online school, you shouldn't do that. But it's less likely it would meet those other two criteria (internships and licensure) anyway.

To your specific questions:
Am I likely to face resistance in a generic state Counseling or Social Work program if I want to talk or write papers about the use of expressive arts in therapy?

No, not likely. Everyone seems to appreciate specialization and interests outside of butts in chairs talking.


Would it be a non-starter to attempt my practicum requirements within a counseling/art therapy studio?

Nope. If the AT studio can provide the necessary supervision and internship placement requirements, and your school agrees to it, it should be possible. Some schools have specific relationships with placement sites, and some are a free-for-all. You could ask the school.

Also, the inverse: people do their internships in all kinds of weird places to fulfill requirements. I met a Dance Therapist who was doing her internship at a suicide crisis line.


Are there other benefits to getting the initial LPC-plus-board certification done in 2 years, or being in a program with other budding art therapists, that I’m not thinking of?

No, there are not. This option is not a good one for you.


Does either option obviously lend itself to better employment outcomes?

None of the Art Therapists I know are doing particularly well financially, and several got out of the field. That said, that sample size is small, and I also know talk therapists who weren't doing well financially and left the field.

If you go into private practice, be certain to take classes on running a small business. I've seen many therapists fail because they undervalued their training and experience. Often they undercharged and their websites were full of statements like "I'm so cheap because I'm only provisionally licensed!"

Charging $20-$40/hour is not sustainable unless it's a hobby and you have someone else to support you, since you might end up netting less than minimum wage after taxes and expenses. Know what you need to earn, what your expenses are, and how many clients you want to see per week, then do a reality check against a wide variety of local providers, and set your rate accordingly. You will be a specialist; price yourself so.


In a city with “known” Art Therapy programs, will I face a significant disadvantage competing for what art therapy positions there are, if I have taken the generic Counseling route?

You will face no disadvantages. See above again - no one cares what school you went to.


Assuming I eventually go into private practice and continue doing this until I keel over, is the $40k difference in debt very significant?

Over your lifetime that debt is not significant, but it depends a bit on the interest rate. Still, go to the cheapest school that will help you get an internship and attain licensure.

Perhaps it would help to think of that debt as the actual labor you'd have to put into paying it back. If you're making $100,000/year as a therapist, it's not much labor. If you're making $20,000/year, it's a lot of labor. Again, run the numbers.
posted by MonsieurBon at 1:50 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Have you ever had the experience of being the client of an art therapist? If not, I would recommend it - there is a reason most counseling programs recommend that their students be in counseling - not just to get learn to recognize and deal with your own stuff but also to take the real life experience of what it is like to be a client. In your case, all the more so to experience the power of art therapy as part of your path to become one. Plus it will help you stay connected to that part of your dream as you work on getting your "generic" counseling degree.
posted by metahawk at 3:47 PM on May 1


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