7. Be aware of the financial commitment.
Students spend endless hours researching programs, completing applications and preparing for interviews. But they may not give enough attention to financial matters. Solomon, who considers her education “100 percent worth the investment,” still said that “I could have helped myself be better informed about what to expect when it comes to the financial obligations of graduate school, and thus budgeted better during it.”
Turner, who tweets about psychology topics, said he wasn’t prepared for the financial hardships either. “I guess it comes with the territory but I didn’t expect to have difficulties with buying books, and supporting myself on student loans.”
Short didn’t realize the amount of time her three-semester internship would take, leaving her no room for another job. “I might have chosen to wait and save up money instead of going into debt with student loans during this time.”
8. Get involved in research.
Solomon wished that she would’ve participated in research earlier in college. “Any and all experience doing research enhances your competence, and perhaps more importantly, your comfort in doing this work,” she said. She added that many students are intimidated by research, “but this is where we have the ability to effect incredibly widespread change in people’s lives.”
9. Consider going to therapy.
While most grad programs don’t require their students to see a therapist, it can be very beneficial. Thieda said that therapy “gives you a better perspective of what it is like for clients who are sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with a stranger.” Morrison agreed: “The only way to truly understand the therapy process and do it well is to sit in the other chair.” She added that therapy helps you learn your “blind and hot spots.”
Also, you might “find that certain topics and discussions in class may trigger unpleasant thoughts, feelings or memories,” and therapy is the best place to process this, Thieda said.
Short, who works “to apply every theory, technique and question to myself so that I can better understand my clients,” underscored the significance of growth for mental health professionals: “It is a constant challenge to continue to grow in insight and awareness of myself, but, in my opinion, of utmost importance in this field. We need to constantly be aware of our own needs and areas for growth.”
10. Think about the type of advisor you want to have.
“Having a good relationship with your advisor has such a strong bearing” on your grad school career, Morrison said. During interviews, try to get a good feeling for how they are interpersonally. See if the two of you match in personality style and how you get things done, she said. Ask potential advisors about how they prefer to mentor students and what it’s like to be a student in their lab. Also, Morrison suggested talking to other students to get the scoop.
11. Learn to set your own short-term goals.
Even though grad school is very structured in some ways, it’s also flexible in regards to smaller deadlines and goals. “It’s easy to let things pile up,” Morrison said. For her dissertation, Morrison and a close friend from her cohort kept each other accountable and on task by sending weekly or biweekly emails with what they worked on. Your advisor also can help with this, Morrison said. She’d tell her advisor her deadlines and ask him to keep her accountable.
12. Make sure you’re passionate about this work.
“I really believe that to make it through grad school in any of the mental health professions, there needs to be a passion for the field. I have seen many peers drop out along the way because they just weren’t that interested — and it’s too much of a commitment for someone who doesn’t love it,” Short said.
You certainly don’t want to rack up debt for something you aren’t sure about. As Solomon said, “Student loan payments could be twice as much as your mortgage, so you’d better be doing what you totally love.”
One of the best ways to know if a clinical or counseling program is for you is to research, research, research. According to Short, “Before beginning grad school, spend some time researching, visiting or interviewing those already practicing to see if it is something you really want to do.”
13. Think about the future.
“Before deciding what area of psychology you would like to study, consider your long-term career goals (i.e., what type of job would be ideal),” Turner said. “That will allow you to choose an area of interest that is highly motivating and keep you on track to completing your program.”
Also, there are many different directions you can take, such as teaching, research or conducting therapy, all of which have lots of options within them, Morrison said. It’s important to get enough experience in each area to keep your options open, while at the same time tailoring “your experiences to where you want to go career wise.”
14. Research your state’s licensure requirements.
Before picking a program, research “the licensing requirements and options in your state,” because they vary, Thieda said. She added:
“If you think you’ll be moving to a state that’s different from where your program will be, know what classes you will need to take in order to fulfill the licensing requirements in the new state. For example, in North Carolina, a Master’s-level licensed professional counselor (LPC) is not required to take a substance abuse counseling class, but many other states do require one for licensure.”
15. “Use your practicum and internship opportunities wisely,” Thieda said.
“They are your time to explore areas of interest, try new things, hone your skills, and, most importantly, make professional contacts,” which is also critical considering that “the helping professions are not immune to downturns in the economy,” she said.
Talk with as many professionals as possible, Thieda said, who also recommended sending thank-you notes and keeping contacts informed on your progress throughout the program. “Come job-hunting time (and after you land a job as well), they will be invaluable resources for information, other contacts and opportunities.”
Also, liking your surroundings isn’t the only location-specific thing to consider with an internship. Several people advised Morrison to do her internship in the place she wanted to end up living, if possible. Doing so can help with networking and learning about the mental health resources in the community, she said. However, most students end up moving elsewhere after internship.
16. Don’t lose your sense of humor!
While grad school is a serious endeavor, it’s also important to lighten up. (Humor can be healing.) For Morrison, reading the comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper (Ph.D) helped her keep a sense of humor about grad school hardships. (It’s absolutely hilarious!)