One surefire way to cripple your counseling career

Aug 10, 2012 by

Pick a bad supervisor.

There, I said it.

But I should clarify.  Yes, there are some supervisors out there that are just plain bad.  Just like there are some therapists who are bad.  These folks are negligent, burned out, checked out, and/or unethical in their dealings with clients and supervisees.

But those aren’t the folks I’m writing about today.  I’m hopeful that you already plan to do your best to steer clear of those.

I want to make sure that you pick a good supervisor—someone who is self-possessed, thoughtful, present, and well trained.

But I want more than that for you.  There are some really amazing supervisors out there.  So how do you pick between several good options?

You pay close attention to fit.  You find someone who makes a good fit with your own interests, career goals, personality, and more.

We will talk more about the consequences of a poor fit in a moment.  But first, let’s reminisce some.

The good old days

Remember what it was like applying for graduate school?

You probably recall carefully considering at least a few different programs, comparing tuition costs, courses, and commutes.  Maybe you had a big ol’ color-coded spreadsheet with all sorts of random details in the margins.

Or maybe that was just me.  (I admit I have a perverse love of spreadsheets.)

Perhaps you were lucky and fell into a really great program with relatively little planning or consideration—I know that happens for some.  But even then, you had to assemble GRE scores, an application, essays, and fees on a timeline.

It was a lot of work, wasn’t it?  Aren’t we glad that’s all behind us?

Well, it’s not totally behind us.  You still have quite a bit of research ahead of you.  (I hope.)  Why’s that?
If you aren’t doing at least as much work and research while looking for a supervisor, then your graduate training isn’t going to count for all that much.

Does that seem harsh?  Maybe it is.

But I believe that no matter how much work you put into your coursework, or how good your relationships with your professors were, or how much natural talent and promise you possess, if you haven’t matched well with a supervisor for your internship, your professional development will suffer.  Badly.

Bad fit = bad outcomes

This isn’t theoretical stuff—there are very real consequences that can come from matching poorly.

Don’t believe me?  Here are some ways it can cost you:

1.)    Lost opportunity.  Perhaps the biggest loss that comes from bad fit is the lost opportunity for skilled and inspiring mentorship.  Think about it.  You have a requirement built into your licensing process that is designed to offer you to have personalized attention and consultation.  You are not required to have this kind of oversight at any other point in your career.  So, why not make it work for you?  Rather than seeing this requirement as just that—a requirement—reframe it as an opportunity.  If you treat it as an obligation and a hindrance, it will feel like one.

2.)    Uphill battle.  You and your supervisor don’t need to see eye to eye on everything.  In fact, it will be important for there to be room for differences and disagreements in your supervision.  After all, you are working on getting your own footing as a therapist, so it is important to develop opinions and ways of working that are your own.  However, if you are matched with a supervisor whose theoretical orientation or business model that is at odds with own, you will probably have some trouble.  Do you really want your internship to be an uphill battle?

3.)    Poor influence.  At this point in your career, you are very impressionable.  Even if you bring lots of life and work experience to this enterprise, you are still getting a sense of your own therapeutic style.  Your supervisory experience will shape and direct you, setting a powerful foundation for what’s still to come.  Yes, you are certainly more than a blank slate and you have your own opinions and style of working.  But wouldn’t you rather work with someone whose style or goals complement your own, so you can draw from them and model after what they do?  Wouldn’t you rather work with someone who’s excited about this process of discovery for you?  You need and deserve strong support for your goals and vision at this point in your career.

4.)    Ugly finances.  Years of graduate study plus student loans makes a potential supervisor’s fee a good starting point for the decision-making process.  But, I’ve heard of interns paying way more than market rate to work with a supervisor because they weren’t familiar with the going rate for supervision.  If they were happy with their supervisor and could comfortably afford the fee, I suppose that would have been just fine.  But the match was poor and the high fee was just salt in the wound.  And, ugly finances aren’t just about paying through the nose for supervision you aren’t excited about—there can also be negative consequences to working with a supervisor who charges a very modest fee, too.

5.)    Bad habits.  You want a supervisor who sets a good example.  I have heard it said more than once that we pick up our best and worst habits from our supervisors.  After all, if we look up to and respect our supervisors, it’s natural to model ourselves after their example.  So try to pick someone who has good self-care habits, has healthy boundaries about money, fees, and knows deeply the worth of their work.  Internalizing those messages during your internship will help lay a healthy foundation for a lifelong practice of counseling.

6.)    Cancelled hours and other horror stories.  No matter how great your supervisor may be clinically, if they aren’t staying on top of their paperwork and license renewal, you could lose credit for all the hours you earned while their license was lapsed.  The rules on this vary by state, but I know of folks in Texas who lost credit for their hours because their supervisor let their license lapse.  Good news:  in Texas, you can check the status of your supervisor’s license online.

Don’t be afraid

For all my going on about how important good supervision is, I hope you realize that in many cases, the supervision you will receive will be just fine.  I wrote this because I want you to have more than just a “fine” experience.   During the match process, we can feel rushed or panicked about maybe not even finding a supervisor, and sometimes we settle with the first one we discover.  I hope you’ve discovered why that’s not such a great idea.

I hope that you realize that you’re worth more than just a fine match.  So, go ahead.  Take some time and really think it through.  You owe it to yourself to match with a supervisor you’re really excited about.

Have I overstated the importance of the match?  Have you heard horror stories or success stories about really good or poor matches with supervisors?  Maybe you have a question about the match process.  Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

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