You’ve started seeing a counselor that you really enjoy but then you come across his or her business card and see that they are just an intern. What does that mean? Are they still in school? Do they have no experience? Am I safe with them? All of those questions are valid and reasonable. You should be aware of who you are trusting with your secrets and struggles. This question is quite complex yet is definitely an important one to answer.
First, let’s break down the different types of interns to understand that there are many. When a counselor is in school they are required to “volunteer” their time at local agencies and organizations to gain knowledge and experience in their field. Many begin this work during their Bachelor’s education. It is a requirement for graduation once the counselor is at the Masters or Doctoral levels. Many of these internships don’t pay any money and require standard business hours which hinders the student counselor’s ability to maintain employment. Let’s just say, that internship is typically some of the most trying years of a counselor’s life.
Every school uses different terminology to classify the first semester or year of internship. Many graduate schools consider the first “volunteer” opportunity as a practicum. During this period, the intern is still in school and taking a class devoted to discussing what happens at the practicum site. Practicum sites are generally non-profit agencies willing to take on the responsibility of training a counselor when first starting out. Because counselors first starting out are not licensed, licensed supervisors must be aware of and approve of all of the practicum student’s decisions and activities. With that said, the practicum experience is oftentimes just an observation or shadowing experience. When the counselor is just starting out they might not know or understand the inner workings of an agency and how to conduct the therapy process. Watching other clinicians work is paramount to the new counselor’s learning and development. Sometimes practicum experiences will lead to more hands-on encounters with clients but that often takes a few months of training.
Internship placement can be the same as practicum, as different schools call it different things. Internship is usually the more advanced level of interning, typically a student’s second year “volunteering” at a site. Again, this generally involves a non-profit agency that pays the intern nothing. This time; however, the intern is completely immersed into the counseling process. They are seeing clients themselves, completing paperwork, being audited, and picking up more hours of “volunteer” work instead of working a paying job. They are still enrolled in school, taking a class designed to help with the internship process, and being supervised by the licensed professional on staff. These interns are generally overworked and get the most difficult clients and cases as part of their education.
If a counselor has reached this portion of internship that means that they have graduated from their graduate program and are now registering with their state for “future” licensure. Many things have to happen before this process can begin. They had to have accrued a certain number of face-to face hours with different types of clients (children, families, couples) based on their degree and hours of supervision from both their school and practicum/internship sites. After graduating, all of that information has to be mailed to the state licensing board to ensure that the information is accurate. Next, the counselor must find a clinical supervisor who is licensed in the state they are pursuing licensure and eligible to supervise them. These supervisors are not cheap. They charge anywhere between $50-$150 per hour for supervision. Each license requires a certain number of hours of supervision within a certain amount of time.
For example, in the state of Florida, someone trying to gain licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) is required to accrue at least 1,500 face-to-face contact with clients, 180 face-to-face time with families or couples, and at least 100 hours of supervision within a 2 year period. Counselors must see their supervisors AT LEAST once every 2 weeks. If that supervisor charges $150 for each supervision session, it can get pretty costly. Those hours must be accrued in a 2-year time span or they have to re-register with the state and complete more hours.
Many practitioners choose not to get licensed due to the strict regulations. Some get pregnant during registered internship or suffer financial hardship that doesn’t allow them to continue. The good news is that once a counselor has a degree in hand, he or she can get paid for their internship at this point. Most of the work is still at non-profit agencies; however, and the pay is extremely minimal. It’s often not feasible for a counselor to begin internship directly out of school as a result. That means, your counselor could have gotten his or her education fifteen years ago but is just now pursuing licensure. Or moved from a different state and is required to start the process completely over again. Registered interns have at least 1-2 years of experience under their belt prior to applying so there’s at least a comfort there knowing that they’re more experienced and out of school already.
Seeking counseling from an intern is a scary thought but many interns have years of experience prior to pursuing licensure in your state. The only thing we know for sure from research is that the most important aspect of counseling, the part of counseling that has shown to influence the most amount of change, is the relationship that the client has with his or her counselor. If you enjoy your counselor, they make you feel comfortable, and you don’t feel that they’re totally off base with you then that counselor can be beneficial for you. It’s important for you to feel comfortable with your counselor so experience multiple counselors and decide which one suits you best. Who knows, it could be an intern.