First Jobs: Managing the transition from counseling graduate student to full-time Career Counselor
By Sarah Backes-Diaz
Like many counseling professionals, I spent 2-3 years developing a strong foundation for my future career by studying theory, scouring textbooks and research literature, writing countless papers, rehearsing counseling skills, doing internships and practicums, and engaging in intense self-reflection. Upon completion of my M.S. degree in Career & College Student Personnel Counseling in May 2006, a sense of sheer joy engulfed me and I felt eager to begin putting my knowledge, skills and passion to work everyday. After a long three month job-search (that in hindsight turned out to be a much needed vacation), I landed my first choice position working as a Career Counselor at the University of California Berkeley Career Center. As I prepared to make the leap into my first job, I asked myself an array of questions:
- How would I maintain contact with the amazing colleagues I met in graduate school?
- How would I manage such a large case load of students?
- How would I be accepted and perceived by my new colleagues?
- What would this new "9-5" lifestyle feel like after years in graduate school mode?
- How would I continue to focus on personal reflection and professional development given the multiple demands of my job?
As I began my new position, I realized that many of my questions did not have concrete answers, especially not ones I could define within a few days on the job! Along the same lines, I realized that there was quite a steep learning curve I would need to ascend as I entered this new professional realm.
While on one hand I was eager to start working with students and utilizing my counseling training, I also realized that I owed it to myself (and my employer) to take some time to adjust to my position. For example, I needed to understand the many logistical, and somewhat bureaucratic requirements that go with working for a large university. Luckily my Center was extremely supportive in the early weeks on the job, and I was given plenty of time to acclimate -- including time to prepare my office, setup technical accounts, and research the campus. I was also given the opportunity to shadow more-seasoned counselors and to block off time on my calendar for web research and consultations with other staff members as part of my training. I strongly encourage new employees to be honest in terms of how long this adjustment process will take, and to advocate for your needs during your professional transition.
Never-ending Learning Process
Once I had traversed the hump of the learning curve in my new position (which took about six months), I began to feel much more at ease. I had a clear sense of my various responsibilities, developed a basic understanding of campus procedures, laid a strong foundation for my professional network, and was becoming more familiar with the "alphabet soup" of acronyms used by my employer. But more importantly, I began to feel secure in my ability to succeed in my new role, and I was seeing the fruits of my labor in grad school being implemented in my office everyday with the students I counseled. At this point, I felt grateful for my past training as well as current support from fellow counselors.
What I wish I had known before beginning my first job, however, was the fact that learning to become a "good counselor" is a process that never stops. It is unrealistic to think that simply earning a diploma and obtaining a job meant that I finished the process of "becoming" a professional. I still had many instances where I second-guessed myself and my counseling abilities, challenged my choice of question or intervention, and doubted my effectiveness with students who did not respond as expected. But instead of getting down on myself in these moments, I was able to reach out to my trusted colleagues, thanks to the strong network of professionals I had been working to build. What I came to realize was that even my colleagues who have been counseling for many years STILL have instances in which they felt "stuck", challenged and doubtful of their effectiveness. Hearing my mentors admit their weaknesses and their self-doubts normalized my own negative thoughts and questions, and reemphasized how complex, multifaceted, and erratic the role of a counselor can be!
Tips for the College-to-Career Transition
While the process of beginning a career in the counseling profession is highly personal and unique for every individual, here are a few tips I'd like to offer other new career counselors as they approach the college-to-career transition:
- Find a mentor (or two, or three)! Support, encouragement, and consultation are essential aspects of counselor self-care and ongoing development.
- Continue to engage in professional development, including professional association memberships. (i.e. NCDA - which offers both web and print publications, annual conferences, resource discounts, etc. A regular connection to the profession can strengthen counselor identity and provide opportunities for networking and maintenance of professional relationships.)
- Analyze your energy cycle and your natural rhythm to capitalize on your high and low points for maximum effectiveness. And know your limits! (i.e. If you are a morning person, schedule more of your clients for early sessions, and then save admin work for later in the day when your energy wanes. I also realized that in order to be the most effective, my maximum client load is about four students per day.)
- Network within your office and campus environment to develop strong relationships,. (This group of allies will serve you in times of need when you seek guidance.)
- Seek personal counseling if available. (Even if you do not feel that you have major problems or concerns in your life, personal counseling can be an extremely helpful tool for stress-reduction, self-care, and on-going personal evaluation as you continue to develop as a counselor.)
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including proper diet, exercise and overall moderation in your choices and habits. (i.e. yoga, meditation, walking, etc.)
Sarah Backes-Diaz is a Career Counselor for the University of California, Berkeley, and earned her M.S. Degree in College & Career Counseling from San Francisco State University in May 2006. Sarah works primarily with students in the liberal arts and humanities, as well as students and alumni pursuing internships and careers in the non-profit and public service sector. She is also one of pre-law advisors for Berkeley undergraduates, and greatly enjoys working with undeclared students to help them clarify and define their interests, values and career goals. She can be reached at: