Home Education A guide to graduate programs in counseling
Refining the Search Process
So you know (hypothetically) there are 12 universities in your state with graduate counseling programs, but what specific degrees/counseling specialty areas do they offer? If you want to be a mental health counselor, attending a school counseling program won’t be of much help, and vice versa. Are the programs accredited, and why is this important? How will you pay for school? Once you are aware of programs that exist and know what kind of degree you are looking for, it is time to make a list of potential schools and look a little closer at other important details. There are many issues to consider that can often feel like you are at the center of the target waiting for the darts to hit (Figure 6.1). Let’s try to approach each dart one by one to assist with your process, keeping in mind that some of these considerations may be more important to you than others, depending on how you reflected upon your decision to pursue a graduate degree in counseling.
Accreditation. Because accreditation is so important, and the fact that this book is an official publication of CACREP, the accrediting body for graduate programs in counseling, it seems appropriate to begin this section by addressing the topic of program accreditation. Whether or not you attend a program that is CACREP-accredited will have a tremendous impact on your professional career; not just in terms of the quality of your graduate school training, but also in your ability to obtain licensure, national certification, and even career opportunities. As we discussed in the beginning of the book and as you will learn more about in the next section, CACREP accreditation is a cornerstone to ensuring quality training in counselor preparation through indication that the program has met the national standards of the profession. There are standards that exist
Figure 6.1 Program Characteristics to Consider.
regarding what you will experience in the curriculum as well as parameters for what the program should look like in terms of faculty, fieldwork, resources, and other important domains. CACREP accreditation enables graduates to more readily obtain licensure and certification. In fact, some states require graduation from an accredited program for licensure eligibility. Additionally, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) will begin requiring graduation from a CACREP-accredited counseling program for the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential in 2022.
In addition to specialized or programmatic accreditation, you will also need to consider regional or institutional accreditation. Programs that are CACREP-accredited are required to be housed in institutions that already hold these appropriate regional accreditations; this is another consideration for your selection of the specific program affiliations. Colleges and universities also undergo accreditation processes to ensure that the institution as a whole has the resources and experiences required to best prepare their students, both undergraduate and graduate. One of the greatest reasons for regional accreditation is the provision of financial aid: A university must hold this accreditation in order to provide federal financial aid to its students. As an undergraduate, if you ever transferred courses you might not have known that your institutions required regional accreditation for this to happen. Accreditation as a whole puts colleges and universities—and in our case graduate counseling programs—on equal footing regarding the nature of resources and experiences afforded their students. There is great room for flexibility in how accreditation standards are interpreted and achieved, which accounts for the individuality of programs and universities that enable you to make a more personalized choice that fits your needs and interests.
A word of caution on accreditation: Sometimes you will see programs use marketing, website, and other materials that tout "CACREP equivalent” language. There is no such thing as a "CACREP equivalent” or "CACREP-aligned” program. The accreditation designation is granted only to programs that have completed a rigorous review process and earned their accredited status. In the same way that you would not say that you are "essentially a counselor” if you work in an agency providing case management, so too does the profession protect its accreditation status and designation. Look carefully at program materials. They may state that they are in the process of applying for accreditation, which is a different and more transparent way of saying they are committed to achieving recognition but are not there yet. Remember that the program cannot guarantee that it will be accredited by the time you begin or even complete your program. It is important to ask questions of the program professors and administrators about where they are in their CACREP accreditation review process to help you continue to narrow your search and make a good decision about where you will invest your time and professional training.
Location. Where you go to school may be one of the largest personal considerations to address once you have made the decision to go to graduate school. Some students are geographically bound for family, work, and other personal reasons you may have explored in chapter 5. If you plan to stay in your area, start looking at colleges and universities nearby. Which ones house graduate programs in counseling? How far are you willing to travel to go to graduate school? Work and family obligations may need to factor into your decision. Going to graduate school may impact a partner’s decision to take a new job. If you look at programs 45 minutes from home, that automatically adds commute time as well as your time on campus for classes and out-of-class commitments we hope you will consider (see more in chapters 7 and 8 about student life).
If you have a little more flexibility to relocate for a couple of years, you may begin with the two sources we mentioned in the previous section. We know some students who took advantage of being a graduate student to explore a different part of the country. Maybe you’ve always wanted to live in Colorado, but worry about the job market. This is your time to look at the counseling programs in Colorado and what the state licensure board requires for its practitioners. Or maybe you want to be in or near a major metropolitan area for a couple of years before settling back to a more suburban lifestyle as a school counselor. We encourage you to take the selfreflection results from chapter 5 to examine where you want to begin your search.
Finances. Deciding where to go to school naturally has financial implications. Moving expenses, changes in income, tuition, and costs for commuting or travel to family and friends are all factors to consider. Your financial considerations need to be balanced with other resources, such as support from your family and friends and how much time you can commit to your graduate studies.
Graduate students find several ways of financing their education. As you will read more about in later chapters, some programs offer graduate assis- tantships and fellowships. Students in these positions work with professors, or in other administrative capacities for the program or other offices on campus, in exchange for tuition remission and/or a small stipend. Look into graduate assistantship options as you begin reviewing program materials. Keep in mind that assistantships tend to be limited and are usually reserved for full-time students. Most program administrators wish that they could financially support all of their students, but funds are unfortunately limited. In many cases, programs will refer students to other on-campus funding options, perhaps assistantships or work-study opportunities that may be housed in other departments on campus.
Beyond the program, you might have some success contacting the Graduate School at your universities of interest to find out about external scholarships for graduate students. There are a few scholarships you might find through professional counseling associations, including several from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Some of these scholarships are specific to unique populations, such as veterans and minority students. You can also look at broader sources for graduate scholarships that might not be restricted to specific disciplines of study. You will find a list of resources in chapter 7; also ask the programs you are contacting if their program or institution offers any other scholarship opportunities. A word to the wise: as with assistantships, scholarships can be competitive. We recommend looking at several options including financial aid and loans as necessary.
You may have received financial aid when you were studying as an undergraduate. This is also an option at the graduate level if assistantships are not a possibility. Federal financial aid requirements have guidelines for graduate study, including the number of credit hours that must be taken each term. Some good news here: you can study full- or part-time and receive financial aid. If you have previously received financial aid you will already be familiar with the application process (see Box 6.1). Make sure that you read the guidelines carefully as you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to find out your eligibility.
Along with financial aid, graduate students may also seek student loans through a variety of sources. We encourage you to study loan options carefully, including planning for the future and how you will repay them after graduating. You may want to reread chapter 4 to see average starting salaries and think about what that will mean for monthly payments when you start returning your student loans. For some of our readers, this may be the first time that you are working if you go to graduate school right out of your undergraduate career. This means adult, financial responsibilities that you will have to consider to maintain the lifestyle you explored in chapter 5. There are some post-graduation options to defer or forgive loan repayments if you have some geographic flexibility. These are usually affiliated with work in rural areas,
Box 6.1 FAFSA
For more about federal financial aid and an application, visit https ://fafsa. ed.gov/.
inner-city areas, or with at-risk populations. A quick Google search may be a good way to look at these options if you are considering loans for graduate school.
Institution type. Just when you thought it was safe to start applying to programs, we throw another curveball your way: the institution type. Different from your undergraduate experience, the size of the institution may be less of an issue because your classes will be restricted to your counseling program only. There are other considerations related to the type of school you attend for your graduate studies that may encompass course- work as well as out-of-class experiences.
For example, a public college or university may have more reasonable tuition costs if finances are a leading consideration for you. Public schools receive state and federal subsidies that allow them to keep tuition costs down, particularly for students who are residents of the state. They are nondenominational and may offer resources to students on campus and in the community. Private schools, on the other hand, often have an affiliation with an organization or represent a specific need because of donors and founders. Private schools tend to be smaller and may have a more intimate feel to them. This can be particularly salient in graduate counseling programs, because the mission of the institution is reflected in the program through class sizes and when and where courses are offered. Some, but not all, private schools have a religious foundation as part of this mission. Some schools differ in that they are more intentionally faith-based. These schools work from their particular religious orientation and incorporate beliefs into their coursework and student experiences. There are an increasing number of CACREP-accredited counseling programs that are affiliated with faith-based institutions. This is beneficial for students who want to pursue secular counseling careers yet maintain a faith- based belief system in their studies. Finally, you may be familiar withfor-profit institutions that are gaining prominence. These schools operate with a clear goal similar to a business: They are seeking to gain profit from their services. As with faith-based schools, an increasing number of counseling programs at for-profit institutions are seeking CACREP-accreditation. There may be distinct advantages to this type of program that allow you to study on a more flexible or regionally based setting. Truly, there are advantages to each type of institution for counseling graduate study, and we encourage you to explore more about the uniqueness of each program based on what they offer that fits your individual needs and interests.
Program delivery. Will you study full-time or part-time? Do you want to take classes during the day, or would you rather be at school at night and on weekends to accommodate other life responsibilities? Perhaps you have some interest in trying your hand at online learning also because of life responsibilities. These program delivery questions are critical to your decisions as you think about how you will manage course offerings and other program responsibilities during your graduate program.
Some students enter the graduate school search with an eye toward how long it will take to complete the program. Most graduate counseling programs require a significant commitment of time, given the number of credit hours (60). If you plan to study full-time, most students can complete these programs in 2 to 3 years. Some of this has to do with what the institution considers a full-time load, the program’s expectations for courseload per term, as well as when courses are offered. Programs with full-time options sometimes operate on a cohort model: All students enter the program together and complete the same courses in sequence. There are part-time programs that also operate with this model. A cohort can be appealing for students because they have familiarity in their work with peers and have greater stability in knowing when courses will be offered and taken in sequence. For other students, both full and part-time, flexibility in taking courses with other students can be appealing as well. There really is not one correct answer to full- or part-time study, only the model that makes the most sense for you when you think about your personal lifestyle considerations.
An additional lifestyle consideration is when you can expect to find yourself in classes. Both full- and part-time programs may offer courses during the day and in evening and weekend formats. We suggest looking not only at what the program narrative states, but at actual course times so that you have a sense of how this will fit into your schedule. For example, a program touting "daytime courses” may have classes that begin at 2 p.m. while others may have courses as early as 8 a.m. Evening options may mean classes that run as late as 11 p.m. We (the authors) have very different optimal work times, and given our druthers would have selected courses based on this as well. A weekend model may mean that all classes run on weekends only in one program, whereas another may have a course or two each year that meets every other weekend to balance day and evening offerings. For weekend options in particular, you will need to think about your attention span. Can you reasonably maintain focus for an 8-hour block of time, or will you do better with a course that meets weekly for 2 У2 hours?
Learning style needs to be further considered when you think about online, hybrid, or more traditional face-to-face courses. We receive inquiries about online courses which are often—legitimately—based on convenience. But some of our students find that the discipline and self-directed learning required for online learning are not as balanced as the convenience that these courses or program delivery models may offer. There are programs that are delivered primarily online and balance this with a 2-week residency each term. During the residency portion of the program, students and professors can meet in person, and the professors can evaluate and provide feedback on the counseling skills being learned that are better assessed face-to-face. As with convenience for time to completion, online learning capacity should be a balancing factor in your decision.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of lifestyle in making each decision about your program choice. The time to completion alone may be a big one: How long do you want to spend preparing for this career while pursuing other life tasks? The way you go about attending school is more than just showing up for classes when they are offered and interacting (physically or virtually) with others who are pursuing the same goals. Take the time to reflect back on what you want to accomplish while you are at this stage of your career, education, and life to make the decision about program delivery that fits your style, needs, and goals.
Program demographics. There are a few characteristics of the program that may be important for you as you narrow your search. In addition to the size and type of institution, you may also want to think about the size of the program itself. A program of 400 students may have a different feel than a program of 40, and each one has its benefits for your particular needs. Think about what you want the experience to feel like while you are there. If you can, visiting a program and meeting with current students will give you an even better feel for the program and what it looks like beyond what you see on a website or program brochure.
Programs should be able to answer some questions for you about their students and graduates that might also help with your decisions. Look for information about completion and graduation rates to get a sense of the feasibility and rigor of the program. You should also ask about certification and licensure exam pass rates for graduates, again attesting to the quality of preparation in the program. Job placement rates are among the more practical pieces of information you will want to seek, since we hope you will be working in the field after completing your degree. Most programs, and all that are accredited, survey their students, fieldwork supervisors, graduates, and employers of their graduates to continually assess and improve upon the program and its content and delivery.
Faculty. Who are the people with whom you will be studying? Certainly your peers will be important as partners on projects, studying, and maybe even social aspects of your time in the program. As important as your peers are the people who will provide you with your formative education about what it means to be a counselor.
The core faculty of your counseling program are the primary group of professors who are employed full-time and committed to your preparation and engagement in the counseling profession. You should take most of your classes from these individuals. Depending on the size of your program, generally there are at least three full-time core faculty who are assigned to your program area and teach your courses. You will want to ensure that the number of faculty is sufficient to the program size. A little bit of math is helpful here: If professors teach 2 to 3 classes per semester and there are 14 counseling courses offered in a term, who is teaching the other classes? Keep in mind that your professors have other responsibilities to you as well, and that their teaching loads are intended to address these needs. For example, your program professors will usually serve as the academic advisors for students, providing individualized guidance about the program, course sequencing and registration, and professional development and mentoring.
The background and experience of core faculty is an important consideration, one that may not be at the forefront for many beginning students searching for programs. Core faculty should all be prepared with advanced (doctoral) degrees in counseling. There is a good deal of professional discussion about whether that degree should be specifically in counseling or a related field. For the purposes of this book, we encourage you to ensure that your professors represent the field of study and practice that you intend to follow yourself. For instance, if you hope to be a school counselor, does the program have professors who have training, experience, credentials, and research in this area? You will want to be sure that your graduate counseling program has faculty who are interested in broad areas of interest to you, either in their clinical work, research, or professional activities. You can generally access core faculty curriculum vitae (an academic resume) through program websites. Pay particular attention to whether faculty are engaging in fieldwork or research simultaneous to teaching, which may be important to you as you think about what they will be able to teach you about what is happening in the counseling field currently. You will quickly learn about a scientist-practitioner model: Program faculty who are also engaged in the field so that they are up to date on the state of the profession and service delivery. This is an important aspect taught to counseling program faculty who we hope will pass along their experiences to your work as emerging counselors.
Most counseling programs also employ additional instructors to teach courses because of coverage, interest, or expertise. These instructors are generally referred to as adjunct faculty and embody the practitioner end of the scientist-practitioner model. Adjunct faculty can be practitioners who want to be part of preparing the next generation of counselors but want to maintain full-time work in the field. Adjunct faculty, unlike core faculty, may not hold doctoral degrees. At minimum, make sure that they are prepared and credentialed with the licenses and certifications that represent the content they are teaching and that you hope to learn. Some programs that house doctoral students may also give these advanced students opportunities to teach and build upon their skills in translating their counseling work into teaching. The learning that can take place with an adjunct instructor is just as meaningful as that of full-time core faculty, provided they are prepared in instruction and recognize the learning needs of students.
Student involvement. We have dedicated chapter 8 of this book to addressing student involvement during graduate school. Look for whether the programs you are considering encourage this activity and how they do so. For example, is there an active Chi Sigma Iota (the international counseling honor society) chapter at the program? Some counseling programs also have student-run groups that are geared toward interaction and informal mentoring, which may be appealing to you. You might also explore whether there are other student involvement opportunities outside of the discipline, such as a graduate student association or other student groups (e.g., LGBTQ women’s support, religiously based organizations) that are welcoming to graduate students. The program and institution may become a primary environment for social and emotional support. These types of activities will be important as you consider the lifestyle you hope to achieve while a graduate student.
More academic forms of involvement will also be part of your considerations in program selection. For example, if you are interested in research but are not able to obtain an assistantship, are there other opportunities for you to work with professors exploring topics that relate to your future work? Whether or not you plan to pursue doctoral study sometime after you complete your master’s degree, the presence of a doctoral counseling program will change the feel of the environment. This also creates opportunities for student engagement, either through doctoral students’ research or simply mentorship from someone close to your frame of reference with the added experience of working in the field. As with the other considerations, think about what will be meaningful to you and how you want to engage in your graduate study beyond the experiences you will have in the classroom.
Other considerations. Each prospective counseling student will have unique considerations for his or her program needs. There are some programs that offer students opportunities to study abroad. Although this may be different than the traditional semester away you may have had as an undergraduate, there are unique programs that offer graduate students opportunities to learn about counseling in different cultures and countries. Some of these programs enable students from other programs to attend their institutes, usually summer immersion programs involving international travel. Make sure that you check with your program about both offering these opportunities and whether such courses could be transferred if you participate elsewhere.
Often these types of courses are electives. Most programs supplement the large number of core or required courses with electives so that students can learn more about specific areas of interest or expertise of their professors. In addition to an international experience, programs may have electives ranging from Play Therapy to Gender Issues in Counseling to courses focused on counseling specialized populations (e.g., eating disorders, ethnic populations, adopted and foster families). Check out whether there are electives built into the program’s curriculum and, if not, whether they allow students to take additional courses when they are available.
Keep in mind that programs may limit electives because of the content they want to ensure their students know and can apply upon entering the profession. We will spend some more time discussing field experiences (i.e., practicum and internship) a bit later, and you will learn more about this as you enter your program. The location and experience of practicum and internship is significant for many students. For example, some programs have clinics on-site where students complete their practicum experiences. The benefit here is the convenience of the site, as well as accessibility to the professors and supervisors who oversee this experience. Some students prefer programs with an off-site practicum, so that they can work more directly with their populations and settings of interests (for example, a school counseling student may want a practicum in a school with young children). As with the other considerations we presented in this chapter, this is a personal decision rather than a right or wrong.
Finally, finding the perfect fit requires you to consider the culture of the program. Are students generally around when you visit the program? Are you able to work independently and reach peers and professors as needed, or do you want more regular, structured, and intimate forums for interaction? The perfect fit may be elusive, but the culture of how students interact with one another, their professors, and the institution may be areas to consider as you embark on the next steps of applying to graduate programs.
We have reiterated the importance ofthe lifestyle and personal self-reflection you completed in chapter 5 as you explored the program considerations in this chapter. Our goal is to help you think about how the information being presented intersects with your personal dimensions as well as the personal and professional goals you have for yourself. Imagine yourself in the various types and configurations of programs presented here. Keep track of the program characteristics that seem most important to you, and make time to purposefully self-reflect on these items. Now that you have these beginning pieces to add to your considerations, we will turn our attention to the application process in the next chapter.
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