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After you’ve taken your foundational counseling classes in your graduate counseling program, you’ll take practicum courses that send you into the community to practice your new skills with real clients. Here, you’ll put your training into practice under the supervision of an experienced professional counselor.

Start Volunteering Early

“I recommend that students start volunteering well before practicum,” says Elizabeth Katz, professor of Counseling and director of the Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. If you’re interested in working with a particular population — clients in recovery from substance abuse, say, or clients with eating disorders — start volunteering at agencies that serve those groups. Similarly, if particular therapeutic techniques, such as equine therapy or mindfulness practices, have caught your attention, offer to help in those settings.

At this point, your volunteer work will be non-counseling in nature — like any other community volunteer — but you’ll get valuable insight into whether the work is a fit for you. And you’ll build your network. “You may do administrative tasks, but you get to observe what goes on there, and the organization gets to know you,” says Katz. “It may help you get into a practicum site.”

Find the Right Fit

Your volunteer work, and your professors, will help you find the right setting for your practicum. In the St. Edward’s University MAC program, for example, there are more than 80 practicum options, include the following:

  • The nonprofit Capital Area Counseling Center offers services on a sliding scale to low-income clients who would otherwise not be able to afford therapy.
  • LifeWorks Youth & Family Alliance helps adolescents and families experiencing hardships like abuse, homelessness, teen pregnancy and extended time in the foster care system. This organization uses a family systems approach, which makes it a good fit for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) students.
  • Northwest Counseling and Wellness Center specializes in substance abuse treatment and therapy for anxiety and depression, using nontraditional and eastern approaches such as yoga, acupuncture and tai chi. Students who do practicum here also get experience working with groups.

Learn from the Experts

Your supervisor may sit in on an occasional session, or let you shadow her, but in general you’ll be debriefing with her for an hour a week. Your practicum site may also have interns you can consult.

Lay the Groundwork for Your Internship

After you graduate from your master’s program, you’ll apply for a temporary Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or LMFT license and complete a 3,000-hour internship that will lead to your permanent license. Your practicum is a good opportunity to build relationships that will help you find internship opportunities. Some students are offered full-time jobs at the same site where they did their practicum, which means they can complete the internship in about two years.

The Master of Arts in Counseling at St. Edward’s University helps students gain a deeper understanding of what drives peoples’ behavior through an experiential curriculum, accomplished faculty and innovative electives.

Robyn Ross is a freelance writer.