Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 26, 2014

Grad School Decisions Part One: To PhD or Not To PHD

My journey to becoming a counselor began when I was a teenager. Throughout high school, I was the “foul weather friend” to many of my peers. They called me when they were going through times of worry, sadness, or conflict with parents, friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. It meant a lot to me that I was trusted with personal feelings and experiences. I liked talking with people about “real” things. I really cared about those who were sad or worried or who felt alone or misunderstood. I wanted to be helpful however I could, and giving time and concern were things I could do. This often meant staying up at night on the phone with whichever friend was having a “crisis,” listening as they poured out their hearts, praying for them, and assuring them that I would be “there whenever they needed to talk.”

Some of the problems I heard about went way beyond fights with parents about grades or lying or heartbreak over the end of a relationship. On one occasion, a friend wound up being admitted into a psychiatric facility for a few days. Another friend confided in me that he wanted to kill himself. I told my Mom who called and let his Mom know what he was saying so that his parents could get him professional help. One of the most popular guys in our youth group committed suicide during my junior year. He had not confided in me but one of his brothers had been telling me about the issues their family was experiencing. His death devastated so many of us in the youth group and church leaders brought a Christian psychologist in to talk with us as a group at least once after that.

By the time I started my senior year of high school, I’d come to a clear realization that my “calling” in life was to help others through emotional or relationship difficulties by listening and offering compassion and support. I felt that this was the direction God was leading me to follow. I took a psychology class that year and decided this would be my major in college. I wanted to know more about how to help people, such as when and how to give advice or feedback and when and how to appropriately involve other people (like doctors, family members, or clergy) in the situation. I wanted to understand the differences between a temporary problem and something that might be more serious and long-term.

I started college in 1994 knowing that my education would go far beyond a four-year degree. I chose a psychology major planning to continue my studies in that field all the way to a PhD in counseling psychology. As the time to decide about graduate programs neared, however, I began to reconsider this decision for several reasons.

I’d heard from a friend who was trying to get into a PhD in psych program that the competition for admission into doctoral programs was extremely difficult and that, in many psych programs, only a few students were admitted each year. Assuming I did get admitted, completing a doctorate would include, among lots of other courses, several statistics classes and a dissertation. Writing research papers was easy for me, but gaining access to research materials was not. I always had to have a lot of sighted help to find, and review, sources. This was frustrating and always took a lot of time. Dissertations required plenty of supporting research, as well as conducting my own and statistically analyzing the data gathered in my own study in order to present the results. I’d gotten through one undergraduate stats class but that had been a struggle. How many times did I want to put myself through that level of stress? There was another psychology doctorate called a PsyD that seemed to have slightly different requirements, but it still involved a lot of work and might not provide me with the same career flexibility as a PhD would.

I enjoyed reading, writing, and thinking at deeper levels in an academic setting. I loved the process of learning from textbooks, lectures, and discussions with peers and professors. I didn’t want to be a student forever, though. It had already taken me longer than I’d expected to complete my Bachelors degree and I wouldn’t be able to start graduate school until the fall 2000 semester, at the earliest. The prospect of committing to another program of study that might take me just as long to complete left me with a feeling of dread. When would I finally be able to start working,establishing my identity and confidence as a professional, and earning my own money so that I could be financially self-sufficient?

When I considered all of those realities, “Doctor Carmella Broome, Counseling Psychologist” didn’t sound quite as great as it once had. I’d learned during the past several years that there were other options that would allow me to work as a psychotherapist without having to obtain a doctorate. These included masters degrees and licenses in clinical social work, marriage and family therapy, and professional/mental health counseling. These programs would still required plenty of challenging academic work, as well as post graduate supervision and examinations to become licensed and able to practice without restrictions. All that sounded hard enough to me. The more I thought about being able to establish a professional identity and career without having to commit to all the work and time required for a PhD., the more excited I got about these other possibilities. That excitement lead to curiosity and openness to exploring these other paths.

The university I attended offered a masters degree in clinical counseling as one of its seminary and graduate school programs. Several of my acquaintences in the psych program were doing their graduate work there. The Resident Assistant for my dorm was also enrolled in that program. We talked about it on several occasions. I also attended a couple of lunches with professors from that program to learn more about it and to discuss pursuing a career in the field of counseling. I ultimately decided I wanted to attend a “secular” university for graduate school, but their insights helped me feel even more confident that a masters degree in counseling was a good fit for my future career goals.

My academic advisor at CIU also had a masters degree in counseling. She was a very kind and supportive woman who spent a lot of time with me, even though she was scared of dogs. We had lunch together once a week or so during my last semester there and often talked about my career plans and graduate school options. In addition to academic advisement and overseeing the undergrad psychology students during their practicum work, Ms. Esau also taught several classes. Two of my psychology professors at my previous college, North Greenville, had masters degrees in counseling and did some private practice work in addition to serving as adjunct faculty. I’d learned a lot from their classes, including hearing about their own professional experiences providing actual counseling services to various types of clients.

It was good to know that I wouldn’t necessarily have to have a doctorate to teach college classes if I decided I wanted to do that at some point in my career. Teaching was an intriguing possibility. Mostly, though, I pictured myself working in a nonprofit center or group practice setting. I wanted to help in ways similar to how a friend would help but with greater objectivity, more knowledge, and in a more clearly defined role. I could do all this with a graduate degree in counseling. A doctorate might provide me with a slightly better income and more flexibility in terms of career options, but I could always go back to school to earn a PhD later on if I wanted to. “Carmella Broome, Licensed Professional Counselor” was something I could become after earning a masters degree. Counseling was a distinct profession with its own philosophies and theories, organizations, training programs, and state and national certifications. Masters level licensed counselors worked in a variety of settings and could have their services reimbursed by insurance companies. This all sounded like what I wanted to do.

By the time I finished college, I was clear about what I would do next. When I finally did have more time to research grad schools, I would be considering those in SC, NC, and GA that offered a masters degree in clinical or professional counseling.

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