“Words of Wisdom”

Advice for people considering a career in college/university counseling centers.
 

Compiled by Maggie Gartner (Texas A & M) from Counseling Center Directors around the country.


  • Do not fail to mention your commitment to consultation with colleagues whenever facing a difficult clinical or ethical situation.

  • Best piece of advice for entry level position at Center – it never hurts to try.  If you see an ad that catches your eye and you truly feel you have something to give on it, then try.  It's well worth the time and energy to see what happens. 

  • Do your homework, be very informed about the institution/organization, the people, the programs, etc.  It is much more impressive to ask a specific question that comes from apparent knowledge than a generic question.  Give the interviewers the opportunity to talk about what they appreciate and are proud of in their work and their facility.

  • An ability to laugh at yourself is highly valued where I work. 

  • Be real.

  • Don't foreclose on every therapy orientation and prematurely settle on the therapy of the moment.  I won't hire you if you do.

  • Research the centers well.  Though there are similarities, they can be very different and most are looking for "good fit" candidates.  And don't accept or turn down offers via fax or email for Pete's sake!

  • Do's:

    • Provide all the materials as described in the application process.

    • Always provide a letter of interest and indicate that there has been a review of the website and specifics of the center.

    • Provide resumes that speak to the position

  • Don'ts:

    • Send letters or resumes with spelling errors.

    • Partially apply by providing partial application materials. 

  • Do not be presumptuous as in "I don't know if you are familiar with.... but I am interested in......: This will not impress the interviewer who is surely likely to be older and more experience than the intern.   Do not accept an invitation for an on site interview unless you are seriously interested in working at the institution. (A candidate might accept an invitation but ultimately wanted to come to the area to visit relative or shop (yes this really happened!). Do not proclaim an undying interest in counseling center work if it is not there (a candidate once did this then accepted an offer in a community mental agency).

  • Address everything that the job announcement says it is looking for in the cover letter.  Show how you would be a fit for the position - and if you don't have the experience, talk about a related experience(s) that would translate.  (This also helps the person avoid appearing as if they are sending out several cover letters/applications at one time - doing blanket applications.)  With that, be certain to submit what they are asking, such as a copy of the vita, a role-play tape, etc.

  • You are applying to meet the needs of the organization/company.  Keep that in mind when presenting yourself.

  • Research the place before calling/interviewing.  We can tell who has checked out what we do (via website, talking to others, etc.) when we talk to the person.  If they don't know what we do, how can we believe them when they say they would be a good fit?

  • Thank you letters are important.  It shows us that the person can follow through on things.

  • I'd want job applicants a) to be persuasive about why they want to work with this population specifically, and b) to be able to talk about their experience with crisis work, assessment, and recognizing major mental illness.

  • Do: Do a bit of research about us, look at our web page, ask questions that are relevant to us. Let us know what you are interested in, even if it is a potential area. Let us know where you are with supervision; what is the next thing that you want to focus on in supervision. Dazzle us with a thank you note after an interview.

  • Don't: Don't be late. Don't try to fudge your vita. Don't stare blankly at us in the interview; come prepared. Don't let your 1st or 2nd question be about salary and benefits.

  • With our campus' diversity of students, I would remind interns to take advantage of the opportunity to develop a facility with outreach programming in a variety of ways, particularly to diverse constituencies, so that they can help our campus become more integral to all our populations.  Of course they need to be good therapists, that's a given, but that other expertise will help them to stand out and serve a real need.

  • I believe that a new staff member from outside of South Florida needs to be moving here with a partner unless he or she has family or friends already here. So my best advice is to be sure you will be comfortable moving to the site of the Counseling Center; ask a lot of questions and take a tour of the campus and the town and check out housing, shopping, recreation, prices, etc. It is not always easy for young professional to establish new relationships in certain areas and they should not necessarily count on colleagues at the Counseling Center to fill these needs (as they might for an internship).   

  • Don't start out by telling the employer what you do and don't want, but rather inquire about what the needs of the center are.

  • Be relaxed...we are assessing your ability to work with patients...if you are nervous in the interview (or frankly...anything we notice about you in the interview) may lead us to think that is how you would be with students

  • Have some basic theory knowledge...don't say "I'm eclectic..."...say "While I'm still learning, I like what so and so does with this population of patients". You don't have to sell yourself to a theory...just show that you are actively giving it some thought.

  • Be kind and nice...polite and gracious....I think 80% of being a good therapist is being a good human being.   We've had two interns not get a position this year for basically ignoring/insulting office staff on their way to the interview (such as office managers or other interns)...most people who interview are going to ask their front line staff what they thought of the person...leave a good impression

  • Look at the site's website before you go and have some questions ready.

  • Also realize they may not leave you time to ask a whole bunch of questions...be ok with that too....while it's good to go in prepared...don't be inflexible...

  • If you smoke...don't do it right before the interview...our center is combined with health services and they are very sensitive about smoke and those who smoke...

  • MOST OF ALL...send a note, fax, card...thanking people for the chance to interview the following day...it's classy and will set you apart from your other classmates who are interviewing...

  • Read the website & know something about the University as well as the counseling center. Talk with anyone you know who's been there or has connections.

  • I would say that internship experience in a college counseling center is critical, as is the ability to be a generalist. Also, since colleges are increasingly seeing non-traditional age students, I would say that an understanding of the "adult" learner would be important.

  • After you present yourself well, be sure to ask pertinent questions. 

  • Be prepared--do your homework about the services that site offers, the strengths they have, and be able to articulate how you would "fit" into what's happening there.  Most centers have web sites--visit them.  Also, be prepared to find out as much as you can about who they are--you need to interview your site as much as they need to interview you.  We want to hire people who really want to be here--so don't "blow sunshine" if you don't mean it.  It won't go over well later on.  Talk to the support staff about how they are treated--if they feel good about being there, you probably will, too.  Pay attention to the general healthy feeling of the place.

  • Be yourself enough (without losing site of the general good interview manners).  If it doesn't work on the interview, it probably won't work when you're hired.  Nobody likes those kinds of surprises.  We want to know that what we see is what we get.  Better to wait for a position and a center that fits than try to squeeze yourself into a mold you wouldn't want to end up looking like.  Look for shared core values. I'd (honestly) rather park cars than work with a bunch of people I don't reasonably get along with or who are getting caught up in staff drama.

  • Each search is idiosyncratic - you will never really know why you got bounced from a particular search or why you got kept in - it's not personal, don't make it that.   

  • Each search has a life of its own, even if they have a time-table; it's likely it won't work that way.

  • Don't worry if you realize you are not their first choice – the biggest question will be:  are you the one they are offering it to now and do you want it?

  • More so than internship, the interview process should be viewed as a two-way street - how they treat you from start to finish says a lot about who they are - don't ignore it and don't discount it - if you get a really bad vibe, taking the job because it's (prestigious, more money, closer to where you want to be, the job you always dreamed you'd get) - won't make it feel any better in six months when you realize your vibe was right and it's a miserable place to work.

  • You may not get the perfect job this time out...and if you wait for it to come along, you will become good friends with the rest of the folks at Unemployment...so you can remember that it's OK to take a job you like but don't love and you don't have to stay there forever.  It's easier to get a job when you have a job.

  • Don't be overly "creative" with your vita.  There are conventional formats that are customary in university settings and it slows down the paper evaluation of credentials if conventional formats are not used.

  • Writing out "Doctor of Philosophy in Counseling Psychology" tends to sound pretentious--just PhD in Counseling Psychology will do.

  • Be sure to write a cover letter specific to the position.

  • If the position outlines required and/or preferred qualifications.  Make sure to briefly address them in the cover letter.  For example (from a position here at XXX):  This position includes 25% of time assigned to assist students from migrant farm backgrounds.  Required:  education/training/experience in multicultural issues.  Preferred:  Knowledge/experience working with persons from disadvantaged socio-economic-educational backgrounds; knowledge of Hispanic/Latino cultural issues; Spanish-English bilingual.

  • In my experience at a relatively small counseling center, every single position I have recruited has had certain specific responsibilities we needed to "beef up."  You wouldn't believe...or maybe would believe...how many persons apply and make no reference to the role called for.  The first time I filled that position, we advertised it as a Multicultural Psychologist position--only 2 of 70 applicants actually had the requisite qualifications!  If the position has some sort of special emphasis—waste of time to apply.  I even had one applicant who thought that maybe being Swedish-English bilingual would suffice!  I think applicants may even create their own discouragement in the search process by applying for positions for which they are not qualified.

  • I believe that the communication of a positive attitude is critical as well as willing to go the extra mile; using initiative consistently; and putting the needs of the Center before their personal needs.

  • Best Advice:   Do NOT fake it.  If you really don't know what something is or have no experience with certain activities it is best to say so and then add, enthusiastically, how much you look forward to learning about it!  I would encourage them to think about how they present themselves as advancing the mission of our center to reach traditionally underserved populations.  Without that clear potential for contribution, they would likely get little consideration.

  • The best advice I can give is to be knowledgeable about our center and the school.  Use the internet to research us.  Also, it is okay to not be an expert.  If you don't know something, admit it and move on. 

  • One more thing.  We get so many letter and applications; make sure you take the time to make the cover letter interesting and informative. This is how one gets in the door

  • Make sure your e-mail name and voice mail message are professional. Also be aware that employers check out Facebook, MySpace, etc.

  • Do: Be a team player, willing to work within Student Affairs/Student Life with a wellness orientation to student health

  • A counseling center is like any system.  Observe the dynamics of the staff and the director.  These folk are critical in terms of how happy you'll be on the job.  Pay attention to system structure and the management style of the director.  If you don't like how the system operates, it'll be hard to be happy in your work.

  • Also, how clear is the center on its values and how they are operationalized?  If the center works in a way that is consistent with what you believe in, once again, it's easier to be happy there.

  • I think it is very important to have a mixture of competence and humility - that you know how to do this work to a certain extent and that you have clear skills but you are willing to learn still and that the bottom line is that this is very complex work and we don't know that much about it really.

  • Generally it is a good idea to avoid talking about your salary expectations until a job offer is made.  If the interviewer asks what your expectations are you might say that you are really interested in the job and don't want to overprice or under-price yourself at this time.  You might also counter by asking what the current salary range for this position is.

  • One other point, it is sometimes forgotten by new professionals that it is not only important to get a job offer, but it is equally important to get an offer from a place that is suitable for you.

  • In evaluating a professional position, whether it is the first job, or a later career opportunity, it is important to ask the kind of questions that will help you to gather information such as:

    • Does this position fit in some way with your overall career goal?

    • Will this job allow you to add new skills to your professional repertoire?

    • Is it likely that your new boss will be the kind of person you can respect and who can help you to develop as a professional?

    • Does the staff you have met strike you as the kind of people you would be proud to have as colleagues and how positive are they about the work setting?

    • Is the work setting, to the extent you are able to determine, suited to your personal style, does it reward quality work and does it appear to be a supportive atmosphere?

  • Be yourself.  Job searching is an issue of "fit" not of trying to match some mysterious standard that you imagine the site is looking for.  If you get a job based on trying to match the ad or be other than yourself, you're not likely to be happy in the position. And it's usually pretty transparent to the search committee too. 

  • Write a GOOOD cover letter....not "I am interested, here's my vita"... one that explicitly, but succinctly, tells me why you are qualified per the job responsibilities listed.

  • Do be yourself

  • Do have real questions

  • Do manage your anxiety

  • Do get some sleep the night before

  • Do check your clothes for labels you have missed - or not as sometimes we need a laugh - we eventually hired that one.

  • Don't fall asleep while talking to the Vice-Chancellor - we did not hire that one.

  • I talk with our interns about "aligning things" -- meaning, make sure your cover letter, vita, phone interview, and in person interview, and letters of reference to whatever degree of control you have on that.....have certain threads going through them -- so if you're all about eating disorders, make sure all these things reflect that......when things are out of sync, it makes me nervous as a director looking at candidates, etc......

  • I look for someone who is confident, but not too confident.

  • I like someone who knows their stuff, can talk about areas of interest, etc. but not the "I know it all" attitude.  That is, in any role, one of the biggest turn-offs.  I believe we are life-long learners in this field, need peer supervision forever, etc.  If people act (especially young in their careers) that they are beyond that, I'm not interested. 

  • For those seeking an entry-level position...Proofread your resume!

  • Eliminate misspellings or sentence fragments and clean up sloppy formatting.  When I see a sloppy resume, my reaction is if the applicant doesn't care enough to take the time to present a good resume, what confidence should I have that s/he will care about the little details working in this type of position that can so often trip you up???

  • It looks like my advice should be, "get your internship at Texas A &M"! (My last 2 hires of 3 staff are from you!) Seriously though, the first thought that pops to my mind is: "Treat ALL your communication with prospective employers as part of the application." (It's those little things that set off red flags.) Maybe I shouldn't be saying this, considering that I think we avoided some disasters by reading through the lines of some people who looked terrific "on paper."

  • I'd put "learn the politics of your school" at the top of the list!  New hire energy can often clash with the old-timers' status quo.

  • I think that young professionals should be developing an expertise in one of the following areas that would complement the work in most University Counseling Centers:

    • Couples/marriage Counseling

    • Drug and Alcohol Counseling

    • Working with Student Athletes

    • Working with GLBT students

    • Anger Management

    • International students/ Cross-Cultural Adjustment

  •  Remember the adage -- Hire for will; train for skill.

 


 

Words of Wisdom updated

November 8, 2010

 

  • Research the center and its culture thoroughly, especially contacting staff members to inquire about teamwork and relationships and understanding/being willing to commit to its model of service before the hire.

  • Bring something to the staff that we don’t already have---whether it’s an area of specialty or the “missing piece” (everyone on staff kind of has an unidentified, unofficial, different role, right? Nurturer type, the hippie, the stealthy one, the foot in the ass, advocate, playful etc).  We don’t need more of what we have—we want what we are lacking!

  • Know the center where you are applying – learn about their model, staffing patterns, and characteristics of the institution as a whole.

  • Have a good clinical case prepared for discussion.

  • Demonstrate in your cover letter and interview (phone or in person) the specific reasons why THIS Counseling Center is where you are applying.  Come up with at least *something* that is specific to the particular center.  Saying that you want to work in a UCC is much less impressive than talking about a few reasons why you want to work in THIS Center.

  • Be perseverant, jobs don’t come easy all the time, and in these days, they seldom do.

  • Be open to part time jobs at the beginning of your career.

  • Try small schools, you will have the opportunity to wear so many hats, learn and put your boundary skills/assertiveness training in practice.

  • And, one thing that really “puts me off” is when I receive a letter of intent with a resume/vitae that is aggressive, kind of  ‘I know it all’ from a candidate. I will suggest leaving ‘your narcissistic defenses at home.’ Be humble and able to show how warm and eager to learn from your future supervisor you are. It will state how the relationship will develop with the other members of the staff and peer professionals.

  • Don't be perfect. We're not interested in perfect. We're interested in someone who can acknowledge areas of weakness and willingness to grow. My favorite interview question:

We're interested in learning a bit about how you deal with conflict. Please tell us about a time when you've dealt with conflict in a way that you're proud of. Then tell us about a time when you didn't handle conflict as successfully, and talk about what you would do differently.

I like this question because it lets us know how accessible candidates keep those important instances, and thus how they can make meaning of them.

  • Not all centers have interns, or even any trainees.  In a small center you're likely to be a generalist, even if you have a specialty, you probably won't be able to completely let go of generalist responsibilities.

  • Learn the organization of the university -- How does the CC relate to students affairs (or whatever administrative division you're in)? How does that division fit into the university?  Especially at a small school, the CC is less insulated from the larger university.  Most internships (usually at larger schools) don't prepare you well for that reality.

  • One of the things I look for in job searches (for my small center at a small private school) is the candidate's familiarity with similar institutions.  For example, one of my best hires attended XXX for her undergrad.  She easily understood the mission and atmosphere of a small, private, residential, liberal arts university.

  • Show them that you are a hard worker.  Give examples of extra responsibilities you volunteered for – outreach, groups, screening days, taking extra intakes.

  • Remember that every interaction you have with a site is part of the interview.  Your treatment of support staff will be duly noted.

  • Be aware that like a first client, first date, first meeting of anyone new---a job interview is more about making the person doing the interview comfortable with you. Too many times I’ve talked with interns and GA’s who are very focused on what they need to share or have a fixed way of responding that overlooks the importance of building a rapport with the person doing the interview. Like counseling itself, you can have a ton of content knowledge and have an amazing intelligence, but if you neglect rapport building and forming a relationship---you’ll lose the attention and focus of the interviewer in the end. Pay attention to your surroundings, ask about pictures on the wall, and talk to the person doing the interview with curiosity and interest.

  • Use some self-disclosure judiciously. We want to know that your dog's name is Oskar. That you cook a mean vegetarian lasagna. And, you went to the ACL music festival last year!

  • An experience I encountered during an IACS Field Visit that remained with me was the amount of time one staff person took complaining about ‘how things were done there’ versus his/her previous center.  So advice would be-- be careful NOT to overly compare. 

  • Emphasize your flexibility and willingness to learn and adapt to the ways/systems/processes used by the Center where you’re interviewing.  To me, someone who appears to be hardheaded or inflexible in the way they work with clients or colleagues might as well be waving a flag that says, “I’m going to be a pain in your ass if you hire me.”

  • Whatever you do, don’t say “I know Maggie Gartner!” (haha)

  • Want the job if you are going to interview for until after the interview – I had one interview that had a sour two hours and I went “No way in Hell.” I later found out what was going on and it had nothing to do with the viability of the job just local politics but that blew the interview because it changed my reactions later.

  • For me the one piece of advice I would give is to make sure that during a client presentation that you design it to allow the audience to get to know you as a therapist, a person, a treatment planner, a diagnostician, multiculturally competent, capable of recognizing errors/shortcomings and responding to them, ethical, team oriented, and interesting.  In other words, although it is a client presentation, it is still about the candidate.  I am trying to get to know something about him or her.  I’ve seen too many that are focused on clients and the work itself and I learn very little about the candidate.  So, I like to hear lots of I statements for example: I struggled with… and responded by…., Because I come from ____ perspective, you will notice ____ in my description of the work, etc.

  • We look for a strong commitment to working in a college counseling center and a training history to support that.  So my suggestion is to be able to describe very clearly why a counseling center is a good fit.

  • Be an interesting and kind human being (we are bringing you into our work family), be an exceptional clinician (we don't care about your dissertation)

  • No such thing as “ABD” considered for applicants.  We won’t hire anyone unless they are completely done with their degree.  Licensure isn’t a huge issue if we are hiring for an entry level position (in other words, if we note entry level, then we expect to have people applying straight from internship or postdoc.)  We would prefer licensed, but if we note “entry level”, then other factors listed on the job description takes precedence.  Last two hires were straight from internship.  But when we note, “must be licensed within one year”, we mean it.

  • Present your experience in light of what counseling centers are looking for now:  clinical work with any specialty areas, triage, clinical assessment experience, work with diverse populations, crisis intervention, outreach and programming, prevention work. Think about what fits regardless of where you experienced it, whether in a counseling center or elsewhere. 

  • Never burn your bridges!  Even if you do not get the job that you are hoping for, leave a good impression with the Director in case there are future openings. 

  • The point of the interview is what you can provide to the counseling center – whether that is an area of expertise or an area of interest you are hoping to gain even more training in.  The point is NOT to find out what I can do for you or how I can be a jumping off point.  I want to know that you want to be a part of the system and improve it, not just passing through onto bigger and better things.

  • Be as familiar with the place as you can be before you interview and know that it’s a good fit for you and why… then be yourself and trust the process.

  • Be yourself and let people know you.  When I get applications they all seem very identical and the ones that I notice are the ones that have an ability for someone to be seen as a person.  If you are applying to be a psychologist you have met a certain level of success and skills.  The application should reflect that but I am hiring a person so letting me into your thinking and personality are wonderful.

  • I forgot the part about having a specialty dish ready to discuss when we ask them what we could expect them to bring to a staff potluck. Extra points for items with bacon or chocolate as ingredients...

  • Describe what you know as a professional not what you learned as a student.  

  • Be vulnerable enough to show us who you really are

  • Our Center has a very relationship-focused, team-oriented cultural.  As a result, the most important thing for us in the hiring process is that the individual is a stable, low-maintenance, hard-working professional who cares about his/her colleagues and is sensitive to how his/her behavior impacts others in the Center. Here’s a quote from Marge Piercy that I think captures at least some of this idea:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.  I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

  • It’s not a “sexy” description, but I want to be around these kinds of people when I come to work each day.

  • My best words of wisdom are to clean up what is out in cyberspace about you. No odd photos of you half naked with a dog (yes had that one), no advertisements of your band doing a booty shaking contest (yes, had that one too), no drunken party photos of you as your facebook profile (yes, had this also) and please tell them not to use an email address that says hotmama@hotmail.com.  (had a version of that email with numbers added to it). I have had so many crazy things on applications I should do a presentation on what not to do. We even had one candidate put a glamour shot photo at the top of her vita.

  • We are in a hiring freeze, which means a slower process from start to finish and thus I’d recommend to be patient and hang in there. 

  • At our University, HR plays a major role in the first round screening of all applicants.  Thus, be sure you fill out the application forms and clearly indicate how you meet the job requirements.  I might suggest that you or one of your references who may have a connection to the Center, email the Director to state your interest and that you have filed an application and something about you.  It could put you on the Director’s radar if your application is not forwarded from HR.  I have had the experience that something about the application, while fitting for our position, threw off the HR reviewer.   I could ask HR about your application.

  • Your interview begins with your first contact and usually with a member of the support staff.  Remember, they are a part of the interview process as well and their experience with you and impression of you will go a long way in the selection process.

  •  Make sure you have someone proofread your materials (cover letter, CV, other supporting documents) before sending them out.

  •  In situations which involve sharing information about clients you have worked with, be mindful of ethical and legal guidelines and preface these situations with a disclosure that you have disguised information about the client's identity. If you are asked to send a video or audio of your work, ask the Training Director about how this should be handled.  Depending on how you are advised, discuss handling of this information with the interview site and how and when it will be returned to you or destroyed. Send the information via overnight delivery, include a statement that the client has given permission for the use of the audio/videotape and provide information and instructions related to what happens to this information after it is reviewed.

  • Send a thank you letter to the site expressing appreciation for the interview.  In the body of the letter, mention specifics about what impressed you during the interview and how you think you can contribute.

  • Relax and enjoy.  The site is interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them.

  • Have in mind what your expectations are from your supervisor....these days some directors see just as many students as their staff so the individual attention you receive may be limited.

  • Bring  your sense of  humor to the interview.  I see applicants who get very intense and miss the humorous comments that are part of some interviews. Picking  up on the  interviewer’s humor and  responding to it appropriately is an  important part of  the interview  process.

  • Know and represent yourself accurately – strengths, areas of interest, supervision for licensure, what you’re looking for in a position. do your best to get an realistic idea of what’s expected in terms of clinical load, outreach, and other duties, as well as staff personality/group dynamics.