Embarking on your counseling career: How many degrees and certificates do you really need?

By Anthony Centore posted 23 days ago

  

Once, with a mere 10-minute’s notice, I was asked to speak to a class of counseling students. I had absolutely nothing prepared, so I scrambled to do a small brainstorm. I asked myself: “What did I need to hear 15 years ago?” I wrote this list on the blackboard:


  • Counseling license
  • Ivy league degree
  • Doctorate/PhD
  • NCC designation
  • ABPP certification
  • Registered play therapist (RPT, SB-RPT)
  • Certified addictions counselor (CAC)
  • Gottman Certified

When class started, I went to the board, circled “counseling license,” and then crossed everything else out. I told the class, “Your goal is not to collect certifications or degrees, or to graduate from Harvard. Your goal is to obtain the minimum qualifications you need to begin doing the work you want to do. What will set you apart from everyone else isn’t the credentials you earn, it’s what you do after you stop adding letters to the end of your name and start doing something in the field.”


Obtaining Degrees and Collecting Certificates


Training is important, but sometimes we pursue it for the wrong reasons. I have three stories to share in regard to this topic:

  1. My state ACA chapter recently sent out a survey with the question: “If universities and colleges were to offer a post-graduate certificate in counseling focusing on military and veterans, would you be interested in this certificate program?” No! The last thing almost any counselor needs is a “post-graduate certification.” If you want to help veterans, go help veterans! You’ll probably learn more in your first two weeks volunteering than 6 months in a classroom.
  2. When I was in my doctoral program, I had to teach a few classes. In one class, two professors were enrolled—I asked them why. They explained they were both getting another doctorate. I should have tossed them out, they already had doctorates! With very rare exception (I’m thinking an astronaut-surgeon), getting a second doctorate is a poor use of time, resources, and money. And for counselors, perhaps the same can be said for a first doctorate.
  3. Recently, I was speaking with a skilled, licensed counselor in private practice. She said she was thinking about going back to school to get a doctorate. I said to her, “Help me understand. How will that help you, your practice, or your clients?” She said she felt uncertain of herself, especially every time one of her clients referred to her as “doctor.” I told her, “You’re qualified to do the work you do. Your clients have already given you an honorary doctorate—clearly, you don’t need another!”

In each of these examples, the pursuit of more training is rooted in feelings of inferiority and fear, not a genuine training need.

Get Your Ducks in a Row


Steven Pressfield wrote a book about an internal struggle that we face aptly titled: The War of Art. He calls the struggle “resistance.” To Pressfield, more training and workshops can easily masquerade as work. He writes: “Have you ever been to a workshop? These boondoggles are colleges of Resistance. They ought to give out Ph.D.’s in Resistance. What better way to avoid work than going to a workshop?”

 

Author Seth Godin calls it “getting your ducks in a row.” I’m going to help veterans, but first I need a special credential. I’m going to help couples, but first I need to be Gottman-certified. I’m going to help someone with substance abuse, but first I need an NCC and a CAC. It boggles my mind why licensed therapists pay thousands of dollars for a “life coaching” certification. It’s not because they can’t help their clients—they’re licensed by a highly regulated professional body! It’s because they’re scared. It’s because they’ve given in to resistance. It’s scary to hang a shingle, to stand up and say, “Here I am, this is what I do. Do you want to schedule an appointment?” Perhaps it’s a little less scary if you can hide behind a pile of credentials.


What Are You in Search of? Education or Certification?


Don’t stop learning. If you want to learn from Gottman because he’s the best, do it. Successful people are always learning. But that’s ancillary to their many forward actions. For example, an entrepreneur might have more audio books than songs on her phone, but she’s not pausing her business to enroll in an MBA.

 

A certification plays on the illusion that it’s an achievement. It’s not. I want to start a new mindset. If you see someone with more letters after his name than before his name, don’t be envious—have pity on him, because it’s a lack of confidence and an abundance of fear that got him there. I’m guilty: 15 years ago, I thought I needed a doctorate and it wasn’t until after graduation that I realized I would have learned much more going to work every day and participating in weekly supervision.

 

Entering Private Practice

 

What does this have to do with private practice? Everything. When a kid is climbing to the top of a diving board, he/she doesn’t need to be told to be careful. That’s instinctual. He’s terrified. He needs to be told to be brave and jump. And the amount of fear and self-doubt you face when you venture into private practice is almost unimaginable.

 

Private practice is about jumping off the diving board. I gave those students the advice that no one gave me: Begin doing. Don’t ask for permission. Don’t ask for validation. Begin writing. Begin inventing. Begin contributing. The best certificate is the knowledge that you’ve done something meaningful. You’ve contributed to your field. You’ve helped someone.

Author: 
Anthony Centore Ph.D. is Founder and CEO at Thriveworks--a counseling practice, focused on premium client care, with 80+ locations across the USA. He is Private Practice Consultant for the American Counseling Association, columnist for Counseling Today magazine, and Author of How to Thrive in Counseling Private Practice. Anthony is a multistate Licensed Professional Counselor and has been quoted in national media sources including The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and CBS Sunday Morning.

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10 days ago

Anthony,

I am late in responding to your thoughtful and provocative post, but would like to echo and add a couple points to those already made by Aaron and Greggus.

First, I resonate with many of your ideas. Given the status and role professional licensure plays in the current service delivery context, I also question the need for a general  counselor certification. Does such an additional credential really contribute substantially to professional identity or welfare of consumers? I do not think so. However, in the case of the NCC, many students/practitioners must take the NCE for the purpose of gaining licensure. For example, in my state of Indiana, passage of the NCE is required to attain first tier licensure (i.e., (LMHC-A). And as such, applying for and attaining the NCC, becomes "low hanging fruit." That being said, the credential really does not demonstrate anything to the consumer beyond what is communicated in being licensed.     
     In addition, your post reminds me of the research of Scott Miller. He and his colleagues have noted that excellence in professional practice comes not so much by adding tools to ones professional toolbox, but by engaging in professional practice, gaining accurate feedback from clients and supervisors, and identifying/working on skills that should be improved. The process is much like that used by professional athletes or accomplished musicians. 
     However, I do think an implicit idea in your post, perhaps unintentional, is that all certifications are created equal. If so, it would follow that they are really unnecessary - the whole lot of them. But, I believe this is a flawed assumption. For clinical mental health counselors working in private, small group, or agency settings, being a provider of specialized services is a vital commodity and valuable asset. Several of our recent graduates at Indiana Wesleyan University have worked toward and attained additional credentials in trauma-informed care and EMDR. Their certifications provide valid demonstration of advanced training and skills. I believe their client flow, client welfare, and marketing of their services have all benefitted. 
     Finally, I am concerned that the underlying assumption that professional counselors just need to "do it," rests on a  notion of professional identity that stems from the ACA 20/20 definition of professional counseling. While this provides a nice general definition, it does little to distinguish professional counselors (and CMHCs, specifically) from others in the allied mental health professions.For this reason, further definition of professional identity and skill set are necessary if we are to gain and retain our seats at the table of policy makers, stakeholders, and be viewed as adequate providers (i.e., competent) in the marketplace. Thus,  I believe that being a LMHC with advanced certifications, such as are offered by the profession (i.e., AMHCA) brings increased clarity to communicating who we are  and what we do. 

17 days ago

Aaron, Greggus,

Thank you both for reading/considering my blog, and for your thoughtful and insightful responses!

17 days ago

Dr. Centore's points indeed  imply an honest chord, that being  learning by doing has great value; however, I must  (hopefully respectfully so) express significant disagreement at some of his other points. 

It is without question true that we can over certificate ourselves and the alphabet soup after so many practitioner's names borders on the absurd.   At the same time there is a balance and the idea of just go and practice is also just as absurd.   I am personally, as are many who read this,  able to have "alphabet soup"  (6 different sets) after my name and yet what does that make me - and that is a reasonable question.  
When I  read  practitioner advertisements or receive resumes of individuals either to hire, or perhaps from those seeking consultation or supervision, and they contain "alphabet soup" after their name - it doesn't inspire confidence,  rather for me  (and many of my colleagues) it raises red flags.  My thoughts move in the direction of what's going on with this person that they have to go so such extremes to list everything.  Rather than be impressed by all the letters  I'm  wondering about his/her self confidence;  their actual abilities versus just having a lot of "book learning".   Paraphrasing an old saying: The wise one just does, there's no  brag. 

At the same time, continuing to learn via  both hands on guided practice and structured educational pathways  is paramount to becoming a complete and true professional.  I certainly acknowledge Dr. Centore is not  dismissing education or training, yet some of impression I took away from this post was close to "stick a fork in training."   The commentary about dismissing a professional's concerns about not being taken seriously enough, or feeling good enough because of not having a doctorate,  was what for me  raised my hackles and prompted this post.

AMHCA with the past year has fully separated from ACA and codified the term Clinical Mental Health Counselor, this was a long journey and one necessary to our professional identity (Kudos to this organization and those responsible).  Along with the professional naming journey there's  been the ongoing  development  of a clear, well delineated,  tiered  professional  track from student to experienced, well educated professional  - these are the diplomates/ clinical mental health specialist or fellow.

Just go and do - seasoning is necessary, absolutely, yet seasoning not balanced with continued learning, as evidenced by advanced designations, is akin  to jumping on a  boat  and setting sail across the ocean.  Good luck.  Likely you'll get to land sooner or later,  after many trials and bumps and bruises. Yet without formal instruction in the formulas of navigation  (akin to AMHCA's professional development tracks) it is at best trail and error and the more advance formulas, such as the celestial triangle that let one plot a clear direction and become efficient, remain elusive.  

I for one am not an advocate of "just do it" - humans are simplistic and complicated and everything in between.  Just do it has too much of blundering forward and that seems like a wonderful opportunity for violating a basic premise of any helping profession - Do No Harm. 

I am also not an advocate of "alphabet soup" - rather of well conceived competent learning and guiding practice -  AMHCA's professional development tracks fit that criteria  and I encourage all to really look at the recently developed models as a solid road map to enhance our profession - to do less is a disservice to ourselves and those we encounter.  

In closing, I applaud Dr. Centore for raising many of these points and my wish is not to stifle any opinions, rather to inject a need for balance in the form of both well delineated educational tracks, including specialized instruction to provide expert knowledge in specific arenas (as Aaron Norton in his post aptly pointed out) , and guided practice under the watchful eye of an experience professional,  that helps the CMHC actualize their "expert book knowledge:

Greggus Yahr, PhD, DCMHS

18 days ago

What an interesting and engaging post, Anthony.  I agree with aspects of your position, which I took to stress the importance of education vs. certification and the fact that certification does not, by itself, mean that one has what it takes to do certain types of work in our field.  I agree that there is a such thing as being overly focused on credentialing at the expense of focusing on what certification seeks to attest to-that one is competent to practice in a particular specialized area.  However, I would like to point out that (1) pursuing certification often guides a counselor in focusing on education, training, learning, and competency that is part of our professional growth; and (2) the reality of our field is that certification can--and indeed, often does--play a vital role in opening doors for counselors.  For example, I sought the LMFT credential when I decided to do more training in marriage and family therapy work because having a structured process with exams, study materials, etc. helps me to discipline myself to truly immerse in an area of study and focus.  When I pursued my CFMHE credential, I truly immersed myself in the expansive domain of forensic mental health, which I received virtually no training or education towards as a grad student nor as an intern seeking full licensure.  Additionally, there are many types of work that counselors simply cannot do without specialized certification. For example, a counselor cannot conduct U.S. D.O.T. evaluations with obtaining the SAP qualification, which in turn requires either the ICADC or the MAC credential.  Counselors cannot contract with many EAP companies and other referral sources for CISM work without obtaining certification through ICISF.  Many residential treatment programs will only refer to aftercare therapists who have an addictions certification, as this at least tells them that someone has extra training, knowledge, experience, and expertise in addictions.  Additionally, it is more difficult under "the Daubtert standard" for a licensed counselor to convince a judge and attorney(s) that he or she is an expert in with advanced expertise in a particular domain without speciality certifications in the forensic evaluation arena.  In sum, certification is a way to more quickly and readily recognize whether a clinician has "gone the extra mile" specializing in a particular domain in a way that sets him- or herself apart from general practitioners.