As a first-year student in a master’s program, I’ve only just set out on the road to becoming a marriage and family therapist. When I stop and think about the distance I have yet to travel, I can get a little demoralized. However, I’ve found some things I can focus on now to make sure I’m ready to hit the ground running once I get that license. Focusing on each step makes me feel a little better about how far away that finish line is, and maybe it can do the same for you!
#1 – Start Thinking About a Specialty
First, I’m using this time in graduate school to narrow down my future area of focus. There are a lot of papers to write, and I’m trying to use them for the greater purpose of determining what I may want my specialty to be. So when I’m given the chance to choose a topic, I tend to choose something that may help inform that decision rather than researching exotic diagnoses or very specific populations I’m unlikely to encounter in practice. I see these papers as great opportunities to learn about what I do (and do not) enjoy under the guidance of professors who can help me decide whether something might be a good fit for me. For example, I studied family-based treatments for adolescents with depression in my Clinical Research class; I enjoyed it and my professor gave me encouraging feedback, so when it came time to pick a paper topic in my Diagnosis class, I chose Major Depressive Disorder. I got to use some of the research I’d done for the first paper, and I discovered that I’m still not sick of studying it, so I think that’s a good sign! The same logic could work as you consider elective, fieldwork, and continuing education workshop options (especially if you’ve already graduated).
#2 – Build a Professional Network
It’s never too early to start making contacts! I’m cultivating relationships with professors and peers now to start building my professional network. I don’t mean this in a fake, shallow, or inauthentic way. I recognize that this network will be key to scaffolding my career in the future, so I want to set a good foundation. This means that in class, I try to be an active participant; not only is this good for participation points towards my final grade, but I’m able to demonstrate to the professors that I am an engaged and motivated future therapist. I want to make sure they are familiar with me and my work, because I will be needing letters of recommendation and I want to help them both remember me and feel confident vouching for me. I also reach out for guidance on assignments and attend office hours where necessary. Again, this isn’t about sucking up or making a nuisance out of myself—it’s about recognizing that professors are often so overwhelmed that it can be hard to form individual relationships with students. I want to make it as easy as possible.
This also goes for my classmates, who are my future colleagues in addition to being good friends. The relationship network we forge now will be a critical source of client referrals, word-of-mouth job opportunities, and much-needed emotional support as we enter the field. Which brings me to…
#3 – Join Groups and Organizations to Broaden Your Experiences
That professional network will also include colleagues I meet outside of school, which is why I feel it’s important to be active in groups and organizations. This kind of involvement can expand both your contacts and your experience in the field, and you can start at any stage of your career! I’ve found that informal groups—like those found on social media—can be a great place to get peer support as well as to ask questions in a low-pressure environment. Professional organizations like AAMFT foster both collaboration and advocacy, and membership demonstrates to potential employers that you’re serious about your profession. Personally, I’m really looking forward to getting involved with AAMFT’s Topical Interest Networks!
Ready, Set, Go!
I’ve found that focusing on these steps now keeps me engaged in the present moment and reminds me that I’m making progress towards my goal every day. I hope some of these ideas can help you, too, as you keep putting one foot in front of the other towards that finish line!