I remember feeling so anxious, confused, and overwhelmed while I was finishing my up my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and not just because it was college and the work was challenging but because I needed to start applying to graduate programs and I had no idea where to start. The mental health field is SO BIG and there are so many options to choose from. I had no idea which graduate program would make the most sense for me and my career goals because I honestly didn’t even understand the difference between each program! All I knew was that I wanted to be a therapist, I wanted to see clients in an office, and I wanted to help them with their problems. Sounds simple, right?! So then why was it so hard to figure out HOW to do that?!
Does this sound familiar?! Are you reading this thinking, “THAT’S ME!! I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL!!” If so, take a deep breath and relax. You are not alone! I am asked this question almost daily by students looking to continue their education in the field of mental health and being the social worker than I am, I saw a need and felt I needed to provide a solution!
I was incredibly lucky that at such a pivotal time in my life, I had mentors who were able to give me guidance and advice on which path to take based on my career goals. So, I rounded up a panel of some of my favorite mental health professionals and asked them to share a bit about their journey and how they ultimately decided which mental health degree to pursue in hopes that the information shared will be helpful to those who find themselves stuck on which graduate program to pursue.
For me personally, I decided to pursue my Master’s degree in Social Work. What I found appealing about the field of social work was that I could do SO MUCH within the field. My ultimate goal was to end up in private practice *one day* (fast forward >> this is now TODAY! Dreams really do come true, people!) but I liked the idea that there were other options available, should I decide to take a break from clinical psychotherapy at some point in my career.
I found it appealing that social workers can work in pretty much any setting. For example, social workers can work in hospitals, medical offices, foster-care settings, inpatient programs, outpatient programs, VA hospitals, hospice care, financial agencies, mainstream schools, alternative schools, in-home therapy settings, nursing homes, child protective services, probation departments, juvenile detention centers, courts, prisons, crisis hotlines, shelters, private practice, etc. You name it, social workers can do it. Social workers can assess, diagnosis, and treat a wide variety of diagnoses as well.
When I started researching graduate programs, social work stood out to me due to the different concentrations and specializations offered within the program. I loved that I could pursue my degree in social work, while also concentrating on clinical work and specializing in children and families. I knew I wanted to practice clinical work and children and families was my dream population to work with. Picking social work as my graduate program allowed me to narrow my focus and expertise to those specific goals.
I also loved that social work was an established field, well-recognized by insurance providers and others. This was important to me personally because it meant there was room for advancement. Prior to private practice, I worked in an agency setting and because of my degree, I was able to advance in my position to administrative roles due to my ability to supervise other social workers who were working towards their licensure, as well as mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists, too. Having a social work degree made me desirable to prospective employers as a result of this.
I originally thought I was going to need Ph.D. to do the work I wanted to do, but found that social work was the perfect fit! I could be a therapist, help people in need, change roles within the field if I desired, and best of all (personally speaking!) I didn’t need to spend extra money and time on a doctorate degree. Right after graduating with my MSW, I obtained employment. Within a few months of graduating with my MSW, I obtained my first license, earning me the title of “LMSW”. Then, after three additional years of clinical work under approved clinical supervision, I was eligible to take my clinical exam, earning me the title of “LCSW.” (PSA: This varies state by state, so to learn more about your specific state requirements/licensure, check out https://www.socialworkers.org.)
Now, how do you know which track makes the most sense for you? Keep reading to learn even more information from the experts!
“I had contemplated going for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psych, but one, knew how competitive it would be to get in and two, I didnt want to wait six plus years to open my private therapy practice. I love the freedom the MSW provides. I never felt pigeonholed into one niche and can use it pretty much in any job setting. It felt like forever waiting to get the clinical hours to sit for my LCSW, but looking back it really was such a quick process to be a highly sought after licensed professional with full capabilities of practicing independently! I would highly recommend the MSW for anyone interested in going into the helping profession.”- Kate Crocco, LCSW
Kate Crocco is a Confidence and Mindset Coach, writer, speaker, and the founder of The Confident Ladies Club™ Community. She has been featured on numerous podcasts where she shares her journey of becoming a licensed psychotherapist, owning a private practice and then creating a second business coaching lady bosses. Kate’s mission is to empower women to go after their dreams by helping them break down the walls and fears that have been holding them back from greatness for too long. She lovingly challenges them to step into the best version of themselves. Kate has worked with thousands of women while building a six-figure business alongside motherhood. She currently resides in NY with her darling husband, daughter, sweet babe #2 on the way, and rescue pup Turbo.
“When I made the decision to get my Masters in social work I was influenced by several factors. My two mentors were both LCSW-R’s and advised me that getting my Masters in social work would open up opportunities. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do and I really wanted to be open to all possibilities. With a social work degree, there are some medical practices and school settings that do not accept other licensure’s. I always loved teaching and wanted to be able to supervise other therapists. Social workers are able to supervise mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists while other disciplines can only supervise in their cohort. Finally, I read the social worker code of ethics and discovered how aligned I am with their values which cemented my decision to pursue my masters in social work.”-SarahRose Stern, LCSW
SarahRose owns and operates a growing private practice in Woodstock, NY where she specializes in working with children and youth, ages 5 – 21 years old, with a wide variety of struggles including anxiety, depression, trauma, adjustment and family related difficulties. You can learn more about SarahRose’s services here!
“My decision to be a social worker was strongly influenced by my mother, who is also a LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) in the State of Georgia and she is also licensed in Michigan. When I was in my undergraduate program at Adrian College, I had two amazing professors, Susan Nichols and Charles Vanderwell, who were also huge influences for me going into the field. I received my BSW (Bachelors of Social Work) and I am now a LMSW, and received my MSW from Michigan State. In learning from both my professors and my mother, I was very aware early on in my journey of all of the opportunities that I would have to make an impact through going into the field of social work, instead of obtaining a LMFT, LPC or LLP license (although all of these degrees are fantastic). However, I knew I wanted to be able to work with whatever population I wanted, in any capacity I wanted, at any given time, as I knew that the human services field has a high case of clinician burnout. In the field of social work in general, you can work with the older adult population, you can work in case management services, clinical therapy, school social work, and the list goes on. I knew I would eventually want to diversify my skill-set, and that is exactly what I did with my degree. I have worked with the youth struggling with substance use disorders in residential and outpatient treatment, males struggling with addiction and mental health disorders both in the prison system and also on an outpatient and inpatient basis, and as a case manager for individuals struggling with severe to persistent mental health diagnoses.
Unfortunately, we will always be in need of clinicians who have the training to understand the person in the environment and all that impacts them and their decisions, and who will need case management services, as well as clinicians who use evidence based treatment practices to effectively treat those who are more suitable for therapy services. I wanted to make sure I was able to serve others in both capacities, because I have a heart for people. In other words, in becoming a social worker, I am super marketable, and God willing, I will never be out of a job.” -Topsie VandenBosch, LMSW, CAADC
Topsie VandenBosch, LMSW, CAADC, owns and operates a private practice in Grand Haven, MI, and is also a part of a group practice called Northwest Counseling in Walker, MI, specializing in providing therapy to career focused women and entrepreneurs who may be struggling with depression and anxiety. She is also a Mindset & Business coach for female entrepreneurs. She empowers rising female bosses in discovering freedom from negative thoughts and beliefs that prevent them from performing at their highest level at work and in their personal lives.
Ever wonder about school social work? Then you’re in luck because one of my dear friends who is a LCSW, is also a certified school social worker and gives a very detailed description of what it means to be a school social worker!
“Even as I entered the field of social work, truly didn’t realize the countless opportunities I would have within my chosen field. I currently hold a clinical license and am able to open my own practice and diagnose clients. I have also worked in an outpatient clinical setting, in a courthouse, and worked for a non-profit doing in-home work with juvenile offenders. While I enjoyed the work I did in all of my settings, I always had a passion for education and learning new things which is how I ended up becoming a school social worker. A school social worker is a social worker who has earned their Master’s in social work and has been certified by the state in which they reside to work in a public school. There are school social workers for every grade level from Pre-k-High School. I have always enjoyed working with the teenage population so I chose to work in the high school setting. However, a school social worker certification allows you to work with any grade level. In order to become a school social worker, you should first look up the requirements of your state through the State Department of Education to check your specific requirements. In the Sate of CT for example, you must apply and obtain your 071 endorsement through the Department of Education in order to work in a public school; this is in addition to my LCSW which is not a requirement for many districts.
I truly love working in the school setting. I get to work with a variety of students and their families, on a daily basis. I have truly grown as a social worker and as a person because of the students I have met during the past 7 years. I have found populations of students that I truly enjoy working with that I may not have found otherwise. I also love being part of a school community and all that entails (i.e. pep rallies before the big games, assemblies, sporting events, school concerts, school plays etc)… and if I’m being honest, the school schedule is not half bad either. We follow the district calendar and have holidays and vacations off each year including summer break. Don’t get me wrong; you hustle those 9-10 months of school but it is great to get a small reprieve at the end of a long school year. As a school social worker, I am considered to be in the same grouping as teachers which means my salary is based off of the teacher pay scale and I am also a member of the teacher’s union.
So what does a school social worker actually do? Well, I would say it is very similar to a clinician in an outside setting with one major exception; we do not legally diagnose in a school setting. However, that does not mean that we do not use our clinical skills and expertise when collaborating with outside providers and making referrals. Before I go into detail about what I do in the school setting, I believe it is important to note that the job of a school social worker will look different from school to school and district to district. I myself have worked in two different districts in the State of CT and have had different roles in each. Currently, I primarily work with Special Education students who have mandated time in their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) to meet with a mental health clinician each week. We develop goals and objectives (i.e. a treatment plan) to work on and progress towards those goals is monitored regularly. In addition, I also work with general education students who may be considered ‘at risk.’ These students typically have heightened levels of anxiety or depression but do not currently need differentiated instruction to succeed in school. In addition, I also run various groups throughout the week. I run a group for high-functioning boys with Autism, as well a high-functioning girls anxiety group. In addition, I run 2 social skills groups for students with intellectual disabilities such as down syndrome, autism, and various other conditions. Lastly, I have been fortunate enough to be in a district that truly values the mental health of its students. All psychologists and social workers in the district were trained in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and we are now running school-based DBT groups as well.
Since working in my current district I have developed a passion for working with students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and have since also become an advisor for a club called ‘Best Buddies’ which pairs students with disabilities in 1:1 friendships with other students without disabilities. Due to my new role as advisor, I have been able to meet so many more students and families that I may not have met otherwise and because more integrated into the school community. One of my fellow social workers in the building is also an advisor to the GLOW (Gay, Lesbian, OR, Whatever) club. She shared with me that she also enjoys getting to meet and work with students who she may not have otherwise. It gives us the ability to have different relationships with a variety of students.
Furthermore, school social workers should also be well versed in crisis assessment. We assess for a variety of different issues including but not limited to: thoughts of self-harm, suicide ideation, and threats against others. A school social worker should always be familiar with their community resources as we are most often referring out in these types of situations. Every school policy is different on how to handle these situations but my school system regularly refers to the police, hospitals, 211, and outpatient providers. School social workers are also used to work with truant students (i.e. students who do not attend school regularly). In many cases, school social workers may be utilized to complete home-visits for students who are school avoidant.
In addition to our duties with students, we attend PPT meetings (Planning and Placement Team meetings) which are legal meetings for students with IEPs. Some districts, like my own, require school social workers to be case managers which means that you are in charge of writing and finalizing IEPs for students on your caseload. Since IEPs are legal documents, it is important to be up to date on Special Education laws in your state. Furthermore, when a student is being tested to see if they qualify for SPED, a developmental history (also known as a biopsychosocial) is typically recommended; this is completed by a school social worker and presented at a PPT and put in to the student’s file.”- Jennifer Penna, LCSW
Jennifer is a licensed clinical social worker currently working as a school social worker in CT. Jennifer is also currently working towards earning her Sixth Year Diploma in Educational Leadership to gain eligibility to become a school administrator. Do you have more questions for Jennifer regarding school social work and/or social work in general? Feel free to email her at Penna.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marriage + Family Therapy
“While contemplating what field I was going to go into to build as a career, the natural choice for me was a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. I had always been an active, engaged listener and I learned very early on from my Grandmother, a strong sense of tolerance and compassion. If you are empathic and supportive without judgment and your desire to help people realize their goals, wishes and happiness while on this earth, then you may consider becoming a LMFT. Becoming a LMFT was not an easy road, grad school is expensive and time-consuming as well as supervision and internships, starting a private practice is even more challenging but I’m so honored to be able to walk besides my clients while they’re on their growth/ healing journey. Helping individuals, couples and families is uniquely different from social work due to the strong focus on the family unit and individuals attachment style to that unit. It is an emotionally challenging yet greatly rewarding field.” -Juliette Doyle, LMFT
Juliette Doyle, LMFT, owns and operates a thriving private practice in Hopewell Junction, NY which specializes in couple’s therapy and anxiety issues. You can learn more about Juliette by checking out her website, here! You can also follow Juliette on Instagram and Facebook!
“I was lucky that Marriage and Family counseling pretty much summed up exactly what I wanted to do for my career. LCSW, LMHC, etc., seemed less specific than LMFT (marriage & Family therapy). I knew I wanted to work with relationships and so, this license simply made the most sense to me! I loved how it was already narrowed-down to a specialty which allowed me a greater sense of clarity for my career path.”- Danielle Sangalli, LMFT
Danielle owns and operates a thriving private practice in Fishkill, NY. Her passion is working with adult individuals, couples, and families struggling with a range of issues including: anxiety, depression, relationship conflict, de-motivation, low self-esteem, poor coping strategies, loss (e.g. death of loved one, job loss, divorce, etc.), fear, lack of boundaries, social discord, personal health issues, and poor emotion-regulation.
You can learn more about Danielle’s services here! Also, be sure to follow Danielle on Facebook! If you’d like to contact Danielle directly, you can reach her by phone at 844-373-3338 or by email at: Danielle.email@example.com.
Interested in learning even more about Marriage and Family Therapy? If so, click HERE!
Mental Health Counseling
“I chose to pursue a degree in mental health counseling and become a licensed mental health counselor because it seemed to be the most direct route to reaching my career goals. I knew that I wanted to be a therapist who did direct client work. I had envisioned eventually being a private practitioner. In exploring the different educational trajectories, the course work and experience of an MHC program seemed to be most inline with my goals and the most efficient way to reach them.”- Elise Derevjanik, LMHC, CASAC-T
Elise currently works in private practice where she specializes in treatment of prenatal and postpartum mental health. You can learn more about Elise’s services here! Also, be sure to follow Elise on Facebook, too!
“I decided to pursue counseling because I really loved the idea of focusing on doing one thing really well rather than pursuing a broader discipline like social work. It was a tough decision, but in the end I used a simple technique that I recommend to everyone deciding between the two—place the curricula for each program you’re considering side-by-side. If one jumps out at you as chock-full of courses that you can’t wait to dive in to, you’ve found your match. As a side note, I absolutely love working side-by-side with my social worker colleagues—I find we each bring something special to the table and learn from one another constantly!”-Monique Dauphin, LMHC
Monique owns and operates a thriving private practice in Poughkeepsie, NY. Monique’s practice specializes in helping individuals cope with and recover from trauma and anxiety. Monique also supports women, LGBTQIA-identifying folks, and other oppressed groups to empower themselves in a society that does not always support their empowerment. You can learn more about Monique’s services here!
“My decision to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) was influenced by two career goals: the desire to focus on counseling skills and relationships, and the ease of insurance reimbursement for private practice. During my graduate training, there was a high priority placed on the development of counseling theories, styles, and skills which I believe fully prepared me to start my work experience and training. After accruing 3,000 hours of experience, I was able to sit for my licensing exam. After passing the exam and attaining licensure, I became immediately insurance reimbursable. This was appealing to me because I would then have the option of accepting insurance in a private practice setting should I desire to do so.
The scope of my work has been greatly similar to that of a LCSW’s, although, being a LMHC does present some challenges. The New York State Office of the Professions has specific regulations about which professions I can supervise (and which professions can supervise me) should hours count toward licensure. As time goes on, the relatively new LMHC licensure is gaining more traction within New York State and regulations are continuing to slowly reflect the parity between LMHCs and LCSWs. Be aware that should you decide to pursue this path, you may be in a position to advocate for yourself or educate an employer about your degree and licensure.”-Beth Liguori, LMHC
Beth is the Program Director of the Bridges to Health Program at Astor Services for Children & Families, a nonprofit organization serving children and their families in Dutchess County, NY. She also has a private practice that serves children, adolescents, and families. You can learn more about Beth’s private practice services here.
(BONUS! Beth also graciously supplied two resources for those interested in learning more about LMHC. Links below! Thanks, Beth!)
“I always knew that I was interested in the mental health field; ever since I took AP Psychology in high school. In college I majored in psychology and did what I could to build my resume for graduate school. I volunteered in a research lab as well as in the on campus crisis hotline. When it came to apply to graduate school I had no idea what direction to go in. I felt like I had nobody to really explain the difference between all of the degree options and the career opportunities that each degree would afford me. I ended up attending Teachers College, Columbia University in the M.A psychology in education program because I thought the name would open doors for me in the future. I learned a lot, had a great internship experience only to realize halfway through the program that this degree did not allow me to do what I really wanted to do…therapy. After doing my research I decided to get my doctorate. I felt that if I was going to get another degree, this time I will shoot for the stars and go to the top of the field. I chose a PsyD because I was more interested in clinical practice than research. I liked that I would have a chance to participate in multiple internships during my schooling, and would be trained to do psychological assessments. I think that there is so much that goes into selecting the right degree for a person; it is not just a label, it is thinking about the actual work that you want to be doing, the setting you want to be in, and don’t forget the time and money factors. In the end I think I made the right choice for me.”-Dr.Rebecca Martin, PsyD
Dr. Rebecca Martin is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
Want to learn even more about clinical psychology? Click HERE!
WOW! What an AWESOME amount of information, right?!
If you just read this entire post, then you may be feeling as though you just received information overload…and honestly it’s because you did. So, don’t make any decisions right now. Take the information you learned and give yourself time to process it all. Maybe read over the information again later. Do more research. Continue to ask questions and continue to seek guidance from those already practicing in the field. Really take the time to decide what works best for you.
What worked for some of these professionals featured may not work for you and that is ok! There is no right or wrong answer and ultimately, whatever path you chose will be a great one because the mental health field is honestly amazing and the work we do is truly incredible. Besides, you can’t really go wrong when you want to make the world a better place! I have worked along side fellow social workers, as well as mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and clinical psychologists (some of whom are featured on this panel!) and at the end of the day, degrees aside, we all share a common goal of helping those in need and that is what is most important in the way we do the work that we do.
Also, these are of course not the only fields within the mental health field one can take, however, this was meant to serve as a starting point for anyone feeling stuck on which direction to go. Each one of these clinicians featured have been in the same exact position as you and each one of them have created an amazing career for themselves. And you know what? You can too.