Working While in a Counseling Master’s Program

Working Counselor DegreeTo Work or Not to Work, That Is the Question…

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself before commencing a counseling master’s program is, “Is it imperative that I work?” In other words, are you working to maintain a place to live, buy food and pay bills or are you working to maintain a sense of independence or buy extra luxuries? If the answer is either two of the latter, you may consider a bit of interdependence and frugality by forgoing working until the graduation march has ended. A master’s program in counseling is challenging, time consuming and most easily conquered with single-mindedness of purpose.

However, if you must work while attending school, then by all means work. Thousands of dedicated graduate students have worked either full or part-time and still successfully completed their masters’ degrees in counseling. Whether or not you are employed while enrolled is not determinative of success or failure; it is simply a lifestyle question which needs to be addressed before classes begin.

Brick-and-Mortar or World Wide Web?

Working while in a counseling master’s program is greatly affected by whether you will be attending a traditional institution or participating in an online program. Attending a walk-in facility brings with it time considerations. You must allow for driving time to and from the college, time for parking and traversing the campus. Additionally, the costs to be incurred will include gas and parking fees (if any.) Possibly you have young children who will require child care in order for you to leave the home; this involves another adult and their time restraints and or financial requirements.

Recommended Counseling Master's Programs

Jen Cummings M.A. decided to attend U.S.C. while working full-time. She enrolled in night classes so her work schedule would not be affected.

“If I were to do my degree over again I certainly would not attend night school at this particular campus. I battled the early evening traffic (Los Angeles) which was nerve-racking to say the least. Sometimes I was so late it was embarrassing walking into class; however there was nothing I could do to get there earlier, I had a job. The safety issue was probably the most unsettling. Although it is one of the most prestigious colleges in the state, U.S.C. is located in the heart of the Los Angeles danger zone. I was pretty much shaking in my boots by the time I got where I was going on campus.”                                   

- Jen Cummings M.A.

In contrast, an online program bypasses the trek to and from school, along with dispensing with any attire considerations (i.e. acquisition and dry cleaning.) Another benefit of many online programs is they are “at will” attendance-based; you complete the required units during time slots of your choosing. Classes can be completed while children are asleep or otherwise entertained.

The main concern with internet degrees is the weight they carry in the counseling community. Be sure to research how employers react to master’s degrees in counseling from each online program you are examining. Also check with the state licensing committee to ascertain what requirements need to be met and if the internet college degree will satisfy licensure mandates.

Married with Kids?

Working while in a counseling master’s degree program is greatly affected by one’s marital and parenthood status. Those who are divorced, married or even single and have parental obligations as well as work commitments are amongst the most challenged of all students. In order for the process to be successful there must be a plan for division of labor and a study strategy devised. Everyone involved must be on board with the plan and the decision to tackle the inherent challenges must be a well thought-out commitment. Single parents who work and desire to gain admittance to a master’s program are well-advised to seek input and advice from the college administration regarding the practicality of the endeavor. There is no sense in setting yourself up to fail; after all, eventually children do grow up and leave the home.

Kim Dawson M.A. was a single mother who had to work part-time while in graduate school.

“I was the only one in my master’s program who was divorced, the primary caregiver for young children and holding down a job. Everyone felt for me. It was a long and difficult road. I have never regretted doing it, but I don’t think I would do it again, I missed out on important events in the lives of my kids.”                                                            

- Kim Dawson M.A.

Do You Have a Support Network?

Anyone who is pursuing a master’s in counseling will derive great benefit from having a strong and available support network. Even if it is emotional support on the telephone, having people encourage and uplift you is a real plus while juggling work and school. If you do not have such a support network it might be wise to begin developing one. Sources can be anything from yoga class acquaintances, church members, exercise partners, relatives and trusted counselors or mentors. Remember that no man is an island; especially when they are working and in graduate school.

John Parsons M.S. was working full-time while getting his master’s degree in psychology. He recalls the importance of his support group,

“As funny as this might sound, my support came from my golf buddies. We made sure to play twice a month and keep in touch between games. Sometimes I would call one or another of them just to vent and get a fresh perspective. I know it’s odd, but I know that those guys helped me to keep things together.”                                                

- John Parsons M.S.

What Are Your Needs and How Well Do You Set Boundaries?

Counseling Student MomRealistically how much sleep, exercise, dietary focus and down time do you need to be fully functioning? Don’t be too quick to answer; working while in graduate school is a marathon not a sprint. Failure to care for oneself will inevitably result in unnecessary additional stress, a compromising of the immune system and eventually illness. There are ways to plan for making fast and easy healthy meals, squeezing in a quick daily workout and sticking to a sleep schedule. However, if you do not have the ability to set strong boundaries your best efforts might easily be sabotaged. The best thing about a master’s program is that it is for a limited and designated period of time. Realize that this way of living and working is indeed temporary; it will in fact come to an end. Do not try to tackle the demands on your body and time without a solid definition of what is healthy for you. Decide to be a boundary-driven with others as well as yourself. Curb any self-destructive habits and substitute good healthy fun activities. Take good care of you and your time spent at work and school will be much more fun and enjoyable.

How Creative Can You Be about Studying?

One of the tricks to working and going to school is to be constantly on the lookout for new and different ways to study. Taping lectures to play in the car or on a lunch break is one study aid. You can read important sections while waiting for appointments, post study notes on the walls at home and work and be sure you always have a study tool with you at all times. It’s amazing how much can be digested on the fly. Learning can be fun, especially when you consistently create new ways to assimilate the necessary data.

Your Attitude—Will It Make You or Break You?

Paramount to any type of success is a winning attitude. Refuse to be daunted by your work and school schedule. When people lament your struggles tell them it’s a piece of cake. Decide to succeed and you will. Have fun in the process and you’ll have accomplished more than just a degree; you will have mastered your life.