Mental health is a broad field and one that encompasses careers ranging from social work and mental health counseling, to psychology and psychiatry. Although there is significant overlap between many of these careers, there are also many differences. For example, while psychiatrists deal mainly with “med management” and psychiatric assessments, social workers, psychologists, and mental health counselors have assumed the role of traditional talk therapy. Further differences involve the underlying philosophy and necessary training among the professions themselves.
Below are the pros and cons of being a graduate student in mental health, as seen through the lens of a social work graduate student. Although this is one perspective, I believe that many of the opinions I express here also resonate with many other professionals in the mental health field.
- For many, careers in mental health are callings and not just jobs. We work closely with clients, supporting and empowering them. This can be a beautiful and very rewarding process.
- Broad choice of jobs. For example, as social workers, we can work with different populations (veterans, children, adolescents, the homeless, etc.), on a variety of scales (individuals, couples, families, communities, or even on the local and national scales). Furthermore, we have the option of starting our own practice, or working in either the non-profit or for-profit sectors. Through this diverse set of options, most people can find a match that works for them.
- Room for growth. In many mental health fields, we can grow professionally by obtaining further education or by ascending the leadership ladder. Some CEO’s of prominent social service companies began as mental health practitioners.
- Status. This isn’t one that gets mentioned frequently, but being in the mental health field and working as a professional comes with, shall I say, a certain status and prestige.
- Abundance of jobs (compared to many other careers). And some careers within the mental health field are set to continue to grow for many years to come.
- Low pay: Becoming a clinician requires a master’s degree at a minimum, yet the pay is starkly below what many other similar professionals make.
- High burnout: This is a well-known phenomenon in the social work field where many agencies and organizations have shortages of capital, thereby placing a large burden on the clinician’s shoulders.
- Lack of training: As graduate students, internships are mandatory. For many, however, there is a gap between training and application, which results in stressful internships that they feel unprepared for.
- Hard to balance demands of grad school, internship and life: Most of the routes to becoming a practitioner in mental health involve education beyond a Bachelor’s Degree, which is not only personally demanding, but financially stressful. Because there is a dearth of scholarships for master’s students, many work full-time, all while balancing an internship and full load of classes.
- High barrier to entry (licensure required): Graduating with a master’s degree in social work, we obtain the prestigious title of “social work intern.” This limits our options until we put in another two years of job experience and pass an exam. Only then can we become licensed, which is a requirement for many positions.