Back in August, my friend told me that she was going back to school for her PhD in speech-language pathology. I have a lot in common with this friend: we both have two kids (our boys play competitive travel soccer together), busy careers, and full social lives.
So when she shared this news with me, the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh wow, I could never do that.”
I’ve been saying that for years. I went straight to graduate school after finishing undergrad, so the only life I knew was student life. That served me well, and helped me stay focused as I earned my master’s degree in music therapy. My mom went back to school for her doctorate shortly after turning 50, and I was just in awe of her ability to do so. I couldn’t imagine the rigorous schedule and responsibilities of being a student ON TOP OF regular life.
After that conversation with my friend, though, I rethought my words. Why couldn’t I do it? School was my thing; the only B I ever got — like, literally ever — was in a dance class my freshman year of college, and I’m still not over it. (Kidding, kind of.) I love to learn, and I had been feeling the itch for professional growth over the last year or so.
A few days later, I found myself googling “counseling programs” and taking copious notes. Wait, what? Did I want to become a counselor? Apparently, yes I did.
Why counseling? I’m already a “therapist”, though I use music as my modality. I’ve mostly worked with children who have disabilities and the early childhood population, so the goals I’ve addressed have been related to communication, academic skills, activities of daily living, etc. It was actually my 6-year-old daughter who helped open my eyes to psychotherapy for children, and had me curious about exploring it as a career path.
At the beginning of the summer, her pediatrician recommended play therapy to help with her shyness and anxiety. She was nervous at first, but told me after the first session that she was brave enough to attend by herself while I stayed in the waiting room. Her progress was noticeable, and though she didn’t share too much of what went on in her sessions, I would get nuggets here and there of what she was learning in her play therapy sessions.
I knew I wasn’t the only parent of a kid suffering from anxiety, and I couldn’t help but think about just how many children would benefit from counseling as the pandemic stretched on and most aspects of life were still greatly altered. The impact of COVID-19 on our mental health has been…significant, especially for children (like my daughter) without fully developed coping skills.
A New(ish) Path
I will be the first to admit that my counseling skills are not incredibly strong. It wasn’t a big area of focus during my music therapy graduate program, nor has it been a muscle I’ve exercised regularly during my 14 years of clinical practice. I was a bit lost when it came to helping my daughter, and I wanted to be better prepared not just for her, but for my music therapy clients.
So I acted on my impulse to pursue a degree in clinical mental health counseling. I reached out to a couple music therapists I know that have already gone down that path, and their insight helped to solidify my decision. My mom is on the faculty at University of Illinois at Springfield (which is local to me), and she put me in touch with the director of the human development counseling program there. Just five days before the current fall semester started, I applied, was admitted, and registered for classes as a full-time graduate student.
We’ve just hit the midpoint of the semester, and I am up to my eyeballs in reading and research papers. I have another 3 semesters of coursework after this, followed by a year of internship before I am qualified to take my licensing exams and become a licensed professional counselor (LPC). I will need another two years of postgraduate supervised clinical training after that in order to become a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), which will allow me to work in private practice and bill insurance for services.
Ultimately, I want to continue working in private practice as both a music therapist and counselor, specializing in children and adolescents with anxiety disorders. It feels like a long road to get to that point, but if life has taught me anything, it’s that the time flies by — and the older you get, the faster it goes.
Making It All Work
In addition to taking a full course load of in-person classes (9 credit hours per semester), I also took on a new telehealth music therapy contract the same week I started school. So I am currently splitting my time between my private practice Music Therapy Connections, creating resources for Listen & Learn Music, weekly telehealth sessions with my new clients, and of course, completing all of my schoolwork.
That sounds like a lot, and it is, but I’ve always thrived the most when I have a very full plate. Did I mention that my family has traveled almost every weekend so far this semester for my kids’ (yes, plural) soccer teams? But having such a loaded schedule forces me to assign a time for everything. I don’t have room for procrastination, so I have trained myself to just do the things when they are scheduled to be done.
It helps that I love everything I do, and everything I’m doing is interrelated in one way or another. It’s amazing how much I’ve already been able to apply what I’ve learned in my counseling program to the work I do as a music therapist.
It also helps that I’ve given myself permission NOT to always be an overachiever, especially in my schoolwork. I’m approaching my studies in a much more relaxed manner than I ever did before, which has quelled my usual perfectionist anxiety and allowed me to really be present in my classes.
Don’t get me wrong: this adventure isn’t without its challenges. My daughter is still dealing with some anxiety, especially when it comes to being separated from me, so the extra time apart has been hard on her. Seeing her upset when I can’t pick her up from school never gets easier.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m being selfish by devoting all this time to my education instead of my kids; in those moments, I have to keep reminding myself of all the changes I made to my career over the last few years so that I was able to spend the majority of my time with them.
I’m incredibly lucky to have a very supportive husband who was thrilled about my decision to pursue this new path. He has picked up the slack as needed, and we are working as a team to make sure all of our personal, professional, educational, and family bases are covered.
This journey is still very new, and I know it will ebb and flow over the coming years. I’m definitely not the first music therapist to pursue a counseling degree, and I’ve found the Cross-Trained Music Therapists group on Facebook to be a wonderful resource. That said, I welcome any and all words of wisdom related to going back to school many years later, becoming a counselor, or entering a new field in general. Thank you as always for reading, and for your support!