One of the things that my colleagues and I are constantly joking…and sometimes lamenting about — is that most graduate programs in therapy and counseling don’t teach you anything about the actual business application of what you have just spent the last 2-5 years studying and practicing. You learn a lot about therapy techniques, diagnosing issues, relationships, etc…but almost ZERO about how to run a business. You might hear a two hour lecture in the course of your 2-3 year program, but that’s about it.
I thought I would get my diplomas in graduate school (as in the picture above) and then I would be all set to open up a thriving therapy practice. Wow, was I wrong!
The problem with this is that most therapists I know (myself included) have completely distorted expectations about what a therapy practice looks like and how to build one when we emerge fresh out of graduate school. Even if we aren’t building one ourselves and we join a clinic, we often have very little skill around how to market our own therapy practice and specialties within the group setting.
My Early Expectations
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I thought that I would just complete my two year MSMFT program, then start a practice, and clients would come flowing in the doors. I have no idea where that expectation came from. I didn’t even think about the years of getting my hours in order to be licensed first. Crazy to think about this now. Some of my expectations came from psychologists I knew who made it seem that easy. I think the therapy world was very different in the 70’s and 80’s, especially with insurance…but mostly I think I was just naive and unprepared for the reality of what building a therapy practice really consisted of.
And a lot of therapy graduate students and young therapists that I meet up with…have a lot of the same views as I did. We are so focused on theory and technique that we gave little thought to actually creating a place where we can practice what we are passionate about.
Last week I started this series on Building a Thriving Therapy Practice, and I began with talking about the need to become clear about yourself and your work first. Because becoming clear about those two things will set the trajectory for what shape your therapy practice takes and its ability to thrive.
So today I want to focus on one thing. And this one thing I hope is really more of an encouragement rather than even a strategy. And it is this.
Give yourself at least 5 years to build a thriving therapy practice.
Giving Yourself Time
A lot of therapy graduate students that I know pulled the plug too early on their practice because things weren’t going well in the first year or two. In reality, they may have been going good for a first year practitioner, but definitely not going well in terms of the expectations they had in their mind.
I thought I would get my license and have tons of clients waiting to work with me. When in reality, there were weeks I would barely see anyone. My first couple of years out of graduate school were rough. Weeks with no clients. Weeks with one client. Weeks where I made no money. In fact, my first year out of graduate school I made no money. I actually owed money with supervision, etc. I made very little the next year. Things started to pick up in year 3 and by year 5 things were really good. Many graduate students have very different experiences if they get in a big clinic that has clients for them to see…but for those of us who launched out into our own practices early on, we have a lot of similar stories of very slow times.
You might be thinking, “Wait Rhett, I thought you were trying to encourage us, and this sounds really discouraging.”
You are right, it does. The reality of starting a therapy practice is that it’s a lot of hard work. And there are some really hard times. But the good news and the encouragement I want to give to you is that you need to stay at it. Don’t pull the plug after one year or two years. If you hate doing therapy, then that’s a different story. But it takes time to move into a location, market your practice, build a referral network and have people begin to refer to you on a consistent basis. There is no shortcut. It just takes time.
I’ve mentioned 5 years above, and that may be a bit arbitrary in some respects. I have always been told 3 years by other colleagues when I was starting out. And they were right in many ways. I started to see things dramatically shift after 3 years of really hard work in a private therapy practice setting. But it was in my 5th year that I really noticed a huge change. My practice really began to thrive and many of my clients were being referred by other clients, and my practice was appearing close to the top of most search engines, and I was getting asked to speak more, etc. Things started to really click.
I don’t know what the number will be for you. But the point is to stay committed. To stay the course and give all you have and work really hard to make that practice go. At some point you may decide you don’t want that anymore (as many of my friends and colleagues have decided). But too many just pull the plug early.
I keep telling myself that one day I and my therapy practice will have arrived and I can just put it on autopilot. But I’m realizing that isn’t true either. To have a thriving therapy practice you have to constantly work on your craft (therapy) and the business at the same time. And that just takes time and commitment. Things rarely stay on autopilot. They are either growing or regressing. And for a therapy practice to thrive you have to be doing a lot of things to keep it moving in a healthy direction.
Just putting in the time won’t get you a thriving practice. There are things you will need to specifically focus on, and we will address those things in future blog posts in this series.
But, if you are willing to put in the time and commitment to your practice, it will thrive.