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The Surprising Reason You Might Want to See a Less Experienced Therapist
An easy piece of therapy advice you’ll find everywhere—including on our site—is that it’s better to see a therapist with more experience. The longer a therapist has been in practice, and the more experience they have working with clients like you, the better—right?
Well, yes. But not always. There are reasons you might want to consider seeing someone with less experience instead of more. One reason is cost.
Affordable Counseling Options
Some of the affordable therapy options we list on our site give you the chance to work with a therapy student, intern, or trainee in exchange for getting free or low-cost therapy.
- Community counseling agencies often employ trainee therapists who are getting their supervised practice hours.
- College counseling programs sometimes offer free therapy to people willing to see a student or intern.
We wouldn’t list or recommend these options if we thought they were never worth taking. In fact, we believe these are excellent opportunities that could give you exactly what you need.
Experience is the best teacher, and experienced therapists have had time to hone and improve their skills and knowledge. However, beginner therapists have their own strengths. They are less likely to be burned out or phoning it in. They’re often enthusiastic and work really hard to help their clients. And they’ve got a secret weapon, too.
Read on to learn what that secret weapon is and to find out more about what beginner therapists have to offer.
Different Kinds of Beginner Therapists
Think of a veteran therapist. They probably have a long resume and a history of accolades. Their work has a clear mission and focus. They know the clients they’re meant to work with and their skills are sharp and refined. They might even have name recognition, a published book, a popular social media account, a history of national media appearances, or a professorship.
Beginner therapists don’t have any of that—yet. They’re just beginning the process of learning who they are as therapists and where they excel. They’re just starting to build their skills.
What Are the Stages in a Therapist's Career?
In their journey to become the veteran therapist they want to become, new and novice therapists might be in any one of the following stages of their career:
- In school getting their degree and providing therapy for the first time as part of an internship they’re doing;
- Provisionally licensed and working toward their full license by getting supervised practice hours at an agency job; or
- Recently licensed and starting a private practice where they continue to learn new skills and therapy methods as they get their first clients.
It can help to know some of the terms for the different kinds of beginner therapists so you can recognize where a therapist might be in their journey. First, student therapists are rarely called therapists—because they aren’t therapists yet. They’re usually called “interns” or “students.”
The term for the next phase in a therapist’s career varies somewhat. After an aspiring therapist gets their degree, they may take a job that doesn’t require them to have any kind of license and just go by their job title.
What Are Beginner Therapists Called?
At some point, an aspiring therapist usually needs to get a provisional license, which they do by passing an exam and paying a fee. This allows them to work at agencies where they provide therapy under supervision. Therapists at this stage in their career may be called:
- Trainee therapists,
- Associate therapists,
- Pre-licensed therapists,
- Associate-licensed therapists, or
- Provisionally licensed therapists.
While provisionally licensed therapists have more experience than student interns, neither are considered ready to provide therapy independently. The reason interns are allowed to provide therapy while they’re in school, and provisionally licensed therapists can be hired by agencies to work as therapists, is that in both cases, these beginner therapists are under supervision.
What Is Clinical Supervision?
Clinical supervision is part of every therapist’s training and is different from the general kind of supervision we all get at a job.
Many of us have jobs where our bosses or managers are referred to as supervisors. They are the people who monitor our behavior and make sure we’re doing our jobs. They don’t necessarily know how to do the same exact things we do; they’re just who’s in charge. It’s their job to make sure workers are being productive and completing tasks successfully.
A therapist's clinical supervisor is more like a mentor or teacher than a manager or boss.
Clinical supervisors are licensed therapists who help trainee therapists gain the skills they need to be effective therapists. Supervisors talk to their supervisees about the work they’re doing with their clients and give them feedback and guidance that helps them grow and improve.
Trainee therapists usually get one hour of face-to-face clinical supervision every week. These sessions sometimes feel like lessons, sometimes feel like training sessions, and sometimes even feel like therapy
What Do Clinical Supervisors Do?
Clinical supervisors help their supervisees:
- Assess complex cases;
- Develop treatment plans;
- Make complex ethical decisions;
- Work through obstacles or challenges;
- Learn new clinical skills, techniques, and methods;
- Figure out what to do when it’s not clear how to help clients;
- Try new approaches when their clients aren’t making progress;
- Recover from and correct clinical or professional mistakes; and
- Process their own personal emotional reactions to clients.
Basically, if there’s something a new therapist doesn’t know how to do, their clinical supervisor helps them learn how to do it. They also help them improve and “level up” the skills they already have and the knowledge they got in school.
Student interns also receive supervision from someone who holds a similar role. Interns are given less independence than associate therapists, and they may have more of a counselor’s role than a therapist’s. However, some do provide therapy to selected clients with the “training wheels” of very close clinical supervision.
How Supervision Can Be Like a Secret Weapon
In a weird way, seeing a student or trainee therapist is like seeing two therapists at once. There’s the person you actually see, face-to-face, when you get therapy—as well as the supervisor who’s helping them behind the scenes.
This means that interns and associate therapists aren't just using their own knowledge and skills. They're using their supervisor's, too. When they get stuck, they're not on their own. They don't have to Google it or guess. They go to a mentor with more experience who uses what they've learned through that experience to help them.
When you see a newer therapist, there might even be three people problem-solving your case: the associate or trainee therapist, their clinical supervisor, and their work supervisor or manager. (In agency jobs, managers are often clinical professionals as well, whose role is to help anyone on their team, not just trainee therapists, navigate complex cases and help their clients.)
This means you’re benefiting from the fresh energy of an intern or trainee at the same time that you’re benefiting from the wisdom and experience of their clinical supervisor—and possibly also their manager. They may also be helped by colleagues who discuss cases at case conferences. (Note that any discussion of your case is protected by HIPAA laws that restrict who can talk about your case and how.)
So, it’s not really fair to say that when you see a student, intern, trainee, or associate therapist that the help you receive reflects only their relative lack of experience. You’re getting helped by an entire team of people whose job is to make sure the therapist you’re seeing is helping you.
The Tricky Thing About Experience
Sometimes, seeing a less experienced therapist who’s getting clinical supervision can actually be better than seeing an experienced therapist who isn’t getting any kind of supervision.
Some experienced therapists are fantastic at what they do and deserving of the respect people give them for their years of experience. However, some experienced therapists aren’t so great. Some are burned out, some are unethical, and some have an axe to grind.
The tricky thing about experience is that it doesn't necessarily lead to wisdom. Instead, it can sometimes entrench bad habits, enshrine mistakes, instill bitter biases, or diminish confidence. To grow and gain wisdom through experience takes sincere effort and a willingness to keep learning and trying new things. This is as true for therapists as it is for anyone else.
So, it’s quite possible to get less effective help from an experienced therapist who doesn’t seek supervision than from a newer therapist who, by nature of where they are in their career, is still required to get supervision.
Even good, experienced therapists can get stuck. A supervisor can help them when they do.
So, good therapists continue to seek supervision even after they’re no longer required to get it. They may continue to work with an individual clinical supervisor or they may seek supervision through more informal means, such as through peer consultation or group supervision.
The best way for therapists—or anyone else—to grow and learn is to seek guidance. A teacher, mentor, peer, or friend can show us the lay of the land when they’ve been somewhere that we haven’t. They can see things we can’t because they have a different perspective, and they can give us really helpful feedback because of that. Good therapists take advantage of that and actively seek guidance whenever they get stuck.
The Limits of Supervision
As great as it is, supervision isn’t foolproof. Just because students, interns, and provisionally licensed therapists are required to get it doesn’t mean they take it seriously or have mastered the basic skillset they need to truly be helped by it.
For supervision to work, a therapist has to engage fully in the process. They have to share openly with their supervisor about what's going on in their work with their clients. They have to admit their mistakes and be willing to talk about it when something goes wrong. They have to be brave enough to reveal their biases, emotional trigger points, and struggles to another person.
To be an effective guide, a supervisor has to be both a good therapist and a good supervisor. Being a supervisor requires a specific skillset. Well-meaning therapists can take on the role of clinical supervisor only to find out they’re not very good at it. And sometimes, supervisors can be plagued with the same problems their supervisees are seeking their guidance to address.
For this reason, it’s important to not only screen individual therapists but to also screen the organizations where therapists work. You can learn a lot about the quality of trainees and their supervisors when you research university therapy departments, community counseling agencies, and other places that offer therapy with beginner therapists.
The most important thing is to trust your intuition and change therapists (and/or agencies) if you feel like you’re not being helped.
When Should You See A Less Experienced Therapist?
While it’s not guaranteed, it is possible to get the help you need from an intern, provisionally licensed, or recently licensed therapist. We’d never say you should see one instead of an experienced therapist when all other things are the same, but we would say that the cost-benefit analysis of your options can often support seeing a less experienced therapist.
So, if you’re in a situation where you have an opportunity to benefit from seeing a beginner therapist, we think it’s worth trying.
Reasons You Might Want to See a Less Experienced Therapist
Of course, it’s worth it to see a beginner therapist if it’s the only way you can afford therapy, but it can be worth it in other circumstances, too. Consider it when:
- You’re interested in a specific type of therapy and the only place to get it locally is at an agency that hires less experienced therapists.
- You run across the bio of a beginner therapist who seems like a perfect match for you and you think you could have potentially great chemistry with them.
- You find a newer therapist or an agency with trainee therapists that gets good ratings and offers therapy at a rate that’s a much better fit for your budget.
- You’ve been disappointed by another therapist who seemed burned out or like they were phoning it in instead of meeting you where you are, and you’d like to see someone who’s more earnest, enthusiastic, or fresh in their perspective.
- You’re a younger client and would prefer to work with a therapist who is closer to you in age and who is more familiar with the generational issues you experience.
- You want to address issues or seek therapy methods that are at the cutting edge of the therapy world, and you can find a therapist who has recently learned these cutting-edge methods or perspectives in school.
Just keep in mind that there is always a risk when you see a beginner therapist. The process of a promising new therapist learning alongside you can be engaging, but it can also be frustrating. In most cases, more experience is a good thing.
The important thing we want you to take away from this article isn’t that you should see a less experienced therapist, but rather that you should keep an open mind and not refuse a great opportunity for affordable, cutting-edge therapy with someone who seems like a good fit just because they’re relatively new.
While there’s no guarantee you’ll be helped by an intern, student, trainee, or associate therapist, there’s also no guarantee you’ll be helped by an experienced, licensed therapist, either.
Experienced therapists are generally a safer bet, but they’re not a sure bet, and newer therapists who are dedicated and a good fit for the field can do great work.
Just think of how many fresh new artists have created music or art that has stood the test of time or how many fresh young professionals have won a promotion by solving a problem their experienced colleagues couldn’t.
How Do You Find a Good Therapist?
The best ally in your quest is research. Most of the advice we give for choosing a therapist and screening a therapist applies equally to experienced and inexperienced therapists alike. Read reviews, check licenses (provisional or full, when there is one), consult with them on the phone, and treat your first few sessions like a job interview for your therapist. If it doesn’t work, note it down, and try again. What you learned should help you find a better fit the next time.
In the end, growing and learning is part of the human experience for all of us. Therapists and therapy clients often learn alongside one another. The way you learn how to be a better therapy consumer and client is the same way a therapist learns how to be a better therapist: read, learn, try, practice, experiment, note what does and doesn’t work, and try again.
It’s okay to take a chance with someone who’s still learning, because in the end, we all are. Just trust yourself and remember it’s perfectly okay to keep trying until you find someone who’s right for you.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.