Have Art, Will Travel

With a new batch of art therapy students about to start the job search, I am being asked about what types of jobs they should be looking for. I have had a variety of jobs in multiple settings. Some were explicitly art therapy jobs and in others I had to be more creative about integrating the arts into my work. Let me tell you about my first job out of school.

Honestly, and I don’t mean to scare you off, it took me a solid year after getting my master’s degree to find a job in the field that met my needs. My first job was as a master’s level clinician at a large mental health agency. I worked in Elder Services and spent ALOT of time driving around to various nursing homes. I had to bill for 28 hours a week which was no small task. I only saw individuals for treatment, there were no groups because the billable rate was higher for individual therapy than group therapy. It was tough work. My clients were all very ill with both medical and psychiatric conditions. The work consisted of dealing with issues both large and small. I could spend an hour with someone helping them deal with an annoying roommate and then spend the next hour helping someone else work with their sadness over their loss of functioning. On several occasions I came into work to find that a client had passed away suddenly. I was at this job for two years. I was fortunate to have had a supervisor who was both an art therapist and a licensed mental health counselor. This supervision enabled me to garner my own credentials.This job was not specifically geared towards art therapy but I was more than welcome to bring it into the work I did with clients. I had a tool chest that was filled with art supplies that I carried around to all of my sessions. I called it my “have art, will travel” box. I was prepared if a client wanted to do some art making but was also available just to talk if that was what they wanted.

This job wasn’t necessarily my dream job, but it helped me along my journey. I learned so much during my two years there. I can still see the faces of many of my clients and vividly remember their stories. It was an immensely moving experience to walk a little bit down the road with them. I wouldn’t trade my time spent there for anything.

When you are just starting out, it can feel very frustrating to search the job boards and not see art therapy positions listed anywhere. I am here to tell you that it is entirely possible to get a job in this field and to find satisfying work. Here are a few tips for the job hunt: Ask about the type and amount of documentation you will be required to do. Ask whether this documentation will be something you are paid for-some jobs expect you to do this outside of your 40 hours and it is unpaid. Find out if there is a licensed professional in your discipline anywhere in the agency you are applying to. There may not be one in the department you will be working in, but there may be someone in the agency who can work with you. Expect to apply for jobs that don’t have “art therapy” anywhere in the job description. Get REALLY good at explaining what you do and how it can benefit the site. Get creative-about places you apply to, about how you can integrate the arts into their site, about how to shape your work life. Network, network, network. This is as simple as staying in touch with your professors and fellow students, attending gatherings, getting involved in professional organizations and joining online groups. Print up some business cards and give them to everyone you meet. Don’t give up. I almost did and boy am I glad I stuck with it through the difficult times. You can shape the career you are dreaming of. It may not be easy, but it is possible. May the wind be at your back.


I have my degree, now what?

It’s that time again. New art therapists are walking the stage, collecting their diplomas and wondering what the heck they are going to do next. Especially at a time when it seems like there are no jobs of any kind out there, how does one find an art therapy job? Given the time and money invested in getting a master’s degree, frustration and pressure can rise as the job search goes on.

Here is my advice. You are most likely not going to find the job of your dreams straight out of school. What you will be able to find is a job that will help you get your clinical license and your art therapy credentials so that down the road you can get the job of your dreams. Don’t be afraid to hold out for a little while until you can find a job that suits your needs in terms of benefits, clinical experience and supervision. You are probably aware by now that a huge salary is not coming your way but don’t be afraid to negotiate and find something that suits your needs. No need to undersell yourself.

There are many ways of working as an art therapist. One is to land a full-time job. Inquire about what type of supervision you will be able to receive. You may be able to find someone within the agency who can give you the supervision hours you need for your license. This is a huge job benefit and will save you a great deal of money. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that are not explicitly art therapy jobs. A clinical position at an agency can be a foot in the door and you can market your additional skills as an art therapist. They may not have known they were looking for an art therapist until you showed up! My first job was at a mental health agency as an elder services clinician. They did not hire me specifically as an art therapist but were happy to have me work as one. There was someone in the agency who was an ATR and LMHC who provided my supervision. It was a win-win because the supervision was on the clock for both of us and I did not have to pay for outside supervision. Within 2 years I had my credentials and moved on to another job.

Another way of working is to pick up per diem and fee for service work. It is sometimes necessary or desirable to do this in addition to a full-time job. Many sites do not have the funding to hire a full-time art therapist but are able to bring someone in for a few hours a week. It is worth it to pursue these positions because it could turn into something more and you are networking as well. Fee for service work is tricky because if the client doesn’t show up, you don’t get paid. Paperwork is done on your own time and it can be significant. Travel time is often not reimbursed. However, it is a good way to gain experience and supplement your income. You often can work in a wide range of settings and with diverse populations as well. I have worked in homeless shelters, schools, nursing homes, clients’ homes, hospitals, adolescent group homes and elder housing as a fee for service clinician. I loved working in so many different settings. The work was interesting and I gained a great deal of experience.

My final piece of advice: Network. Network. Network. Massage every connection you have. Stay in touch with supervisors, professors and fellow students. Join online groups. Attend conferences and workshops. Print up some business cards and give them to everyone you meet. I found my current job through a former professor. My previous job was found through a former supervisor. People hear about positions all the time and you have to keep your name and face in front of them. Hang in there. Working as an art therapist is possible. It is not always easy and I have certainly had my share of struggles so I won’t sugarcoat the challenges we face in the job market. But it can be done. Best wishes to you on your journey.

A Matter of Degrees

I am often asked what one has to do to become an art therapist. I am going to tackle this question from two points today: the personal qualities one must have and the credentials and degrees that are needed to practice.

To be an art therapist, or any kind of therapist, in my opinion one must have  a level of compassion for others. You must have a tolerance for hearing painful stories and knowing that people are still living in difficult situations. You must be patient. Change does not happen overnight for anyone and it cannot be forced. You must be humble. Therapists do not have the secret to a happy life and cannot dictate what will be meaningful and important to others.  You must be hopeful. If you don’t believe that a person can change and grow, they won’t believe it either. When someone is in the depths of despair, you have to hold onto hope for them. You must be willing to face heartbreak, yours and the clients. You must be willing to educate others about your work. Art therapy is still unknown to many, and you will constantly be explaining your work to others. You must be able to use yourself as a tool. By this I mean you are able to hold onto other ‘s pain, let them bounce their feelings off of you, attend to your own internal responses, and reflect back to them from a place of honesty, compassion, and non-judgement.  You must have a level of self-knowledge. This doesn’t mean that your own life is all worked out and perfect. I know plenty of therapists and we all have our own daily struggles. But you must be  willing to look closely at yourself and your own actions and feelings so that you are responding to clients, not simply reacting.

Credentials and insurance reimbursement vary widely depending on where you live, so I am just going to talk about my decisions regarding degrees. My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a minor in Psychology. There was no such thing as a bachelor’s degree in Art Therapy when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got a broader degree because I was exposed to the full liberal and fine arts education as opposed to a narrow specialization. It was important for me to consider all of my options and not lock into anything at the beginning of my higher education. I chose to specialize when I got to graduate school and have a Master’s in Art Therapy. Now the question is whether to get a PhD.

When I was in high school, I dreamed of getting a PhD. Instead of writing out my imagined married name, I wrote out my name with a string of letters after it. Now, I feel very differently about it. I want to have a PhD, I just don’t want to get one. There are a few PhD programs in Expressive Therapies, but the purpose of them seems to be to prepare you for a life in academia and research. This is not the direction I want to go. Anyway, I am already teaching and don’t need a PhD to do research or publish. A PsyD interests me, but again I don’t think it would further my career in a way that I would want. I would have to do some full-time internships, and how would I do that and still work? I also don’t need it to bill insurance, as my current credential of Licensed Mental Health Counselor allows me to do that.

The bottom line, as often happens, is money. If I won the lottery, I might consider going back to school. As it stands, I can’t work and go to school and the degree options available to me won’t further my career in any substantial way. The debt I  would incur would offset any potential increase in salary.

So what  is my advice to the person interested in becoming an art therapist? Get as many credits as you can in art and psychology as an undergrad. Find out what the requirements are to practice where you live. The credentials and ability to bill insurance vary widely. Get  whatever credentials you can related to art therapy.  Get whatever clinical license you can in your area. Get a Master’s Degree. You won’t be able to get any credentials without it. It is hard work to attain all of these, believe me, I know. But it will likely set you up to practice at both agencies and independently.  And most importantly, don’t give up. Connect with everyone you can in person and  on-line to buoy you on your journey.

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