Sink or Swim: The Importance of Quality Supervision

By Heidi Tobe on July 24, 2017

May of 2017 marked 3 years since graduating with my MSW. As I reflect on these past three years personally and professionally, there have been a lot of ups and downs. While my path took many turns I never would have anticipated, for the most part, I wouldn’t change things. I learned and grew from each experience and wouldn’t be the person (or clinician) I am today without these experiences. That being said, one thing I wish I would have done differently and would change if I could go back, is prioritizing quality supervision from the start, maintaining relationships with former supervisors/mentors, and being intentional in seeking out this type of support (for me, my supervisory relationships were my mentoring relationships. I recognize that for many people, that is not always the case. For the purpose of this blog, I will use these terms interchangeably. Know that we plan to address more specifically the topic of mentoring, including finding mentors and cultivating those relationships, in a future blog!). For those of you who just graduated (or have recently graduated-or even graduated years ago but find a need for ongoing supervision or mentoring) here are some lessons I learned that I now share with you:

1. Prioritize quality supervision and mentoring-whatever it takes.

If you aren’t getting the supervision you need at work, seek out supports elsewhere. If your licensure supervisor isn’t a good fit, find someone else (better yet, try to make sure it’s a good fit before getting started). If your work team isn’t getting you what you need, see if there is anything you can do to make a difference. Or it may be worth joining a peer supervision group outside of work.

I put off starting licensure supervision because my agency wouldn’t provide it. When they finally did, it did not provide the support or development I needed as a new clinician. In hindsight, it would have been worth it to start licensure supervision right away, even if it meant paying out of pocket. I was making less than $33,000 annually in my first job out of grad school, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. I think I could have made it work, though, to pay out of pocket (even if it meant continuing to do one of my least favorite Friday night activities: babysitting). Everyone’s personal and financial situations are unique to them, and paying out of pocket might not be possible. Do whatever is possible for you-whether that means advocating to get a stipend for supervision, making connections with professionals who may give you a discounted rate, or finding someone who wants to give back through providing free licensure supervision.

2. Maintain meaningful relationships from graduate school.

At first, I thought this would happen naturally. The reality is that in most cases, it won’t. Like any relationship, these take time, intentionality, and work. Don’t expect your grad school mentor or supervisor to facilitate this-it is up to you! If you value that relationship and want to keep it going, say that. If you have expectations for what you would like this relationship to look like post-graduation (do you want to get together monthly? Every other month? What types of things do you want to talk about when you meet?), express those desires. Ask if this is possible for them. And whatever time they are taking out of their day for you, whether it is an hour every other week or 15 minutes every couple months, express your gratitude to them.

Only recently have I begun reaching out to my practicum supervisor again (in fact, I will be posting an interview with him next month on his career path that led him to starting a successful mental health agency and landed him as Associate Dean of one of the top schools of social work in the country). While it’s better late than never, I can’t help but wonder what my professional growth might have looked like if I better cared for and maintained this relationship earlier on.

3. Continue being mentored, even after you obtain your license.

It’s kind of like turning 18. While you are legally “an adult” there isn’t some dramatic change that happens on your 18th birthday. That’s what obtaining my license felt like for me. While I know many people who are eager to be done with weekly supervision, I grieved the loss of that space and time. While it’s no longer required, obtaining your LCSW or MFT license doesn’t inherently mean you no longer need or will benefit from supervision, mentoring, and support.

As you are nearing the end of your licensure supervision, think about what benefited you most as a clinician from that relationship. What type of supervision or mentoring would be helpful for you going forward? What is your vision for yourself over the next 1, 3, 5, 10+ years, and who do you need in your corner helping you develop professionally towards that vision?

4. Be real about your challenges.

In August of 2015 after the most personally and professionally challenging 6 months of my life, I moved onto my third job in 14 months. Pretty early on this new job was overwhelming to me and didn’t feel like the best fit. I didn’t feel like I was making enough of a difference and it was hard getting myself to show up and really be present day after day. I was exhausted and pretty miserable. So what did I do about it? Did I share these struggles with my licensure supervisor? Nope. Out of fear of her response and what it could mean for my job security, I kept it in for almost nine months before one day opening up and sharing with her that I really didn’t like the job or want to be there. It was one of the first times I was really vulnerable and honest in a meaningful way, and our relationship changed immensely (for the better) after that. What once felt like surface level case consultation now felt much more like the genuine, challenging supervision of my graduate school days. And as vulnerability begets vulnerability, there was a greater openness of my supervisor’s own shared experiences in her career.

This didn’t change the day to day work struggles I experienced and it didn’t make me suddenly enjoy the job. It did, however, make me feel less alone, sparked a deeper and more genuine supervisory relationship, and opened the door for wisdom and suggestions for how to get through and move forward. It was still another 11 months before I transitioned out of that job, but everything after that day felt like an intentional move towards my future instead of feeling stuck. I digress.

The work we do is built on a foundation of solid, meaningful relationships with our clients. Throughout your career, but especially in those first few years out of graduate school, make sure you are making meaningful supervisory (and mentoring!) relationships a priority for yourself. Yes, they take time. They take energy. They take vulnerability. And in the case of licensure supervision, they often take a good deal of money. But they really can make the difference between growth, development, and advancement versus early burnout.

What type of supervisory relationships have been most meaningful for you? What advice do you have for those who are lacking in this area, or just beginning to seek out these types of relationships? Share in the comments section below!



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