From Intern to Professional: What I’ve Learned So Far

From intern to Professional

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Our current interns are wrapping up their internship, and new ones are beginning on Friday. I’ve been chatting with our outgoing interns and reflecting on my own process. Six months after I joined the professional world, I wrote a blog post called “Professional Life: The First 6 Months.” I made a list of things I had learned in my first half-year as a professional. I think a lot of it still applies, and since then I’ve gained more insight on what it means to be a music therapist.

So graduating interns and new professionals, I have some wisdom I’d like to share with you!

First, here is my original list:

1. On saying yes: As soon as I got those letters after my name (and even a little bit before!), I said yes to EVERYTHING. And I mean E*V*E*R*Y*T*H*I*N*G. Because I made myself available, people knew they could rely on me. As a result, I had not only a job but a full case load within weeks of graduating.

2. On saying no: I don’t think that saying yes all the time was a bad idea. That being said, now I’m learning that just because I am available at a certain time, it does not mean I have to accept a task, whether that’s a client, a favor, or a gig. I drive something around 250 miles a week, and spend an average of 2-3 hours a day in my car. This week I had another therapist take over one of my clients because it took me 1.5 hours of sitting in traffic to get to them. I’m transferring another one of my clients to someone else because I just couldn’t get on the same page as the activities coordinator. I loved all the clients in those situations, but it wasn’t working for me. In the wise words of one of my MT buddies, “If it’s soul sucking, don’t do it.”

3. MT-BC is just the beginning!: I feel like becoming board certified was often presented to me as The Final Step. In school and internship, our process was referred to as a “journey,” and somehow I took that to mean that becoming a music therapist was the destination. I guess that’s technically true, but that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere CLOSE to being done learning. I never, ever will be. Is that scary? Sure, a little bit. It’s also encouraging in a way. It means that as long as I’m making an effort to improve, my work will never be stagnant or boring. And on that note…

4. Routine?: It’s AMAZING how fast my work started to feel routine. That can be a good thing, because it meant I wasn’t constantly stressing out about what was going to happen next. On the flip side, it was pretty easy to fall into a lull where I was using the same songs and same interventions from week to week. Just because my internship was over, it didn’t mean I should stop trying new things! It also means that sometimes new things will fall flat, and that’s okay because…

5. You’ve got lots of time. :  This is the first time in my very short music therapy experience that I don’t have a predetermined end date with my clients. In my case, doing long-term work that focuses primarily on quality of life means that it’s okay to spend a whole session coming up with ideas for a song, then spend the next session writing two bars, then setting it aside for a while. That also means that I can’t “power through” things like I did as a student. (Oh, like I’m the only one who stayed up til 2 AM to write my lit review? Sure, guys. Sure.) What I’m doing has to be sustainable in the long run, or else I’ll burn out FAST. It’s good to provide variety but a session doesn’t have to be jam-packed with intervention after intervention. Once I figured this out, my daily life became significantly less stressful.

¡BONUS TIP! Start making it a habit to answer emails as soon as you get them, even if it’s just a quick “Got it, will respond more later.” Return phone calls as soon as you are able. Timely communication is key.

¡BONUS BONUS TIP! Don’t take criticism personally. Don’t be afraid to re-assess your approach, and also know that sometimes things won’t work out, even if you are providing high quality services.

And here are a few more additions to that list that I’ve learned since then:

  • Make self-care a priority: Seriously do NOT skimp on this. Check in with yourself on a regular basis and consider your own needs. You will be a more effective therapist and a happier person if you do.
  • This doesn’t have to be a solo gig: Reach out to your peers, keep in touch with your mentors, join your professional association. Talking to other people who “get it” can be both grounding and invigorating all at once. If you are the only music therapist in your area (which can and does happen), there are lots of great resources online. If you’re on facebook, I recommend joining Music Therapists Unite! and Music Therapists Silver Lining. They are closed groups and there is a ton of great discussion going on there.
  • Advocate… for your field, and for yourself. During my internship, I was (happily) sheltered from having to convince anyone to get on board the music therapy train. As a professional, I learned very quickly that not everyone would receive me with open arms and a tambourine. So take a deep breath, tuck in your shirt, and shake some hands. Sharing what you do can help build rapport with staff and it moves our field forward. YOU are the expert!
    • Addendum: That being said, not everyone will “get it,” and that’s okay. I’ll reiterate my “Bonus Bonus Tip” – criticism is not always personal.
  • NEVER stop learning. Learn new songs, new techniques, new instruments. Keep reading research. Foster the flame of curiosity that got you here in the first place.

And finally….

  • Enjoy the ride! Some days are crazy. Learn from them, grow from them. You’ve GOT this!