Career Center

Graduate students and early-career supervisors watching over fledgling therapists need some of the same basic abilities essential to good counseling--building rapport, being empathic and teaching skills. But though making the leap from student therapist to student supervisor can be intimidating at first, it almost always ends up being a rewarding experience, says psychologist AnnElise Parkhurst, PhD, director of clinical training at the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Missouri.

For students who are approaching their first supervising experience, experts recommend learning about proven supervisory methods, making sure someone is overseeing you, finding a group of peers to vent your supervision anxieties, and discussing with your supervisee the kind of relationship you hope to develop.


Many counseling and clinical programs offer courses in supervision, but not all, says Janine Bernard, PhD, professor and chair of counseling and human services at Syracuse University. Take such a class the semester before you start supervision if they are available, Bernard advises.

Fourth-year University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) clinical psychology student Kate Nielsen says the supervision class she took over the summer prepared her for her first supervisory experience this fall.

"We talked about the anxiety of doing this for the first time, reading up on what makes a good supervisor, reflecting on our own supervision experiences--what we've liked and what we haven't liked," she says. "I felt like I was really prepared to meet with students."


Part of getting off to a good start is knowing how to develop a strong working relationship with your supervisee, says Edrick Dorian, PsyD, an assistant clinical psychology professor at UCLA and the program director at the AMI/ABLE Integrated Services Program at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Many first-time supervisors may lack the confidence to offer guidance given that they have few years experience as therapists themselves, says Dorian, who has been a supervisor for two years. Because of that feeling, they might be tempted to set up casual, friendly relationships, but their job is to critique the supervisees, point out their mistakes and intervene if they're headed off course with a patient, Dorian adds.

"You have to remember that you serve a gate-keeping role," he says. "You have to make sure your supervisee is becoming competent to practice."

Bernard echoes that sentiment and warns against setting up an egalitarian relationship with supervisees.

"You may feel like a fraud, but ignore that feeling," she says. "You have a lot to offer, and you have to muster up enough authority to supervise."

To foster that healthy supervisor-supervisee relationship, Dorian recommends that supervisors:

  • Develop goals with the supervisee and delineate expectations up front. Among the goals should be that the supervisee will fulfill the program's standardized requirements and provide effective and ethical therapy, he says. Additionally, the supervisor and the supervisee should devise a set of individual goals: for example, the specific skills the student wants to learn and what specific weaknesses the student needs to address. Respectful communication is key for this, he says, because the student needs to feel comfortable opening up about their weaknesses in order to address them as goals. Write the goals down before treatment begins and be willing to revisit them if circumstances change.

  • Lay out a remediation process. Explain verbally and in writing how you will proceed if a supervisee is not meeting expectations. Include detailed information about how you would set a timeline for improved performance and the steps you would take, such as closer monitoring and evaluation, case-load adjustments, supplemental courses, psychotherapy for the supervisee and leaves of absence.

  • Provide frequent feedback to supervisees. Feedback should be given to the supervisee both in writing on a formalized schedule, and informally in supervision meetings. Supervisees should be encouraged to give informal feedback and have the opportunity to complete written assessments of their supervisors. Their feedback can show supervisors whether supervisees are getting what they need.


Another key to effective supervision is to communicate regularly with peers and a supervisor of your own, says Dorian.

"No one should ever supervise for the first time without supervision," he says. "But, in fact, I think that's what happens most of the time. Whether in a training program or not, whether you have formalized supervision or not, find someone who you can lean on for support, feedback and encouragement."

That feedback, especially from supervisors, is the only way to know if you're approaching the work in the optimal way, says Dorian.

It can also ease anxiety as students begin to supervise, says Nielsen.

"In a lot of ways I feel like I'm having a similar experience to what the students are: taking on a specialized job for the first time," Nielsen says. "Just like it's important for them to have me to rely on for guidance, I'm glad I have a set of peers and a supervisor to ease my worries about my performance."

Seasoned supervisors say supervisory newcomers have every reason to look forward to the experience.

"In supervision, I get to do many of the same things I get to do in therapy, but with people who are healthy and enthusiastic and want to hear what [I] have to say," Parkhurst says. "It's meaningful and very exciting, especially when you consider you're shaping a new generation of wonderful therapists."