If you’re considering getting a master’s degree in counseling or psychology, you’ve probably noticed that many programs require both residency and fieldwork.
At first glance, the two may sound similar, and you might wonder: why both?
Bethany Lohr, PhD, faculty chair at Capella University’s Harold Abel School of Psychology, and Debra White, PhD, LMFT, chair of fieldwork and licensure in Capella’s School of Counseling and Human Services, help answer that question.
What Are Residency and Fieldwork?
Because it’s not ethically sound to launch students straight from coursework into real-world counseling, schools developed residency as a bridge to fieldwork. (Note: programs that have direct patient contact, like psychology and counseling programs, are the ones that require both residency and fieldwork.)
“In residency, students participate in mock counseling sessions with licensed psychologists and faculty,” says Lohr. “In this safe, regulated space, they receive feedback and practice counseling skills. Once they can demonstrate competence, they move on to fieldwork with actual clients.”
Residency varies from program to program, but in general, counseling and psychology master’s students can expect at least two required residencies, and sometimes three. Only after successfully completing the residency can a student move on to fieldwork. As Lohr notes, “Although not often, there are students who are successful in the courseroom, but not as face-to-face counselors. We have an ethical obligation to protect vulnerable populations.”
Students who did not successfully complete a residency on the first try will likely have the option to retake it.
How Is Residency Different from Fieldwork?
“During fieldwork, you stand at an actual site, such as an agency, school, or clinic,” says White. “You’re under supervision, acting as an intern. You learn how to work with that site’s clients, and eventually get your own caseload.” So while the type of work being done in fieldwork may seem similar to that of residency, this is the real world, and students are working with actual cases, not mock cases. Residency will have prepared them to handle these real-life situations. As in residency, students will continue to have supervision and observation during fieldwork.
Fieldwork marks the final stage of the training program and must be successfully completed before receiving the sought-after degree. In addition, many licensure programs require it, as do many accreditations, such as CACREP and COAMFTE.
Lohr notes that another difference between residency and fieldwork is that while residency follows along school semester or quarter systems, fieldwork does not. Fieldwork continues across quarter breaks, and students are expected to continue meeting with clients, just as they will in their own practice someday.
In essence, residency and fieldwork have a similar component—using the concepts taught in coursework in a hands-on environment—but because fieldwork brings students into contact with real-life clients, it’s critical that they have had extensive practice and training ahead of time.