Turning an Aspiration Into a Career

Post-baccalaureate counseling program graduate Ryan Barrett follows his heart

In 2012, Ryan Barrett decided to go back to school. A variety of professional and personal factors led him to this career change. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2003, Ryan worked for several years in the financial services industry selling fixed-income investments to large institutional customers. Although he learned quite a bit doing that job, he found the day-to-day work dissatisfying. So in 2008, he moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in search of something better. After four years working in various retail management positions that still were not fulfilling, Ryan again re-evaluated his values and goals and kept coming back to a desire to work with people affected by mental illness. It was during his work for Project Open Hand in San Francisco that he would start to turn his gift for helping others into a career.

“My desire to work with people affected by mental illness was influenced by an intellectual curiosity about psychotherapy, the experiences of family members and by a friend who called me while having thoughts of suicide,” recalls Ryan. “Although we were able to get through that difficult time, the experience made me realize that I wanted to learn how to better help people through challenging situations. And I knew that to do so, I needed more education.”

Enter the Post-Baccalaureate Program for Counseling and Psychology Professions.

“After I made the decision to pursue a graduate degree, I began preparing by volunteering for a crisis line, working for a local nonprofit and taking prerequisite classes in the post-baccalaureate program,” says Ryan. “The program helped ease me back into the classroom a decade after I earned my B.A., and I found that I was surrounded by other like-minded people looking to change careers. I took all of my classes in person, one class a semester, while working full time and volunteering on the weekends. I enjoyed every class I took through the program, and Abnormal Psychology with Dr. Rhodri Scantlebury was an excellent introduction to what is now one of my primary professional interests. He also wrote me a letter of recommendation during my application process, for which I am forever grateful.”

There are many paths one can take to help those affected by mental illness. Do you want to pursue an M.S.W.? What about an MFT or an LPCC or a Psy.D.? Initially unsure of which road to take, Ryan settled upon pursuing a Master of Social Welfare.

“Extension did a good job of explaining the various career options and helped me decide to pursue an M.S.W. degree over becoming an MFT or LPCC, or going on to a Psy.D,” says Ryan. “I didn’t know that licensed clinical social workers have nearly the same scope of psychotherapeutic practice as some other psychology professions, and I like that it also has a broader focus on how systems affect people in their communities. Rather than locating problems within individuals, social workers seek to understand how social, environmental and systemic circumstances work together with biological and psychological factors to influence behavior. I also appreciate the emphasis that social work places on issues of social justice, advocacy, and a strengths-based, de-pathologizing approach to treatment.”

After two years and completing our program in December 2014, Ryan took the GRE and narrowed down his master’s degree choices to Cal State East Bay, San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. Initially waitlisted at Berkeley, he was thrilled to receive an acceptance the following month. The UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare offers a Direct Practice in Community Mental Health concentration, which made it Ryan’s top choice for his graduate education.

With so many options to pursue for graduate studies, Ryan offers this sage advice: “I would encourage applicants to have a solid understanding of why they want to pursue a graduate degree and to look deeper into the programs and classes offered at each school, as the focus of each will vary. Talk to current students, see if you can to get a better sense of the program and then decide if it seems like a good fit. Also, trust in the process! It was stressful and took a lot of effort, but it was definitely worth it.”

Stock photo of female veteran in Army uniform
Photograph of a military veteran (Source: Getty Images/iStock)

Ryan’s graduate education also has given him what he calls “the single best learning experience of my life”: an internship with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the Livermore Division of the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System.

“I work with the PTSD Clinical Team providing individual and group therapy to veterans affected by trauma, using a variety of evidence-based interventions,” Ryan describes. “The level of expertise, commitment and collaboration on the team is inspiring, and the opportunity to help our veterans has been extremely rewarding. The work is challenging on many levels, but the supervision and extensive clinical training are top-notch, and I feel very supported.”

While Ryan is successfully making a career change, he’s aware that his education doesn’t end once graduation commences. “My journey as a social worker is constantly evolving as I learn and experience more,” Ryan says.

“My current areas of interest are working with serious mental illness and trauma, and I expect that these interests will grow and shift as I progress in the field. I do plan to continue working with the VA after graduation as I work toward licensure, and I credit the Post-Baccalaureate Program for Counseling and Psychology Professions with giving me the foundation to pursue what I never thought was possible. As a first-generation college student, graduate school seemed out of reach, but the program helped to give me a good start!”