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Career Make-Over

TV Costumer Wants to Wear New Hat as Specialty Therapist

While working long hours at NBC, he has been pursuing a license to counsel older gays and lesbians.

October 29, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jim Pfanner, 48, puts in more than 60 hours a week as a costumer for the NBC-TV soap opera "Days of Our Lives." He's been in show business 25 years and loves its creative challenges.

But Pfanner has been quietly taking steps toward a radically different career.

For the last two years, despite his grueling schedule, Pfanner has been completing a master's degree in marital and family therapy. He recently graduated from Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino and is doing supervised volunteer counseling at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

The Los Angeles resident, who earns $50,000 to $60,000 a year, isn't financially able to reduce his costuming hours. As a result, it may take him some time to fulfill his MFT internship and licensing requirements.

Pfanner's long-term objective is to specialize in counseling older gays and lesbians. He wonders, however, whether he'll be able to develop a thriving private practice in Los Angeles, a community saturated with helping professionals. And he questions whether his chosen specialty--counseling older gays and lesbians--is viable.

For help, Pfanner consulted Laurie Kolt, a La Jolla-based counselor and practice-building consultant.

Kolt asked Pfanner to complete a detailed questionnaire about his therapy-practice aspirations and his ability to tolerate risk, a necessary trait for a small-business owner. She also reviewed his resume and biographical writings.

She concluded that with Pfanner's leadership skills, marketing experience and organizing abilities, he indeed might do well as a private practitioner. She also encouraged him to explore other options, such as joining a group practice (usually less lucrative, but also less risky) and building a composite career that could include consulting, coaching, giving presentations, offering educational seminars and sponsoring retreats.

As Pfanner works to complete his post-degree clinical training, he can seek paid employment as a psychology assistant or MFT intern, Kolt said. A licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or marriage and family therapist would oversee his work.

And though Pfanner isn't ready to strike out on his own, he should start formulating personal business and marketing plans, Kolt said. In today's marketplace, new therapists typically take three to five years to build full practices, experts said.

Kolt calculated that Pfanner could earn $81,600 for 48 weeks' work and take home about $55,000 after business expenses, if he is able to counsel 20 clients a week and charge $85 an hour.

Here are additional tips that Kolt and others offered Pfanner:

New therapists can greatly benefit by developing niche specialties, said Sabina Latendorf, a private-practice consultant and career counselor in Toronto.

"Those who say, 'I'll see anybody, I'll do anything,' don't have nearly as much chance of succeeding, because their goals aren't clearly defined," Latendorf said.

Pfanner should consider choosing three clinical specialties that are needed in his community and of benefit to large numbers of people, Kolt said. Possibilities for Pfanner to consider--in addition to his senior gay and lesbian niche--are gay- and lesbian-related family counseling, couples counseling and baby-boomer counseling. Pfanner also expressed interest in offering therapy services to entertainment industry professionals.

There is a dearth of counselors adept at serving aging gays and lesbians, according to gay and lesbian social services authorities.

"It's a huge problem, because few social workers and therapists have specific training in [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues," said Sandy Warshaw, director of policy, education and community outreach for New York-based Senior Action in a Gay Environment, or SAGE, a social-service and advocacy organization.

Pfanner can begin to build knowledge about this specialty by keeping abreast of relevant mental health research, joining the American Society on Aging's Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network (http://www.asaging.org/networks/lgain/lgainmain.html), networking with leaders of such organizations as SAGE (http://www.sageusa.org) and reading "The Networker," a quarterly newspaper for older gay men and lesbians published by the Pride Senior Network (http://www.pridesenior.org).

Although literature about this population segment is somewhat scarce, there are a few books that Pfanner might want to peruse: "Gay and Gray: The Older Homosexual Male" by Raymond Berger (Haworth, 1995); "Lamda Gray: A Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Guide for Gays and Lesbians Who are Growing Older," edited by Lorena F. Farrell (Newcastle Publishing, 1993); "Golden Men: The Power of Gay Midlife" by Harold Kooden and Charles Flowers (Avon Books, 2000); and "Lesbians at Midlife: The Creative Transition" edited by Barbara Sang, Joyce Warshow and Adrienne J. Smith (Spinsters Ink, 1991).

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