Today’s jobtalk is with Erin Mickelwaite, who has a massage practice in Princeton, NJ. While Erin loves working with her hands, she is furthering her career by studying social work to create more avenues by which she can help people.
Title: Licensed Massage Therapist
B.S. Natural Resource Management, Minor in agroecology, Rutgers University, 2002
C.M.T. Health Choices Holistic Massage School, 2008
M.S.W. Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work, anticipated 2013
What made you choose to go to Rutgers since you grew up in New Jersey?
I grew up in Edison, and I wanted to stay close to my friends and family. Rutgers School of Biological and Environmental Sciences – Cook Campus – had a really great program for what I wanted to do. I ended up getting a full academic scholarship to Rutgers, so that was a huge factor in my decision to go there too.
It sounds like you had an idea of what you wanted to study in college when you were in high school. Is this true?
It is. My parents taught me to have a reverence for nature and the environment. We always had a garden and went camping; my dad was into bird watching.
In high school, a teacher of mine, Joseph Terrazzino, was a wonderful mentor. There were two electives that I took with him, ecology and geology, in which we took field trips all over New Jersey and studied the natural environment. I also took biology with him and that just sealed my decision to study the natural world.
When you started college, did you have any idea of what type of job you might get once you graduated from college?
I did an internship in Puerto Rico during my sophomore year in college. Originally, I wanted to be an entomologist, so I went to Puerto Rico to study species diversity of spider populations. Basically, I collected spiders in the rainforest and identified them and put together a research project. I loved the fieldwork, but I didn’t enjoy spending 8 hours looking through a microscope. That’s when I decided not to do entomology.
I ended up working on the Cook student organic farm the following summer, and that’s when I fell in love with agriculture. When I graduated, I took a job with Burlington County Farmland Preservation Program. It was a really great way to combine my love for agriculture and preserving the environment.
What did you do there?
At first I was the assistant coordinator for the farmland preservation program. I helped to process applications for farmland preservation. When a landowner wants to preserve their property, they come to the county and say, “We want to preserve.” We have the property appraised, and then we make the landowner an offer based on the difference between what the property is worth developed and what it’s worth as a farm. If they decide accept the offer, the process moves forward, and it has to go through several approvals at the county and state level. Then a deed of easement is put on the property saying that it can never be developed.
Would you be one of the people that would go out to the farmer’s land?
Yes. I would interact with farmers and go walk the property. That job also gave me the opportunity to work on a great project. My boss at the time, Susan Craft, who is now the head of the state farmland preservation program, and I were talking about this possibility of having a farm that the county would preserve and keep as an agriculture park. The county freeholders loved the idea, so we went ahead with it. It had its five-year anniversary in September.
I imagine it took a lot of time to see the project come to fruition?
It did. It was very cumbersome.
It sounds like you had to deal with a lot of red tape and paper work during your time working for Burlington County Farmland Preservation? How did you feel about it?
There were definitely times when I hated it. While I got used to it, it was one of the aspects of the job that pushed me away. The amount of paperwork and having to go through so many levels of approval was tiring. And, eventually, I really wanted to work with my hands again and get out from sitting behind the desk.
Is that when you started thinking about studying massage?
Yes. When I was an undergrad my friend and I took a massage class and used to practice on each other, and I loved it. Since taking that course, I had always thought about going to massage school, but it was never the right time.
In 2006, I went to Peru to do some shamanic healing work with a plant medicine called ayahuasca. That was a big turning point for me because I worked through my social anxiety, which I had struggled with for years. It wasn’t horrible social anxiety, but it did influence my decision to major in something dealing with plants and animals as opposed to people. My experience in Peru spurred me to finally go to massage school.
Once you made that decision, how did you go about finding a massage school to attend?
I met a young woman through my work with a Pathwork group who introduced me to a message school called Health Choices*, owned by a woman named Renate Novak. Once I found Renate Novak and the school, I knew it was the right place for me because it was really focused on creating a safe space for people; there was a spiritual aspect to the school as well as learning about massage technique.
How long was the program?
It lasted a year, going part time.
I assume that you worked while you were in message school?
Yes, I worked full time at my job with Burlington County, and it was a very busy time for me. I didn’t sleep a lot.
Eventually, I quit my job and finished massage school soon after.
So you had saved up some money to get you through that last part of massage school?
Once you finished massage school, did you start practicing massage right away?
Yes. I found a group of three other massage therapists and shared a room with them for my practice. I was able to trade massages with the person who rented out the room in exchange for using the room for my own practice.
How did you go about getting your first clients?
I was never big on marketing myself. I got most of my first clients through word-of-mouth and by doing chair massages at the West Windsor Farmers’ market. I had worked at the West Windsor’s Farmers’ Market at a friend’s farm stand in the past, and new people from that market, so I was able to arrange a chair-massage practice there.
I also started putting flyers around town, and that got me some clients. It’s not a consistent way to get clients, but it definitely works, especially if you continually put the flyers up.
What do you love about doing massage?
I love the intuitive aspect of doing massage. My hands just seem to know what to do, where to go. And it’s not work that makes me think a lot. It’s really nice to be able to shut off my analytical brain since my life is so busy right now.
What happens if you’re very tired and you have a massage to do?
I can still give a good massage when I’m tired because I’m used to doing it. In the beginning, it was really hard. Different parts of my body would hurt – my forearms, my shoulders. But now nothing gets sore.
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for a massage therapist to work with a new client. Is it awkward?
It took some getting used to because it was a very new thing. At this point, it’s just what I do, and I’m completely comfortable with it. And I think when people come to me they pick up on the fact that I’m completely comfortable with it, so they feel comfortable as well.
What’s the longevity of a massage therapist, especially as a woman?
It depends on the person. I know some massage therapists who have been doing deep tissue work for 20 years, and they are fine. I think that’s a rare person. It takes a certain constitution to be able to do that kind of work for that long. Unfortunately, a lot of massage therapists do burnout quickly, especially ones that work in spas for really long hours doing deep tissue after deep tissue massage. You have to be able to stop. Self-care is a huge aspect of being a message therapist.
How do you keep track of your business financials?
I had a friend who taught me how to use QuickBooks. He was really helpful with showing me the basics of setting up a business. It’s pretty simple because it’s just me; I don’t have anyone to pay. I file my sales tax quarterly online.
Currently you’re pursuing your master’s in social work at Rutgers. What prompted you to pursue this field?
A few things. Since I’ve been in my early 20s, I’ve been seeing a therapist and really fell in love with the process of personal growth. I don’t think there should be such a stigma against seeing a therapist and working on your issues; we all have them.
Also, when I was in massage therapy school, I learned that sometimes when you are giving a massage emotions can come up for people. That sparked my interest in taking my career further so I could learn how to help people on an emotional level.
In my early 20s, I saw a therapist for about two years who was trained at the Barbara Brennan School of Healling. We would talk for a while, then she would put me on the massage table and do energy work on me that was similar to cranial sacral therapy. It was an incredible experience because I was witnessing the mind-body connection. I’m a firm believer that our minds and bodies are not separate. It’s unfortunate that our culture is so brain-oriented. Though that is changing…
Where does social work fit into your future?
Ultimately, I would like to build my private practice to offer mind-body therapy. It would look like what I explained that I did with my therapist who was trained at the Barbara Brennan School. People will do talk therapy, but I will also do energy work afterword to help them process the talk therapy.
What advice do you have for somebody who wants to set up a massage therapy practice?
Be prepared to use all of your mind and heart. Also, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there; get the word out about your business. You do have to promote yourself. That’s something that I really struggled with in the beginning. Practice, practice, practice! If you don’t have clients right away, practice on friends and family.
What do you do in your spare time?
What are you growing?
Mostly herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary. I’m also growing kale because I eat a ton of kale.
What’s one of your favorite dishes to make with kale?
I like to make chopped salads. I’ll chop the kale finely, squirt it with lemon juice and massage it into the kale to break down the toughness of it. Then I make a salad with it.
*Health Choices has closed.