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If graduate school was a play, coursework and therapy role-playing would be the dress rehearsal, and practicum would be opening night, said University of Georgia psychologist Linda Campbell, PhD, at an APAGS-sponsored 2006 APA Annual Convention session on getting the most out of practicum.

"I tell my students exactly that, right off the bat, so that they put in perspective that practicum isn't...practicing anymore....It's the real thing," Campbell noted. "Students are helping people change their lives forever. It's a humbling experience, an honor and a responsibility."

Stepping out onto that professional stage is also a key time for students to flesh out their professional goals, develop their fundamental counseling skills and sort out what techniques and theoretical orientations work best for them, Campbell and her fellow panelists noted. They offered these tips on getting the practicum experiences you want and prepping for internship:

  • Research possible experiences. When seeking practicum sites, ask lots of questions about the type of training and supervision you'll get. "Be a consumer of your own training," advised Campbell. Know how sites differ: Your psychology department's clinic exists to train you, while an external site's purpose is to serve the community and offer a training experience along the way, said Campbell. So, if you're shopping for an experience at an external site, you may need to be particularly proactive about negotiating training that suits your professional goals.

  • Anticipate change. What a site was offering last year when a peer trained there may have changed due to a loss of funding or a supervisor's departure. These are changes that could affect the quality of the experience, so be sure to explore what that site is offering now, said Campbell.

  • Don't specialize too quickly. Think "broad and general" as you amass your practicum experiences, as exploring diverse settings will prepare you for a variety of internship site options, said Barry Schreier, PhD, director of the counseling center at Purdue University.

"If you do five practicums in a VA and then start looking for university counseling center internships, that's going to be a little difficult," added Schreier, who is also president of the Association of Counseling Center Training Agencies.

  • Share your mistakes. In supervision, some students tend to hide practicum blunders from their supervisor for fear of seeming incompetent, said Michael Madson, PhD, a faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi counseling psychology program. "But, from a supervisor's perspective, we can't help you grow and develop if we don't know what things you had trouble with and what you had success with," he said. Likewise, share with your supervisor how you learn best and how you want to get feedback.

  • Prepare for your supervision meetings. To maximize the time you have with your supervisor--often just one hour per week--have your questions, concerns and comments about your cases ready. Don't rely on them to steer the meeting.

"I value when my students come in and say, 'Here's what's going on with this case and here's what I am not sure about,'" explained Madson. But present case information succinctly. "I don't want a 'he said, she said' account of everything that happened in the room," Madson said.

  • Don't sweat the hours. Worry more about getting quality supervision and learning from your experiences than the number of practicum hours you are getting, stressed Schreier. On average, internship sites are looking for candidates with an average of 800-900 hours, which most students should get if their program keeps them on track. "What's so much more important is that you develop competencies," he said.

  • Know your "readiness" for internship. Students who learn their strengths and weaknesses and determine what they want to pursue after practicum make great internship candidates, said Schreier. Training directors want internship candidates who, among other things, have developed professional goals during practicum, can articulate what they need to work on and know what type of learner and supervisee they are.

The publication "Succeeding in Practicum: An APAGS Resource Guide" offers additional tips and advice on maximizing the practicum experience. To order, visit Practicum Guide.

“Practicum isn’t practicing anymore. It’s the real thing.”

Linda Campbell
University of Georgia