Degree In Sight

The day Amber Singh, PhD, opened her e-mail in March 2005 to discover that she was among the 21 percent of clinical psychology graduate students who didn't match for an internship that year, she was devastated.

"I was feeling like a complete and utter failure," says Singh, who at the time was studying clinical psychology at Emory University. "What made it worse was that I was the first student at Emory, ever, to not match."

Three years later, however, Singh says it was the best thing that could have happened. She used the extra year to finish her dissertation and have a baby--something she and her husband would have put off indefinitely had Singh not had the time off. She also re-evaluated her internship goals and applied to several sites she'd dismissed the first time, landing at the Hines Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital outside Chicago. Singh hadn't applied to the Hines VA Hospital her first time around, as she was more interested in academic than medical settings. But the hospital turned out to be a perfect fit.

"If someone told me I'd do my internship at a VA, I would have told them they were nuts," says Singh, who's now working on a postdoc at Indiana University. "But it was a wonderful internship year. Looking back, I'm glad it happened, both professionally and personally."

Not matching can be a powerful growth experience, according to many who've been through it. The extra year can help you refocus and better understand what you want from an internship. Plus, you can take steps to ensure success the next time around, say Steve McCutcheon, PhD, chair of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) board of directors, and Greg Keilin, PhD, APPIC match coordinator.

"Students should expect it will take time to get back on their feet emotionally," says McCutcheon. "But once they take care of that, there are a number of practical things that they can do to prepare to re-enter the match the next year."


MATCHING BY THE NUMBERS

Matching for an internship the first time has become increasingly more difficult. In fact, more students fail to match each year as the number of students applying rises faster than the number of new internships. APPIC is working with APA to address this and related problems, but until then, many students--842 out of 3,430 last year--will face the same disheartening e-mail as Singh.

That said, there are choices that make students significantly less likely to match, says Keilin. The biggest is limiting yourself to a small geographical area. After that comes applying to too few sites or too many highly competitive sites.

Jeremy Crostley readily admits to all of these missteps. "I was trying to stay in Texas," says the University of North Texas graduate student. "And six of my 12 sites were long-shots. I shot myself in the foot."

This year, he changed his strategy significantly. "I'm applying coast to coast, border to border," says Crostley, whose wife, small child and extended family live in Texas. "I figure it's only a year, and we can move back when it's done."


MAKING THE MOST OF IT

Although Crostley had to spend a year longer in graduate school, like Singh, he says he sees it as "a year gained rather than a year lost."

In fact, if students use their year wisely, they can not only greatlyimprove their chances of matching the next year, but they can also grow emotionally and professionally, sayMcCutcheon and Keilin. Here's their advice:

  • Take time to recover. "Students will go through a challenging emotional period where they will reflect on their capabilities," says McCutcheon. Seek support from family, friends and advisers who can bolster your self-esteem, he says. And give yourself permission to take a break, whether it's a full-blown vacation, a spa day or simply time to relax without thinking about what to do next.

  • Talk to trusted advisers and mentors. "Get some honest feedback about your strengths and weaknesses," says McCutcheon. "Think about what you can do to make your applications better next time." In addition, evaluate and correct any shortcomings in your training, breadth of experience or exposure to different populations. In the year after counseling psychologist Jeff Lawley, PhD, didn't match, for example, he spent time working as a counselor for school children-an area in which he had no experience. Sara Batalha, a student at Argosy University in Hawaii, increased her therapy hours, which were on the low side her first time applying.

  • Re-evaluate your strategy. If you limited yourself geographically, consider expanding your search and investigating sites you might have overlooked. Lawley used a spreadsheet to rank internship sites on various categories, and he examined the sites more closely to find the best fit.

"My dissertation was on multicultural competence," says Lawley, now an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. "When I looked at all 130 counseling centers, they all mentioned diversity." However, when he took a closer look at their literature, Lawley was able to see which ones truly offered a wealth of experience with a diverse array of clients.

  • Use your year wisely. Spend the time between matches to work on your dissertation, says Keilin. Many internship directors prefer students who have finished their dissertations because it often makes for a more relaxed and fulfilling internship year. "You can go home after a 40- or 50-hour work week and not have to deal with trying to make progress on your dissertation," says Keilin.

Students should also evaluate and practice their interview skills, says McCutcheon, who adds that the impression students make on their interviews is, in the end, most important to internship directors. Taking a year to ponder what you want from an internship can go a long way to making you more confident in your internship interviews, says Batalha, adding that she learned a lot about herself and what she wanted out of her career during her year off.

"It made me realize that maybe it came through in my interviews last year that I didn't know exactly what I wanted," she says. "This time around, that won't be a problem."


Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.