Six years ago, Lisa Ryan's father, Roger, was diagnosed with heart disease. As his primary caretaker, Ryan, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., spends much of her time taking her father to doctor's appointments, helping out with tasks that his health prohibits him from doing by himself and providing him with emotional support.
Because of those demands, Ryan plans to restrict her internship search to the 11 sites that are within a three-hour radius of his home so she can be close enough for emergencies and weekend visits.
But that decision comes with risks, she admits.
"If I don't get into one of those 11, I won't go on internship this year," she says. "I'm kind of awestruck at the possibility that I just might not match."
Ryan's concerns are valid, match experts say. The Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers has long warned students against limiting themselves geographically because there is so much demand and competition for every slot, says APPIC Chair Steve McCutcheon, PhD. It's best for students to be open to positions far and wide, he and others advise.
"It's likely that people who restrict themselves to one city are sort of necessarily also restricting their number of applications, and applying to programs that might be a poor fit for them," says McCutcheon.
Walking the tightrope
APPIC realizes how grueling the internship match and the internship year can be on student caregivers, says Greg Keilin, PhD, APPIC's match and clearinghouse coordinator. Often, they're forced to apply at sites outside their interest areas to stay close to home. That's what University of Georgia counseling psychology student LaKeisha Gantt did during last year's internship match. As a mother of three young children, she applied to only six internship sites near her home in Athens, Ga.—many of which did not quite fit with her background or career plans.
Even students who do match within their geographic limitations face a balancing act. Gantt matched with the only site at which she received an interview—also one of her top choices interest-wise—but she has a commute that can take nearly three hours in traffic.
"If you're hindered geographically, it's no longer about applying to places that are a complete fit. I had to just apply to places that were feasible," she says.
For Catholic University of America clinical psychology student Mira Brancu, the internship match worked out well, despite the location restrictions she had when her husband accepted a tenured faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She matched at her top choice—a VA center near their home—but she says she was still surprised at the compromises required of students.
"The way the internship process works really ignores the realities of adults who enter their programs, many of whom have multiple family obligations," she says. "For a field that espouses the virtues of personal self-care and mental health, it is amazing to me that they would expect families to either live apart for a year or force one or more family members to quit their jobs or schools and uproot for the sake of one member."
No easy solution
One way APPIC is working to help student caregivers be more competitive in the match is by encouraging training sites to supply information about the qualities, skills and backgrounds they seek in interns, McCutcheon says. He adds that APPIC works closely with sites to encourage them to evaluate potential interns solely on their qualifications, not on such factors as age, gender or family responsibilities.
"There's sort of an urban myth among students that they might be at a disadvantage if they have children," he notes. "The understandable fear is that internship programs might doubt their ability to fulfill the training role, but there's no evidence to support the notion that students with children are more or less competent compared to their peers."
APPIC also encourages students to make sure they fully understand the supply-demand imbalance of psychology internships and to familiarize themselves with the sites available in their area, says Keilin.
In addition, McCutcheon notes, reading program brochures from local sites and learning about what training directors are looking for in applicants can ensure students gain the right experiences and build skills that make them attractive applicants for those sites.
"All of these things help students make informed choices," Keilin says.
By Amy Novotney