Cover Story

Purple puzzle

The long-standing gap between the number of psychology graduate students seeking internships and the number of training positions available reached an all-time high this year, with 846 students failing to get an internship in the initial round of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers match.

Those unmatched students either sought a position through the APPIC clearinghouse, looked for a position on their own or are trying again with the match cycle now under way—a situation that delays and discourages clinical and counseling psychology students seeking to complete their training and move on to licensure.

The numbers are even worse if you count the students who didn't get interviews and dropped out of the process, says Louise Douce, PhD, chair of APA's Board of Educational Affairs. In fact, APPIC statistics show that 227 applicants either withdrew or did not submit a rank list before match day in February. That means that 1,073 students—or 28 percent of those who initially registered for the process last fall—either dropped out or didn't initially match.

"We may be giving a failure experience to a quarter or a third of our students at the end of their academic experience, and that's just an extremely serious issue for the profession as a whole," Douce says.

The imbalance between the number of applicants and the supply of internship slots has been growing for years as the increasing number of students pursuing psychology doctorates outpaced the rate of internship growth. Statistics show that between 1999 and 2007, the number of internship applicants increased by 18 percent, while the number of positions offered increased by 9.6 percent, according to an article in a 2007 issue of Training and Education in Professional Psychology (Vol. 1, No. 4).

Late last year, the sinking economy worsened an already bad situation. Programs that had offered paid internships in the past and recently added internship slots pulled back due to budget cuts, resulting in seven fewer internships than there were for the 2007–08 match application cycle.

There's a lot of anxiety, even panic, among psychology doctoral students facing the internship application process, says Jae Yeon Jeong, PhD, the APAGS member-at-large for education. "This is not a warm welcome to the field," she says.

Along with that fear, some training experts worry about students focusing too much energy on becoming the "perfect" internship candidate, rather than on conducting original research and learning about psychology's theoretical underpinnings.

"When you put this much energy into it, you have to give up something else," says Cindy Juntunen, PhD, chair of the Council of Counseling Psychology Training Programs, and a professor at the University of North Dakota.

Solving this unprecedented problem will take an unprecedented amount of teamwork among doctoral psychology programs, training councils, internship sites and mental health clinics, says APAGS Chair Konjit V. Page. Luckily, that appears to be what is happening.

"Now we're at a time where everyone is recognizing what a problem this is, and instead of looking back at how we got here, looking at some things we can do," says Page.

Changes ahead

Reducing the match imbalance—while still maintaining quality training—is a top priority for APA's Education Directorate, says Catherine Grus, PhD, associate executive director for professional education and training.

"If we want to attract bright and talented individuals to the profession, the profession needs to take responsibility now to address the situation," Grus says.

Last September, APA pulled members from all of the five psychology doctoral training councils together with representatives from APPIC and APAGS to start hammering out an imbalance relief plan.

Their recommendations included:

  • Hold training programs accountable for low match rates: Programs that consistently do not match an agreed-upon percentage of their students—the goal under discussion earlier this year was 80 percent—should feel obligated to commit more resources to growing internships themselves. "APPIC believes that it's unacceptable to, over time, have a poor match rate and yet not take responsibility for creating internship positions that your students can move into," says former APPIC Chair Steve McCutcheon, PhD.

  • Seek more federal and local funding for internships. Nina G. Levitt, EdD, associate executive director of APA's Education Government Relations Office, says APA will push for funding through the Graduate Psychology Education program to support psychology internship training in community health centers.

  • Make students aware of the problem. APA requires programs to clearly post match rates on their Web sites, and APPIC posts match statistics by program. Information about programs' match rates is now included in APA's yearly "Graduate Study in Psychology" guide, and a new section about the match imbalance situation is under construction, Grus says.

  • Preserve quality. While increasing the number of internships can ease the imbalance, steps must be taken to ensure that newer internships meet APPIC standards, with the "gold standard" of quality—full APA accreditation—unaltered by any changes that would decrease training requirements.

To jump-start the process, the training councils also agreed to develop tools for training programs to work with local medical centers, community mental health centers and other organizations to develop more internships, says Clark Campbell, PhD, president of the National Council of Schools of Professional Psychology.

Those tools include:

  • A development storyboard. Working from narratives sent in by psychologists who have successfully developed internships, Campbell is leading an effort to create an online graphic display of the main steps needed to start an internship, from hatching an idea to applying for APPIC membership.

  • An internship starter kit. While the storyboard outlines the internship-creation process, an online toolkit will provide specific answers to technical questions about funding, the costs of operating an internship, how to administer a training program and how to create a record storage system. "It's enormously complex when you get into it," Campbell says.

  • Matchmaking. As part of an effort Juntunen is leading for the Council of Chairs of Training Councils, 572 individual doctoral programs and internship sites responded to a March survey gauging their willingness to pair up with each other to grow new internships. The survey helped Juntunen identify doctoral programs that expressed an interest in helping with funding, supervision and training at internship sites, which include community mental health clinics, counseling centers, hospitals and VA facilities. Now she's working to connect doctoral programs that want to provide resources with nearby internship sites that want to expand. "I'm much more optimistic that we will identify solutions," Juntunen says.

Even before the recent nationwide push, many doctoral programs had been working to increase the number of internships, says Marla Vannucci, PhD, training director of the Chicago School Community Leadership Consortium. Her program, new this year, created four internship positions at clinics run by Pillars, a community mental health agency, the Illinois Institute of Art and Lawrence Hall Youth Services. About 150 students applied to the program.

Building an internship takes time, Vannucci says. Her school started researching the project in 2006, began identifying potential partners in 2007, finalized its model in 2008 and applied for full APPIC membership this year.

The Chicago School donates Vannucci's time, while the community partners provide $18,000 stipends to pay the interns. "It makes it much more cost-effective," she says.

An ongoing problem

Students need these solutions to bear fruit quickly, as many are desperate to land an internship, even if it's unpaid, says Wayne Martin, PhD, training director for juvenile probation services in Bexar County, Texas. In January, Martin's program lost funding for two internships with annual stipends of $17,500. APPIC removed the positions from the regular match because unfunded internships don't meet criteria for APPIC membership. But instead of dropping the program entirely, APPIC allowed the program to go through the clearinghouse as part of a one-year exception to the membership criteria for programs faced with loss of funding.

That allowed Martin's program to seek applicants during the Clearinghouse, and even though he couldn't offer to pay them, Martin received 50 applications for two openings.

He remembers poring through the applications with a colleague, surprised at the number of strong applicants with solid experience.

"We were wondering aloud, 'Why didn't this person match?'" he says.

By Christopher Munsey
gradPSYCH Staff

Key internship dates

  • Wednesday, Feb. 3: Deadline for submission of rank order lists.

  • Friday, Feb. 19: Applicants find out whether or not they've been matched to an internship position.

  • Monday, Feb. 22: APPIC match day: Results will be released to applicants and internship training directors, and the APPIC Clearinghouse opens.

Source: Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers.