Degree In Sight

Stepping on bannana peel

A psychology professor interviewing a graduate student for an internship slot once got a surprising reply when he asked, "Why did you apply to our program?"  
The student shrugged and said, "It's the only one I could drive to."  
"Kudos for candor, but not for social skills," says John Norcross, PhD, a University of Scranton psychology professor whose colleague was the professor asking the question.  
Most graduate students don't make such obvious missteps. At the same time, it's hard to overemphasize the importance of internship interviews. A 2009 online survey by the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) found that 76 percent of internship training directors ranked interviews as "very important" in the selection process, ahead of letters of recommendation, essays and cover letters. 
How can you ensure you have a good interview? Prepare, says Norcross, co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (The Guilford Press, 2008). 
"Every internship director has the same lament," he says. "Students apply to multiple programs and they come asking general questions that betray a lack of knowledge and preparation."  
Here are more dos and don'ts, for your internship interview season:  

  • Don't try to wing it, surviving on charm alone. Interviewers expect you to be conversant about what the training the site offers, as well as the program's philosophy and theoretical orientation. Find out by studying each site's Web site and APPIC listing and commit these details to memory. 

  • Do develop a list of questions they are likely to ask you. Work out your answers and practice responding out loud, either in front of a mirror or in a mock interview with a friend or fellow student. 

  • Don't be too honest. In particular, don't say you're interested in a site primarily due to its convenient location, even though that might be a powerful motivator. Instead emphasize reasons for applying that training directors care about, such as how your skills, interests and training goals match the site's training opportunities. 

  • Do take every opportunity to explain how your training, experience and professional goals fit with the internship site.  

  • Don't try to dominate group interviews by talking too frequently or undercutting points made by fellow applicants. 

  • Do demonstrate good social skills no matter what the interview scenario or with whom you are talking, including administrative staff, training directors or current interns. Make eye contact, smile and lean forward—and be punctual. 
    "The people who are doing the interviews want to see people who display all the qualities you'd want to see in a clinician: sensitivity, respect and social skills," says James Johnson, PhD, director of the University of Florida's clinical psychology doctoral program.

  • Don't schedule interview visits too close together, depriving yourself of time to relax, review and recover for the next round. 

  • Do build in time for travel delays due to bad weather—you will be traveling in January, after all. If you're flying, avoid the limbo of lost luggage by packing your carry-on with a nice outfit, copies of your curriculum vitae and work samples, any prescription medication you take and some healthy snacks. 
    "It's hard to focus on an interview if you're focusing instead on your physical discomfort," says Tara Kuther, PhD, a psychology professor at Western Connecticut University and author of "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" (APA, 2008). 

  • Don't get so anxious about doing well that your brain is racing ahead to your next question. Good interviewees don't just talk well, they listen carefully, says Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, director of clinical training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and co-author of "Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Match" (APA, 2007). "Sometimes when people feel anxious, they might forget to convey what they're thinking or feeling," says Prinstein. "A lot of people forget to nod and to smile and to say they're excited about what they hear."  

  • Do remember that the interview process is a two-way street. Training directors want to assess whether you'd be a good match, but you're also trying to find a program that meets your needs. "Feel empowered and recognize that this is a chance to be a consumer," says William Robiner, PhD, training director for a pediatric psychology internship at the University of Minnesota Medical School. So, on the interview remember that you are likely to have some choices among programs. In fact, if you've been invited for an interview at all, the site's training director probably thinks you'll succeed as an intern. 
    "They're really shopping for something that's a good match for them. That could take them out of the mindset of being hypervigilant of the evaluation of themselves," Prinstein says. 

  • Don't wear jeans and a T-shirt. Both men and women should wear a suit. "You want to be remembered for what you say and not for what you're wearing," Kuther says.