Degree In Sight

First impression

More than 2,800 psychology doctoral students will start yearlong internships this fall, and for many, it will be their first chance to use their therapy skills in real-world settings. gradPSYCH asked training directors from programs around the country to share their tips on making the best impression:

  • Get your bearings. Focus on watching and listening during your first few weeks on an internship, says Susan Steinberg, PhD, training director at the VA-Los Angeles Ambulatory Care Center. Attend orientation programs to learn about the organization's culture and observe how staff members interact. Simply listening may seem counterintuitive if you're expected to begin running a group therapy session your first week, but asking your co-facilitator or supervisor for extra time to watch and learn demonstrates that you want to fit in, she says.

  • Master the basics. Always arrive on time, dress professionally and meet your deadlines, says Evelyn Sandeen, PhD, director of internship and practicum training with the Southwest Consortium Predoctoral Psychology Internship Program at the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M. "If you're supposed to be there at 8, you really need to be there at 8," she says.

In an emergency when you are going to be late, call your boss, explain the problem matter-of-factly and take steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again, says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, former chair of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. "We've all had flat tires — you don't need to apologize 30 times," Kaslow says. "If it looks like you can't handle stress very well, people notice."

Steinberg also advises students not to take time off during the first two months of an internship. "It really puts you at a disadvantage as you're orienting yourself," she says.

  • Make friends — with everyone. Get to know the site's support staff, and return paperwork to them promptly, says Kurt Freeman, PhD, director of psychology training in the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center at Oregon Health & Science University. Bring in bagels or coffee to show how much you appreciate their role in supporting your training, he suggests.

    "People often prioritize their peers and supervisors, but it's the secretaries and nurses that you work with on a day-to-day basis that really can make or break your internship," Kaslow says.

    Also, make friends with your fellow interns, says Kimberly Hays, PhD, director of training at the student counseling center at Illinois State University. Grab lunch together, or just chat over coffee in the kitchenette. "When interns can develop good relationships and serve as sources of support for one another, that really makes for a better year," she says.

  • Come prepared to learn. Ask for books or articles to read that may offer insights into the clients you'll be working with, says Eric Schwartz, PsyD, training director at the Sarah Reed Children's Center in Erie, Pa. Also, show enthusiasm for learning new therapy orientations and techniques, says Freeman, and be open to techniques that may seem in conflict with what you learned in school. "Interns often want to be perceived as competent and skilled and knowledgeable right from the start, but supervisors also want to have a sense that the intern is open to learning and new ideas," Steinberg says. "It's a balancing act."

  • Be honest about your skills. During the first week of internship, take a critical look at weaknesses or gaps in your training or experience, and let your supervisor know where you need help, says Sandeen. "You might have inflated your group experience during internship interviews, but if you really feel like you don't know what to do in a process group, for example, you need to say that," she says. Most supervisors are happy to help and appreciate the honesty.

  • Give yourself a break. Internship is a stressful time, Steinberg says. You're simultaneously putting new skills to the test, meeting lots of people and, often, adjusting to a new city. Realize that feeling anxious or uneasy is completely normal.

    For many students, an internship is also the first time they're expected to be "on their game" from 9 to 5 every day, Hays says. To help you adjust, keep your evenings open so you can rest, and manage your stress through regular exercise and eating well.

    "It's likely you'll be very tired the first few weeks," she says, but many people have made it through, and you can, too.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.