By now, you know there's a psychology internship crisis. Simply put, there aren't enough training slots to meet the demand from clinical, counseling and school psychology doctoral students who must complete an internship before graduating. As a result, 21 percent of psychology graduate students didn't initially match to an internship last year.
Avoid becoming a statistic by taking practical steps from the first day you enter a doctoral program to improve your chances of getting an internship, experts say. First, though, you must start seeing yourself as a professional in training, says Karen Farrell, PsyD, professor and director of clinical training for Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Ill.
"Many times, students experience themselves as students, not as professionals in training who have any say about how they develop," she says. Farrell says students should adopt an attitude of, "This is my career, and I'm the one driving it." In particular, students should have a clear idea of their interests and strengths and where they want their careers to go, she and other psychologists involved in training say.
During the Practicum
The first step on your path to match success begins during your practicum training. That's where you start applying, under supervision, the therapy approaches and assessment techniques you've read about and talked about in class to real clients in community mental health centers, hospitals, college and university counseling centers and other settings.
These practicum experiences provide you with the initial training experiences you need to secure an internship and gives you the chance to begin to shape your professional identity.
You'll be well-prepared to match to an internship if, during your practicum, you:
Build a Rapport With Supervisors
Show that you're cooperative, able to follow through on your commitments and a self-directed learner, says Sheryn Scott, PhD, director of clinical training for Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., and chair of the Training Committee for the National Council of Schools of Professional Psychology. "You need to remember that it's a job, and that you're responsible to your clients and your site," Scott says.
Establishing a rapport with your supervisors will help you acquire basic competency in therapy and assessment skills during practicum, says Mitch Prinstein, PhD, who directs the clinical psychology doctoral program at the University of North Carolina and is co-editor of "Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Match" (2008). A strong relationship with your practicum supervisors should also result in three solid letters of recommendation for your internship application, Prinstein says.
Discover Your Strengths and Work on Your Wweaknesses
Internship directors want to see that you've identified your weaknesses and addressed them, says Deborah Lewis, PhD, director of clinical training for Midwestern University's Arizona campus.
"The only deal-breaker is the inability to accurately self-reflect," she says. "If you think you're ‘all that' in every area, it's very hard to help you." So, as you work with clients, take note of what you excel at and what areas need more attention. Perhaps you shine at conducting psychological assessments, but you're not as good at combining information into well-written reports. Your supervisors can help — if you're willing to listen, Lewis says. Ask them for feedback, and try to improve, she says.
Work With Diverse Clients
Students who have experience working with a diverse array of clients are preferred by many internship programs. So, seek out clients from a variety of ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, disabilities, religious backgrounds and ages so that you gain a solid understanding of diversity and multicultural issues, says Greg Keilin, PhD, match coordinator for the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. The best way to do that is by seeking practicum sites that work with a wide variety of clients, and engaging fully in your program's diversity training activities in a thoughtful and self-reflective way, says Keilin. Also, be sure to tell your supervisor you want to work with diverse clients.
Sharpen Your Case Communication Skills
Learn to talk fluently about your clients and explain the reasoning behind your therapy techniques to your supervisors, says Diana Schofield, PsyD, a staff psychologist at a child development clinic and a part-time private practitioner in Norfolk, Va. You'll need this skill for your internship interviews, she says. "You can really stand apart if you give a confident and coherent conceptualization and can convey your ideas in an articulate way," Schofield says. Practice this skill by regularly presenting case conceptualizations to your practicum supervisors, she says. Write an outline of the problems presented by a client, as well as his or her background and treatment goals to help you explain your treatment plan for a client, Schofield says.
Have Particular Internships in Mind
Seek training experiences that lay the foundation for your future dream internship. For example, Geetika Agarwal, a doctoral candidate in school psychology at the University of Missouri, knew she wanted to work with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, so she worked with her adviser to create a practicum at a university-run autism treatment center. The experience she gained helped her match to her top internship choice at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. "If you know ahead of time where you want to go, you have the benefit of tailoring your experiences," Agarwal says. Early in the year you apply for internship, compile a list of possible internship sites that realistically match with your interests, professional development goals and strengths, Farrell says.
Review Your Progress
Meet at least annually with your program's director of clinical training to evaluate your training plan and assess whether your training experiences are preparing for you for the type of internship you want. As you gain experience working with different kinds of clients, you may find your interests shifting, says Robert Perl, PsyD, chair of the clinical psychology program for Argosy University's San Francisco Bay Area campus. If you came into your program wanting to work with children, but discover that you enjoy talk therapy with adults more, let your director of clinical training know immediately, Perl says. "Together, you can come up with a plan to shift your practicum experiences," he says.
During your practicum experiences, you'll need to log 573 hours of supervised intervention training to hit the median number of hours that students in last year's match accumulated. Aim for that median, says Keilin, because if your hours fall short, some internship directors might decide you don't have enough training experience. But you don't need to go above the median, because training directors look at the quality of your training more than the quantity. "More is not necessarily better," he says. Make sure that you accrue your practicum hours in more than one setting, and try to gain experience in the types of settings where you want to eventually apply for internship, Keilin says.
You should, however, accurately record your hours with an online program such as Time 2 Track, or a customized spreadsheet. Your practicum supervisor should sign a weekly printed record, Perl says. Good records are important because you'll need a detailed accounting of the experiences you gained during practicum for your program's clinical training director to sign when you apply for internship. A detailed record also helps when you meet with your adviser or mentor and review your progress. Some programs purchase an institutional membership in Time 2 Track for students to use, but all should clearly explain to their students how practicum hours should be recorded, Perl says.
Other Outreach That Pays Off
You practicum isn't the only way to lay the groundwork for match success. You can also increase your chances of matching to an internship by making professional connections outside of your program and learning to sell yourself. Experts suggest that you:
Get to Know Other Psychologists
Shanda Wells, PsyD, a recent graduate of Midwestern University, found her path into the profession, in part, through networking and meeting psychologists outside of her training program. "It can help you get in touch with the profession and really allows you to envision what type of job, what kind of career, what kind of life you can have in the field," says Wells, who completed her internship last summer. She networked by joining the Illinois Psychological Association of Graduate Students and serving on its executive board. As a student, she attended breakfasts sponsored by the Illinois Psychological Association, meeting training directors from several Chicago-area internships. "It's helpful to get a real idea of what they do and to impress them by just going up and talking to them," she says.
Join your graduate program's student organization and volunteer for committee and service positions, recommends Sue C. Jacobs, PhD, director of training for the Oklahoma State University counseling psychology program. Beyond your own program, get active with the regional and national APAGS committees, and seek leadership positions after you've gained experience as an active member, Jacobs says. Also, sign up to staff hospitality suites at psychology conferences or help with continuing-education sessions. "Showing potential internship sites your leadership activities makes you a more competitive candidate because you may be seen as more professionally involved," she says.
In your wider community, volunteer by regularly visiting a nursing home, working with people at a homeless shelter or helping out with youth programs, Jacobs says. "Anything to get yourself more comfortable with people different from you is helpful," she says.
Contact your university's career center and sign up for job interview training, advises Shane Lopez, PhD, a senior scientist in residence with Gallup who contributed to "Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Match" (2004). Videotape mock interviews so you can practice how to respond with concise, informative answers, advises John Norcross, PhD, author of the 2012 book "The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology." Watching your interview helps you smooth out annoying verbal or non-verbal habits, such as beginning every answer with "Well…" or bouncing your leg nervously, Norcross says.
You should also learn how to answer behavior-based questions that try to assess how well you've handled specific situations, Norcross says. A typical question is, "Tell me about an instance when someone asked you do something ethically wrong, how did you respond?" Answer those questions confidently by using the "three S's": "situation, skills and success"— by describing the situation or challenge you faced, identifying the skills you used to master the situation and ending on a positive, successful note, he says.
Most internship sites will ask applicants to present on a case that went well, or a case that didn't, says Scott. The best preparation for these types of questions is relentless practice, she says. So, ask your practicum supervisors, clinical training director and your faculty advisers for an opportunity to present a case, Scott says. Bolster your presentation skills by volunteering to make presentations in class, she says. "Anytime you can speak before an audience is helpful," Scott says.