University of Kansas fourth-year clinical psychology student Montserrat Mitchell often startles when she sees a green compact car similar to the type a former patient's father drove.
Mitchell was in her second-year practicum when she worked with the patient--a child who verbally and physically attacked others. Mitchell felt the father was sending her mixed messages about his child's problems, and, perhaps, withholding crucial information.
She became wrapped up in concern for the child's well-being and feared that the child's behavior might escalate.
"I was worrying constantly about the client and had a hard time sleeping," she says.
At the same time, she was too unnerved to discuss her concerns with her supervisor.
Mitchell's failure to open up about her personal involvement with the case is just one of a host of hazards that practicum students can avoid with some preparation and skill.
To help students avoid some other common mistakes, such as failing to gather a wide array of practicum experiences and making assumptions about clients because of cultural bias, here are some tips that Mitchell and other veteran practicum students and supervisors offer.USE YOUR RESOURCES
Since her second-year practicum, Mitchell has been vigilant about seeking help from her supervisor and other faculty for everything from advice on a particular case to deciding which areas of clinical practice to pursue.
"Even if it's something silly or I feel like I should know, I've learned to be humble enough to know that I don't know everything," she says.
Likewise, Nicole Wood-Barcalow, a fifth-year graduate student at The Ohio State University, sought help from her program's faculty members before deciding which practicum to pursue.
Various faculty members helped her cull through her options to find the practicum that best matched her skills and interest in mental health advocacy: She is chair of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) Advocacy Coordinating Team.
"They've seen a number of students go through the same experience that I was going through," she says. "They know best the experiences that I need."
She then asked her fellow students about their own experiences and the pros and cons of the practicum site she was considering.
Because of her efforts, Wood-Barcalow coordinated when and how she would pursue her practicum experiences. For instance, she held off on one practicum at a community mental health center in Columbus, Ohio, until she finished her master's degree because another student warned her of the center's preference for master's-level practicum students.REALIZE COMFORT COMES WITH TIME
Many students starting practicum are anxious and nervous about their own abilities, says Michael Roberts, PhD, a supervisor at the University of Kansas.
Mitchell says the best way to become comfortable with your practicum is simply to work at it. She says the experience is like learning to drive a car.
"Before you drive, you can read a manual and watch other people drive, but until you actually get behind the wheel you don't know what it's like," she says. "Start slow. As you get comfortable, you can build your caseload."
Robert L. Hatcher, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology practicum supervisor, urges students to focus on their strengths.
"The less you dwell on what you don't know, the more you'll focus on what you do know," he says.
Hatcher adds that slowly establishing a sense of the practicum allows students to build a rapport with their supervisor and clients.TRY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
L. Kevin Chapman, a University of Louisville fourth-year graduate student and APAGS member-at-large, made it a point to garner a variety of practicum experiences.
After he finished his first practicum experience at the university's counseling center, he wrote down the skills he wanted to learn in future practicum experiences.
"It allowed me to sit down and ask myself, 'What do I ultimately want to do professionally?'" he says. "And then I could figure out which experiences would best prepare me to be that type of practitioner."
As a result, Chapman, who had never worked outside of an urban setting, found a practicum in a rural Kentucky community where he learned to avoid making assumptions about his clients, such as assuming he knew what and how they were thinking.
"There was definitely a culture shock," he says. "It humbled me because I had to sit on my hands in order to pick up on their culture."PREPARE TO LEARN
Many students, like Mitchell, are nervous about asking questions or seeking guidance when they meet with their supervisor because they fear they will appear ignorant or vulnerable, says Barry Schreier, PhD, a practicum supervisor at Purdue University and president of the Association of Counseling Center Training Agencies. But by tapping their supervisors' expertise and seeking help, they can avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety, Schreier says.
"Students have the rest of their life to be an expert," he says. "Now is their time to be open to discussion and training."
To avoid that pitfall, students should make sure that they are comfortable with their supervisor and that their supervisor meets their needs, says Roberts.
"Seeking consultation on difficult cases is the standard of the practice," he says. "Too often students can be overly hesitant to ask, but they have to realize that it's okay to get help."