Making the Most of Your Clinical Practicum
A practicum placement is a pivotal and exciting time in a student’s graduate school career. You’re finally putting all those psychology classes to practice. And you’re starting to learn and sharpen your clinical skills.
To help you make the most of your practicum placement, we talked to Theresa A. Wozencraft, Ph.D., psychologist and associate professor of psychology and practicum coordinator at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She offers advice on everything from selecting a mental health site to making it a successful experience.
1. Read practicum books early.
There are many valuable books on navigating practicum placements. For instance, Wozencraft wrote a chapter on maximizing your training experience in the book Your Practicum in Psychology: A Guide for Maximizing Knowledge and Competence.
Unfortunately, many students don’t read these books early enough, Dr. Wozencraft said. Books on practicum placements usually feature how-tos on selecting a site, building a relationship with your supervisor and ascertaining your training needs — all information that’s better to know a semester or so before making your choice, she said.
2. At first, seek a broad experience.
When selecting their first practicum, one of the mistakes students make is wanting “a very specialized experience when they need a broader experience,” Wozencraft said. Students “will rule out excellent training sites because they don’t offer an access to a specialty population.”
However, “the earlier on it is, the more you need to be open to being trained more broadly as a psychologist.” That’s because the goal of early training is to “secure your foundational set of skills as a psychologist.” You’re there to become “effective at building rapport,” using a wide range of skills, deploying different types of interventions and getting “comfortable with [yourself] in the role of psychologist,” she said.
3. Pick a placement with a commitment to training.
Interestingly, while students are picky about choosing a specialized placement, they aren’t picky enough when it comes to training, Wozencraft said. Many dismiss the significance of selecting sites that have a strong commitment to training. She said that there’s “a big difference between being a great place to work for and being a good place to receive training.” Wozencraft’s favorite practicum sites to send her students to are the ones where the supervisors enjoy their supervisory role.
4. Consult your supervisor.
Talk to your program’s director of training to make sure that you’re on the same page about the “types of experiences you hope to gain, what they expect from you and what [skills] you have to offer,” Wozencraft said.
Other key topics to talk about: your long-term goals, what students at your level need to experience and what you want to learn. For instance, if you want to pursue a specialization, the types of practicum placements you do after your early training might be predetermined, she said.
Next, consider how well the practicum site matches your training needs. According to Wozencraft, “Part of making the most out of practicum is making sure you select a practicum that’s compatible for what you need to maximize your own development.”
She also emphasized the importance of students accepting their program director’s guidance and understanding that “their own specific needs and desires can be met when [their skills are] more developed.” Your school supervisor will have insight into what’ll make a good fit, depending on your personality, training needs and the on-site supervisor.
Based on these factors, your training director might strongly recommend one practicum over another. For instance, when Wozencraft worked at another university, which had both external and internal placements, she’d recommend that students who needed more structure and support be placed at their on-campus clinic.
If the practicum you’re considering is new, sit down with the on-site supervisor and discuss everyone’s expectations.
5. Consult fellow students.
Other students are a fantastic resource when picking a practicum. Talk to students who’ve gone through the process and ask about their experiences, especially the students who’ve done the practicum that you’re considering, Wozencraft suggested.
Your program also might keep student evaluations about each placement. For instance, Wozencraft has her students write exit reports explaining their “experiences at the site, what the supervision was like, what types of problem areas they addressed [and the] pros and cons of that particular site.”
If no students from your school have been out to the site, Wozencraft said, see what other schools have used the site and speak to those students.
On a side note, Wozencraft said that it’s a bad sign if students have to chase down their supervisor or if the supervisor skips their meetings.
6. Seek out feedback regularly.
When doing your placement, ask for feedback on your performance, and be open to receiving it, Wozencraft emphasized. It’s critical to be “constantly seeking the opportunity to grow.” Remember that “the whole purpose [of practicum] is to improve and learn from your mistakes.”
7. Talk to professionals at your practicum.
This is another way to take full advantage of your training experience. Ask the professionals at your practicum about their background and how they prepared for their positions. Ask how “they develop their own knowledge,” Wozencraft said.
8. Communicate your concerns.
The most common mistake that students make is to keep quiet about their concerns at their placement, Wozencraft said, whether that’s having too many or too few hours or a no-show supervisor.
When it comes to absent practicum advisors, first try to talk to the individual about it. If that doesn’t work, voice your concerns to the director of training at your school. Wozencraft said that it’s her “role to ensure that the supervisor’s contractual obligation is fulfilled.” Remember that your faculty supervisor can’t do anything to help unless they know what’s going on.
Students also are afraid to admit when they’re struggling, because they worry that they’ll be seen as incompetent, Wozencraft said. They might struggle with their own confidence as a therapist, working with certain populations or dealing with their own prejudices and stereotypes. But this is very common, Wozencraft said. She encouraged readers to share their struggles with their on-site supervisor or the faculty supervisor.
You may be surprised to learn that supervisors actually welcome this. As Wozencraft said, “students who recognize things that might impair or bias their work with a client” are seen as being “further along in terms of self-awareness and willingness to consult [another person].” In fact, these are critical skills that students need as psychologists, she added.
Remember that the purpose of practicum is to reveal what you need help with, Wozencraft added, so it’s important to be honest.
9. Be patient and open.
Realize that you probably won’t be handling the more challenging cases or situations when you start your placement. Be patient, and “trust that your supervisor has a good reason, even if you don’t completely understand it,” Wozencraft said.
Take the example of one of her bright and competent students. In the beginning of his prison practicum, he really wanted to conduct clinical interviews with the inmates by himself, and didn’t understand why his supervisor wouldn’t allow it. After he assisted with several interviews, he understood why the policy was to go in pairs. He came into contact with sociopaths and had to deal with people who were actively psychotic. As Wozencraft said, letting an intern do the interview by themselves “would’ve been cruel.”
Also, students “need to be open to learning things that they’re not necessarily highly interested in.” This also helps in making you a better clinician.
Overall, in order to maximize your practicum experience, “you need to have a good sense of what you need, what your skills are, what the practicum site needs from you, what they allow students to do and what your supervisor’s expectations are,” Wozencraft summarized. Again, be open to new experiences, and be honest with your supervisors about your struggles and concerns. This is how you grow as a clinician.
Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Making the Most of Your Clinical Practicum. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 28, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/making-the-most-of-your-clinical-practicum/