With so many internship sites to choose from, it can be hard to narrow down your search. What criteria do you use? What makes a good site? Below, experts plow through the confusion and share their pointers for picking quality internships.
1. Focus on fit.
All of the experts interviewed agreed that fit is the most important consideration when selecting sites. As Gregory T. Eells, Ph.D, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell University, said, the three things that students should consider are “fit, fit and fit.”
Ask yourself “how does this site fit with [my] interests and where [I] want to be as a professional,” Eells said. Also, consider where you lack experience and how a site might fill that gap, said Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit.
2. Consider your goals.
According to Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also co-editor of Internships in Psychology: “Students should think carefully about their internship goals. For some, this may be the last training experience before independent work.”
He suggested students ask themselves, “What experiences [will I need] to feel competent as a clinician, and which internship will allow [me] to accrue those experiences?”
3. Explore a site’s training opportunities.
The purpose of internship is to obtain a different experience from your practicum placements and to expand on what you already know, Williams-Nickelson said. That’s why it’s key to thoroughly research training opportunities and rotations at each site, and make sure that you won’t be doing more of the same.
However, “It shouldn’t be a 360-degree departure,” she cautioned. For instance, sites will be very confused if a student applies to a hospital or health care setting when they’ve had zero practicum experience in that kind of environment and it’s unclear based on their existing training why they’d be interested, she said. Similarly, “if a student wants to work with children or families, they will likely be considered for internship only if they have had previous training — coursework, practicum experiences — with children,” added Sharon Berry, Ph.D, chair of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC).
Even if you haven’t had much previous training in the area you want to focus on, you still want to describe a connection in your cover letter. As Williams-Nickelson said, “don’t leave it up to the training director to put the pieces together to figure out what a good match is” for you.
4. Look for a cultural fit.
A site’s culture is essentially their environment, including hours interns work, the type of supervision offered and the patient populations and professionals you’ll be working with, Williams-Nickelson said.
You can assess the cultural fit when interviewing. For instance, ask what a typical day looks like, what you can expect from supervision, how supervision is conducted — whether it’s more casual or a formal presentation — and the required caseload for interns, she said. While there’s a certain number of required hours, sites have flexibility in how they distribute those hours. “Some sites focus on going above and beyond these hours, while others provide time once a week for research or other professional development activities.”
Also, ask the current interns about their experiences. Interns’ participation in the interview process also can reveal if the site matches “what students want from a training environment,” Williams-Nickelson said. At some internship sites, interns are very much involved and even interview applicants. “At other sites, interns are entirely off hands.”
5. Don’t pick a site because it’s “prestigious” or “competitive.”
“The perception of a prestigious site based on name” or competition may guide some students in their selection process, Williams-Nickelson said. “Sometimes prospective interns overestimate or worry too much that those are important things.”
However, they’re not. Williams-Nickelson has found that this “has very little bearing on the quality of training.” It’s also not important for potential jobs or licensing boards either. “What’s most important is finding a site where [you’ll] get good, comprehensive training.”
On a side note, students should apply to both competitive and non-competitive sites. Whether a site is competitive or not depends on the number of applicants they receive versus the number of slots they fill, she said. For instance, a site is competitive if it receives 500 applicants and only accepts three to five students. (You can find this information on the APPIC website.)
6. Choose sites with APA accreditation.
According to the American Psychological Association’s accreditation manual: “Accreditation is intended to protect the interests of students, benefit the public, and improve the quality of teaching, learning, research, and professional practice.” As Williams-Nickelson said, “Some jobs will forever be closed if [students] don’t go to an APA-credited site.” (Learn more about accreditation of psychology internships here.)
7. Seek out valuable resources.
In addition to the APPIC website, you’ll find a variety of books on the internship process, such as Williams-Nickelson and Prinstein’s Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit. Two clinical psychologists also have written an excellent step-by-step internship manual, which is free to download. (You’ll also find other resources on their website, such as spreadsheets for recording practicum hours.)
Also, talk to students in your program who’ve been through the process. See where they’ve matched and what they’re doing now.
8. Consider match rates when considering graduate programs.
If you’re just starting to research doctoral programs, pay close attention to each school’s “match rates for specific programs of interest, and the types of programs where previous students have matched,” Berry said. This gives students “an idea of the practical applications possible with the training they would receive in this program” and “what they will be prepared for in terms of clinical opportunities.”
In general, remember there’s no such thing as a perfect internship, Williams-Nickelson said. While you don’t want to spend the year at a poorly matched site, there’s rarely a site that will match everything on your priority list. Just remember to focus on fit, fit and fit!