The year I matched, I was the last the person in the world one would expect to relocate. I was married to a person whose support (and to be honest, income) made my pursuit of a PhD possible. I had three children still in school, two dogs, and I owned a home.

Moving seemed impossible. What would my family do without me? What would I do without my family? I applied to every local site, even those I knew were a poor match. I had never worked with a child a day in my life, but suddenly I found myself applying to every child site within 100 miles of my home. The years spent working in forensic settings suddenly did not matter, as staying put was my only goal.

Like others who did not match the first phase, I was devastated. I had no choice but to relocate. Only a few months after insisting I would never move, I said goodbye to my family and boarded a flight to Honolulu. This was the best professional decision I have ever made.

Cold, Hard Facts

The inability to relocate, no matter the reason, has a significant impact on match rates. Independent of other factors, only 83% of applicants who could not relocate due to family, financial or health concerns matched in 2016, compared to 90% of applicants with no geographic restrictions. In 2015, only 78% of geographically bound applicants matched, compared to 87% of applicants willing and able to move. Applicant age, as well as parenting and relationship status also impact an applicant’s chances of matching.

While APPIC does not expressly examine combined factors, it is likely that graduate students with partners, children, dependent parents, homes and other responsibilities may feel overwhelmed by the possibility of relocating, thus reducing their ability to match.

In 2016, 90% of APPIC applicants ages 26 to 30 and 87% of applicants 25 and younger successfully matched. Older students had a much harder time with the process. Students 41 to 46 years old only matched 77% of the time in 2016 and 70% the year prior. The match rates continue to decline as students age. This is very likely due to the changes in lifestyle people experience as they age, making a big move very difficult. For many of us, relocating, even when it is uncomfortable, is necessary to successfully match with an internship.

The Importance of Fit

Before I started my doctoral internship, I knew that fit was important, but I did not fully understand the extent of its value. Fit is a broad concept that encompasses many areas of one’s life and personality. First, of course, is fitness for the specific work. My internship was a perfect fit for my career goals. Therefore, it was much easier to match to the perfect postdoc. Had I settled for a poor fit that happened to be in my town, I may have put my career on a trajectory that was, at best, unfulfilling.

Next is fitness for the specific site. You may love a particular population, but every site is different. Along these lines, having a good supervisory experience is imperative to a good internship experience. In my consortium, we often joked that we were each a “mini-me” of our respective supervisors. Some of us even looked like our supervisors!

At this point in our educations and careers, we can all learn from a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds. We are all adaptable and know the benefits of being challenged. Still, the internship year is intense and full of growth. Having the right supervisor can make or break one’s internship year. No matter your professional experiences and qualifications, it is likely that the perfect fit is not waiting in your hometown. Willingness to relocate may be your best chance at the right fit.

Becoming a Psychologist Is About Having More Opportunities, Not Fewer

While there are many reasons to pursue a doctoral degree, those of us who go through the rigorous process want more opportunities and more options. Whatever the final goal, we are taking extra steps to secure a dream. For me, an APA-accredited internship was necessary to meet my goals. Had I accepted a non-accredited internship closer to home, I would have given up on a specific goal. Whatever your personal mission, internship is the next step to achieving it. Staying geographically bound may close future doors.

Rally the Support You Need

I have wonderful, supportive people in my life. Still, most people outside of academia do not understand the necessity of moving for specific opportunities. When discussing this with people in my life, most asked: “why don’t you just get a job near your house?” It is typical for loved ones outside our field to view internship as no different than a typical job search. They expect us to send out a few resumes and settle into a job close to home.

My own partner did not understand the full gravity of the match experience until I did not match in Phase I. After he sat with me and looked at my options, he understood the importance of geographic mobility and was better able to support my decision to relocate.

Once you have your family on board, you can discuss the ins and outs of orchestrating this feat. Will you fly home on weekends? Bring the kids? Is there any way your loved ones can come with you?

In my situation, it was not possible for my entire family to move. My husband and kids came with me, and we enjoyed six fantastic weeks as a family. Then, my husband and two of our children returned home; my teenage son stayed with me. I was able to go home twice during the year.

If you do not have the support you need to relocate for internship, ask for it. My supportive and helpful advisor, as well as faculty in my program, were clear that relocating for internship is both beneficial and sometimes necessary. I did not know how to ask for more help in navigating that specific hurdle. I wish I had asked for alumni contacts who had a lifestyle similar to mine, so that I could discuss my options and the realities of relocating.

Another way to find support is to identify the specific concern holding you back. For example, if you are concerned about being separated from your partner and children, you may be able to talk to a military family about sustaining an important relationship while away. One of my greatest supports during my internship year was a friend who was separated from her kids due to her service in the Navy.

If you can’t find someone in your program or your clinical practicum with whom you can share your concerns, look online. Email me! I will listen and walk you through it.

New Experiences May Require a New Location

One of the best parts of my internship experience was learning about the unique culture of a Hawaiian jail. This experience was very different from my clinical and corrections experiences in Oregon or California, for a variety of reasons. My cultural competency has increased in ways I never could have imagined.

Whether you end up in Montana, New York, or somewhere in between, leaving your community and your comfort zone will provide an opportunity you cannot get at home.

Sometimes Thinking About Yourself Benefits Those You Love

If you ask geographically bound applicants about what is keeping them in one place, their answer will likely revolve around someone else. Children at home. Partners. Elderly parents who need extra help. As people in a helping profession, we naturally put others first. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and there are situations in which we must think of how our choices impact others.

In many cases, though, improving our own situations will also improve the lives of those we love. For example, paying rent in addition to your mortgage for a year may be a financial hardship now, but you will be better able to contribute to your family’s finances after graduation. You may feel guilty about time away from your family, but the private practice you have been dreaming of will be a pathway to controlling your schedule.

Many of us were inspired to begin this journey by the ones we love. Try to connect with how you expected your career path to improve the lives of those you love.

Make It an Adventure . . . or Whatever You Need Right Now

It is easy for me to frame my internship year as an adventure because I could see Waikiki from my bedroom window. I was able to remind myself that my life was a vacation that some people are never fortunate enough to experience. My thrill-seeking son was also up for the adventure and came along. He went to school, made friends, and learned to surf. I made friends with my neighbors and even my landlord. My consortium consisted of eight amazing people from all over the country whom I would have never met if I had stayed home.

Maybe you have had enough adventure in your life, and that is not what you need right now. What can get you get from this experience? Solitude in the mountains? Retreat in the country? The hustle and bustle of a new city? Remember that internship is about personal growth as much as it is about professional growth.

You Can Do Anything for a Year

No matter what happens during internship, it is important to remember that it is only one year. Modern technology makes it easy to communicate and stay connected in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. After the year is over, you can return to your life and get back to building a successful career.

Of course, there are life situations that are non-negotiable, where relocation really is impossible. For most of us though, our constraints are the products of false beliefs we have about ourselves and our lives. Give yourself permission to do this. Your kids will adapt, your marriage will make it, and your life will be waiting right where you left it, if you chose to return! This is only one year, and it will impact the rest of your career.

Heather Sheafer, PhD

Heather Sheafer, PhD, earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology and her PhD in clinical psychology from Fielding Graduate University. She completed her clinical internship at Oahu Community Corrections Center in Honolulu, HI as part of the Hawaii Psychology Internship Consortium. Her first book, The Narcissist Next Door: An Intimate Look at Narcissistic Culture, was published in 2014. Dr. Sheafer lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest, where she is building her career as a clinical and forensic psychologist.
Heather Sheafer, PhD

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