Writing essays, finding sites, setting training goals, connecting with recommendation writers, and pulling everything together for internship applications can be daunting and time-consuming. And yet, a competitive internship application does not start in the fall of the fourth or fifth year of a doctoral program.
Rather, working toward being a competitive candidate begins as the student enters the program. I imagine the same goes for students who are in license-eligible master’s degree programs, as well.
Each October, I write letters for each of our doctor of psychology students applying to internship. This is part of my role as the program’s director of clinical training (DCT). As I begin selecting words to comprise my letter about a specific student, I think back over my interactions with this student from our first encounter.
My goal is to present to the application reader – the internship training director – characteristics of this student, including professionalism, knowledge base, and skill development, that I observed while the student worked through our program. I aim to communicate the level of maturity, an ability to interact with others, and the student’s level of stability. I am very clear with our students from the onset of their journey through our program that part of the job of the faculty is to develop a sense of each student, and thus we pay attention.
The Big Picture
Who is this student? Did this student demonstrate initiative during training in order to learn beyond the course content? Is this a student who is a cohort leader and has taken action to lead other students, to make suggestions to improve the program, or who is a team player? Is this student able to make others feel at ease, supportive of others, and respectful toward the community?
I begin my letter expressing my experience of having this student in my courses, on my research team, and in our community in order to provide a picture to the potential internship training director.
Academics and Leadership
The student’s academic efforts are also important. Is this student interested in learning? Was this student engaged in the classroom? Has the student selected practicum training sites because they were challenging and would improve and expand the student’s skills, or has the student made selections of convenience? Has the student sought out additional supervision in order to delve deeper into a specific theoretical orientation, or to improve assessment skills and refine report-writing skills?
Has the student taken advantage of opportunities to engage in leadership roles, such as serving as a teaching assistant, a research assistant, or a member of a program committee? Has the student become involved in advocacy at the local or state level or engaged in opportunities that support unique skill development?
I also ask myself whether this student has considered and utilized feedback. Have I witnessed improvement in this student’s writing skills, presentation skills, clinical skills, or professional interactions? Does this student seek feedback from faculty, practicum supervisors, and peers? Has this student learned the value of feedback for development and welcomes it, rather than taking a defensive stance? Has this student submitted an abstract to present at a professional conference in order to receive feedback on research from those outside the program?
What are the student’s growing edges as internship training year is approaching? What training opportunities will move this student forward in becoming a competent clinical psychologist? Will this student benefit from supervision and experience in the interpretation of assessment results or report writing, in understanding and applying evidence-based interventions? Do I believe this student will benefit from further training and supervision in understanding diverse clients and taking a posture of cultural humility?
Gray Areas and Other Challenges
Occasionally, I have a student who has remained in the shadows during the time in our program. I consider what factors may be involved in this student’s choosing to remain quiet during classes, to avoid expanding into leadership positions, or to resist engaging in leadership opportunities.
The reasons vary. Sometimes students are introverted, yet have worked hard in the background. Sometimes the student has a family or must work more hours outside the program in order to stay in school. I try to find the motivation of this student as I am considering how to write a letter that demonstrates the strengths of this quiet student.
The most challenging letters to write are for the student who has experienced conflict during the program. Sometimes this student is the source of conflict. It can be the student who is disrespectful toward cohort members, faculty, and supervisors. It can be the student who tries to get by with minimal effort, or the student who has minimal clinical skills.
In these situations, I keep in mind that if a student has met the appropriate competencies over the years and progressed through the program, then that student has earned a chance to be in the internship application phase and to move forward toward internship. In these cases, I work to write about the student’s accomplishments and strengths in an honest manner and state what I see the student will need in order to be successful at an internship.
Are there differences in the letters I write? Yes. Does a student have to be a shining star to get a strong letter? No. Hard work, respect, collaboration, and skill development are the ingredients for a strong letter from the DCT.
Get to know your DCT while you are working your way through the program. Let your DCT know you and understand your goals for internship and early career. Make appointments at different points in the program with the DCT to discuss your trajectory, issues that you find challenging, and decisions you need to make about your progress in the program.
If you are struggling in a practicum, talk with your DCT to be proactive and work toward managing the situation. Some students are alert to challenges in supervision, with specific clients, or with other students. When they work with the DCT to learn how to resolve issues or manage difficult situations, they are demonstrating skill development and professional development.
Your program’s director of clinical training can play an important role in your progress through the program and can be a strong support as you work through the internship application stage. Find ways to take advantage of this program resource, and make sure you are prepared to shine.