Have you considered an internship or field placement as a "capstone" experience for your undergraduate work? Do you want to know how counselors and psychologists structure their days? Are you curious about how well theory matches practice? Have you considered becoming involved in a service-learning project? If the answer is "yes," read on.
Why Do an Internship?
Work in a professional setting offers many benefits to undergraduate students. The work experience will be invaluable in your search for a job. Both authors know students who completed fieldwork and were immediately offered full-time employment at their site. Well-documented, carefully supervised field experience is impressive to any agency and can be a very strong point in your resume.
An additional benefit is clarifying career goals. Working in a setting of your choice will provide valuable firsthand information about the duties and daily tempo of those who work in that setting. If you are part of a course that meets regularly, you will learn about the placements of others in your group. Most often, students find they enjoy the work and solidify their career goals. Occasionally, a student will be disappointed with the site or the work expectations. Disappointment can be valuable, however. It can save time, effort, and money to learn early that a career path or job is not suited to you.
What are some of the specific skills that students learn? You will observe work patterns that you will either want to copy or to avoid. You will observe and learn specific skills within your setting ranging from how to file legal documents to how to perform a mental status exam. Your critical thinking skills will improve as you analyze how effective classroom learning is in an applied setting or as you analyze how effective mental health treatments appear to be for a specific client. You will develop professionalism as you learn how to work as part of a team in accomplishing tasks. Your self-confidence will improve.
Finally, during your placement you will develop valuable professional contacts. Key people such as your on-site supervisor and your course instructor will be able to provide detailed references for jobs and graduate school. As you progress through your education, persons met on site can become colleagues, consultants, and friends.
Students often describe their fieldwork as "invaluable," as extending their view beyond the campus, as increasing their self-confidence, and as the most rewarding part of their undergraduate program. They also note the time commitment, the tremendous amount of learning, and the challenges of the workplace.
Stages of an Internship
Students may expect to experience a series of steps, or stages, during a field placement or internship.
Stage One: Arranging and Anticipating an Internship
During this preplacement stage students often experience a sense of excitement, high motivation, idealistic and sometimes unrealistic expectations, and some degree of self-doubt about "making it" in the work world.
Stage Two: Orientation and Establishing Identity
A student's role during this stage is learning new rules and rituals, gaining acceptance, and searching for direction and focus. Students may feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed and may depend upon supervisors for guidance. Concrete tasks and assignments are helpful at this stage, and it is important for supervisors to spend regular time with the student and to be accessible.
State Three: Reconciling Expectations With Reality
The reality of the work situation is now clear, and if it is very different from the student's initial vision, the student may feel disillusioned. The reevaluation of expectations at this stage is a turning point for many students. They may resolve the conflict by becoming more realistic about what they can accomplish and learn. By this time, most students have begun developing skills, have become productive workers, and have been integrated into the working group. These gains help to offset any feelings of disillusionment that naturally occur during this stage.
Stage Four: Productivity, Independence, and Closure
In this stage students focus on accomplishing tasks and learning skills. By now, students are frequently contributing actively to the site with their work. Confidence improves, and students are more aware of their own capabilities and areas of strength and weakness and are receptive to evaluation. This is the longest stage of the fieldwork. In the beginning of this stage, students are very engaged; toward the end, they need to begin closure. Closure challenges students to pull together the various project details and academic assignments that document what they have learned and offer evidence of their growth. The placement culminates with a final evaluation and, in some institutions, a paper.
Stage Five: Reentry and Practical Application
Students in this final stage focus on readjustment to being without the placement. They feel either a sense of accomplishment or letdown, or both. It is also a time to look toward future goals and to reflect on how to transfer what they have learned from the internship to personal/educational/career activities.
Plan early for field experience or an internship. Consider what course background might be helpful and try to sequence classes so that you complete courses pertinent to fieldwork prior to your application. Be certain that your schedule during the field experience is not overly crowded. If you are scheduled heavily, you won't have the option of attending an additional interesting seminar or you may not be able to follow a particular case because you can't reschedule to be at work when that case is scheduled. The agency is unlikely to reorganize to fit a student's schedule. Therefore, the greater your flexibility, the better your experience will be. A heavy schedule can detract in other ways as well. Students with many commitments are unlikely to do extra reading or tackle complex tasks, limiting their learning and skill development.
Be certain that you are an attractive candidate to the site of your choice. In addition to taking relevant courses, get to know some of your professors well. Remember that you are representing the department and the college/university during your internship. Your college or university is unlikely to select you for an internship unless there are faculty who want you to represent them personally and the department in general in the community.
Work skills are important. If you miss class, oversleep, miss appointments, or turn in work late, reevaluate your habits. Work sites require dependability. You can't learn if you aren't there. Poor work skills can compromise your placement at best and at worst can eliminate you as a candidate for doing an internship,
Begin early to examine the various possibilities. There may be a binder, website, or other information source that provides descriptions of each site. Talk with students who are currently in placements or who have completed internships. Outline your goals in writing. Talk in advance with the university course instructor or placement office.
Most application procedures will require a resume or statement of interest. Keep your resume updated so you are prepared when it is time to apply. Learn how to write a professional cover letter to introduce yourself.
Arrive on time and neatly attired for interviews. Don't over- or underdress. Check with the course instructor about proper attire. Remember to thank those who consider your application.
Finding a Placement That is a Good Match
There are many things to consider when matching yourself with a site. Travel distance can be a major limiting factor for some students. If you don't have reliable transportation, you may be limited to sites you can reach using a public transportation system. Another practical matter is scheduling. Do the hours desired by the site fit your schedule of availability?
If you are able to interview with the site, inquire about supervision. One of the most valuable aspects of fieldwork is the interaction and relationship with the supervisor. This person should act as your mentor, and you should be learning skills directly through observing your supervisor. The supervisor can be more important than the site, so try to determine how much this person can teach you and how willing they are to include you in sessions and activities.
Finally, consider the setting and population served. Consider exposing yourself to an entirely new setting. For example, if you have volunteered before in a school, perhaps working in a hospital or clinic will offer new perspectives. Consider the experiences available. Remember that the higher level tasks, requiring licensure or a PhD, will be things you can observe, rather than try yourself. For example, if you are working with a PhD-level psychologist in a hospital, you may have an opportunity to observe therapy, but you will not be able to participate as a therapist because you are not trained. In contrast, if you intern with a probation officer, you will likely learn to do background checks, employment checks, and social histories. You may be able to do these tasks on your own and have the work checked or cosigned by your supervisor.
Success on the Job
In the beginning, orientation is the key. You might find it useful to take advantage of any training courses offered to new or established employees. Read policy manuals. Inquire about the site's history. Read annual reports. The more you know about your site, the richer your experience will be.
Be certain to be dependable. Set your hours so that you can arrive early and stay late if needed. Complete assignments on time. Inquire about policies for sickness. Be aware that the working world maintains a different schedule of holidays than your college or university. Let your supervisor know at the beginning of your internship what holidays are in the school schedule. Check what days your agency will be closed. Inquire about policies for inclement weather.
Be willing to ask questions. Watch for opportunities. Your supervisor may not know all of your interests. If you don't express interest in an activity, your supervisor may fail to think of you. Observe as many people as possible. Don't be too quick to make judgments. Try to find things that each person can teach you. Ask about why people make the choices they do. Accept tasks eagerly, even if they are mundane. Remember that all professionals have paperwork and onerous tasks to complete.
Seek readings and research relevant to your site. Try to apply the theory and information you have learned to your experience. Develop critical thinking skills. Ask yourself, "What worked well? What did not work? How could this be improved?"
Study the record-keeping system. What records are kept? Why? How long are they retained? What use is made of the records? Are the records required by law or policy, or are they optional? Who has access to which records? Examine staffing and employment patterns. How many of each type of position are employed? What is the budget for your agency? What are the sources of funding? Inquire about plans for the future. Are future projections based upon evaluation data, demand for services, or other information?
In short, be aware of all aspects of your site. Both business aspects and clinical offerings are important. Obtain a well-rounded picture. By increasing your knowledge base and your range of experience, you will focus your career goals and will increase your desirability as an employee.
Alverno College Internship Office. (1998). Off-campus experiential learning internship [Brochure]. Milwaukee, WI: Author.
Lowe, J. (1986). Stages and transitions in an internship experience. Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Sweitzer, H. F., & King, M. A. (1999). The successful internship: Transformation and empowerment. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.