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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2019 | Volume 24 | Issue 2

Student Internships in Psychology: Thinking Outside the Box

Camilla McMahon, PhD
Miami University (OH)

https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye24.2.34

After a dynamic counseling psychology course, you might be envisioning a future career path as a therapist. You could be pondering medical school applications, or you might be curious about how your psychology degree can translate into a job in human resources. Then again, you might have no clue what your future holds, and figuring out what to eat for dinner that evening is a sufficient challenge. (If this is you, I can relate!) Wherever you are now, I recommend an internship as a potential next step.

I think of internships broadly as any paid or unpaid experiential learning opportunities that occur outside of the typical classroom setting. The beauty of internships is that they help you understand yourself better, including what is and is not important to you in a future career. Internships are almost always fruitful. Even a poor-fitting internship is a valuable experience: you learn exactly what you are NOT looking for in a future career! Indeed, some of my most helpful internships as a student were those that allowed me to cross a potential career path off my list of possibilities.

If you’re new to the idea of internships, take a few moments to search around for potential internship opportunities. I maintain a Psychology Job and Internship Opportunities Blog for undergraduate students (https://psychologyjobsinternships.wordpress.com). The American Psychological Association has compiled a list of popular student internships (https://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/research-opportunities). Also, check with your university psychology department, career office, or community engagement center for local internship possibilities.

Although these resources can be a helpful way to begin your internship search, don’t stop there! Here are five tips to help you think outside of the box in finding and creating your own internships:

Tip #1: Ask Directly About Internships

It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that, if an internship isn’t advertised, it doesn’t exist. However, this assumption may not be accurate for several reasons. First, the company may have internship opportunities that are not well-publicized or only advertised in certain circles. Internships may still be available, even if you haven’t seen them advertised.

Second, the company may be considering offering a new internship or a part-time job opportunity in the near future. Your inquiry may prompt the company to move forward with the position now, rather than waiting, or may give you an “inside advantage” when the position is posted in the future.

Third, you may be able to persuade the company to create an internship, even if they had no prior intention of doing so. Many undergraduate students, for instance, can receive course credit for professional internships, instead of payment. The idea of “free labor” can be quite enticing to many employers!

Tip #2: Begin Networking Now

Although networking is effortless for some people, networking is hard work for most of us. In fact, although this is a familiar term, it can be difficult to conjure up clear images of what actually happens when “networking.” So, if you’re not a natural networking guru, I’d like to suggest an alternative way of thinking about networking: Ask a lot of people for their advice.

If there’s a specific job that appeals to you, go ahead and contact a few people who are doing that job right now. Set up a meeting to interview them about their own career paths. Most people are eager to talk about their own experiences and to share hard-earned advice with students, and you can come prepared with a list of questions to keep the conversation flowing. Not only are these meetings goldmines of information, they can also be critical for expanding your professional network.

As your professional networks grows, the likelihood that you will learn about and/or be offered new professional opportunities also increases! Have a long-term vision for your networking. Sometimes, a single networking conversation immediately opens new doors. Often, though, networking conversations plant seeds of connection that grow into new professional opportunities months, or even years, later.

Tip #3: Look and Listen for the Needs of Others

Many students are accustomed to focusing on their own educational goals (e.g., find an internship). Somewhat counterintuitively, though, an effective strategy for creating your own internship is to listen carefully to what other people need. If one of your psychology professors is bemoaning that students are not writing their papers in APA format, pause for a moment and look for the hidden opportunity behind this comment. Perhaps you can approach your professor or university center for student learning and offer your services as a peer tutor for APA formatting. Voila, a new professional internship designed by you to meet the needs of your fellow students!

Likewise, if a local mental health organization has an antiquated website and you just took a class on website design, they might be ever-so-thankful for your offer to assist in revamping their website! Look for opportunities to advance your educational and career goals that simultaneously meet the needs of your professional network or local community.

Tip #4: Develop Unique Skill Sets

When applying for internships, you will be competing with other undergraduate psychology majors, likely students who are a lot like you! Developing a unique skill set, complementary to your psychology background, can make you a more marketable candidate for internships and jobs. Consider earning a minor or double major in a completely different field. For instance, if you are thinking about attending graduate school and pursuing an academic career, a computer programming background would be a strong asset in navigating many experimental and statistical analysis programs (R, MATLAB, E-Prime, etc.). If you hope to work in a hospital setting, you might consider taking classes in Spanish, Chinese, or American Sign Language that will allow you to directly communicate with non-English speaking patients.

Although developing unique skill sets is an important first step, it is critical that you also clearly communicate your unique skills to your professional network. Here’s where the tips come full circle: You will be better positioned to persuade a local company or networking contact (Tip #2) to develop a new internship for you (Tip #1) if you can show that you have unique skill sets (Tip #4) that meet the current need of that company or contact (Tip #3). For instance, a professional contact at a nonprofit organization may be persuaded to create a summer internship for you, if you show that you have sufficient SPSS prowess to meet that organization’s need for data analysis. Although these tips can be used separately, they are also designed to fit together to help you advocate for your target internship!

Tip #5: Design an Internship From Scratch

Although this last tip is not for the faint-of-heart, a particularly passionate and dedicated student should consider personally designing an internship or independent study experience and asking a professor to provide mentorship. If you are passionate about human trafficking, for instance, why not spend a semester or summer dedicated to this cause?

In today’s world, individual people do not need to be connected to a company or nonprofit organization to have an impactful voice. You could create a blog that compiles resources and recent news stories about human trafficking, you could write letters to members of Congress asking for specific legal reforms, you could give a TED-style talk on campus to raise awareness of human trafficking, and/or you could pen an editorial on modern day slavery for your local newspaper. This internship experience can be designed around your own values and goals—and no human resources paperwork or approval is required! Although designing your own internship is a bold move, it can also be a meaningful opportunity to develop your own voice on important topics.

Good luck with your internship search. Remember, if you have difficulty finding an internship, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes, the best internships are designed by YOU! Try getting creative and thinking outside of the box!


Camilla McMahon, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychological science at Miami University (OH). She maintains the Psychology Job and Internship Opportunities Blog (https://psychologyjobsinternships.wordpress.com) to assist undergraduate students and recent graduates in their career advancement. She regularly advises psychological science and psychology majors at Miami University and has received Miami University’s Master Advisor Certification.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 24, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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