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Sharpening Your Competitive Edge:
Strategies for Becoming a Successful New Psychologist
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Ten Steps to More Successful Practicum Interviews
by Dr. John T. Carlsen

The secret to success in matching with your first-choice practicum site lies almost entirely in your hands. It is knowing what you want and knowing how to present your best qualities. The fact is, you know much more about what you bring to your prospective sites - and how you would benefit from their training - than any supervisor there. So, you are in a much stronger position to influence your interviewers’ decision-making than you might have thought. The more you know about how to package your qualifications and recognize the unique advantages of each program, the better your chances of demonstrating the goodness of fit between the training they offer and the experience you seek. 

Typical practicum applicants are completely at home with the passive role of student, content to meet other people’s expectations and simply float along with the crowd. Thus, they generally feel powerless as they apply and interview for externship training. They believe that they must uncover each committee’s definition of their "ideal" trainee and package themselves to fit into it. This attitude leaves them essentially at the mercy of selection committees. Actually, supervisors rarely have clearly-defined or exclusive criteria for their "ideal" practicum candidates, aside from some basic qualities.

Although supervisors have the "power" to make offers, you can dramatically shift this perceived power differential. That is, by spelling out in detail specifically how their training programs would expand your existing knowledge and skills, you can significantly improve your chances of matching with the training you want. The following guidelines will give you a good start:

1.    Clarify your own priorities and expectations for your training. 

Spend some time in advance thinking about and writing down your professional interests and your future goals. Do not worry about whether or not you can realistically achieve them or what path you will take. Instead, remember the passion and excitement you originally felt when you first thought about becoming a psychologist. Put those dreams into words on paper and start focusing your energy to make them become real.

2.    Articulate the specific reasons you have chosen each prospective training site. 

Spell out in detail how each of them could teach you the professional skills and knowledge you need to do your chosen work in this profession. The more clearly you know your reasons behind your choices, the more convincing you will be as you talk about your interests during interviews.

3.    Spend some time researching and learning as much as you can about each of your prospective sites.

I believe one of the main reasons applicants do not receive offers from their preferred sites is a simple - but very costly - oversight: Most show up for interviews completely unprepared. As a training director, I am amazed at how little applicants know about our center - including the most basic information about our roles as a community mental health center and the populations we serve. This experience always leaves me with a less-than-favorable picture of the applicant and his or her personal investment in the training experience. The interview is not the place for "window shopping" about sites and their various benefits. Rather, it is the time to negotiate with selection committee members to "make the sale" by showing the good fit between your training needs and what the program’s offerings. The time to do your more superficial information gathering is long before you show up for an interview. Therefore, you owe it to yourself to arrive with at least a solid, basic understanding about the agency’s mission, the range of services it provides, and its place in the overall mental health treatment process.

4.    Take initiative in seeking out alternate sources of information about sites rather than leaving your preparations in the hands of fate.

Your school, like most, probably has a policy that prevents you from contacting the training director at the sites where you plan to interview. This prevents applicants from gaining an unfair advantage over their peers and shields training staff from an onslaught of repetitive questions. However, with a little effort, you can track down a number of people who are familiar with your chosen sites, including previous externs from your own school, staff who have left the agency, and professors who supervised previous trainees at these sites. All it takes is for you to set aside some time, develop a strategy for contacting these people, and preparing your lists of questions.

5.    Invest more time in preparing the content of your presentation than on preparing your appearance.

As stated above, few applicants can provide any coherent explanation about why they want to train at a particular center. Yet, they know a great deal about how to choose the proper font or paper color to produce a slick, flashy curriculum vitae or letterhead stationery for their cover letters. Don’t get me wrong - you must present sharp, clearly-written application documents and come to your interviews dressed as a training professional. But, demonstrating your readiness for clinical training takes on a much deeper dimension than these superficial qualities. Remember. This profession emphasizes caring for people’s psyches, not marketing products or showing that you can make a good impression. Given a choice, I would much rather invest my energy and time in training a serious, dedicated, self-aware extern than in a well-polished, but empty, title-seeker.

6.    Arrive at each interview prepared both to respond to the interviewer’s questions and to ask some of your own.

Well-chosen questions make a strong impression by showing how you have taken an interest in the site by learning as much as you can about the basics of the site before you arrive. They also convey the depth of your clinical sophistication.

7.    Create a strong match between each site offers and what you want from your training.

That is, tailor your long-term professional interests to fit closely with the primary training each program offers so you can gain maximum benefit from its unique opportunities.  Know, specifically, how you could incorporate each different training program into your professional development. For example, even if you want more experience with children and adolescents, open yourself to consider the benefits of learning how to work with adults. At this point, you want the strongest foundation possible in the areas of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment; you will have plenty of time later in your training and career to specialize in your areas of interest. And, the skills you learn with one population can easily transfer into your work with another.

8.    Establish strong rapport and direct communication immediately after meeting your interviewers.  

Address them almost as though you had already accepted an offer to train at their site. Using this approach does not, however, mean that you convey a sense of arrogance that you were entitled to the interview. Rather, it encourages you to identify as much common ground with your interviewers as possible and align yourself with your common interests, attitudes, and values. If you have followed suggestion #3 above, you will have a much easier time pointing out your shared interest in working with the agency’s population and illustrating how well you would fit in with the training staff and the clinical environment.

9.    Communicate the unequivocal message that you consider your practicum training one of your highest priorities for the coming year.  

Convince your interviewers that you have placed it well above the ranking you give your course work and any outside employment. Let your prospective supervisors know - and keep your word - that you will do whatever is possible to arrange your weekly schedule around the needs of the training program and your clients rather than simply making the center adjust to your school’s calendar. Your supervisors and training staff invest a great deal of energy and time in preparing and administer your training experience. You owe it to them to invest a comparable amount of energy and time.

10.    Start thinking of yourself as more of a "professional-in-training" than as a student. 

While you might be accustomed to focusing most of your energy on producing the highest quality work possible in your course work, your training experience holds a much more important place at this point in your professional future.  While professors and school administrators might still want to retain your status as a student, you can start acting as an emerging professional as soon as you choose to do so. Treating you as a student primarily benefits their egos rather than yours. Your practicum supervisors might also want to keep you in this role. But, as you gradually start to shift how you present yourself in your interactions with professionals, they will increasingly shift to recognize your emerging competence and knowledge. And, without realizing it, they will gradually start recognizing you as a future colleague.

In summary, keep in mind that your interview presents you essentially as you would come across in your individual supervision as well as clinical situations. From my own experiences as a graduate trainee and as a supervising psychologist, I have come to believe that the person you have become carries much more weight in interviews than either your previous training or past work experience. Seasoned supervisors can teach nearly anyone how to understand clinical processes and apply the skills of a successful clinician. But, they cannot teach anyone to be conscientious, thorough, introspective, creative, or committed to excellence. These are the in-born qualities that you need to cultivate on your own . . .and actively communicate during your interview. They show the difference between someone who is simply looking to satisfy the next requirement on the way to a degree and someone who is ready to move to the next phase of his or her development as a new professional.

John T. Carlsen, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who trains and supervises psychology interns and externs. He offers personal coaching and training resources for graduate students as they apply for their practicum and internship training and for post-doctoral employment. Click here to learn more about how to write effective applications and prepare for interviews. Click here to submit comments, questions, or suggestions for future newsletter topics.

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