Selecting Counseling Interns

By current standards, I’m not sure how I would have fared in today’s internship selection process. I started my internship 23 years ago in the type of counseling setting that is ideal for interns entering the field now.

It is ideal because many counseling graduate students would like to have the experience of providing ongoing counseling services to clients who choose to be in therapy. And they prefer to have that experience at an agency that does not focus on productivity with regard to generating income – a place that has “education” as part of it’s name and holds an explicit value around training therapists. I’m certain that there are many people in today’s internship settings that value supervising and training therapists. However, I am not certain that the majority of them are working institutions that fully understand what it means to embrace those values.

Internship Requirements

Interns, of course, need to obtain client contact hours as part of their school’s requirements. Most are nervous about meeting that requirement. In fact, I would dare to say that one of the most critical requirements of an internship site would be the ability to provide adequate client contact hours for students. That is followed closely by the ability of the site to provide consistent and effective clinical supervision. Consistent in terms of meeting regularly with the intern both formally and informally. Effective in the sense that the supervisor has received training in supervision and ideally supervision-of-supervision from a qualified supervisor.

Both interns and sites need to place value in being attractive to one another. In other words, sites are selecting interns and interns are selecting the site. A site’s reputation matters as it relates to attracting ideal internship candidates.

Intern Characteristics

Sites are generally interested in selecting interns who are open to learning, quick to adjust to the environment, and self starting but not too self reliant. An intern needs to know what they do know and know what they don’t know. Interns come with varying levels of experience. Some students are starting a second career. Others are beginning their first. Still others have some experience in the field and have gone back to school in order to continue to grow in their career. Each category of intern comes with unique qualities that are further informed by culture. 

An internship site may benefit from different types of interns based on several factors. These include who will be supervising the intern and their level of experience as a supervisor, the site itself and what types of services are provided, and the context of the therapy and needs of the population being served.

The exchange between the intern, the school and the site involves a delicate balance. Sites benefit from having interns and interns benefit from field experience in order to truly cultivate their therapy skills.

Sites benefit financially and culturally. However, they must still invest time in interns. That investment can lead to a talent pool for future employment at that site and to the betterment of the population served. Successful interns can also contribute positively to the climate and culture, as well help to generate income at their internship sites.

When Interns Fail to Thrive

The negative impact of offering internship is when a selected intern needs a lot more support and the risks of said intern outweigh the benefits. Sometimes an intern may pose a risk to the clientele due to over identification, poor boundaries, personal instability, un-diagnosed or untreated illness of their own, and perhaps the most challenging of all…the inability to accept feedback without being defensive.

The truth is that most interns are enthusiastic and eager to learn. Most are excited to start an internship despite the anxiety it can provoke. Most are optimistic about the field and are looking forward to learning. As a result, the adjustment to the realities of mental health work can be an unexpected obstacle. They encounter a culture at their internship site that may be different from what they imagined.

What to Do?

The work environments may be less formal than the intern is expecting and they may struggle with a lack of clarity about what exactly to “do.” This is why it is my recommendation that we focus on how a potential intern is “being” in the selection process. What are the qualities they convey?

“Doing” also holds value. Are they able to follow the instructions set forth in the internship application process? And do they respect the structure being provided? Are they able to embrace the in-between spaces as well as the clearly mandated expectations?

The goal is not to select the perfect intern. No one is perfect. The goal is to select those well suited to learn and grow in your life environment. Internship sites must put first things first. They are first an extension of the learning environment for the student. But the site has a whole identity that has nothing to do with the student. However for those students, the site serves as a source of education and the supervisors must view themselves as such.

Continuing Education

If you are interested in learning more about “Supervising Interns,” a 6 hour continuing education event is being offered live in person on December 13, 2019 and soon in an online self guided course. Please e-mail me if you have interest in either opportunity.

Copyright © 2019 Ruby Blow. All rights reserved.

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