What is a master’s degree in psychology practicum and internship?

BY Jack LongAugust 29, 2022, 2:34 PM
Vanguard University students listen to speakers during graduation at Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif., as seen in May 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach—MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images)

An essential component of a graduate degree in psychology is completing clinical experience at an off-campus site. The goal of these experiences, called practicums and internships, is to build stronger client-provider relationship skills and learn how to manage caseloads at a clinical site. As a result, these experiences also give students a taste of what their career life will look like postgraduation. 

“What you’re getting on a practicum is an opportunity to build those skills that you will be using once you have a degree and you’re out there practicing,” says Catherine Grus, chief education officer at the American Psychological Association

Even though these clinical experiences are a typical requirement in a master’s degree program in psychology, they can still be a source of angst for students. Fortune spoke with two experts to learn what students can expect from a practicum and internship, how to choose a clinical site, and how to get the most during these experiences. 

What are practicums and internships?

Both a practicum and an internship give students an opportunity to apply course materials they’ve learned in the classroom. What’s more, these experiences allow students to learn firsthand how a specific clinical agency operates, what kind of clients and clinical issues it sees, what kind of documentation it uses, and what policies and procedures the agency uses. 

Whether a student is required to take both a practicum and internship—and the duration of each—depends on state licensure and school accreditation requirements, Grus says. Practicums are shorter, typically lasting around 100 hours, and are usually taken after a year of full-time study. Internships, taken toward the end of a program, require around 600 hours to complete.

During a practicum, students may not see clients during the first few weeks, instead shadowing their agency supervisor as they interact with clients. 

“Practicum is an opportunity for you to have the training wheels on,” says Michael Mobley, director of clinical health counseling at Merrimack College. “Both your on-site supervisor and your campus supervisor help you to navigate what that learning experience is all about, typically applying six to eight courses you’ve taken.”

By comparison, once a student begins an internship, “the training wheels come off,” Mobley says. Even so, master’s degree students can still expect to get direction from both their on- and off-campus supervisors, he adds. 

Regardless, at the end of an internship or practicum, students should feel they are able to meet and work with clients successfully, Mobley says. “The student should feel more confident establishing a therapeutic relationship with clients, building a rapport, understanding what the client goals are, and defining intervention strategies to help the client move toward those goals.”

How to choose a practicum and internship placement

Choosing a clinical site is an important step for completing a practicum or an internship. No two practicums or internships are the same, since the types of clients and situations will vary from site to site. Mobley and Grus recommend students think about the career outcomes they want and choose a site that offers the training experiences that suit their professional goals. 

The ease in which students find placements can depend on their program and the level of support it offers to them.

The worst-case scenario is when a school leaves the entire process up to the student, Mobley says, causing the student to build relationships with possible clinical sites and negotiate expectations on their own. However, most schools offer some version of a database or handbook of clinical sites the school has already built relationships with and can offer help negotiating appropriate compensation and expectations, he adds. 

“It’s much better to be in a position where the program has already negotiated arrangements with the community partners and where they have a track record with working with those community agencies,” Grus adds.

Schools may also offer additional services to students, such as résumé workshops and interview prep when finding a clinical placement. Bottom line, Grus says, a program should be there for students, supporting them, advocating for them, and helping them understand the process. 

When looking at a practicum or internship site, Grus and Mobley say a student should ask the following:

  • What sort of supervision will you receive while on site, and does the site supervisor hold the proper credentials under state regulations?
  • Will you have an opportunity to meet regularly with your on-site supervisor?
  • Does the site give clear information on what you will be expected to do?
  • Is the site’s training model consistent with how you learn and in what ways will you receive support during the placement?
  • How will you be evaluated, and if there’s a disagreement about an evaluation how can it be remedied?
  • Will the site ask you to engage in telehealth?

How can students best prepare for a practicum or internship placement?

Grus and Mobley both say the classes and experiences students have prior to the practicum and internship placements should prepare them to take on clinical caseloads. But students may still feel they are underprepared. 

“They may be filled with some angst and trepidation and self-doubt because they’re doing something—oftentimes for most students—they’ve never done before,” Mobley says. 

Grus recommends students approach the clinical experience with a sense of excitement, as an opportunity to learn from new experiences and cases. She also recommends students sit down with their supervisor and develop a learning plan with specific outcomes the student wishes to see by the end of the experience.

Mobley says a clinical experience is also an opportunity for students to learn more about themselves. Students begin to learn how they function, what their worldviews are, what they value, and how some parts of themselves conflict with a client. 

“It’s an important step for students to become increasingly aware of those [conflicts] as cultural beings and their value and their norms and beliefs while also being able to support clients who may have values and beliefs that are different from theirs,” Mobley says. “We always encourage students to monitor that change for themselves as they engage in clinical work.”

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