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GSCBlogPic Jan 15, 2019

A Graduate Student’s Guide to Practicum and Internship

Congratulations! You have mastered the core coursework in your counseling program in preparation to begin your clinical experience. Whether you are entering this step of graduate coursework or looking ahead for what is to come, this post is intended to provide you with a roadmap to achieving a valuable and enriching clinical experience.

1.    Communication

Kind of a given, right? Well not necessarily, communication is likely to be a key ingredient to every level of pre-, during-, and post-clinical work. Maintaining open dialogue with your school advisors will be beneficial in not only securing a site of interest to you, but also one that meshes well with your learning style, workplace preferences, and scheduling needs. In addition to your advisor, creating a comfortable (but professional) channel of communication with your supervisors and co-workers will carve a pathway for a mutually beneficial relationship between you and your site. Here are some tips to keep in mind!

Tips for Communication

#1: Send a thank you letter to your supervisor after completion of your hours
#2: Get to know your co-workers; fellow counselors can provide great insight into your future profession and recommendations for career opportunities
#3: When setting up a meeting, send an outline of your agenda items in advance

2.    Professionalism

Your clinical environment may warrant a different type of professionalism than traditionally thought of, and unfortunately there is no step-by-step guide I could write for you on how to be professional. If I could, I would reference my book! However, in this field, being able to adapt to your environment and adjust your professionalism accordingly will be imperative to your success. For example, while a suit is considered the gold standard of professional attire, how would that play out when doing art therapy on a children’s unit? I’ll let your imagination take that one for a spin… Nevertheless, however flexible you may need to be, here are a few things to keep in mind. First, your online (yes, that means social media too) presence is as critical to your success in ascertaining your site and maintaining it as the items on your resume. Take a minute now and view your social media sites, consider how your online profile reflects on you as a professional. Second, dress to impress and when in doubt, just ask! Thus, proving the point that communication is essential to every step of your clinical experience. Third, proofread every document, email, and even text. Your written material reflects your professional status within your organization. Be sure to proofread and double check your documents before sending each and every time. Fourth, always have a pen and paper nearby to take notes including important items to remember for the shift, ideas for supervision, and feedback of areas to work on from a supervisor. This action displays you are serious and dedicated to both your work at the site and your enthusiasm to advance as a counselor.

Tips for Professionalism:

#1: When in doubt, ask
#2: Always double check your writing, social media accounts, and appearance
#3: Bring a notebook/clipboard/binder to all meetings, supervisions, and days at your site

3.    Try New Things

Your clinical experience is designed to supplement your coursework and provide a supportive environment to try out your new career as a counselor. That being said, there is always the potential that you may finish your hours without demonstrating proficiency at your site, mastery of new clinical skills, or determining the trajectory of your career. If you enter this experience thinking either “I know everything I need to” or “I don’t want to make a mistake” then you are likely to steer clear of the most educational experiences because these thoughts indicate, you are not willing to try something new. Exposing yourself with the appropriate supervision and training to new experiences, approaches, and situations will contribute immeasurably to your continued success in the counseling field.

Tips for Trying New Things:

#1: If it feels uncomfortable, you will probably learn the most from it
#2: Shadow first, all counselors have been in your shoes at some point and are likely to agree to letting you sit in
#3: Ask for feedback and take note of areas you did well in and areas to improve

4.    Use Your Resources

As a graduate student, you are in a unique position of having the opportunity to work in the field coupled with the support of your program. This means, you have plenty of built in resources of which you should take advantage. To start, you are already exploring the website of the American Counseling Association, because you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already looking to this community for guidance. Having a professional organization to learn from and contribute to is a great way to prepare for and complete your practicum or internship. Next, graduate school provides you with the platform to receive supervision. Utilize your time in supervision by bringing a prepared case, topic, or question to grow and develop your clinical skills through a discussion with peers and professionals. Also, don’t forget your class work! Refer to your notes, textbooks, and class activities. Perhaps bring in a worksheet from your course to incorporate with a client at your site or seek advice from your professor in class on executing the activity with your population of interest. Lastly, your site is a great resource not only prior to and during your clinical experience, but after as well. When preparing, reach out to the site and ask for recommendations on approaches or techniques you could learn more about before starting, during ask fellow counselors how they have navigated situations with a client, and afterwards your supervisor or co-workers may be a great resource to use for licensing supervision! Let’s be honest, we all keep that list of potential supervisors in the back of our minds…. Right?

Tips for Using your Resources

#1: Make a list of your resources and keep it handy, you have more options than you think!
#2: Use your supervision time, prepare a case or topic for discussion to present
#3: Ask your site for additional resources to familiarize yourself with in advance

Graduate students are likely to vary widely in level of experience, comfortability with clinical settings and populations, and even programs with different requirements and structure. With that being said, after reading this guide, I hope you feel more prepared for your clinical experience to come. Please comment below with any questions for first timers and for the veteran counselors add your own tips and tricks that came in handy during your practicums and internships!

Contributing Author

Emily Flynn is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh working towards her Master of Science in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. In addition to her coursework, Emily serves on the ACA Graduate Student Committee and works with young adults with cognitive disabilities as a pre-doctoral fellow in the Cognitive Skills Enhancement Program at the Hiram G. Andrews Center.


Graduate Student and New Professional Blogs
We are all taking 12-15 credit hours per semester, participating in research opportunities, managing work schedules, maintaining a social/family life, or we just transitioned into our New Professional role and have no idea what we are doing! ACA’s Graduate Student and New Professional Blog offers real life vignettes of life, academics, and how to keep yourself afloat despite your crazy schedule. Any suggestions for what you would like to hear more about, please email the Graduate Student Committee.

Columns can be reprinted in full or in part with attribution to the American Counseling Association’s Graduate Student and New Professional Blog.


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