Unpaid Psychology Internships: The Impact On Mental Health & How To Get The Best From Your Experience – by Susan Qain

An aspiring clinical psychologist described to me recently how an admissions tutor from a prestigious university announced to her and her peers “I’ve no doubt you would all make incredible psychologists– sometimes I feel I should just close my eyes and pick at random”. As another year of applications comes to a close, many exceptional candidates who have ticked all the boxes (both required and desired), announce within our online communities that they did not even progress to interview. I am sure I am not alone in worrying about what this means for my future application. In a pool of such dedicated and experienced candidates-what more can we possibly do to stand out? And at what cost?

With paid assistant psychologist (AP) roles in high demand and short supply, honorary roles, internships and voluntary positions are almost unavoidable for an early career psychologist (ECP). Some job specifications for unpaid AP roles even request extensive experience and education to master’s level as basic requirements. Even after they have been lucky enough to secure one of these positions, many ECP’s have described situations where they are utilised mostly for admin and do not receive the clinical supervision and experience they have sacrificed earning an income to attain. On the other hand, securing a positive placement can provide ECP’s with experience facilitating groups, in assessment and formulation and perhaps most crucially, supervision. Given the competition for AP roles and doctorate places, many of us have little choice but to take an offer and hope for the best.

I work in education but over many years, have been building towards a career in psychology. In my 5th year of teaching, an unpaid role of responsibility in child protection arose. It was recommended to be held by a senior staff member, but I applied none the less, citing my psychology degree, relevant experience and passion as reason enough to overlook my seniority. I was successful and over 5 years gained invaluable experience, insight and knowledge that has greatly developed my skillset and profile as a psychologist. I loved the role and absolutely put my heart and soul into it.

Working closely with extremely vulnerable children and families within child protection was undoubtedly distressing. As I gained experience, I became increasingly aware of the importance of supervision when working with trauma, but also the lack of accessibility to this support for educators. I was advised to ‘not bring work home’, a skill I gradually developed over time, but this was no substitute for supervision and effective personal processing. As the years progressed my workload increased exponentially, and I accepted each new responsibility without question. By the end, I realised that working in an area as sensitive as child protection without managerial status left me in a vulnerable position. With a lot of responsibility, but little power, I was exposed.

As you may have guessed, this placement did not end well. I was left feeling disheartened, unappreciated and deeply disappointed. I asked myself repeatedly- why, after all, I had given of myself, how could it end so badly? Those of us on this journey know this feeling all too well. But as the weeks have passed, I’ve reflected and realised that in fact, I had given too much of myself and by doing this, I had placed myself in a position of vulnerability.

I discussed this with an academic colleague recently and we reflected on how those of us pursuing elusive careers within psychology are potentially more at risk of over-working and seeking perfection than not reaching our work targets. We can become so intensely focused on being ‘outstanding’, making an impression or getting an excellent reference that our self and identity can become enmeshed in an identity of the perfect volunteer, employee or psychologist. Herein lies the biggest risk, experiencing failure can then be internalised as a personal failing. All the while, we are navigating a career path where rejection and disappointment seem to have become assimilated as a kind of ‘test of resilience’ or ‘part of the journey’ to qualification.

I believe it is crucial for ECP’s (or any professionals who work for recognition and experience, rather than pay) to consider planning to manage setbacks and bolster protective factors for our mental health. We need to recognise how these roles have the potential to affect our self-esteem, especially if we are emotionally invested in the work. Here are some of my reflections on how this can be achieved;

  • Consider what you feel is a fair exchange for your labour before you begin your placement. If you are not achieving this, know when to walk away.
  • Be firm with your boundaries. People are surprisingly accepting when you put them in place! You don’t have to be over-working to be considered hardworking.
  • If you are not being provided with supervision, consider paying for it privately. It is worth every penny, particularly if you are working with trauma and abuse.
  • Keep a list of any competencies or skills you develop as you go along.
  • Try to link in with other aspiring clinical psychologists through online groups for support and empathy. Most people outside of Psychology really don’t understand how difficult this journey can be.
    Perhaps the most important thing I have learnt is to embrace failure. This may sound strange, but failure is necessary for creativity and growth and after all, in the doctorate interviews we are expected to be reflective around failure and resultant growth. So, at the very least, failure can provide you with some interesting interview discussion topics! Reframing negative outcomes in this way certainly helped me to focus on the positives of my experience, drew attention to areas for improvement and inspired significant personal growth.

Pursuing a career in psychology is challenging and I see many of my colleagues struggle with their mental health as a result. Rather than trying to outshine the competition, I believe ECP’s would benefit more by building a supportive community who encourage each other to succeed and share our strategies and self-care tips and empathise with disappointment. After all, if you can offer sincere empathy and support your greatest competition, you’re probably on the path to becoming a great psychologist!

Susan Quain is an aspiring clinical psychologist with a background in special education and child protection. She is currently studying for a Masters by Research in Psychology exploring interventions for young people with learning disorders who sexually harm in the University of Limerick, Ireland. She is a committee member of CARE for Psychologists in Ireland, an online group campaigning for reform of the existing career paths in Psychology.

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