(Comments from student evaluations of their practicum and internship experiences)
A young Peace Corps worker teaching overseas decided it would be fun to teach the children of his village how to play baseball. The children were enthusiastic and eager to learn, so he rounded up some equipment; drew pictures of the playing field; explained the rules of the game; and had everyone practice throwing, catching, and hitting the ball. He even gave them a test that included questions about the number of balls and strikes allowed, how many outs per inning, the distance between bases, and famous players of the past. With the basics mastered, the class improvised a field in a nearby pasture, divided up into two teams, and prepared to play ball.
As the villagers looked on, the excited children took their places on the field. The leadoff batter, a wiry young boy of 13, stepped up to the makeshift home plate with a broad smile. Their teacher, now coach, surveyed the field, took an exaggerated windup and delivered the first baseball pitch the village had ever witnessed.
To everyone’s astonishment, the batter smacked the ball into deep left field. The batter was so shocked by this that he just stood watching as the teacher shouted for him to “Run, Run, Run!” Turning to see how his team fared as fielders, the teacher found that all of his players in the field had left their positions and were running as fast as they could around the bases, tagging each one, screaming, laughing, and heading for home plate. The ball, meanwhile, rolled to a stop far out in the field with no one making any effort to chase it.
When the commotion subsided, the teacher was the only player left on the field. The whole team, even the batter, had raced from the field to home, thrilled with how many runs they believed they had just scored. “Somewhere,” the teacher declared to himself, “we’ve got a gap between theory and practice.” With that, he ran for first base and raced around the diamond just as his players had. When he crossed home plate, he made baseball history by scoring the tenth run from a single hit. His students loved it, and the village still talks about the game today.
Students beginning their first practicum or field placement can identify with the young players and perhaps with their new coach, who, as it happens, was a good friend of one of this book’s authors, Dr. Baird. Most interns report feeling a mixture of enthusiasm, nervousness, determination, and uncertainty and regardless of all the coursework and study, there is no substitute for real experience. Only by taking the risk and trying things can we discover what we do or do not know.
This is why field placements are so valuable. They give you the chance to experience first-hand what you have been learning in your readings and classes. You will quickly discover that reading about schizophrenia, alcoholism, child abuse, or other issues is not the same as meeting and interacting with real people who experience the situations or conditions you have studied. Similarly, reading about, or role-playing, therapy and counseling techniques in a classroom, while helpful, often differs significantly from participating in actual therapy sessions.
You will also discover that many things you need to know when you begin to practice, such as ethical and legal issues, writing case notes, engaging in supervision, and a host of other topics, may be different in practice than when, or if, you studied them in class. Even when subjects have been studied in class, as the teacher-turned-coach learned from his base-running fielders, instructors too often erroneously assume that students will be able to transfer what they learn in the classroom directly to the field. Students recognize the error of this assumption the moment they enter their internship and ask themselves, “Now what do I do?”
Our goal in writing this book is to help you answer that question.
Think of this first chapter as taking care of all the details that you have to manage before you start on an adventure. As with most things, especially when you’ll be traveling and working with others, before you set off it’s important to have a plan and know something about where you’re going. There are also inevitably a number of seemingly mundane but important procedural and paperwork matters that must be addressed. We promise this will be relatively brief, so please be patient for a moment as we help you attend to some necessary details. Then we’ll be set to start the adventure in the next chapter.
In this book, for convenience, we refer to field experiences as internships. We recognize that different disciplines use different terms for the experience—for example, social work programs often refer to “field placements” or “field experiences,” while psychology and counseling use the term “practicum” to describe field experiences early in one’s career and “internship” for more advanced training. With due respect for all professions, we intentionally chose the word internship as the standard for this text for the simple reason that it carries with it the convenient noun “intern” with which to describe you, the reader of this text and the individual participating in training. Therefore, throughout the text, except where direct quotations are cited, we refer to field experiences as internships, and those receiving training as interns.
The other terms we will use to simplify things are “instructor” and “supervisor.” We use instructor to refer to the faculty member from your educational institution who monitors your progress and interface with those employed by the field placement site. We use supervisor to designate those who directly monitor and direct your work at the placement site.
Your first task is to meet with the academic instructor who will work with you during your internship. Some academic programs offer structured classes along with internships. Other programs leave internship support or supervision to be arranged individually between students and instructors (Hatcher, Grus, & Wise, 2011). Either way, initial contact with an instructor is vital for several reasons.
The most important reason is to ensure you receive the best possible educational experience from your internship. Instructors can help you select placements or supervisors best suited to your needs, and they may assist in contacting placement sites or individual supervisors. If your department has established procedures governing internships, meeting with your instructor right at the outset will ensure that you follow those procedures. You may need to complete some paperwork before you begin an internship and fulfill certain requirements to receive credit or a grade for your internship.
An additional concern that many interns do not consider is the liability risks that instructors and supervisors face when their students work in the field (National Association of Social Work Insurance Trust, 2004; Pollack & Marsh, 2004; Polychronis & Brown, 2016; Zakutansky & Sirles, 1993). Considering this shared liability, the faculty in your department must be involved in all aspects of your internship, from the very beginning until the conclusion.
We think it’s important for students to be aware that it typically takes instructors and supervisors a great deal of effort to establish a relationship with internship sites (Cornish, Smith-Acuña, & Nadkarni, 2005). Many programs have a fixed set of placement sites and long-established relationships with their students’ supervisors. Such arrangements ensure that the academic program will have placements for students and, simultaneously, that the treatment agencies can rely on interns to help them carry their workload.
Academic institutions vary in how they select and assign students to internships. In many programs the school has prearranged sites and then either directly assigns students to specific sites or allows students to choose from among different established placements. If that is the approach of your school, much of the preliminary work has already been done for you and you can simply proceed with the rest of this chapter, beginning with learning about institutional arrangements below.
On the other hand, some institutions either require or allow students to locate their own placements and make arrangements for their internship. If you need, or are allowed, to establish a placement on your own, or if you are given substantial choice in selecting a site from multiple options, we encourage you to first consult the advice we offer in the Appendix, then proceed to the rest of this chapter. In the Appendix, we discuss in detail how to decide what kind of placement to pursue, how to locate and arrange to work with a specific placement site, and other fundamentals about selecting or setting up a placement for your internship. We also offer a selection checklist in Appendix A (see eResources), designed to help students and supervisors assess what sort of internship placement and experiences will be most beneficial for each intern. We place that information separately from this chapter because for interns who need to select or choose their placement, it is very important, but for those who are directly assigned a placement by their program, there is no need to complete the checklist in Appendix A (see eResources) or review much of the material in the Appendix at the end of the book.
For all students, whether you are assigned a placement or must choose or arrange one, we strongly recommend you read the rest of this chapter, beginning with understanding the nature of the relationship between your academic institution and your internship site.
Whether you must find your own placement or are assigned to one, before a student begins an internship we strongly encourage a formal signed agreement be established between the sponsoring academic institution and the host internship site. As society in general and health care have become increasingly litigious, the need for written internship agreements has grown. Wayne (2004) emphasized that for certain legal purposes, particularly for performance evaluations or disciplinary actions, field placements are treated by the courts like academic courses, making it essential that programs have “clearly defined learning objectives and evaluation criteria that are known to the student, the field instructor and the faculty liaison at the start of the course” (p. 409).
At the beginning of your internship, it is certainly reasonable to ask both your instructor and your field supervisor if a formal written arrangement exists and for you to have a chance to review it. You should not be responsible for drafting the agreement, but asking questions may help spur action if explicit components are lacking. If there are extant agreements, knowing with clarity from the outset what the expectations are between institutions can help prevent problems or misunderstandings down the road.
Because no two internship sites or academic programs are identical, there is no single model for such agreements. Generally, however, most institutions prefer agreements that begin by recognizing the importance, mutual benefits, and shared responsibilities of field learning opportunities for the academic institutions, students, and field placement sites. This initial recognition is then typically followed by a description of the agreed-upon expectations for each of the parties involved. The expectations for the field setting include allowing the student to observe or participate in specified activities, providing certain kinds of learning opportunities, providing supervision by persons with specific qualifications and at specified intervals, and maintaining contact with the academic institution and instructor. Identifying the degree and other qualifications of the supervisor and specifying with clarity the number of hours spent on site and in supervision can be of particular importance as these may be required for formal credit or approval to be granted by professional associations and licensing boards (e.g., see CACREP, 2016).
For its part, the academic institution affirms in such agreements that the student is in good standing and has sufficient preparation to participate in the specified internship activities. The academic institution also agrees to provide a liaison instructor to work with the field setting. The agreement may also clarify the role of the instructor and address the evaluation process to be used. The student’s responsibilities typically include adhering to the professional code of ethics, attending the internship as scheduled, carrying out any agreed-on responsibilities, and informing the supervisor and instructor of any problems or concerns. Guidelines for professional conduct and, again, a description of evaluation procedures are sometimes included in the description of the student’s responsibilities.
Two of the most common areas of legal concerns covered in agreements are (1) the possibility that the intern might be involved in activities that injure or otherwise h...