January 12th, 2011

More than a few good interns

By the time this column appears in January, the interview phase of the annual internship sweepstakes will be in full swing. But as I write in December, I have just finished reviewing my share of the mountain of applications that come every year to our hospital’s training program. Reading applications for internships always makes me think that I have been transported to Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional Midwestern city where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

I don’t know about strength or looks and those qualities aren’t relevant to the selection process anyway, but I am sure that all the applicants are above average. If you are involved in the enterprise of training psychology interns, you know exactly what I mean. While we are fortunate to belong to a profession that attracts so many high caliber graduate students, our good fortune brings with it the challenge of making decisions that result in accepting only a handful of students from pools often exceeding 100 applicants.

The Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) has standardized and improved the internship recruitment and selection process over the last several decades, most notably with the introduction of the universal application or APPI, the national matching process and, most recently, the capacity to complete and read the APPI online. All it takes now is a few taps on the keyboard to bring a student’s entire graduate school record, complete with reference letters, transcripts and work samples to the computer of any reviewer at any qualified internship site.

Our biggest challenge now is mining this wealth of data for the information that matters most in predicting who will make the best use of the available training opportunities.

We all have our favorite ways of digging out from under the avalanche of information that roars down the Internet and bursts through our computer screens, burying our fingers, hands and the rest of us even as we still try to type.

I like to grab hold of that first essay, “tell me something about yourself” and pull my way up the surface. It is hard to imagine a more enticing or challenging task than choosing something about your life to tell a stranger you are trying to impress in only a few short paragraphs. I like to think of the applicant staring at the blank page or computer screen and making those first, tentative strokes of the pen or keyboard, unsure of what comes next, stumbling into blind alleys and starting over or catching hold of a theme that carries him or her to the end.

The instructions on the application are clear that “there is no ‘correct’ format for this question” and those of us who have been reading these essays long enough have seen just about everything. There are the chronologists who choose a starting point, most often early childhood and chronicle the experiences and achievements they consider most relevant to becoming a successful psychologist. The autobiographers also star

t early but are more selective in their choice of the incidents they describe and more detailed and elaborate in the way they convey their experiences. I have walked with these writers down dusty lanes in small prairie towns, felt the salt spray on the decks of their fishing boats and been lulled to sleep by the nighttime sound of their fathers typing in the next room.

Other writers whom we might call intellectual historians grab our attention with stories of how a powerful idea or theory changed their lives by giving them a new way of looking at experience and, perhaps, a sharper or different sense of purpose. The compelling idea is always psychological or philosophical in nature and its discovery often marks a turning toward a career in psychology and, sometimes, a turning away from a different path in life. Enter now the clinical writers who begin by describing themselves in terms of lifelong interests, roles or characteristic behaviors. They then look back to speculate about the origin of these aspects of themselves and forward to explain how they are the very qualities that make a good clinical psychologist.

Our applicants write of momentous achievements, difficult beginnings, devastating losses and triumphs over adversity. Sometimes they just present themselves as ordinary people from ordinary families. The best essays have a good measure of humility and often a touch of humor. You don’t have to read many of these stories before you start to appreciate the richness, diversity and decency of these lives.

The applicant poised before the blank page or screen is an image of infinite possibility. The first stroke of the pen or tap of the keys begins to limit that freedom the way seemingly inconsequential choices set us going on paths that can lead to surprising destinations. For the applicants, saying yes to one way of being or presenting themselves means saying no to all the rest. For the reviewers, saying yes to a proportionally small number of applicants means saying no to so many others who would probably make equally fine psychology interns.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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