Starting Your First Practicum/Externship

This is the year! You finally get to move out of the classroom into your first real clinical experience. Congratulations! As you are heading out to your first practicum or externship site, here are a few helpful hints or tricks that may aid you in starting out the semester right. (Disclaimer- this advice is for general consumption and should not be taken in lieu of the practicum site’s rules, policies, and regulations. Always consult your supervisor and/or training director if in doubt.)


Balance your roles– One of the most difficult tasks that new practicum students face is the multiple “hats” they must wear or the different roles they must play. As a new practicum student, you are now wearing the hat of therapist, supervisee, group co-facilitator, employee- and that’s just at that one site! As well, you are also juggling the roles of a student, researcher, and/or teaching assistant. While multitasking may seem tempting (and unfortunately, sometimes necessary), it is better to be in the present moment and fully engaged in the role you are working. If you are co-facilitating group, don’t think about your the client you just saw. If you have free time at your practicum site, consider reading therapy books or researching clinical problems rather than working on schoolwork. Your classwork, treatment plans, and clients will still be there when you return.


Manage your anxiety– I was nervous in starting out with my first practicum, and I think this is a common emotion for first time practicum students. You have made it through the necessary coursework and now it is time to start the next step! Starting anything new can seem daunting; just give yourself some time for practice. Also, processing your emotions regarding therapy is a great topic to broach with your supervisor.


Venture out of your comfort zone– A colleague once told me that in therapy, there are only a few things you can do wrong, but a whole lot of things you can do right. Most students know what the “wrong” things are- just peruse the ethics codes! But there are many interventions that you can do “right” with the client. So be adventurous: do an empty chair technique or try a paradoxical intervention. As long as you stay within the ethics codes and consult your supervisor, this is the time to develop those new skills.


Start developing your theoretical orientation– It will come back to haunt you during internship applications, so start early! Most students don’t have a formulated theoretical orientation starting out; therefore, this is the time to experiment and try different conceptualizations and interventions. You might find that you gravitate towards the same orientation again and again, or you may conceptualize with a different theoretical orientation than the intervention you choose. The main point is to explore and see what feels right for you.


Most important: utilize your supervisor– You will be working under your supervisor’s license, so it is wise to establish a positive professional relationship with them. They have years of clinical experience and will be able to guide you when you get “stuck.” Don’t be shy to start conversations with them about clients and other professional development issues; that’s why they are there!


In conclusion, this is a wonderful and exciting time in your professional development. Although the prospect of starting practicum may be daunting at first, I have typically found that things click quickly. Hang in there, be bold, and consult if necessary.


*Again, this is general advice and should not be taken ahead of the policies and procedures of the practicum site and/or your clinical supervisor.