Reflecting on my career as a teaching psychologist, I realized I was missing something. Trained as an experimentalist and employed academically to teach courses in the experimental areas of psychology, I would occasionally teach introduction to psychology. However, I would always feel much more comfortable teaching the part of the course that tended to be experimental in content in contrast to the portion that was more applied with topics such as counseling and clinical, abnormal, and therapeutic psychology. Also, as an academic adviser, I would often find that I wasn’t able to offer a thorough depiction of what students could expect when employed after graduation in areas of psychology dealing with humans in therapeutic scenarios.
In response to a major initiative to increase student internship opportunities from the president of my college, I applied for a sabbatical leave to partake in my own “informal internship.” My internship was planned to be less like a clinician’s training and more like what an undergraduate would experience in an internship. I would shadow professionals and learn by observation rather than doing. In this manner I would gain direct knowledge of the material I was teaching and foster relationships leading to internships for my students.
I “interned” at an adolescent drug and alcohol in-patient rehabilitation facility, an adult in-patient chemical dependency rehabilitation unit, an acute psychiatric in-patient unit, and finally a large in-patient institution serving a mentally retarded population in a secure setting. Each institution offered a variety of activities. Most commonly I attended group-therapy sessions, which was the major psychological treatment component of all four institutions. In addition to daily client interactions, I collected and wrote psychosocial histories on patients, assessed mental capabilities, contributed to treatment team meetings, attended a court hearing, and reviewed client files.
My internship experiences during my sabbatical leave have become a permanent part of my working knowledge. Seeing clients work through issues, and gaining a better understanding of client histories both via files and direct communication has been very enlightening. My next goal is to bring these experiences to life in my teaching. Using examples from my “internship” in the classroom will hopefully bring a new level of excitement and reality to my students.
Finally, I made meaningful connections at each institution. Meeting professionals in these environments will foster my ability to more appropriately place future student interns. I will now be more comfortable referring a student intern to any of these facilities because I now know the professionals who work in each and the type of work they do. I now have a better understanding of the types of activities that student interns will be involved in and what will be expected from them. This experience will foster my ability to be a faculty sponsor for student internships.
In the current climate of “active learning” I am very fortunate to have been given this opportunity to go beyond textbooks and acquire a better understanding of our colleagues in the applied psychology settings. I highly recommend this or a similar experience for any teaching professor lacking work experience outside of the academy. It was both informative and humbling.