I plan to apply for internship training in a few months, and I want to work with children and families. How can I make myself a competitive candidate when my clinical experience so far has been with adults?
Your question highlights a common dilemma that isn’t limited to clinical work; i.e., how does one gain experience when the positions require prior experience? You are wise to plan for this ahead of time, and there are several strategies that will increase the likelihood of you being accepted into a training position that will give you the experience you want. Typically, there are two steps in being accepted for a training position. The first is to be invited for an interview, and the second is to be offered a position. Therefore, it makes sense to think of your strategies in two steps as well.
Your written application will determine the decision of the training agency to invite you for an interview, so let’s look at that step first. You are more likely to be invited for an interview if you submit written materials that follow the format and structure requested by the agency and are professional in appearance and language. Prepare your materials in advance of the deadline so you have time to proofread them. It is preferable to have someone else also look over them for obvious errors. If you submit materials electronically, by email attachment, be sure they are in a commonly used document type (PDF or Word document) without complicated formatting.
Familiarize yourself with the agency, and mention in your cover letter the aspects of the agency that are particularly attractive to you. You can research an agency by looking at their website, talking with other students in your program who have done training there, attending an open house if possible, and asking supervisors and professors what they know. Be careful to not make assumptions, though. I have received applications that incorrectly assumed the agency used a specific modality of treatment or served a particular client population, based only on its name.
Regarding the content of your written application, I would recommend that you both acknowledge your lack of clinical experience with children and families and highlight other relevant experience. For example, you might have done child care, teaching, camp counseling, or volunteer work. In your cover letter, explain how the work you did gave you valuable knowledge about the challenges faced by children and families and how you want to expand that knowledge by working clinically. You would be wise to take on a volunteer commitment now, even if only 5-10 hours per week, that would demonstrate your commitment to improving your skills. Also consider applying to agencies that see individual adult clients as well as children and families, so that your prior experience will be more relevant to the agency population.
If you are successful in step one, you will be invited to interview with one or more staff members. Think about the interview process at your prior placements, and be prepared to answer typical questions about your interest in the agency, your preferred theoretical orientation, your self-assessment of strengths and challenges, and your future career goals. It is also wise to prepare a short case vignette that illustrates a challenging situation that you managed successfully.
Plan your answers to interview questions about your lack of child and family experience carefully. In addition to the suggestions above which apply to an interview as well as a cover letter, consider ways in which your clinical experience with adults will transfer to child and family work. For example, you may have worked with parents and developed empathy for the difficulty of raising children when living with a history of trauma and psychosocial stress, you may have had worked with young adults facing many of the developmental issues of adolescence, or you may become aware of the impact of family relationships in your contact with the family members of adult clients living with serious mental illness. Also highlight the skills you have acquired that will transfer to child and family work such as diagnosis and assessment, case formulation, treatment planning, or the use of trauma or substance abuse treatment models. Be realistic in acknowledging how much you have to learn while describing the knowledge and skill you have attained thus far.
After your interview, solicit feedback from the interviewers if you aren’t accepted into the agency training program. Ask if they have suggestions on how you could improve your presentation or performance in the interview. This might give you valuable information about how to be a more competitive candidate for future positions.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful in applying for internship training. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.