International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Student Perspectives: How to Gain Experience Without Experience

Posted 6 October 2014 in StressPoints by Tara Frem, BA

“I am sorry, but you just do not have enough experience for the position.” Such a statement begs the question, how do students gain experience in their field of interest?

Considering the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasing attention on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in general, one would assume that more opportunities to gain training experience related to trauma recovery would become available.

However, not only is the demand for trauma-trained mental professionals increasing but so is the supply of students seeking to become experts in the field by applying to training sites focused on trauma and military affairs. In the city of Chicago alone, there are eight clinical psychology doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), which means that competition for practicum and internship placements is high.

The following recommendations to gain experience summarize advice offered by a clinical psychologist at a Veterans Affair (VA) hospital in Chicago and student colleagues in the field of clinical psychology. First of all, a main piece of advice is for students to seek out volunteer opportunities in their area of interest (e.g., veteran-focused non-profit organizations) to boost their résumé and provide them with an edge for the next round of practicum or internship applications.

As a first step, students can ask externs/interns currently training at VA sites for advice on such volunteer opportunities, recommendations on how to obtain trauma-related externship/internship positions, and guidance on how to frame their experiences and education as relevant to VA work.

Second, contacting professors and supervisors with experience in the field of trauma is recommended. They can offer advice on how and where to obtain training. In addition, they can also serve as dissertation mentors or supervisors on other research projects, which is another way to pursue one’s interest in trauma and increase one's knowledge. Moreover, these professors and supervisors can write letters of recommendation that speak to one’s passion and dedication, which may not always be conveyed in a resumé or letter of intent.

Third, broadening one’s scope of knowledge and gaining experience in other related fields – such as neuropsychology, addiction, and aging – is recommended, because individuals recovering from a traumatic experience tend to have comorbid difficulties and diagnoses. As an example, a practicum extern at a residential substance abuse rehabilitation center said that she chose that placement because of the site’s view that addiction is a type of trauma and its focus on addressing a person’s past trauma(s) as part of the recovery process. Trauma can occur in a wide variety of settings, to different degrees, and affect people differently.

Lastly, completing certificates and attending seminars and trainings may help increase one’s knowledge and demonstrate interest to future employers and supervisors. For example, The National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provide free online trainings. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) also provides online trainings. A simple search on Google produces a plethora of organizations that offer certificates on a diverse array of subjects related to traumatic stress and other fields. Such trainings demonstrate motivation for independent learning and passion for the field that employers and supervisors look for.

Therefore, hearing the words "You do not have experience" should not be limiting. Rather, they should be used as motivation to gain experience following the recommendations mentioned above: pursuing training opportunities in related areas, volunteering, talking to professors and colleagues, doing research, completing certificates, and attending trainings. With such a background, employers and supervisors will view you as a self-motivated individual with a breadth and depth of knowledge and experiences.

About the Author

Tara Frem, BA, is currently a second-year clinical psychology doctoral student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is completing her first practicum experience as a diagnostic psychology extern at Sarah’s Circle, a non-profit shelter for homeless women and those looking for a safe space. Tara is interested in the fields of international human rights, military affairs, and traumatic stress.