By Sojourner White
While getting accepted into grad school is one accomplishment, finding a practicum is another big decision to make once you’re enrolled. Though not required for all grad programs, a “practicum” is an academic term for an “internship” that focuses on students getting real-life professional experience while balancing classes, work, and other responsibilities. From researching your options, to formally applying, interviewing, and then committing 10 to 20 hours per week, setting up and completing your practicum can be a time-consuming process. Since a practicum is considered a class, the weight of paying for these credit hours in addition to the time investment make it necessary to figure out which opportunity is right for you.
After completing the two practicum experiences required for my own graduate degree, I’ve learned some lessons that can benefit others in their own search, acquisition, and completion. The practicum experience can be a slow, overwhelming, frustrating, and rewarding process – all at the same time! To make it easier for you, here are some tips and tricks to secure the right practicum and to make the most of the experience.
1. Think about the skills you want to acquire
Sometimes, you realize a practicum won’t have everything you’re looking for. Whether it’s a location issue, few organization options, or questionable responsibilities in the position description, the “perfect practicum” may not exist as-written. If you are a student with a variety of interests, it can be a greater struggle to find every component you seek. And that’s OK!
Adopt a skillset mindset instead of an organization-orientated mindset. Look up jobs you may want to pursue after graduation and see what skills they seek in postings. Use those as a guide to finding practicum opportunities that offer similar opportunities to develop skills you can use in the future. This can be particularly beneficial for interdisciplinary programs that combine a variety of interests! Once you find a common thread of skills by considering the job descriptions of positions you’d like to one day have, review the possible practicum options to see which align and which don’t. By doing this, you won’t get stuck trying to find a practicum that fits everything, and you’ll know how your practicum is going to help you in the future.
2. Research, research, research
If you don’t know what’s out there, how are you going to choose the practicum you want? In addition to your own Google searches, make an appointment with your field education office, career services, and/or academic advisor. Use that time to pick their brains. They have probably gotten to know your grad program’s city and resources and can offer personal connections and advice. Consider networking to connect with past students via LinkedIn to find graduates who have pursued a similar career path and discover where they interned. Student knowledge is always a great way to envision what your experience could be and figure out where to start.
Even if your institution has a list of affiliated organizations from past student positions, do not be afraid to research others based on your own interests. Chances are that their list is not exhaustive. New organizations and companies are created often, and their databases may not be up-to-date. You never know what could happen, and keeping an open mind may require a bit more research to secure that ideal practicum.
3. Get paid if you can
The biggest complaint from practicum students is how many of them are unpaid. To enroll in a grad school program full-time, sacrificing pay and free time, is already difficult for students coming from the workforce. Asking grad students to work for free on top of that is even more stressful when we have bills to pay. Your practicum may not offer you hourly pay; however, there might be options to cover your time with a stipend. Go to your field education and inquire about possible funding opportunities. Money is a motivator, and if you are in a position to ask for pay, do it.
4. Advocate for yourself
As grad students and even professionals, we too often accept the way things are and hope for the best. Don’t let this habit start with your practicum experience! Take control of your experience and voice your questions, comments, and concerns. Not liking the direction of your work? Offer up new ideas. Want to switch departments? Ask for a change. And if it comes to it, do not be afraid to find a new practicum altogether. As a student, you have more freedom to speak up for what you want since practicum is framed as a “learning experience.” It’s a reciprocal relationship between you, the university, and the organization. Define it for yourself.
5. Network when possible
A perk of your practicum can be the people you meet! Whether it’s a co-worker in a different department or someone from a company event, get to know who and what is out there. Attend organization events, sit in on a conference call with your supervisor, or even schedule a 20-minute informational interview with the executives and managers. You never know who they’re talking to or what they did to get in their position – until you make the opportunity to find out. Those conversations could help you figure out your own career path. Start where you are and work from there! Networking is a key component of grad school and can lead to possible opportunities during or after your practicum experience.
6. Ask about professional development opportunities
As mentioned previously, a practicum helps you learn from the field to balance out learning in the classroom. Why not take it a step further by attending professional conferences and other development opportunities? Relying on those discounts that come from your student status, consider integrating a conference or two with your experience. In some cases, your host organization may even cover the costs if it directly relates to your work project(s). In-city or out-of-state conferences can be excellent networking opportunities as well. Finding creative additions and ways to learn about your field can make your time even more impactful.
7. Don’t settle
It is really easy to choose a practicum just because it’s available, or because you have searched and searched with no real luck. However, no matter what you do, you should not “settle” for a practicum you do not want. While it may be a short-term solution for a school deadline, taking some extra time to find one that aligns more with your goals is worth the wait and extra effort. Though you can consider pivoting to a new practicum later down the line, that’s not always a viable option to rely on for everyone. That’s why setting clear intentions and goals from the beginning can prevent settling in the end.
No matter what, remember that practicum opportunities are meant to benefit you as a student and future professional in your chosen field. Take your time and think about the skills you hope to attain while in grad school, and how your practicum can reflect those aspirations. Though the process can seem rushed, or you may feel the pressure to pick any type of practicum, speak up and seek guidance when necessary. Create this experience for yourself. It’s the preparation you’ve been waiting for. Good luck!
Sojourner White is a second-year Master’s of Social Work student at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Her concentration is International Social and Economic Development with a specialization in Social Entrepreneurship. Prior to graduate school, Sojourner taught English in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow and served in the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. Sojourner is an alumna of Bradley University where she completed her Bachelor’s Degree, double majoring in Psychology and Spanish and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. When she is not studying or working, you can find Sojourner writing on her travel blog Sojournies.
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