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How to Get Clinical Experience Without a License

While not a requirement for applying to most clinical/counseling doctoral programs, clinical experience is really valuable in gaining clarity related to your professional plans and goals and can make you a more competitive applicant. But just how exactly can you go about finding these experiences when you are neither a licensed professional nor a psychologist in training? I (Angelique) struggled with finding the answer to this question exactly a year ago. Unlike research assistant opportunities, clinical ones are both less common and also rarely advertised to the public.

That is why I am writing this week’s blog: to help you gain clinical experience by first sharing my own story, and then giving some suggestions as to where to start your search.

How I found hands-on clinical experience

As is the case for many psychology students at one point or another, I found myself questioning whether or not I was primarily interested in a career in research or practice. So, I began my internet search. I knew that I was interested in child psychology and in internalizing disorders, and so I began my internet search by inputting the following into Google:

Child psychologist + [My Geographical Region] + Child Anxiety/OCD

As you might imagine, there were many initial results. I then began to refine my search by going through the options and finding those with the clinical orientation or specialty that I was most aligned with (at this stage in my education). For me, I was generally interested in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy. This narrowed my results down to about a dozen clinical psychologists. Then, in Psych Mic-fashion, I devised a general template for the email I would send out, and I carefully crafted each according to the psychologist who I was reaching out to.

Click here for an example similar to the one that I used.

To my surprise, I received an email back from one of the first psychologists that I messaged that same day. She expressed that she was open to taking on a volunteer, and asked for my resume. We set up a Zoom meeting to discuss this further. This conversation was very similar to my prior research assistantship interviews in that the first half was largely sharing my personal experiences and learning about her practice, and the second half very much focused on how each of us would benefit from this professional relationship. Specifically, after she initially suggested some ways in which I could become involved, she asked me about my own goals and interests. I came prepared with both specific ideas and overall goals for this experience, and this included the following:

  • I wanted to observe sessions

  • I wanted various patient-facing experiences (for example in doing phone calls or conducting parts of the intake process)

  • I wanted to write blog posts for the practice to make knowledge available to the general public & clientele

  • I wanted to learn more about specific types of treatment

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy

    • Exposure Therapy

    • SPACE

    • I wanted didactic learning opportunities

In giving both concrete examples and the more general ideas of what I wanted to get out of this experience, I effectively maximized my chances of having the most rewarding experience possible.

There was a fine balance between asking for things that would benefit me, and demonstrating that I would also be an asset to the team. I believe that this was key to establishing this relationship with a potential mentor of mine.

Another important thing to note is that the experience is quite literally what you make of it–simply “landing” the role did not dictate how this clinical experience would benefit me. On the contrary, this is an ongoing process where I must actively look for places to increase my knowledge (e.g., by asking for resources from therapists, reading about different forms of therapy, and asking for help when I was unsure of something that came up in patient interactions) in order to help me to progress further in my understanding of clinical work.

Finally, this experience has been anything but static. In my time with the practice so far, my responsibilities have shifted and expanded significantly.

The secret is this: the role that I am in did not exist before. I did not apply through LinkedIn, or fill out an application on the practice’s website.

Instead, I tried to form connections directly with professionals who I believed I would learn from, and fortunately, I was successful with my current mentor. With her help, I have carefully crafted this role so that it might adapt to the practice’s needs, my developing interests, and my skill set. It has absolutely been a team effort to do so! This is just one example of how to gain clinical experience; there are countless other ways to obtain clinical opportunities.

TL;DR: The SparkNotes version of this blog

How to start your own clinical search:

1. Reach out to practicing professionals!

  • Search the internet for clinicians near you practicing with patients and therapies that you’re interested in

  • Even if there is no position that is open, ask psychologists about shadowing or internship opportunities

  • Tip! Be deliberate about which clinical populations you are interested in learning about, and this will narrow your search

  • If this is the route you choose, read my experience above for more details!

2. Find research experiences that are “patient-facing”

  • This might involve recruiting participants, interviewing them, or helping to set them up for the experiment.

  • In this respect, you’ll be gaining both clinical and research experience at the same time. It’s a win-win!

3. Volunteer for a hotline

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  • The Samaritans NYC

  • Crisis Text Line

4. Volunteer as a “camp counselor”

  • At day camp or sleepaway camp

  • Some psychology practices have specialized counselors for “camp” sessions

  • For example, at Kurtz Psychology in NYC they have counselors who work with selectively mute children

5. Volunteer at a clinic or hospital

If there is one message to take away from this blog, it is this:

If you want to gain clinical experience in psychology, do not be deterred by all of the obstacles that seem to be in the way. Continue your search, reach out to as many people, programs, and institutions as you can, and don’t be afraid to create these roles for yourself! Just because there isn’t one clear route to gaining clinical experience does not mean that it is impossible. In fact, it only means that you have the creative liberty to get to your end goal of learning more about clinical work in the field of psychology.


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