5 Keys to Maximizing Your Next Internship

Internships and clinical experiences can come in a broad array of packages — some great, some decent, and some just downright ugly. Students and interns are often placed in tough and unfamiliar situations.

There will be growing pains, frustrations, and failures. Luckily, there should also be epiphanies, triumphs, and excitement for the hard-fought progress and victories.

The most important consideration for any internship experience is this: “how can I take the most from this?”

Regardless of the setting, the staff, the population, the environment, or the available equipment there is always something to be learned and experiences to be had. Viewing a given internship as useless and not worthy of one’s time is a surefire path to stunted professional growth.

Undoubtedly, some experiences may be smoother, more enjoyable, and more informative than others. However, that does not mean that nothing can be gleaned from going through a “tough internship”. Afterall, at some point in our careers as health professionals, we will all be placed in the situation of working with “tough clients” (insert _____  reason here).

What are some of the hallmarks of success for your past learning experiences?

What did it feel like when you finally put together the mental puzzle and things began to “click” into place and form a more complete picture?

Who helped you with process along the way?

While these are very general questions, the goal is to paint a picture that all learning must be interactive. The best learning will take place in conditions of immersion, motivation, attention, and with consistent feedback throughout.

The description above is the opposite of passive learning strategies. Being told what to think or what to do are not interactive processes and will likely lead to minimal creative or professional growth.

Key #1: Get Outside Your Comfort Zone

The first key is to be provided enough of a challenge without it being too easy or too difficult. If given explicit directions each and every time, very little learning will be accomplished. Memorization is a necessary skill, but it lacks depth and application in differing circumstances.

If given too much flexibility and not enough guardrails when making decisions, there may not be sufficient experience or professional knowledge to pull from. This would be the case if you were to ask a first rotation physical therapy student to treat a patient with whom they have never worked and with no direct guidance. The outcome would be less than ideal and the experience would be needlessly stress-inducing.

The challenge must be appropriately scaled to your current abilities.

The goal is to find a middle-ground. To be placed in situations that challenge you intellectually and socially, but allow for the fallback of asking for help or clarification when needed. This can be accomplished by asking a mentor to supervise, but to only intervene or offer feedback except for necessary circumstances.

Key #2: Come Prepared – Physically and Mentally

First and foremost, arrive promptly and wear appropriate attire. This should go without saying, but looking the part is the first step in acting the part.

Secondly, come well-rested, well-fed, and well-hydrated. Spending a full day at an internship with a hangover and a full day’s fast is not a recipe for success. Lack of foresight does not bode well for long-term success.

You should also strive to come mentally prepared for the day’s work. Arrive with questions that can be asked at the appropriate time. This could be questions pertaining to the previous day, something you read, or even just about a topic that peaks your interest and you would like to learn more about.

Posing relevant and intelligent questions can serve as kindling for deeper discussions and as a means to highlight areas that you may not be as familiar with and would benefit from learning more about.

Lastly, prior to starting you should review notes and prepare for clients you will be seeing later in the day.

Key #3: Feedback is a Gift

Do not view criticism as a reflection of your flaws, but rather as honest feedback that will make you more efficient and have better outcomes in the future. Think of feedback as a strategy to more rapidly elevate your skillset.

While feedback can often be hard to receive, let your instructor know how you would prefer to receive it. Do you want it right in the moment? At the end of a session? At the end of the day or week?

Be sure to offer your instructor constructive feedback as well. If you do not like the direction that your experience is going, you should voice your concerns and problem-solve with your instructor. If you do not make them aware of a given concern or problem, they may not even know it exists!

Additionally, pay close attention to how you pose feedback to others. Instead of saying, “I’ve heard that doesn’t work, why don’t you do ______ ?” ask, “I’ve seen this strategy used before, do you think it could be useful in this circumstance?”

Ideally, all internship experiences should be a highly conducive learning environment both for the student and for the instructor! Students offer the gift of a largely “blank slate” and heightened creativity and open-mindedness, while long-standing clinicians have the benefit of considerable experiential data. Blending the two perspectives can often lead to fresh insights.

Key #4: Attitude is Everything

Put simply: Act like you want to be there. View every day as an opportunity to learn and better yourself professionally and personally.

If you arrive with a negative attitude and a close-minded mindset, you will likely receive the same attitude in turn. You cannot expect your instructor to put in extra efforts and time into your education if you do not also reciprocate with attentiveness and a willingness to assist when able.

Even if this is not your dream job, there is a lot to be said about showing enthusiasm and a desire to engage. You will create far more opportunities for yourself in the future if you leave warm and lasting impressions with those that you work with. Internship experiences are just as much about building relationships as they are about honing skillsets.

Key #5: Go The Extra Mile

Your experience will be dictated by your personal efforts and contributions. The more time and energy you put into your internship, the richer it will likely become. Additionally, your instructor will be more likely to go out of their way to ensure a positive experience for you.

Do the little things without being asked: sweep the floors, wipe down tables, clean up messes, pick up equipment that is left out, take out the trash. Ask if there is anything that you can do to help before leaving each day. Make consistent efforts to engage with clients and colleagues.

Seek to build relationships with those you work with:

  • What do they enjoy doing outside of work?
  • What brought you to this job?
  • What are things you would have done differently as a student?
  • What were the greatest struggles when you started out on your own?

While these efforts are often taken for granted, they do a lot to leave lasting impressions and show your commitment to the facility and those around you.

Take pride in your work ethic and show commitment to continually honing your craft.

-Mike Reinhardt, DPT, PT


Article: Associations Among Quadriceps Strength and Rate of Torque Development 6 Weeks Post Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction and Future Hop and Vertical Jump Performance: A Prospective Cohort Study – Clark et al

This article shows positive correlations between quadriceps strength and RTD (rate of torque development) at 6 weeks when compared to hopping and jumping measures taken at 6 months post ACL Reconstruction. While these findings are not indicative of direct causation, they do illustrate the importance of prioritizing quadriceps loading and rate of loading capabilities throughout the early rehab process!

Podcast: Just Fly Sports: Alex Effer on “Stance-Driven” Performance Training, Crawling Mechanics, and Sensory Movement Principles

Alex discusses how training can be significantly modified through the use of differing stances, altering force vectors, and shifting sensory awareness of movements. He also discusses commonalities related to biomechanics and performance that are seen across various continuing education courses.

Book: Deep Work – Cal Newport

This is a phenomenal read by Cal Newport that is all about maximizing the quality of our work and thinking while actually minimizing the amount of time spent doing it. This read provides some tremendous examples of how highly productive and successful individuals are able to manage their time and cognitive resources, reduce distractions, and to get more done.

Social Media Follow: Andy McCloy @andymccloy_bci

Andy is the owner of BCI Sports Performance & Fitness in Madison, Alabama. Andy prides himself of building better athletes, coaches, businesses, and human beings. He has worked with athletes in all levels of sport from high school up through the pros, many of which he began working with in their teens!

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