Degree In Sight

When Glen Veed's internship match day arrived in 2008, "all of my classmates were having trouble sleeping, and so was I," he says. "But it turned out my day went dramatically differently than theirs." Unlike anyone else he knew, Veed received an e-mail telling him that he hadn't matched anywhere. "It was an amazing shock to the system," he says. "It took me 20 minutes of re-reading it to come to terms with what it meant."

But not matching isn't a catastrophe, say psychologists who've been through it. In some cases, they've even found that the experience benefited them in ways they couldn't have anticipated.

Veed, whose interests were in mood problems among adolescents and children, ended up securing an internship focused on adult brain injury and neuropsychological testing.

"It wasn't what I set out looking for, but it hasn't hampered me in any way," says Veed, who went on to do a postdoc in adolescent and child psychology and now works as a clinical psychologist in that area. In fact, "it actually ended up being a huge boost to my vitae, because I got all this neuropsychology experience I would never have gotten at any of the places that I applied to." And although he didn't know anyone at the time who didn't match, he has since met several psychologists who went through the same thing "and are just wildly successful," he says.

"That kind of reassures you that it's not the end-all test of your profession."

Dealing with the shock

Other psychologists echo Veed's sentiments, both the pain of not matching and the satisfaction — in some cases, even gratitude — with which they now regard their experiences.

"It was definitely worth waiting — not only because I got what I wanted, but because it really set me on the trajectory that I needed to be on," says Amy Swier-Vosnos, PsyD, now a neuropsychology postdoc at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. When she didn't match in 2006, she took a year to build up her curriculum vitae before reapplying and getting her first-choice internship.

If you don't match, the most important first step is to deal with it emotionally, says Kristi Van Sickle, PsyD, community health professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, who didn't match to an internship on her first try. "A lot of people internalize the experience. But when you look at the numbers, there's going to be a huge chunk of people who just don't match, no matter how good you are," she says. "The thing that helped the most with that was support from my classmates and from my faculty members."

Veed agrees that support from others is key. "From a psychological perspective, the strong desire is to isolate and not connect with anyone, and I think that that's a bad move," he says. "It's a devastating thing to not match, but as much as possible, seeking out social support will emotionally get you through it."

Deciding what went wrong

Most students who don't match will have to decide how to spend a year before applying again. Your first priority should be to figure out if there are any obvious gaps in your experience or education that may have weakened your application, says Swier-Vosnos. When she first applied to neuropsychology internships, for example, she didn't have much experience in that specialty. She used her year between applications to amass a wealth of neuropsychology experience, and she credits the connections made through a practicum with placing her in the internship she got the next year.

It's also important to invest sufficient time and attention to the application process, says Darrin Rogers, PhD. His first time around, he admits, was not very well-planned.

"I was behind schedule in getting my PhD, and I realized at the last minute that there might be a chance of shaving a year off my already-too-lengthy stay if I could get an internship," he says. "I did not put my best foot forward."

Limiting applications geographically is a common misstep, says Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) match coordinator Greg Keilin, PhD. Van Sickle and Swier-Vosnos both admit that only applying near their hometowns probably contributed to their initial failure to match.

"I limited myself geographically to driving distance from Chicago — a very bad idea," Swier-Vosnos says. "My training director warned me, but I had to learn myself." The second time around, she widened her application radius. When she ended up in Ann Arbor, Mich., she and her husband had to spend a year apart, but the internship was exactly what she wanted.

Other factors may influence an applicant's chances, including attending a nonaccredited doctoral program, applying to too few sites and applying only to very competitive programs, says Keilin.

But sometimes, there just isn't an obvious reason that someone doesn't match. "You spend a lot of time analyzing what went wrong," says Veed, "and two years of time now has not given me any better insight into what it was."

"The difficulty matching is primarily due to the significant number of applicants versus the fewer number of internship positions and has less to do with the individual applicant," says APPIC Board of Directors Chair Sharon Berry, PhD. "The match imbalance is a significant problem for the field."

In 2010, 23 percent of applicants failed to match — approximately the same as in 2009, but up from 15 percent in 2002. APPIC is now collaborating with APA, the Council of Chairs of Training Councils, and other groups to address this imbalance by, for instance, helping programs develop new internship slots, Berry says. "It is frustrating to many that this is a long-term approach to a difficult problem, but we are hopeful that change over time will make a difference."

Knowing that many students don't match may ease the pain, Van Sickle says, but it doesn't remove it. "I knew the statistics," she says. "I knew that a lot of people didn't match, that there was an imbalance. But you hope that it won't happen to you. And when it does, it's really painful."

Looking to the future

Once you move through that inevitable shock and pain, remember that not matching to an internship is usually a temporary setback.

Veed and Van Sickle, for instance, both found internships through the clearinghouse — a process that's since been replaced by a more formal, second-round match, and they enjoyed their internship years despite the rough beginning. Swier-Vosnos and Rogers waited a year, reapplied, and matched on their second time through the process. Swier-Vosnos landed her first-choice internship the following year, while Rogers matched with an internship that was nearly his last choice, but he still had a great experience.

"The overwhelming factor was the other interns," says Rogers, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. "It wasn't any of our top choices, to be honest. The very fact that we all felt initially let down by our experience might have motivated us to be better friends."

Rogers says that the experience of not matching, while unpleasant, can teach you to be resilient in the face of adversity.

"I think disappointment is a key ingredient of any professional career. I'm not talking about small disappointments; I'm talking about the kind where you feel kicked in the gut and want to crawl in your bed and hide for a week," he says. "It's miserable, but people bounce back. They make the most of their situations, and they often find surprising benefits where they did not expect them."

Melissa Lee Phillips is a writer in Seattle.