Internship Diaries

How Restructuring Her Internship Search Helped this Psychology Major Get Hands On Clinical Experience

When every job in your chosen field requires grad school, how do you find a summer internship? Sarah McDonnell knew she wanted to use her Psychology degree, but hands-on clinical work without an advanced degree is really difficult to find.

After applying to jobs in other fields that could tangentially apply her degree, she restructured her job search, figured out what she was (and wasn’t!) willing to compromise on, and eventually found herself a summer internship, near home, working with patients.

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Name: Sarah McDonnell

Job Title: Adult Day Program Instructor Intern at Gatepath

Location: Burlingame, California

College: Wake Forest University

Year in School: Rising Senior

Major: Psychology

What are you doing this summer?

I am working at Gatepath, a nonprofit that provides a lifespan of support services to individuals with special needs and developmental disabilities in the greater Bay Area. Their mission is to empower people with special needs to achieve their full potential through innovative, inclusive programs and community partnerships.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

My goal is to eventually have my own private practice. Currently, I am looking at applying to physicians assistant school and have a concentration in psychology so I can prescribe medication to my clients.

How did you get your internship?

Finding internships in the field of psychology is extremely hard with just a bachelor’s degree, let alone while still an undergrad. I spent a lot of time asking people I knew, using the job tools my university provides, and just flat-out searching online (how I found my internship!) trying to find possibilities.

I found the posting at Before I found it I did not think I had a personal relationship with Gatepath, but it turns out friends of my family, as well as kids from my high school have used Gatepath services before.

What do you wish you had known during your internship search?

I wish I had stuck to my gut and applied to jobs that really excited me. During the fall semester, I applied to jobs, such as consulting, where I could use my psychology degree outside of a therapeutic setting. Consulting is a very tough field to get into, and even harder when the applicant has next to zero interest in it. I basically wasted a semester of time applying to internships I didn’t actually want in order to fill out my resume. If there’s a type of internship you know you’re interested in, go for it right away!

There are a lot of options if you can try to pick out 3 main things you’re looking for in the internship, and be flexible with the rest.

My recommendation is to keep an open mind. There are a lot of options if you can try to pick out 3 main things you’re looking for in the internship, and be flexible with the rest. My main 3 criteria were that it was in the Bay Area, I would be working with a population with mental disabilities, and that it was a paid position. With those 3 necessities, I searched around and eventually found an incredible internship.  

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What does a day in the life look like?

A day in the life at Gatepath is never the same, but there is a schedule of classes that we keep the participants to. I show up at 9 AM everyday and at 9:30 homeroom starts where we give that day’s announcements and try to start the day on a good note.

Sarah McDonnell Therapy Dog
Tucker is the therapy dog who comes every Tuesday.

Then they have class from 10:40-11:30 and another class from 11:40-12:30. If a program instructor is out, I will step in and teach their class, or I will do case management work. Case management work includes getting the information ready for their annuals (annuals are reports where we reflect over their past year and how they have grown, make their goals for the upcoming year, and go over emergency contact information to make sure everything is up to date), creating each participant’s class schedule, filling in spots for volunteer work, etcetera.

I have a 30 minute lunch break between 12:30-1:30. The participants get the whole hour to eat lunch and the staff takes shifts to eat to make sure the participants are always being watched.

There is a third class from 1:30-2:20 where I again either fill in or do case management work, and the participants get picked up between 2:20 and 3:15. I generally leave work around 3:30/3:45 PM.

Sarah McDonnell desk selfie
Sarah McDonnell at her desk.

How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?

This job has showed me that I may be interested in working with adults with mental disabilities in the future. This is the first time I have worked with adults and while it’s only been a couple of weeks, I really enjoy it.

I have also learned that I would want my clients to be at least semi-functioning. I shadowed at a site with extremely low functioning adults, and while it was a great learning experience, I’d prefer to work with clients who are able to fully understand what I’m saying and understand why they’re there.

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Everyday there is a challenge at work, but everyday I learn something new about myself and about the field I eventually want to work in. Even though I don’t see myself doing this exact type of work after I graduate, it is an incredible experience that I am so grateful for.


Internship Diaries is a series that profiles college women with summer internships around the world to learn more about the steps they are taking to make their dreams come true. Check out other posts in the series!

Hello! My name is Rosana Rabines! I'm a student, stationery enthusiast, and runner constantly reorganizing my life to make the most of my college experience in Chicago.

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