An Insider Story of Internship At a Psychology Center

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

I will just refer to this place as ‘The Center’ for the sake of anonymity (for those that are really really concerned about their own application to be a clinician, feel free to message me personally to verify). And no, this is not the fraud center ran by EC. I am just trying to explain how I joined a legitimate center that technically did fit all requirements I was looking out for, but ended up being unsuitable and unhealthy for me stay in.

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A month ago I thought I landed a jackpot, having found an opportunity to collect my internship hours as a trainee counsellor at a private practice. While I generally liked my prior internship site, I had to end my term there (for now) due to the pandemic forcing most counselling work online. There was also the part where the local counsellor board repeatedly refused to acknowledge online counselling for reasons unknowable to the modern mind.

So without being picky, I was ecstatic when I got myself into The Center which more than checks all the right boxes.

  1. This center is actually opening their physical premises for direct hour collection!
  2. My supervisor (who is also the clinical director) claims to adopt the person-centered approach, which is rather in line with mine. Not a guarantee of quality, but should generally mean freedom in the treatment process or having CBT as the status quo.
  3. A personal friend and neighbor works there, and is willing to sign off my logbook.
  4. By the looks of it, a safe setting that is ran rigorously.
  5. The paperwork is minimal for clinicians as everything is ran using a practice management platform.

Needless to say I was more than excited to start.

My first day went as expected, with the typical orientation and learning to handle administrative duties. While the other clinicians were given their own room, as rooms were limited I was given a seat at the receptionist counter. My first role was administrative, picking up phone calls and client enquiries, learning to send out invoices, and making appointments for the client. On the next day, I was given an opportunity to work with some children and clock in some valued direct hours. I thought I was set to complete my internship hours just working with The Center.

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That being said, a feeling of unease set in actually rather early on without me realizing it. As there were not other rooms or tables, I seem to be expected to be seated at the admin desk with a fellow full-time admin. So this was red flag number 1: I was treated much differently than the other clinicians. My role seemed to encompass full admin work and some counselling ‘when appropriate’. It didn’t feel good as this was obviously very different from my prior experience where I was actually treated no different from a full-time counsellor. I shrugged this unease of however, as it could be just me adjusting to a new environment. Perhaps I had gotten too anxious and entitled.

There is also another red flag that showed up in the form of the Center’s management. So from my prior site aside from focusing on the clinical work and some report writing, I learned to be pretty relaxed about other aspects of my working hours. I could write notes at my own pace, read and watch whatever I liked whether it is entertainment or educational content. But a couple of days I was already given a small warning by the Center’s manager (supposedly the director’s partner) for watching a tape of therapy with a child recommended by the director himself. Her reasoning was that my activities outside of clinical work was under her jurisdiction, and I have to report to her basically every action I am up to that isn’t center related work because ‘management needs to know’. Oh yeah, and that also where I learned that there is CCTV constantly aimed at the receptionist desk.

Few things stood out to me here.

My rights as an intern counsellor is not respected here, despite the supervisor’s claims of valuing humanism. Not only that I was not told prior about being monitored and evaluated via my admin work, but I later learned that they saw my internship as doing me a favor and I had to earn client hours by showing administrative competency. Effectively, they were blackmailing me through withholding my client contact hours for me to get administrative work done.

My freedom was also very limited as basic leisurely options like reading needed explicit permission.

Also, while I am still not sure about the exact nature, after checking with the other co-workers, everyone seems to suspect that this ‘management’ is effectively just an excuse when they do not want to be transparent. There are more than a few instances of them invoking this imaginary HR/management argument when I tried to question them on certain practices. This creates a culture of in-transparency and micro-management, mixed with the occasional dissonance between the two bosses I am reporting to.

The center manager did not seem to have a background in the field, and often make very questionable assumptions about clinical practice. For instance, she would think it is inappropriate that clients who are female or of Malay ethnicity are assigned to me, without even asking them.

It did not help that my two bosses are also partners in real life, making it difficult for me to communicate my difficulties with the director. There are too many instances where they were simply not on the same page on certain gray areas, such as pro bono services, allocation of clients to me, and my responsibilities outside counselling.

This made my administrative work even harder, as I always had to crosscheck with both of them before I can even reply to client enquiries. I could not effectively disclose our rates, information regarding our clinicians (we did not have therapists bio displayed on site, it is only given to clients was they were assigned), and certain services such as letters, reports, and diagnoses.

Days become weeks, and suddenly a fortnight had passed. I started to become quite concerned as my role did not become any different from my first day. Other members of the center seemed to have pretty defined roles: the clinicians see clients and write treatment plans with notes, the non-clinicians deal with the rest of the work from billing to enquiries. My role seemed to cover both ends while being unpaid. I found it exceedingly difficult to juggle both roles well in the same day, and it start to sank in that this is not normal at all.

Even though I started to have some doubts, I was still willing to tell myself that this is probably just temporary. After all, a second CMCO just got announced and business is bound to be affected. On top of that, I was technically their first practitioner intern, and there is a lot of things that will take time to sort out. I still did my best to support the center in whatever ways I could, staying with them full-time. It was only until the third week I start to realize that I was making no progress with my placement there, that confusing admin work is going to stay, and getting clients allocated to me will always be a chore.

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Ultimately, I quit on the 30th of October after having consulted my friends and faculty supervisor. The feeling of unsettledness cleared away, and I felt whole and free again. In fact, while everyone was recommending that I ‘talk to the director and renegotiate your terms and conditions’, deep inside me I know that I am not interested in staying any longer. In fact, I was quite pleased to know that these days are going to be over.

The work culture was not explicitly toxic, but there was simply too many things that are important that could not be discussed (while they pretended otherwise, because they can always put it on the non-existent ‘management’). Everyone there felt unsafe, but was unable to voice these feelings out. In fact, when I imagined the possibility of staying there as a dedicated counsellor, I was surprised how unappetizing it still felt to me.

Once, the manager explicitly said that they have many interns lining up for placement and they could reach out (and replace me) at any given time. It is with these interns (whether as a Masters level clinician or as an undergraduate seeking exposure) in mind I have that motivated me to write this firsthand account working in a psychology center in Malaysia. Besides funding, qualifications, and accessibility of services, the most valuable ingredient for a healthy professional psychology scene is the people that makes up the scene. Are the people that run these places genuine? Do they embody what they say? Can they communicate honestly and empathize? Can they form good relationships and cultivate feelings of safeness? Do they treat each other (especially interns!) as fellow beings? Can they value another person over their lofty visions of ‘success’?

In simpler words, can they be human?

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Was this a lesson of naivety?

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think so. There were no apparent signals that this was unsuitable, in the surface it checked all the right boxes I was looking for with my experience at another setting. The supervision fit me well, while my prior site did not. It had the face-to-face client flow during this pandemic, while my prior site went fully online. I was also hoping to experience how a legitimate private practice is ran.

At the end of the day, I did get what I thought I wanted, and probably would still have jumped on the opportunity. Who would have known a center with two full-time non-clinicians would require an intern counsellor to do the administrative work full time? Who would have foreseen a legitimately trained director could be so out of touch with the norms of counselling internship in Malaysia?

My takeaway is that always trust your ‘gut feeling’, because they can serve you in a pinch when it comes to social situations (credits to thousands of years of evolution as social species). Had I not listened to it, I would probably still be grinding away at the center, not aware of my own rights that are protected by my university course. Triangulate that gut feeling with second opinions from others, and try to get a handle of the uneasiness. I wager you will be very surprised how far that gets us.

Oh, and ‘how would my average day look like working here?’ should be a must-ask during any interview.