That Was Close: Internships and Hiring Freezes

In the past, a significant disparity has existed between the number of internship sites available and the number of students seeking those positions (Parent & Williamson, 2010). While this gap has been slowly closing, each year brings potential for challenges and hurdles to clear for students, faculty, and match administrators. This year may have brought some of the more daunting trials yet.

The Freeze

In a memorandum dated January 23, 2017, President Donald J. Trump outlined a federal hiring freeze effective at noon on January 22, 2017. In the document, the president included the following information:

  • The order would not apply to military personnel.
  • Exemptions could be granted in order to meet public safety or national security obligations.
  • The plan was set to expire once the Office of Management and Budget submitted a long-term plan (within 90 days of the memorandum).

As Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospitals are federally funded and are subject to federal oversight, upcoming predoctoral internship positions at VA’s were called into question following the hiring freeze. This is because interns are considered employees of the VA and the inability of the VA to hire new employees threatened positions to which the 2017 intern cohort were applying.

What’s more, the memo was released vexingly close to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) match deadline of Wednesday, February 1, 2017 by which prospective interns are required to submit their rank order list of sites for Phase I of the match. Lack of clarity about the jobs that would be impacted by the freeze likely introduced concern and doubt among students who planned to rank VA positions.

APA’s Response

In response to the possible threat posed to the psychology match process, the American Psychological Association (APA) took action by drafting and submitting a letter requesting exemptions for all VA health care providers. In this letter, the APA noted the following impacts of the freeze if it was applied to predoctoral internship positions:


  • Nearly 1,000 doctoral candidates in health service psychology would be impacted.
  • Nearly 600 positions at the VA would go unfilled.
  • Important mental health care services for Veterans would be further restricted.
  • The degree trajectory of many students could be disrupted.

VA Problem Solved

On January 27, 2017, the VA confirmed that health care provider positions would be exempted. In a press release expressing gratitude for the exemption, the APA president, Antonio E. Puente, PhD., noted that critical, evidence-based care is provided to veterans by psychology interns. Dr. Puente went on to highlight that, due to the VA’s swift action, many doctoral students would be able to progress toward graduation without the complication imposed by the inability to secure an internship.

Other Issues Still Pending

Dr. Puente and Dr. Cyhtnia Belar also sent a letter to The US Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget requesting that exemptions be issued for all health care service providers who work within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (the Bureau). While the VA was swift with its response to the letter submitted by the APA leadership, fewer definitive answers have been offered regarding internships with the Bureau, leaving the fate of some predoctoral interns unresolved.

Trouble in Texas

With the status of these positions settled, the APPIC match process seemed to be back on track. However, 4 days later on January 31, 2017, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced an immediate hiring freeze on state agencies through the end of August 2017. The freeze included Texas Universities. Many of these universities house college counseling centers that host predoctoral internship positions. With Phase 1 rank order lists due the following day, predoctoral internship candidates who had plans to apply for Texas University counseling center jobs were left with questions about whether they should rank these positions at all.

The response to the Texas hiring freeze was less organized and, therefore, documentation of the response is not as widely available for reference. However, as a current predoctoral intern at a Texas University Counseling and Psychological Services Center, I have some insight into the series of events that followed the freeze. Based on my experience, on the day the freeze was announced, individual universities were left to dialogue with their human resource offices about whether or not the hiring freeze applied to the preoctoral internship positions at their individuals sites.

As each counseling center received confirmation that the predoctoral positions would be allowed to remain open, they contacted students who had applied to their sites to inform them that the positions were still available. These notifications were released via email throughout the day and into the evening.

Continued Advocacy and Vigilance

APPIC match results from Phase 1 were released on February 17, 2017. So far, there is no way to know whether or not student rankings were impacted by the National and/or Texas State hiring freezes.  Efforts on the part of the APA and Division 17 demonstrate a commitment to the success of counseling psychology students nationwide. It may be heartening to reflect on the fact that counseling psychology programs had the highest phase 1 match rate of any psychology sub-discipline (88%) in 2017.

These promising statistics also remind us of the importance of continued advocacy on the part of Division 17 and the APA. As the political climate continues to shift and develop over the years, counseling psychologist must remain vigilant and involved. There is no way to tell what issues may lie ahead for the match. With any luck, we will never again be forced to weather another round of hiring freezes.

About the Author: Douglas Knutson (he/him/his) is a Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at Oklahoma State University. He is currently completing a predoctoral internship at Texas Woman’s University Counseling Center before taking an assistant professor position in counseling psychology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Douglas also earned a Masters of Theology (M.T.S.) from Boston University School of Theology and a Masters of Education (M.Ed.) in Applied Behavioral Studies with Professional Counseling from Oklahoma City University. Douglas conducts research in multicultural competence and diversity (broadly defined). His current projects are: an exploration of health care access among transgender individuals in rural areas, an investigation of depression among drag performers, and a study of self-harm and related factors among LGBTI transitional-aged youth in the State of Oklahoma.

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