Growing a Practice

How to Hire an Intern for Your Therapy Practice

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September 7, 2023
September 7, 2023
Bryce Warnes
Content Writer
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When you hire an intern for your therapy practice, there are steps you need to follow to make sure the relationship is mutually beneficial.

An unpaid internship can provide an aspiring mental health professional with valuable work experience and academic credit—provided you do it right. In the words of one lawyer who specializes in labor disputes, “Interns are not a way to get free labor.” 

And even if it’s a paid position, you’ll need to make sure your intern is fairly compensated.

Here’s everything you need to know about hiring an intern for your therapy practice.


Why hire an intern for your therapy practice?

An intern working for your therapy practice can:

  • Provide an outsider’s perspective. As an outsider learning the ropes, an intern will ask questions about processes and approaches you already take for granted. It gives you a chance to step outside of your own day-to-day routine, see your practice with fresh eyes, and possibly find ways to improve it.

  • Give you insight into a younger generation. How do Gen Z clients and future therapists approach mental health? What’s hot, what’s not? How does TikTok work? Working with an intern a little younger than yourself keeps you on top of changes in the field both big and small.

  • Help you learn by teaching. You improve your mastery of particular skills or knowledge when you teach them to someone else—whether it’s a way of working with certain types of clients or simply the ins and outs of your scheduling software.

  • Get value from tasks you find tedious. Staying on top of emails, posting social media updates, sending out your newsletter: To you, these tasks may seem like a drag. To an intern, they could be learning tools. Assigning that kind of work to an intern both frees up time in your schedule and gives them hands-on experience. It’s win-win.

Hiring a paid intern for your therapy practice

When you hire an intern and pay them a wage, they’re regular W-2 employees. They’re covered by protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as state laws pertaining to minimum wage, hours, overtime, and working conditions.

The main difference between a paid intern and other employees on your payroll is your internship program. You create an internship program in advance, and it defines the intern’s role and what they can expect to gain from their employment, including:

  • How long the internship will last (typically five to six months)
  • How many hours per week they’ll work
  • Typical day-to-day tasks and what type of work they can expect to have assigned
  • Specific steps you’ll take to provide on-the-job training and education
  • Criteria you’ll use to evaluate the intern’s performance
  • Your process for reporting to the intern’s academic supervisor (in cases where they’re completing the internship for academic credit)

Prepare this information ahead of time; you’ll use some of it to write a job description when you’re recruiting.

Hiring an unpaid intern for your therapy practice

Under the FLSA, any employee of a for-profit company must be remunerated for their work. But an unpaid intern is technically not an employee. About 40% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid positions. 

The stereotypical unpaid internship is one where the intern signs on hoping for valuable professional experience but instead ends up doing grunt work: Fetching coffee, shredding old documents, and running personal errands for their boss.

The US Department of Labor has taken pains to make sure this stereotype doesn’t play out in real life. There’s a set of standards you need to follow to ensure your unpaid intern legally qualifies for their position.

If you fail to meet the standards of an unpaid internship, your intern could sue you. Not only could that dent your bank account and hurt your business, but it could seriously damage your reputation.

Who is the primary beneficiary?

The golden rule when hiring an unpaid intern is to ensure they’re the primary beneficiary of the internship.

Meaning, they benefit from the internship more than your therapy practice does, even though they’re not being paid. When they’ve completed their internship with you, they should walk away with academic credit, on-the-job education and experience, and a handsome addition to their CV.

If your intern completes their internship and they have little or nothing to show for it, but you’ve benefited from their unpaid labor, you’ve broken the golden rule of unpaid internships. In the event you’re sued, the court could determine you owe your former intern retroactive wages.

The primary beneficiary test

Luckily, the US Department of Labor has a test you can take to determine whether your intern is the primary beneficiary in their relationship with you. 

The Department of Labor lists these seven criteria:

  1. The intern must understand that they will not be compensated.
  2. The training they get on the job should be equivalent to what they might receive in an “educational environment,” ie. as part of their studies at school.
  3. The work your intern does for you should be tied to a formal academic program. That could mean integrating coursework with their on-the-job education, or the intern receiving academic credit for their time working for your practice.
  4. The schedule you set for your intern must accommodate their academic schedule
  5. The internship lasts only for the period during which the student receives “beneficial learning.” (For instance, a six-month internship isn’t three months of education followed by three months of odd jobs around the office.)
  6. The intern’s duties should complement, rather than replace, the work of paid employees. 
  7. Both you and the intern recognize that the internship doesn’t entitle them to a paid position once the internship has ended.

None of these criteria are definitive—meaning, as a whole, the test is meant to serve as a guide and not a hard and fast set of rules.

Other rules for hiring unpaid interns

Besides the criteria set by the Department of Labor, you should familiarize yourself with laws in your state. 

Different states have different rules when it comes to unpaid internships. Some states treat the primary beneficiary test as definitive rules rather than guidelines. Others require direct oversight from academic bodies, or specify what type of training the intern should receive on the job.

Best practices for onboarding unpaid interns

Unpaid internships tread a fine line in terms of legality. In order to avoid trouble later on, follow these best practices when onboarding interns:

  • Put the terms of the internship in writing, and make sure the intern has a copy
  • Make sure both the intern and their academic supervisor sign off on the terms of the internship
  • When possible, offer your interns college credit
  • Maintain a log sheet of hours worked, including overtime
  • Train transferable skills, not skills particular to your therapy practice alone

The ethics of unpaid internships

As well as weighing the benefits versus the risks of unpaid internships, it’s good to consider the ethical angle.

A student’s ability to take on an unpaid internship is directly tied to their financial situation. Some student therapists can afford to spend their hours outside of classes and study working for free; others are forced to use all the free time available to them while they’re at school earning an income. For a student who’s already working to support themselves, an unpaid internship—and the benefits that come with it—may not be an option.

Even paying minimum wage may be enough to put an internship at your therapy practice within reach of someone who otherwise could not afford it.

And keep in mind that most students pursuing internships now will, in the future, be fellow mental health professionals. Offering interns a decent wage and making sure they get the most out of their internships at your practice could go a long way towards improving your reputation and growing your professional network.


How to hire an intern for your therapy practice

Once you’ve decided whether to hire a paid or an unpaid intern, and what their professional duties will be, it’s time to find one.

Where to find potential interns

Most post-secondary schools have job boards for students seeking internships. Contact local schools with psychology and social work programs to learn requirements for posting on their boards.

You can also try job boards specializing in internships. and WayUp are two of the most popular.

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok are all great places to share your new internship job opening. 

What to include in the job posting

When you write a job posting for your internship:

  • Use short, simple sentences
  • Try to make it no longer than 600 or 700 words
  • Address the reader with pronouns like “you,” we,” and “our”
  • Use lists and bullet points wherever possible
  • Avoid heavily gendered language

And include the following information:

  • The story of your therapy practice, and your own journey as a therapist
  • How long the internship will last
  • What they need to qualify for the position
  • What they’ll learn on the job, including the types of training and supervision you’ll provide
  • Compensation 
  • Duties involved
  • The application process (including what they need to submit to apply)
  • Contact information
  • An equal opportunity statement

Sample interview questions for potential interns

If you’re having trouble coming up with questions to ask when you interview candidates, use these to help you get started:

  • Can you tell us about your educational background and any relevant coursework or training in psychology, counseling, or a related field?
  • What inspired you to pursue an internship in a therapy practice, and what do you hope to gain from this experience?
  • How do you handle confidentiality and maintain ethical boundaries when working with clients or sensitive information?
  • Describe any prior experience you have in a helping or counseling role—whether volunteer work, part-time jobs, or academic projects.
  • In a therapy practice, you may encounter clients with diverse backgrounds and issues. How do you plan to approach cultural sensitivity and ensure inclusivity when interacting with clients?
  • Can you provide an example of a challenging interpersonal situation you've faced and how you successfully resolved it?
  • What therapeutic approaches or counseling techniques are you familiar with or interested in learning more about?
  • Can you discuss your long-term career goals and how this internship lines up with your aspirations?
  • What do you believe are the most critical qualities or skills for someone working in a therapy practice, and how do you embody these qualities?

If you decide to pay your intern, you’ll need to onboard them as an employee. Learn how to set up payroll for your therapy practice.

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult their own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post.

Bryce Warnes is a West Coast writer specializing in small business finances.


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