Stephen P. Hebard, Katie A. Lamberson
Athletes represent a unique population with a legitimate need for counseling services; yet, counselors have done little to define and promote sport counseling. This paper represents a call to counselors, educators, and researchers to advocate for a rigorous sport counseling specialization and clarified professional identity. Counselors need to identify required competencies, teaching guidelines, and ethical codes to provide optimal mental health services to athletes and effectively co-exist among other professionals in sport. The current state of mental health services for athletes, the potential for counselors to provide unique contributions to mental health in sport, and actionable steps regarding advocacy and research are discussed.
Keywords: sport counseling, professional identity, advocacy, athletes, mental health
Athletes represent a considerable segment of the American population. As of 2016, 40% of youth aged 6 to 12 participated in team sports, a 3% increase from 2015 (Rosenwald, 2016). Recent surveys show that 8 million high school students play sports (National Federation of State High School Associations, 2015), about 525,000 participate at the collegiate level (National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA], 2017a), and more than 11,800 are considered elite, professional athletes (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Over the past several years, researchers have recognized that athlete mental health concerns often go largely unaddressed (Ferrante & Etzel, 2009; Nattiv, Puffer, & Green, 1997).
Athletes at every level are often perceived to be privileged and idolized for their physical prowess; however, this perception leaves them especially vulnerable to be missed when it comes to mental health concerns. In fact, as a population, athletes are described as “at-risk” of experiencing a multitude of mental health concerns. Researchers have demonstrated that athletes are susceptible to alcohol abuse (B. E. Miller, Miller, Verhegge, Linville, & Pumariega, 2002), lower levels of wellness than non-athletes (Watson & Kissinger, 2007), risky behaviors (Nattiv et al., 1997), depression (Nixdorf, Frank, Hautzinger, & Beckmann, 2013; Storch, Storch, Killiany, & Roberti, 2005; Yang et al., 2007), social anxiety (Storch et al., 2005), eating disorders (Currie & Morse, 2005), and aggression (Benedict & Yaeger, 1998), among other mental health issues. Many of these mental health concerns may result from the demands and pressures experienced by athletes. For example, some athletes have been found to over-train, which may result in depression, decreased self-esteem, or emotional instability (Raglin & Wilson, 2000). Furthermore, athletes are less likely to seek professional help than their non-athlete counterparts for mental health concerns (López & Levy, 2013; Watson, 2005). Given the growth of sport from youth to adulthood and the challenges to mental health inherent in sport participation, mental health professionals can provide support to athletes that is currently lacking. However, in order to deliver optimal care, mental health professionals must commit themselves to fully understanding the athlete experience.
Counselors are in a position to provide unique, culturally responsive mental health services to athletes; however, the profession’s presence in sport is limited due to a poorly defined professional identity and a lack of understanding of the unique skill set counselors possess. A lack of empirically derived competencies, teaching guidelines, and ethical considerations must be addressed if sport counselors hope to have a greater presence in sport. Additionally, competition with sport psychologists, who primarily address athletic performance optimization and are currently far more integrated into athlete culture, may be a barrier for counselors. However, because sport psychologists primarily educate athletes on mental skills for performance optimization and counselors directly address mental health concerns, there is room for these professionals to work together to address the overall wellness and performance needs of athletes.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the current state of mental health services provided to athletes and to identify and address the potential barriers for counselors who wish to work in sport. In addition, the authors will provide a brief history of a vision for an integrated sport counseling specialty, gaps in counselor competence and identity necessary to establish sport counseling among widely recognized professions in sport, and suggestions for researchers, practitioners, and advocates to ensure a future for the sport counseling specialty.
The Evolution of Mental Health Services in Sport
The unique challenges of athletes were first identified in the early 1970s by a group of college counselors that would later form the National Association for Academic Advisors of Athletics (N4A; National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals, 2017). Their commitment to encouraging student athlete academic achievement led to an expansion of their initiative beyond academics and a moniker representative of their current mission (the National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals). N4A’s impact is experienced by over 40,000 athletes annually, as the organization was integral in the development of the NCAA’s CHAMPS/Life Skills (now NCAA Life Skills) program. N4A and the NCAA Life Skills program define their commitment as one that impacts athlete academic achievement, athletic performance, and personal well-being. Although there is little doubt that these programs positively impact athletes, their focus is not specific to mental health. In fact, until the early 2010s, sport organizations had done little advocacy for athletes experiencing mental health challenges. In 2013, the National Athletic Training Association (NATA) made a call for mental health practitioners to help increase mental health awareness within athletics organizations (Neal et al., 2013). NATA published recommendations for athletic trainers, who are considered the “first responders” to both physical and mental health (Burnsed, 2013a), to develop a collaborative plan to recognize and refer student athletes experiencing psychological concerns to the appropriate mental health professionals. In doing so, NATA catalyzed a long overdue shift in the philosophy and attention of stakeholders invested in the overall well-being of athletes. Soon thereafter, the NCAA (2014) recruited a Mental Health Task Force to demonstrate substantial commitment to the prioritization of mental health concerns experienced by student athletes. This task force is committed to working with coaches, medical providers, and student athletes to address the stigma commonly associated with mental health issues and how to break through barriers to mental health access (Burnsed, 2013b). Despite the positive goals the NCAA aims to achieve, counselors have yet to be represented on this task force.
Similar to these shifts at the collegiate level, professional organizations have made some strides toward recognizing the mental health needs of their athletes. For example, the National Football League (NFL)-affiliated Player Engagement Division currently provides active players with the “NFL Life Line.” The NFL Life Line is a crisis hotline for current and former NFL players that offers independent, confidential support (NFL Life Line, 2016). The actions of NATA, the NCAA, and the NFL represent a significant investment in athlete mental health that had previously been missing from the history of health considerations in sport. Recent emphasis on addressing athlete mental health issues marks a necessary and exciting opportunity for the counseling profession; yet, sport psychologists currently dominate this work, despite noted differences in focus. In order to become part of the solution to addressing the mental health needs of athletes at all levels, counselors must prioritize advocacy for athlete mental health and be able to competently describe how their involvement in sport will benefit athletes across the lifespan. A first step for counselors is to better understand the current mental health services that exist for athletes.
The majority of individualized attention to psychologically related services offered to athletes (both collegiate and professional) has historically been provided by practitioners of sport psychology. Two primary organizations exist within the sport psychology profession: the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and American Psychological Association (APA) Division 47. AASP certifies master’s-level “consultants” who display competence in kinesiology and psychology to educate athletes on the role of psychological factors in sport performance and teach mental skills that athletes can utilize within and beyond the context of their sport (AASP, 2017). In contrast, APA refers to sport psychology as a specialization within the general practice of psychology for doctoral-level psychologists (APA, 2017). Clinical sport psychologists with proficiency through Division 47 provide clinical interventions for eating disorders, substance use, grief, depression, sexual identity issues, aggression, career transitions, and more (APA, 2017). Practical, organizational, and philosophical differences between these two primary organizations have challenged the sport counseling specialty to establish a unique identity (Aoyagi, Portenga, Poczwardowski, Cohen, & Statler, 2012). Both AASP and Division 47 identify performance optimization as a primary responsibility of sport psychologists, though licensed psychologists with the Division 47 sport psychology proficiency claim specialized knowledge in clinical and counseling issues with athletes and biobehavioral bases of sport and exercise. As a result, athletes seeking mental health services are likely to receive services from sport psychologists with disparate levels of education, varying degrees of competence, and significant differences in their goals for treatment.
This lack of potential continuity of services, coupled with the unique contributions of counseling in sport, marks an opportunity for counselors to become a major resource among athletes. Counselors can address the current discrepancy in services by approaching athlete mental health concerns from a bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach. Counselors can utilize their strength-based, wellness-oriented philosophy to prioritize mental health needs over performance in efforts to enhance performance through improving overall wellness, rather than the reverse. Specialty training in sport can create a more streamlined set of competencies and standards that fall within the general counseling guidelines, but still cater to the unique needs of athletes. Acknowledging the limitations of sport counseling’s history and its current status may encourage clarification of an identity, development of competencies and standards, and recognition of the important contributions that counseling can bring to the culture of athletics.
Sport Counseling: Past and Present
The idea of a sport counseling specialty is hardly new. In 1985, the Counselors of Tomorrow Interest Network of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) described a number of potential counseling specializations for exploration in their publication, Imagine: A Visionary Model for the Counselors of Tomorrow (Nejedlo, Arredondo, & Benjamin, 1985). This publication included a brief section that defined “athletic counseling” and listed associated skills (e.g., counseling, goal setting) and knowledge bases (e.g., NCAA regulations, group facilitation) necessary for practice (Nejedlo et al., 1985). Researchers and educators have since heralded the document as the foundation for defining sport counseling and the treatment of athletes. However, the purpose of this publication was not to establish fundamental principles and standards, but to outline trends, future work environments, and specialty roles in a number of different areas of counseling (Arredondo & Lewis, 2001). The authors did not intend for this list of knowledge bases and skills to serve as a rigorously developed set of competencies for counseling athletes. The intent was to provide a primer for future considerations in sport counseling. The Imagine publication does promote an apparent commitment to a wellness orientation with athletes; however, it serves as the first brick in a foundation for counselors to stand upon, not a jumping-off point for pedagogy and practice.
Hinkle (1989a, 1989b) continued to push for an established sport counseling specialty in papers presented at the Southeastern Psychological Association and Southern ACES. Hinkle also established the ACES Sports Counseling Interest Network in 1992, and the first meeting of the group was held at the American Counseling Association conference in Baltimore (J. S. Hinkle, personal communication, November 13, 2017). In two separate publications, Hinkle (1994) and Petitpas, Buntrock, Van Raalte, and Brewer (1995) made similar arguments that sport counselors must focus on the developmental and emotional aspects of the individual rather than performance optimization and mental skills training. Hinkle (1994) continued by discussing integrated treatment for athletes that included sport psychology, counseling, and developmental and educational programming, highlighting the unique contribution of each profession and the importance of taking a team approach to fully address the diverse needs of athletes. In addition, Hinkle discussed how sport counselors may work with clinical issues, career and life planning, programs for children, and a research agenda.
Though little formal evidence exists, several hurdles have impacted forward progress in the sport counseling arena. For example, there is anecdotal evidence that counselors may view athletes as a population unworthy of services. When asked why G. M. Miller and Wooten’s (1995) sport counseling proposal to the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) was never adopted, H. R. Wooten shared, “It appeared that working with athletes was a little ‘boutique’ for most counselors as athletes continued to be seen as privileged” (personal communication, May 27, 2014). Poor visibility among other health professionals working in sport, few opportunities for supervised internships due to a lack of licensed professionals working in sport, limited counseling research with athlete populations, and minimal commitment to athlete mental health until recent years all may have had an effect on the pace at which sport counseling has advanced. Despite counseling researchers’ and advocates’ efforts to move sport counseling forward, more than 20 years later, counselors remain committed to the descriptors of the Imagine publication, but need clarity in professional identity and service provision.
At present, counselors who desire specialized knowledge in working with athletes may be confused by the way that the specialty is being defined and marketed. For example, athletic counseling, is a term used to market academic programs that prepare students for AASP certification and employment in applied sport psychology. Graduates of these programs are not counselors; rather, they meet criteria necessary to be recognized as a Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP). A CC-AASP is recognized as an individual trained to enhance athletic performance through mental skills training (AASP, 2017), but it is not a credential that prepares individuals to provide counseling to athletes. A CC-AASP does not participate in many of the typical responsibilities of counselors, including the diagnosis of mental health disorders, substance abuse counseling, and marital or family counseling (AASP, 2017). Counseling certificate programs also utilize the athletic counseling moniker to market their specialized curriculum to licensed counselors, suggesting these programs see a benefit in providing additional training in athletics to individuals already trained as counselors. This model recognizes that the foundational knowledge and skills essential to licensed counselors are important regardless of population or setting. Thus, specialized training related to working in athletics in addition to the core training of licensed counselors may be the best way to maintain cohesion within the counseling profession while still providing athletes with the specialized services they need. Unfortunately, confusion among athletes, coaches, administrators, and other professionals exists because there is a lack of significant knowledge of sport and mental health, which may be the result of a lack of a clear model within the mental health professions about what sport counseling should look like and the distinctive role sports counselors can have when working with athletes. We believe that a commitment to establishing a clearer sport counseling identity would distinguish sport counseling programs like those at Springfield College, California University of Pennsylvania, and Adler University from other programs and would provide enhanced opportunities for graduates wanting to work in athletics.
Implications and Future Directions for Sport Counseling Researchers and Practitioners
Counselors must consider the question: “If the need for sport counselors exists, why haven’t they proliferated among sport organizations?” This question is not easily answered without significant inquiry; still, there is evidence that begins to tell the story. Certainly, the ubiquity of a stigma against mental health in athletics has historically inspired hesitation to seek help (Brewer, Van Raalte, Petitpas, Bachman, & Weinhold, 1998). In fact, counselors are no strangers to this stigma. Historically, individuals have hesitated to seek assistance for mental health concerns due to the societal stigma mental health carries. Over the years, education and awareness efforts have decreased mental health stigma; however, the profession of counseling has continued to struggle with identifying itself as a profession distinct from other mental health professions (Remley & Herlihy, 2016). To mitigate this struggle, counselors have worked tirelessly to educate and advocate for the professional identity of counselors. In doing so, counselors have utilized Nugent’s (1980) guidelines for identifying a mature profession to gain professional distinction (Remley & Herlihy, 2016). These guidelines include having a clearly defined role and scope of practice, offering unique services, having specialized knowledge and skills, having a code of ethics, obtaining legal rights to offer services through licensure and certification, and having an ability to monitor professional practice (Nugent, 1980). In order to achieve these criteria, some members of the profession promote viewing counseling as the predominant profession with specialty areas that continue to support the primary profession (Remley & Herlihy, 2016). As one of the potential specialties, the area of sport counseling can learn from the progress the primary profession of counseling has accomplished. Utilizing the parallels present in the journey of the counseling profession as an example, sport counseling also can develop a mature identity within the counseling profession. Despite this area’s history and obstacles to proliferation, there are many ways that counselors can play an active role in building the sport counseling specialty.
Counselors interested in working with athletes must focus on the development of a comprehensively developed identity. Sport counseling lacks dedicated documentation of the behaviors that practitioners perform. The values and beliefs that distinguish sport counseling from related professions need to be identified. At minimum, the development of competencies, teaching and practice guidelines, and ethical codes are necessary to establish an identity that is separate but compatible with existing services for athletes, while still remaining true to the overall counseling profession. As advocates of a sport counseling specialization begin to take concrete steps toward promoting professional identity, practitioners may be better able to market themselves to stakeholders and find opportunities to begin meeting the mental health needs of athletes.
The 20/20 Vision for the Future of Counseling (20/20; Kaplan & Gladding, 2011) marks an important step in the establishment of a clear and succinct philosophy representative of all counselors. The 20/20 research team used Delphi methodology, an approach to structuring and organizing experts to come to consensus on an area of incomplete knowledge (Powell, 2003), to invite leaders in counseling to determine an updated, more appropriate definition to clarify the profession’s identity (Kaplan & Gladding, 2011). In an effort to unify as one counseling profession, counselors advocating for a distinct sport counseling specialty must consider 20/20 as an opportunity to enhance its professional identity. The development of a disparate or duplicated area would result in further fragmentation. Ultimately, the authors believe that a sport counseling specialty would be best defined by starting with our already existing 20/20 philosophy: “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals” (Kaplan, Tarvydas, & Gladding, 2014, p. 366). Further, 20/20 may serve as an important launching pad from which sport counseling advocates can begin to stake out their domain.
A first step in the establishment of the sport counseling specialty is the rigorous development of competencies that are germane to the practice of working with athletes. Competencies, knowledge, skills, and attributes that represent professional qualifications necessary for effective practice may help sport counselors understand and communicate their identity. A lack of an empirically derived set of sport counseling competencies limits sport counselors’ ability to establish their identity and expertise. Researchers should consider the use of Delphi methodology to determine knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary to treat athlete mental health needs at the highest level. Delphi has been performed effectively to outline guidelines for competence in other areas of counselor education (Wester & Borders, 2014), providing evidence for its potential effectiveness in establishing sport counseling competencies. Future considerations for sport counseling competencies may include understanding the demands of the athletic experience, privacy concerns associated with athletic settings, the role of physiology in sport, the influence of competitive environments on mental health, sport culture, the importance of building relationships with athletes and associated individuals (e.g., coaches, athletic trainers, administrators), and additional athlete-specific issues. Researchers might consider querying counselors in practice with athletes, instructors teaching sport counseling courses in counselor education programs, clinical and applied sport psychologists, athletes, and other relevant parties in sport to establish specific areas of competence necessary for sport counselors.
Leaders in sport counseling must also revisit and revise G. M. Miller and Wooten’s (1995) proposed teaching guidelines published in the Journal of Counseling & Development in 1995. G. M. Miller and Wooten cited Nejedlo et al.’s (1985) aforementioned publication and the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (now AASP) as foundational influences on curriculum development. The curriculum was meant to be integrated with the common core and clinical experiences required by CACREP to provide training standards necessary for practice in sport counseling. The 1995 teaching guidelines were ultimately published, but a plan for their adoption was never established. G. M. Miller and Wooten’s publication serves as an important step toward the integration of sport counseling and counselor education that needs to be addressed more fully. A foundation of researched and well-reasoned competencies will eventually give way to curricular guidelines to anchor and clarify sport counseling identity, practice, and ethics.
The adoption of a new code of ethics may not be necessary; however, there are special circumstances for counselors to consider when working with athletes and sports organizations. For example, ethical standards related to confidentiality and relationships with other professionals can apply to working with athletes, coaches, and other athletic staff; however, more explicit statements related to exceptions to confidentiality and how to work effectively on behalf of the athlete while still respecting a referral from a coach may be helpful for counselors working in athletic settings. Sport counselors may find it prudent to learn from sport psychologists, who typically navigate similar work environments. According to sport psychologists Etzel and Watson (2007), several ethical challenges exist that may present themselves on a daily basis.
One primary ethical challenge that sport counselors may face is determining who their client is when working with individual athletes on a professional or university team. Athletic departments responsible for paying for mental health services, as well as coaches and support staff, may assume that they should be made aware of an athlete’s mental health status. Etzel and Watson (2007) pointed out that athletes are perceived by their managers as controlled investments; there is an expectation of being informed and in control. Ethical guidelines must be made clear for sport counselors to negotiate such challenging situations. Additional challenges include navigating multiple roles (e.g., counselor, team consultant, advisor to coaches), impromptu consultations that occur outside of the counseling session, NCAA and professional rules and regulations, and the likely possibility that other parties will notice an athlete seeking the professional’s services if housed in a university or team setting, among countless other potential dual relationships. The establishment of competencies, training guidelines, and ethical standards that apply specifically to counselor–athlete and counselor–team relationships may appear to be a daunting task. Counselors and counselor educators interested in sport must collaborate and advocate for a strongly anchored position in athletics by committing to the development of these foundational elements of sport counseling practice.
Counselors must acknowledge existing and potential outlets for collaboration if sport counseling is to evolve. The ACES Sports Counseling Interest Network, started by Hinkle in 1992, provides a space for counselors interested in discussing present challenges and supports to the growth of sport counseling. Utilization of this medium for collaboration on future research and presentations is vital to the health and expansion of this specialty. Counselors must consider the importance of offering psychoeducational workshops, connecting athletes to mentorship, and developing other organizational supports for athletes in need. These efforts will help to rightly justify counselors’ push for professional inclusion in sporting contexts. An early step will be to normalize the existence of sport counselors among other professionals advocating for improvements to athlete mental health. Counselor membership on the NCAA Mental Health Task Force is a necessary step to becoming a more widely known and respected entity. As sport counselors become more mainstream and accepted professionals in sport, licensed counselors could provide opportunities to counselors-in-training who require supervised internships before starting their careers as sport counselors. Without active networks for collaboration, counselors remain isolated and perhaps less likely to catalyze change.
Developing these professional relationships is critical to gaining entry and contributing to change in sport. Collaborations with organizations committed to athlete health could encourage other like-minded organizations to consider the expertise of counselors. For example, the Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness (IPAHW) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in collaboration with Prevention Strategies, LLC, is an organization committed to the improvement of athlete health and wellness through behavioral intervention programs, policy making, evidence-based training, and intervention evaluation. IPAHW has collaborated with the NCAA Sport Science Institute to ensure that student athletes have access to “myPlaybook: The Freshman Experience,” a catalog of web-based trainings that facilitate behavior change in student athletes across topics like: social norms related to alcohol and drug use, bystander intervention, mental health, time management, hazing, sleep wellness, and sport nutrition (IPAHW, 2017; J. J. Milroy, personal communication, October 3, 2017). Additionally, IPAHW and the NCAA Sport Science Institute are rolling out a new sexual violence prevention course in response to the NCAA’s new policy that requires coaches, student athletes, and administrators to receive sexual violence prevention education (NCAA, 2017a). Counselors have significant training and expertise that may enhance the work of these organizations advocating for health promotion among athlete populations.
Sport counselors must aim to publish athlete mental health research and seek grant funding for experimental research to further establish this specialty. Though relatively new itself, sport psychology has established several journals that address both performance-oriented (e.g., Journal of Applied Sport Psychology) and clinical (e.g., Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology) issues in sport that have yet to be fully explored by counseling researchers. A solidly established sport counselor identity may lead to the eventuality of a sport counseling journal; however, there is a current lack of leadership committed to this task. As the foundational elements detailed above are established to move sport counseling forward, a journal will become a necessity for researchers to expand their knowledge of athlete mental health needs and counselor interventions. Sport counseling researchers publishing in counseling and related journals may need to consider opportunities to fund experimental pilots and larger scale projects. Opportunities for grant funding in sport, although few, are available and range in size and scope. The National Institutes of Health has committed significant funding to the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive, degenerative brain disease diagnosed at a high rate among deceased athletes of the NFL (Diagnose CTE, 2017). The Center for Healthy African American Men through Partnerships (2017) has expressed interest in funding research on head trauma in athletes. The NCAA annually supports researchers with pilot funding for alcohol abuse intervention and innovative projects designed to enhance student athlete well-being (NCAA, 2017b). Counseling researchers have not procured funding through these opportunities.
More than ever, Myers, Sweeney, and White’s (2002) assertions that counselors must establish their professional identity, enhance their public image, and develop strong interprofessional, collaborative networks remain both relevant and necessary. Counselors currently attempting to break into the safeguarded culture of athletics may struggle to establish credibility and communicate a unified identity. Currently, counselors in sport have a small foundation to stand upon when discussing the specialization of their services to athletes and athletic staffs. The gaps to be filled are clearly labeled and ready to be addressed. The future of sport counseling requires bolstering the literature that outlines its professional development. Counselors involved in sport need to develop relevant research initiatives, obtain funding, and pilot experimental studies that show evidence of improved mental health outcomes with athletes. The marketability of a sport counselor relies on the ability to demonstrate effectiveness with athletes and collaborate with the professional fields that currently saturate sporting contexts. The prospect of a thriving sport counseling specialty is within the counseling profession’s reach. Counselors must now cultivate a sport counseling identity that clearly projects their viability, marketability, and potential for positively influencing athlete mental health.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.
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Stephen P. Hebard, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Katie A. Lamberson is an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Stephen Hebard, Department of Human Studies, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1720 2nd Ave S., EB 207, Birmingham, AL 35294-1250, email@example.com.
Laura Boyd Farmer, Corrine R. Sackett, Jesse J. Lile, Nancy Bodenhorn, Nadine Hartig, Jasmine Graham, Michelle Ghoston
Using quantitative and qualitative analysis, the perceived impact of post-master’s experience (PME) during counselor education and supervision (CES) doctoral study was examined across five core areas of professional identity development: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy. The results showed positive perceptions of the impact of PME in four of the five core areas, with significant relationships between the amount of PME and perceived impact on supervision and leadership and advocacy. Implications inform CES doctoral admissions committees as well as faculty who advise master’s students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in CES.
Keywords: counselor education and supervision, doctoral study, post-master’s experience, doctoral admissions, professional identity
The master’s degree in counseling serves as the entry-level degree in the field, and students entering a doctoral program in counselor education and supervision (CES) are believed to have already met the standards of an entry-level clinician (Goodrich, Shin, & Smith, 2011). Therefore, the doctoral degree in CES is to prepare counselors for leadership in the profession within a variety of roles including supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy, as well as counseling practice (Bernard, 2006; Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2015; Goodrich et al., 2011; Sackett et al., 2015). Though CACREP (2015) recognizes previous professional experience as one of the doctoral program admission criteria, the counselor education field lacks clear professional standards regarding the amount and type of counseling experience necessary for admittance to doctoral programs (Boes, Ullery, Millner, & Cobia, 1999; Sackett et al., 2015; Schweiger, Henderson, McCaskill, Clawson, & Collins, 2012; Warnke, Bethany, & Hedstrom, 1999). Conventional wisdom may tell us the more post-master’s counseling experience a doctoral applicant has, the more enriched their doctoral experience will be; however, the CES field does not have empirical data for how CES doctoral students perceive the impact of their post-master’s experience (PME) on their doctoral education. Therefore, the purpose of the study was to explore the perceived impact of PME on doctoral study in CES.
In this study, researchers explored the perceived impact of PME across the five core areas of doctoral professional identity development outlined by CACREP (2015; Section 6. B.1-5). The following research questions guided the study: (1) How do advanced doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates perceive the impact of PME on the development of the five core areas of professional identity during doctoral study: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy? and (2) Is the amount of PME and the setting of PME related to the perceived impact of PME on the five core areas of professional identity during doctoral study: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy? Practically, the results inform CES doctoral admissions committees in considering applicants with and without PME. CES doctoral admissions committees must decide whether and how much PME should be required for admittance to their programs. PME is an important consideration in selecting doctoral students, yet few applicants have this experience (Nelson, Canada, & Lancaster, 2003), making it difficult to require. The results also inform CES faculty who advise master’s students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree. CES faculty members frequently encounter ambitious master’s students who are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, and one of the many considerations in that conversation is whether and how much PME should be obtained before doctoral study begins. Though PME is deemed important, many CES faculty members advise master’s students to go straight into doctoral study based on factors such as maturity, academics and skill level (Sackett et al., 2015). This is an issue for the field since experience is an important qualification in hiring CES faculty members (Bodenhorn et al., 2014; Rogers, Gill-Wigal, Harrigan, & Abbey-Hines, 1998) and clinical experience informs teaching (Rogers et al., 1998; Sackett et al., 2015), supervision (Sackett et al., 2015), and research (Munson, 1996; Sackett et al., 2015). Thus, exploring further the impact of PME on doctoral students’ development is critical.
Relevant CES Literature on Post-Master’s Experience
The field of CES lacks clarity regarding the amount or type of counseling experience preferable for incoming doctoral students (Sackett et al., 2015; Schweiger et al., 2012; Warnke et al., 1999). Recently, Swank and Smith-Adcock (2014) found that most CES doctoral programs in their study recommended, rather than required, one to two years of clinical experience for admission, while some suggested licensure for admission. Similarly, Nelson et al. (2003) found that counseling experience was a necessary component to doctoral admissions, though program representatives relayed the difficulty in requiring PME since so few applicants have experience. Twenty of the 25 CACREP-accredited programs in their sample rated successful work experience as a criterion for admission to their doctoral programs. Sixteen of those reported that work experience is always or often helpful in selecting strong doctoral students. CES doctoral programs deem experience is important in admissions, yet CES faculty members often advise master’s students to go immediately into doctoral programs (Sackett et al., 2015). Thus, there will likely continue to be a shortage of experienced doctoral applicants for doctoral admissions committees to choose from. As such, it is critical to explore the impact of PME on the areas of CES study to inform advisors at the master’s level how to advise their students on gaining PME prior to pursuing doctoral work.
Sackett et al. (2015) conducted a recent study to explore how CES faculty are advising master’s-level students interested in doctoral work regarding the amount of PME to obtain beforehand. CES faculty expressed the significant influence of clinical practice on the areas of teaching, research and supervision. Respondents identified the importance of clinical experience in providing for stimulation in research and in establishing credibility in teaching and supervision. Though there was much support for PME in the qualitative findings from this study, many respondents emphasized individual circumstances in evaluating readiness for doctoral work in CES, such as age, maturity, academics and skill level. For other respondents, the experience gained through master’s and doctoral training was enough, especially in cases where students were working in clinical capacities while completing their doctoral degrees. Thus, there is some indication in CES that PME is an important consideration in doctoral student admissions (Nelson et al., 2003; Swank & Smith-Adcock, 2014) and some indication that CES faculty members perceive the importance of PME in the areas of teaching, supervision and research (Sackett et al., 2015). The current study adds to the literature by exploring CES doctoral students’ perceptions of PME on their experiences in doctoral study.
Other Helping Professions’ Literature on PME
Related disciplines are concerned with the question of PME as well. In marriage and family therapy, students with clinical experience have been rated as better clinicians by faculty than those who did not have clinical experience (Piercy et al., 1995). Proctor (1996) and Munson (1996) wrote about opposing viewpoints on whether social work doctoral programs should admit students with limited to no post-master’s in social work (MSW) experience. Proctor’s stance was that requiring post-MSW experience for admission to doctoral programs in social work was a detriment to the field, as it meant the discipline might miss out on students who are research-minded and eager to continue with their education. On the other hand, Munson argued that post-MSW experience is essential for graduates of social work doctoral programs to fulfill the needs of the field, which include building knowledge, conducting practice research and effectively teaching social work practice. In clinical psychology, O’Leary-Sargeant (1996) found academic criteria to be most important in doctoral student admissions, while clinical competence also was important. It appears that determining PME’s place in the priority list for doctoral admissions and its impact on doctoral work is a concern for related disciplines as well.
As there are no clear guidelines for considering PME in doctoral student admissions (Sackett et al., 2015; Schweiger et al., 2012), and empirical studies exploring the doctorate in counselor education are scarce (Goodrich et al., 2011), with none specifically exploring the perceived impact of PME on doctoral students’ experiences, researchers set out to add to the literature in this area. Both doctoral admissions committees and faculty members advising master’s students who wish to pursue doctoral study encounter the dilemma of if and how much PME experience is important to gain prior to pursuing doctoral work. Given this, the purpose of this study was to explore the perceived impact of PME on the five core areas of doctoral professional identity: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy.
To investigate the perceived impact of PME on doctoral study, quantitative and qualitative methods were utilized for their complementarity (Johnson, Onwuegbuzie, & Turner, 2007). The study was guided by the research questions: (1) How do advanced doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates perceive the impact of PME on the development of the five core areas of professional identity during doctoral study: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy? and (2) Is the amount of PME and the setting of PME related to the perceived impact of PME on the five core areas of professional identity during doctoral study: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy? Institutional Review Board approval was acquired prior to data collection. The researchers asked participants to rate the perceived impact of their PME or lack of PME using an 11-point Likert scale (-5 to +5; strong negative impact to strong positive impact), and analyzed themes using participants’ responses to open-ended questions for the five core areas of doctoral professional identity.
Fifty-nine advanced doctoral students or recent graduates completed an online questionnaire. To define participants’ status to degree completion, all fell into one of three groups: recent doctoral graduates (completed a CES doctoral degree within the last three years), ABD doctoral students (all but dissertation; completed all coursework and were working on dissertation studies), and advanced doctoral students (two years into completing coursework). Among participants, 13 (22%) were recent doctoral graduates, 32 (54%) were ABD doctoral students, and 13 (22%) were advanced doctoral students. One participant did not answer this question.
Participants were asked to indicate the type of setting and experience that best described their PME, checking all items that applied. There were 10 options provided and an option for “other” that included a comment box. Forty-nine percent (n = 29) indicated PME in community-based agencies, 31% (n = 18) worked in K–12 school settings, 20% (n = 12) worked in private practice, and 7% (n = 4) worked in inpatient settings. Four participants indicated post-master’s work in more than one setting. Additionally, 37% (n = 22) indicated that their PME provided experiences working with diverse populations, 31% (n = 18) gained experience working with families, and 24% (n = 14) gained experience working with clients who had substance use issues. Less than 10% of participants indicated other counseling settings and experiences such as play therapy, bilingual counseling, day treatment and in-home counseling.
The 59 participants indicated a range of time spent in PME from zero years up to 19 years before entering doctoral study. Thirty-four percent (n = 20) indicated between zero and one year of experience, 25% (n = 15) between one and three years of experience, 19% (n = 11) between three and five years of experience, 17% (n = 10) between five and 10 years of experience, and 5% (n = 3) indicated more than 10 years of PME prior to entering doctoral study.
Survey links were distributed through two national electronic list-servs, CESNET (the Counselor Education and Supervision NETwork) and COUNSGRAD (for graduate students in counselor education). The study invitation was sent to the listservs on two separate occasions approximately one month apart. Simultaneously, the study invitation was sent to regional Association for Counselor Education and Supervision leaders requesting that it be distributed to their membership lists. Additionally, CACREP liaisons were asked to send the survey link and invitation to their doctoral students. The survey was delivered through SurveyMonkey, a commonly used software product with a secure feature that was used for this research. The following research question was identified to potential participants: How do doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates reflect on how their post-master’s counseling experience or lack of experience impacted their experiences as a doctoral student? A response rate could not be calculated, as it is not possible to identify how many potentially appropriate participants received the research request.
The authors collaborated on identifying questions that would serve to answer the research questions, focusing on five core areas of doctoral professional identity: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy. Two questions were asked about each of the five areas. “To what extent do you believe your post-master’s experience impacted your ability to develop [area] skills in your doctoral program?” used an 11-point Likert scale with the end points being (-5) strong negative impact and (+5) strong positive impact. Following the scaling question, an open-ended follow-up question was asked: “Please comment on how your experience impacted your [area] skills, and whether more or less experience would be beneficial.” Basic demographic questions were included regarding the type of experience gained prior to doctoral study, length of doctoral study and year of graduation. A pilot survey was sent to six people: two recent doctoral graduates, two ABD doctoral students, and two advanced doctoral students completing coursework. Feedback was provided on clarity and time involved.
Quantitative analyses included correlation and multiple linear regression to examine the relationship between the amount of PME obtained and the perceived impact on the five core areas of doctoral study. The research team hypothesized that the amount of PME would predict a positive relationship with the perceived impact on some core areas of doctoral study, although which core areas would be statistically significant were unknown. Therefore, this study represents an exploration of the relationships between previously unexamined variables in the literature.
An independent samples t-test examined the relationship between PME setting (clinical mental health or school) and the perceived impact of PME on the five core areas. For this analysis, several setting options (community-based agencies, private practice and inpatient hospitals) were combined into one setting labeled “clinical mental health,” which was compared to K–12 school settings (labeled “school”). The research team hypothesized that there would be no statistically significant differences between PME setting and any of the five core areas of doctoral study. There are no prior studies that examine these variables.
For the qualitative analysis, the first, third and fourth authors served as the data analysis team. The data analysis team analyzed responses to the open-ended questions using a constant comparative method described by Anfara, Brown, and Mangione (2002). Additionally, the team used a form of check coding described by Miles and Huberman (1994). The team members independently completed a first iteration of data analysis by assigning open codes for each of the five open-ended questions by reading responses to each item broadly and observing regularities (Anfara et al., 2002). The team members completed a second iteration of analysis, which included comparison within and between codes to establish categories and identify emergent themes. The constant comparative method provided a systematic way to analyze large amounts of data by organizing it into manageable parts first, and then identifying themes and patterns.
For the final step of analysis, the data analysis team rotated through a process of peer review as recommended by Miles and Huberman (1994). For each open-ended question, two team members were assigned as coders and one was assigned the role of peer reviewer. Once the team members arrived at individually derived themes, the team met together to discuss the findings and arrive at consensus for naming themes. During this meeting, the peer reviewer led the discussion by probing and seeking clarification on the original comment wording, thus helping the team to reach consensus for the themes. Consensus was reached when the three team members came to agreement on the final themes. The data analysis team sent the original data and final themes for each of the five core areas to the remaining four authors, who served as additional peer reviewers by examining the analysis.
Quantitative and qualitative analyses were conducted in this study of the perceived impact of PME on the five core areas of doctoral development for advanced doctoral students completing coursework, ABD doctoral students, and recent doctoral graduates. The results are presented in the following sections, with discussion to follow.
Quantitative Results: Correlation, Multiple Regression and Independent Samples T-test
Correlational analysis was used to explore the relationships among all variables: amount of PME obtained (years), and the perceived impact of PME on counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy. A correlational matrix presents the relationships among the variables in Table 1. Among significant relationships, the amount of PME was related to perceived impact on development in supervision (r(57) = .43, p < .01) and leadership and advocacy (r(57) = .39, p < .01).
Correlation Matrix for Main Study Variables
Note. Variables 2–6 represent the perceived impact of PME on the core area of doctoral identity development (counseling, teaching, supervision, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy)
Multiple linear regression was used to examine whether the amount of PME (independent variable) predicted the perceived impact of PME on each of the five core areas of doctoral development: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy (dependent variables). The results of the regression analysis indicated that amount of PME predicted 38% of variance in the perceived impact of PME (R2 = .38, F (6, 47) = 4.80, p < .01). The amount of PME significantly predicted the perceived impact of PME on two variables: supervision (β = .44, p < .01) and leadership and advocacy (β = .34, p < .05). A post hoc power analysis was conducted utilizing G*Power. With an alpha level of .01, a sample size of 59, and a medium effect size of .61 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the multiple linear regression was .98.
Finally, an independent samples t-test was conducted to compare the perceived impact of PME in school PME and clinical mental health PME settings. Results showed a significant difference between school PME (M = 4.43, SD = 1.02) and clinical mental health PME (M = 3.10, SD = 1.89) for the core area of leadership and advocacy (t(51) = -3.26, p = .02), reflecting that doctoral students with PME in schools perceived a significantly higher positive impact of their PME on the development of leadership and advocacy compared to doctoral students with PME in clinical mental health settings. In other words, both PME settings (school and clinical mental health) perceived a positive impact of their PME on the development of leadership and advocacy. However, doctoral students who had PME as school counselors perceived this experience as having a significantly greater impact on their development in leadership and advocacy than doctoral students who had obtained PME in clinical mental health settings.
The remaining four core areas of doctoral development were not significantly different when comparing PME settings. With an alpha level of .05, a sample size of 59, and a medium effect size of .88 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the independent samples t-test was .83.
Qualitative and Descriptive Results: Scaled and Open-Ended Responses
The following results describe respondents’ perceptions about the impact of PME on five core areas of doctoral development: counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy (CACREP, 2015). Data was gathered for each core area using an 11-point Likert scale (-5 to +5) and was collapsed into five categories for ease of discussion. The categories were: (a) strong positive impact, +4 and +5; (b) weak to moderate positive impact, +1 through +3; (c) no impact, 0; (d) weak to moderate negative impact, -1 through -3; and (e) strong negative impact, -4 and -5. Table 2 reflects the percentage of responses in each core area. Table 3 provides a summary of qualitative themes. In the sections that follow, percentage results are summarized first, followed by a discussion of the qualitative themes within each core area of doctoral development.
Descriptive Statistics: Perceived Impact of PME on Core Areas of Doctoral Professional Identity
Core Area of Doctoral Development: Counseling. A majority of participants (60%) responded that PME had a strong positive impact on their ability to develop counseling skills in their doctoral program. Another 29.3% indicated a weak to moderate positive impact. Five themes emerged from the written responses describing the perceived impact of PME on the development of counseling skills.
Theme 1: Increased confidence. Developing confidence in one’s counseling skills was frequently discussed as a benefit of having PME prior to doctoral study. Having confidence in the counseling skills already established through practice allowed for even more clinical growth during doctoral study. Many respondents stated they had greater confidence than their peers who lacked PME. Confidence also was viewed as advantageous when being asked to try a new clinical skill or technique: “I was more familiar with multiple clinical skills and my level of comfort when trying new clinical skills was higher than those who did not have the same clinical experience.”
Theme 2: Integration of theory into practice. Participants described the perceived impact of PME as being useful for helping to integrate theory into practice during doctoral study. While learning theories and reading about concepts establishes a foundation for counseling skills, participants reported that PME provided the context needed to test theoretical understanding in practice. Others commented that having some PME and then returning to the classroom for doctoral study gave them a greater understanding and appetite for theory. Theory was learned more thoroughly with a contextual base of experience upon which to build, as one respondent described:
My experience impacted my counseling skills; however, my experience alone did not help me conceptualize theory. I learned theory much more thoroughly post-master’s (once in doctoral studies) and then was able to identify how I had been using it all along as well as to incorporate new knowledge.
Perceived Impact of PME: Qualitative Themes by Core Area of Doctoral Development
Theme 3: Conceptualizing cases. Case conceptualization was identified as a benefit of having PME. Participants described having greater clinical understanding and ability to apply knowledge as an advantage of PME. Others commented that having a context with which to build upon existing skills was useful and contributed to more complex conceptualizations of clients and problems.
Theme 4: Honing counseling techniques. Participants reported that their PME refined the counseling techniques they had gained in master’s study, enabling them to expand their repertoire and focus on honing advanced techniques during their doctoral work. One participant expressed feeling greater “comfort when trying new clinical skills” during doctoral study while another stated they were “able to focus on refining higher level skills” in their doctoral program.
Theme 5: The unique experience of school counselors. There was a notable theme regarding the distinct difference in school counselors’ experience when considering the impact of PME on counseling skill development. Some school counselors commented that they did not regularly use counseling skills while working in schools due to the variety of other responsibilities placed on school counselors. Another respondent stated that clinical supervision was crucial to developing clinical competence and that they did not receive clinical supervision while working as a school counselor. For those doctoral students with PME as school counselors, they expressed they would have benefitted by having more experience in several areas, such as use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, dual-diagnosis, and substance use treatment. Some school counselors described using only specific theories in their setting (e.g., reality therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy), and that practicing with a broad range of techniques would have been useful prior to doctoral study.
Core Area of Doctoral Development: Supervision. The largest group of participants (48.3%) responded that PME had a strong positive impact on their ability to develop supervision skills in their doctoral program. Another group of participants (31%) rated PME as having a weak to moderate positive impact on their supervision skills. Five themes emerged from the written responses describing how PME impacted the development of supervision skills.
Theme 1: Increased confidence as a doctoral supervisor. Participants reported greater confidence while developing supervision skills as a result of having PME. In general, doctoral students in training are asked to enter into a supervisory relationship with master’s students in training in order to develop supervision skills. Having counseling experience as a professional in the field assisted doctoral students to feel more confident in this new role, as one respondent commented, “I was able to supervise students in my former position, but also I feel the years of experience have given me insight that I can be confident in the information I pass on.”
Alternately, doctoral students who do not have PME are asked to step into the same supervisory role, but may feel inadequately prepared to be in a position of hierarchy and expertise. Most doctoral students who have not had PME have recently graduated from their master’s program; therefore, the difference between the supervisor and supervisee in terms of experience is small. A participant spoke to this struggle: “Naturally clinical supervision and counseling are related. Because of this, it would have helped to have a more solid grasp on my own counseling skills and for me to have personal experiences to draw upon when supervising.”
Theme 2: Formative experiences in supervision. Through obtaining PME, participants reflected on their initial experiences of receiving supervision as a necessary backdrop for learning how to provide supervision. Whether those initial experiences in supervision were described as positive or negative, participants stated that they learned a great deal about becoming a supervisor through the process of receiving supervision. Initial supervision experiences also were described as either “clinical” in nature or “administrative.” Regardless of the type of supervision received, the experience was regarded as helpful in preparing them for doctoral study to advance their skills as a supervisor.
There were some participants who reported being provided with supervision during their PME and others reported that they lacked supervision. In both instances, participants acknowledged that they valued supervision as a result of their PME. Among those lacking quality supervision, one respondent stated, “My [post-master’s] supervision was mostly administrative and as a result I was at a disadvantage coming into a clinical supervisory environment.” On the other side, one participant described their master’s and doctoral program as providing “lousy supervision” and not regularly attending scheduled supervision meetings. Both experiences capture the sentiment: inadequate supervision, as a graduate student or professional, influences one’s expectations of what defines effective supervision.
A final benefit of PME described by participants was the ability to understand the supervisee’s experience. Having experienced the position of being a supervisee first-hand enabled a greater understanding of supervisees’ struggles and real-world challenges that are faced when providing counseling. One respondent expressed, “I understood the situations the students were facing since I had recently faced them with my clients (e.g., transportation, childcare, resistance).” Some participants reflected on the experience of building rapport with a supervisor, and how influential this was in their development. Due to these experiences in the field, the importance of strengthening the supervisory relationship and establishing a safe place in the supervision environment were considered paramount. Overall, participants reported that having experience as a supervisee enabled them to realize and appreciate critical aspects of providing effective supervision.
Theme 3: Providing resources to supervisees. Participants reported that having PME, which often included supervision, enabled them to provide better resources to supervisees as doctoral students. Some of these resources included community resources, referral options, counseling stories, therapeutic tools and techniques, varied perspectives, and a more diverse conceptualization of clients and issues. Here, a respondent illustrates this theme:
[I believe] it is super important to have . . . clinical experience when supervising students in a doctoral program. You have to be able to understand the student’s experience, have experience with many different client populations and modalities, be able to conceptualize client problems, and give students tools to advance their skills.
Theme 4: Credibility with supervisees. Greater credibility as a supervisor was regarded as an important benefit of having PME. Through the eyes of their supervisee, having more PME was perceived as helpful to establish credibility. This theme included two aspects: the doctoral supervisor having something valuable to offer in supervision, and the supervisee reporting greater confidence in a supervisor who had professional counseling experience. In this quote, a respondent describes feelings of credibility as a supervisor based on their PME: “I am able to understand the intricacies of a school system, thus I can help my students think of problem-solving strategies to work with their students and supervisors.”
Core Area of Doctoral Development: Teaching. The largest group of participants (38.9%) responded that PME had a strong positive impact on their ability to develop teaching skills in their doctoral program. Another group of participants (33.4%) rated PME as having a weak to moderate positive impact on their teaching skills. A smaller group of participants (22.2%) responded that PME had no impact at all on the development of teaching skills. Four themes emerged from the written responses describing how PME impacted the development of teaching skills.
Theme 1: Confidence in teaching. Having more confidence was frequently cited as a benefit to having PME and developing teaching skills during doctoral study. Some participants stated that many aspects of counseling involve teaching to a degree; therefore, having PME strengthened the ability to teach in the classroom. On the other side, there were some participants who regretted not having more PME directly related to teaching. One participant wrote, “I wish I had more experience teaching, managing a classroom, developing innovative and attention catching ideas. I know it’s more me than anything else so I need to develop my style more.”
Theme 2: Providing examples in the classroom. Perhaps the theme with the most support from participants was the perceived benefit of PME in their ability to provide examples while teaching. Those with PME had plenty of practical examples from their experience to draw from, which helped them a great deal while teaching. One participant wrote, “I was able to use examples drawn from my clinical experience to bring certain topics to life. I was also better able to describe some clinical issues and to teach certain skills.” Several participants wrote that they received positive feedback from students about the value of their stories and examples to enhance learning. Some also stated that they felt better prepared to conduct a live role-play in class to bring a technique to life because they had benefitted from PME. One respondent illustrated this idea well: “It’s difficult to teach something you have no experience with. There were others in my cohort who had no real clinical experience prior to starting their doctoral program and they were much less effective as teachers.”
Theme 3: Developing a new skill. Some participants responded that teaching was an entirely new skill that was unrelated to their PME. For these participants, teaching was a skill that was solely developed during doctoral study, as this respondent wrote: “Teaching was not a part of my post-master’s work. This was an entirely new set of skills I learned in doctoral study. Neither more nor less experience would have made a difference for me in this area.”
Theme 4: Value of prior teaching experiences. The fourth theme captures the positive impact described by those participants whose PME included teaching experiences prior to pursuing their doctoral degree. In particular, those with school counseling experience described preparing and implementing classroom guidance lessons as a natural comparison to teaching. Some participants had PME that involved providing training and giving presentations, which was also associated with teaching. For these participants, their specific PME had a positive impact on their development as a teacher during doctoral study, as this respondent reported: “Having an education background and then opportunity in my school to perform classroom guidance lessons, while different, still gave me an important opportunity to practice developing lesson plans.”
Core Area of Doctoral Development: Research and Scholarship. The largest group of participants (46.3%) responded that PME had no impact on their ability to develop research and scholarship skills in their doctoral program. Smaller groups of participants reported a range of weak to moderate to strong positive impact on their research and scholarship development. This was the only area of doctoral development that most participants described as being unrelated to PME. Three themes emerged from the written responses describing how PME impacted the development of research and scholarship.
Theme 1: No impact on research development. Most participants stated that their ability to develop research skills during their doctoral program was unrelated to having PME in the field. For these participants, research was regarded as an advanced skill unique to doctoral study. Many participants expressed that research and scholarship was not essential in their post-master’s positions, as is relayed in this quote: “Research is one area where [PME] is not as vital.”
Theme 2: Basic research experiences were useful. A few participants responded that obtaining some basic research experience was useful during the time between master’s and doctoral study. In general, it is necessary for counselors in the field to conduct basic searches for knowledge to support their practice. These searches may take the form of using the Internet to find resources for clients or reviewing text-books or articles when using a particular technique or theory. School counselors discussed their use of online research for building school guidance programs. In addition, some counselors gained basic research skills in their PME through collecting and analyzing data regarding the provision of services or client outcomes. One participant described her experience with a research study:
I worked in a clinical trial of CBT, CBT + medication, and medication only. This exposure really helped me get an idea of what research is possible in mental health . . . so it had a large impact on me. I pursued my doctorate largely because I wanted to engage in research and scholarship.
Theme 3: Contributed to area of research focus. Participants credited their PME as informing their ability to examine relevant topics for research. Some stated that their PME inspired their area of research focus. One participant noted that by working with specific populations, such as a specific ethnic minority population, “discrepancies and gaps in service” were found and helped the participant think about questions to pursue through research.
Core Area of Doctoral Development: Leadership and Advocacy. A majority of participants (58.2%) responded that PME had a strong positive impact on their ability to develop leadership and advocacy skills in their doctoral program. Another group of participants (23.7%) rated PME as having a weak to moderate positive impact on their leadership and advocacy skills. Five themes emerged from the written responses describing how PME was perceived to impact the development of leadership and advocacy skills.
Theme 1: Sense of responsibility to the profession. Participants described a heightened sense of responsibility to provide leadership and advocacy in the counseling field based on their PME. Some acknowledged a feeling of, “This is my job now,” related to the assumption of responsibility as a doctoral student in CES. Assuming greater responsibility was the most common theme discussed by participants, emerging in various forms.
Many participants described a sense of being propelled into leadership and advocacy through their PME. One school counselor wrote, “My job forced me to fight for myself, my students, teachers and parents. It was the best experience because I had to do it, or my job would be ineffective and possibly in jeopardy.” Another participant wrote:
Due to the nature of my job, I was doing a significant amount of advocacy. . . . Many of the kids on my caseload had multiple challenges, such as racial minority status, lack of citizenship, poverty, and/or domestic violence, and it was part of my responsibility to help them address the challenges they faced in all aspects of their lives in order to improve their mental health and functioning in school and at home.
Overall, participants described their PME as the most formative training for developing leadership and advocacy skills. PME provided a sense of purpose and meaning to advocacy and leadership in the counseling profession.
Theme 2: Awareness of advocacy needs within diverse client populations. Participants responded that a greater awareness of the needs of diverse populations, particularly minority populations, was a result and benefit of their PME. Through working with underrepresented populations, they had a greater appreciation for the need to develop leadership and advocacy skills. One participant also described having a “deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by certain populations within our society,” which laid the groundwork for developing leadership and advocacy skills in the doctoral program. Once involved in a doctoral program, advocacy felt like a way to “join forces with people who care” to address inequities and help marginalized groups. In this way, having exposure to different cultural groups through their PME provided the context for understanding and developing advocacy action strategies.
Theme 3: Motivation and direction for leadership and advocacy. Participants described that the motivation and direction for their leadership and advocacy work was inspired by the sense of responsibility and the awareness of needs that originated in their PME. In this way, PME helped to pave the way for the focus of their subsequent leadership and advocacy work. Regarding leadership, participants reflected that direct counseling work “consumed them” once in the profession and, as a result, professional development became something that you fit in when you could. Once they re-entered into graduate work as a doctoral student, they valued leadership and professional involvement and could give these aspects of development a more passionate focus. In a way, not having much time for professional development and leadership roles while directly serving clients provided motivation for becoming involved as a doctoral student.
Participants also reported that the presentations they submit to conferences are motivated by the needs they became aware of during their PME. Many credited their PME for helping them develop awareness of the future needs counselors were going to face, which motivated their advocacy for improved counselor training.
Theme 4: Development of leadership and advocacy skills on-the-job. Many participants described the need to develop leadership and advocacy skills on-the-job during their PME, and how valuable this was to their doctoral work. Participants experienced first-hand the lack of funding and resources in the community and school settings, which forced them to act in creative ways to get clients’ and students’ needs met. In addition, some described working in a position with multiple roles or serving multiple school campuses, which forced them to learn how to initiate programs independently, balance multiple roles, communicate with a variety of stakeholders, and thus develop leadership skills. Advocacy also was essential to develop on-the-job, as described by this participant:
I worked as a bilingual counselor, the only one at my clinic, working with a specific population for a period of time. I had to do a lot of leadership and advocacy work at the clinic to help my supervisors and colleagues understand this specific population and the resources that were available in the community specifically for this population.
Theme 5: Confidence to speak up. Again, confidence emerged as a theme with regard to developing leadership and advocacy skills during doctoral study. Having PME gave participants the necessary confidence to speak up in classes, in meetings and at conferences. Many reported that they became much more confident about voicing concerns and advocating due to their first-hand knowledge of issues facing counselors in the field, as did this respondent:
I think my post-master’s skills made me more confident about speaking up in meetings and conferences and it enhanced my advocacy skills because I knew what the issues facing clinicians were. It didn’t always make me popular or well understood among counselor educators with little clinical experience, however.
For these respondents, having greater confidence to use one’s voice seemed a natural result of having some years of experience with “boots on the ground” and becoming acclimated to the real-world experience of working as a counselor.
The results from this study help fill a gap identified in the literature regarding clarity in the counselor education field on the amount of counseling experience preferable for incoming doctoral students (Sackett et al., 2015; Schweiger et al., 2012; Warnke et al., 1999). Results of this study indicate that doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates of counselor education programs perceived a positive impact of their PME on doctoral study. The positive impact of PME was described across all five core areas of doctoral development as defined by CACREP (2015; Section 6. B.1-5), yet was particularly strong regarding counseling, supervision, teaching, and leadership and advocacy. Quantitative analysis confirmed a significant predictive relationship between the amount of PME obtained and the perceived impact on development of supervision and leadership and advocacy as doctoral students. While some participants perceived that their PME had a positive impact on the development of research and scholarship, this impact was far less pronounced than in other core areas, and many expressed that their PME had no impact on development in the area of research and scholarship. These findings align with and extend upon previous findings (Sackett et al., 2015) that CES faculty members believe PME informs the supervision, teaching and research of CES doctoral students.
Previous research has noted the strenuous nature of entering CES doctoral studies, with such a transition being marked by fluctuations in both emotion and confidence (Dollarhide, Gibson, & Moss, 2013; Hughes & Kleist, 2005). This transition involves the expansion of professional roles to include that of a counselor, student, educator, supervisor, and researcher and scholar (Dollarhide et al., 2013; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011; Limberg et al., 2013; West, Bubenzer, Brooks, & Hackney, 1995). A notable theme in the current study was the confidence that participants experienced and attributed to PME. With the tendency for new doctoral students to experience self-doubt in these multiple roles, the confidence gained through PME may help to mobilize internal resources, moving them forward in the developmental process as a CES doctoral student.
Considering all themes that emerged in this study of CES doctoral students and recent graduates, there is strong support for the value of experiential learning that is gained through PME. According to Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, concrete lived experiences provide the basis for reflection; then, from these reflections new information can be assimilated and abstract concepts can be formed (Kolb, 1984). Participants in this study described a common benefit of PME: having a base of experiences as a professional counselor to reflect upon during doctoral study. The process of reflecting on lived experiences as a counselor supports crystallization of knowledge in a doctoral program where additional theories, skills, techniques, and advanced facets of professional identity are developed.
Even though the majority of participants described a positive perceived impact of PME toward doctoral development, there were some who did not perceive as much benefit. This finding is reminiscent of Sackett et al.’s (2015) finding that some CES faculty members reported the counseling experience gained through the master’s and doctoral programs alone is enough and that success in a doctoral program is more reliant on the characteristics of each student. It is possible that learning styles may best predict whether and which master’s students benefit from PME prior to doctoral study. Kolb’s experiential learning theory (1984) stated that individuals have a preference among four modes of the learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Considering Kolb’s four learning styles, it is possible that those participants who have a preference for abstract conceptualization rely less on lived experiences as a counselor to understand and apply concepts; thus, doctoral students with this preferred learning style might successfully develop in the five core areas of doctoral identity without perceiving any benefits from PME. Future research is needed to examine this hypothesis.
Research and scholarship was the only core area of doctoral professional identity that PME was perceived to have no impact on for a large group of participants (46.3%). This finding may be worth considering for CES faculty who advise master’s students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree. Depending on the master’s student’s career goal, obtaining PME may be less of a priority if aiming for a research faculty position, where teaching and supervision would not be a requirement.
Significance of Supervision, Leadership and Advocacy
A unique finding in this study was the positive, predictive relationship between the amount of PME obtained and the perceived impact on developing one’s identity in the areas of supervision and leadership and advocacy. Specifically, doctoral students who had more years of PME perceived a greater impact on their development in the areas of supervision and leadership and advocacy. For supervision, doctoral students who have not obtained any PME would be stepping into a new role where they are expected to provide teaching, consultation, and support for the skill development of counselors-in-training (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). Having little to no time between being in the master’s student role of receiving supervision and to the role of providing supervision may present significant challenges. Alternatively, a “master” clinician does not automatically become a “master” supervisor; specialized knowledge and skills are required to develop supervision competency (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). While obtaining some PME is perceived to significantly impact supervision development, the amount of PME may not be the only factor that influences supervision competence.
Open-ended comments shed further light on the perceived impact of PME and developing leadership and advocacy. Participants commented that through their lived experiences in schools and agencies, PME provided doctoral students with a sense of urgency about the needs of clients and the profession, thus motivating their advocacy work. Participants also acknowledged PME as valuable fodder for understanding their potential as leaders. Through the context of experience as a counselor, participants were better able to understand their ability to impact the profession through leadership and advocacy work as a counselor, supervisor and counselor educator.
Relevance of PME Setting
This study explored whether the setting of PME, school or clinical mental health, was related to the perceived impact of that experience on the five areas of doctoral identity development. The only significant difference in the setting where PME was obtained was in the areas of leadership and advocacy development. Those with school counseling experience perceived a greater impact of PME on leadership and advocacy development. For participants in this study, spending time working in a school system was essential to establishing a sense of oneself as a leader and advocate in school counseling.
While some evidence exists that PME is an important consideration in CES doctoral student admissions (Nelson et al., 2003; Swank & Smith-Adcock, 2014), the current study provides evidence of the perceived impact of PME in professional development as a CES doctoral student, especially in the areas of counseling, supervision, teaching, and leadership and advocacy. Quantitative analysis revealed a significant relationship between the amount of PME and perceived development in supervision and leadership and advocacy. Doctoral admissions committees may consider these findings as they weigh the pros and cons of applicants applying for doctoral study who have differing amounts of PME. Additionally, CES faculty advising master’s students whose ultimate goal is to pursue a doctoral degree may consider these findings as they offer guidance and support to students in the decision-making process.
Across the five core areas of doctoral professional identity development, PME was frequently perceived to boost confidence during doctoral study. However, there were some participants who reported a lack of confidence in the core areas of teaching and research, despite having PME. It would seem that teaching and research represent novel aspects of doctoral identity development, as both skill sets are not always involved in PME as a professional counselor. Research and scholarship is a primary focus of doctoral course content. In fact, the CACREP 2016 standards require CES doctoral students to become proficient in both qualitative and quantitative methodology (CACREP, 2015; Section 6 B.4.), which usually requires the completion of three or more research courses. With regard to teaching, many doctoral students are an integral part of counselor education programs, with roles as co-instructors, teaching assistants and guest lecturers. Yet, development of proficient teaching skills may extend beyond these co-teaching experiences during doctoral study, where vicarious learning and role modeling are heavily relied upon. As some participants in this study described, teaching is likely to be a new area of identity to develop; yet most (72.3%) reported that having years of PME aided their development as a teacher because they had real counseling experience to draw from and ample clinical examples to contextualize course content. Therefore, doctoral admissions committees should strongly consider the value of PME for doctoral applicants as a basis for development as a teacher.
In the current study, a wide variety of PME was represented (from 0–19 years), yet a question remains: How much experience is optimal to obtain? The current study only examined doctoral students’ perceptions. Within one theme in the current study, participants speculated about reaching a point of “diminishing returns,” in which too much time away from an academic setting (attaining PME) could result in a depletion of academic skills. However, two to three years of PME would typically allow CES applicants the opportunity to gain a counseling license, streamlining the career opportunities available to them upon graduation. Sackett at al. (2015) found that many CES faculty members advise master’s students to gain enough experience to earn licensure prior to pursuing doctoral study. For CES graduates who choose to continue practicing counseling in the field, provide supervision, or serve in administrative positions, state licensure is necessary. For CES graduates pursuing a faculty position, Bodenhorn et al. (2014) found that a majority of faculty postings sought applicants with licensure or two to three years of counseling experience. For either post-doctoral trajectory, obtaining at least two to three years of PME may be most beneficial.
This study provided an initial exploration of the perceived impact of PME on core areas of identity development as a doctoral student, while privileging the perspective of those doctoral students. Future studies are needed to examine the relationship between post-master’s counseling experience, development during doctoral study, and professional impact as a counselor educator and supervisor. Specifically, studies should explore professional outcomes of counselor educators with varying levels of PME. For example, what are students’ perceptions of faculty members and supervisors with more or less counseling experience? How is the type of institution (high teaching versus high research) related to the amount and benefit of professional counseling experience? Is continued professional practice after earning the CES doctoral degree related to professional success, career satisfaction, teaching evaluations or scholarship productivity? Future research focusing on these issues will add to the literature on this aspect of the CES profession by answering these questions.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Laura Boyd Farmer is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. Corrine R. Sackett is an Assistant Professor at Clemson University. Jesse J. Lile is a couple’s counselor in Boone, NC. Nancy Bodenhorn is an Associate Professor at Virginia Tech. Nadine Hartig is an Associate Professor at Radford University. Jasmine Graham is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Michelle Ghoston is an Assistant Professor at Gonzaga University. Correspondence can be addressed to Laura B. Farmer, School of Education (0302), 1750 Kraft Drive, Ste 2000, Blacksburg, VA 24061, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent research has focused on the discrepancy between school counselors’ preferred roles and their actual functions. Reasons for this discrepancy range from administrators’ misperceptions of the role of the school counselor to the slow adoption of comprehensive school counseling approaches such as the American School Counselor Association’s National Model. A look at counseling history reveals that competing professional identity models within the profession have inhibited the standardization of school counseling practice and supervision. School counselors are counseling professionals working within an educational setting, and therefore they receive messages about their role as both counselor and educator. The present article includes a discussion of the consequences of these competing and often conflicting messages, as well as a description of three strategies to combat the role stress associated with this ongoing debate.
Keywords: school counseling, counseling history, professional identity, supervision, educational setting
The profession of school counseling has existed for more than 100 years, and throughout that time, competing professional identity constructs have impacted the roles, responsibilities and supervision of school counselors. Since the inception of school counseling, when it was known as vocational guidance, confusion has existed on how best to use and manage the resource that is the school counselor (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006; Pope, 2009). Although the focus of the profession has changed from vocational guidance to the current concept of comprehensive school counseling, problems surrounding the use and supervision of school counselors persist. Today, although the profession has identified a National Model (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2012) that provides an example of a comprehensive programmatic approach, many practicing school counselors and administrators continue to work with outdated service models and reactive approaches (Hatch & Chen-Hayes, 2008; Lambie & Williamson, 2004). A look at the historical roots of school counseling provides insight into the lasting problems for school counselor utilization and supervision.
Historical Context of School Counselor Practice
At the outset of the school counseling profession, the role of vocational guidance slowly became recognized as an integral ingredient in effective vocational placement and training. With the creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association in 1913, and the proliferation of vocational guidance programs in cities such as Boston and New York, the profession rapidly expanded (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). Concerns over the lack of standardized duties, centralized supervision and evaluation of services soon followed. As Myers (1924) pointed out in a historic article titled “A Critical Review of Present Developments in Vocational Guidance with Special Reference to Future Prospects,” vocational guidance was quickly being recognized as “a specialized educational function requiring special natural qualifications and special training” (p. 139, emphasis in original). However, vocational guidance was mostly being performed by teachers in addition to their other duties, with very few schools hiring specialized personnel. Although Myers (1924) and others expressed concerns over the lack of training and supervision, educators and administrators were slow to recognize the consequences of asking teachers to perform such vital duties in addition to their teaching responsibilities without proper training and extra compensation. Additionally, districts in which specific individuals were hired as vocational guidance professionals soon overloaded these professionals with administrative and clerical duties, which inhibited their effectiveness. Myers (1924) highlighted the situation as follows:
Another tendency dangerous to the cause of vocational guidance is the tendency to load the vocational counselor with so many duties foreign to the office that little real counseling can be done. . . . If well chosen he [or she] has administrative ability. It is perfectly natural, therefore, for the principal to assign one administrative duty after another to the counselor until he [or she] becomes practically assistant principal, with little time for the real work of a counselor. In order to prevent this tendency from crippling seriously the vocational guidance program it is important that the counselor shall be well trained, that the principal shall understand more clearly what counseling involves, and that there shall be efficient supervision from a central office. (p. 141)
In 1913, Jesse B. Davis introduced a vocational guidance curriculum to be infused into English classes in middle and high schools, an idea which he presented at the first national conference on vocational guidance in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Pope, 2009). It was summarily rejected by his colleagues, who would not embrace the idea of a guidance curriculum within the classroom. Slowly, however, as the profession grew and Davis and others gained respect and notoriety throughout the country, his “Grand Rapids Plan” gained support. Though Davis did not expect it, his model sparked debate between those who envisioned the expansion of counselor responsibilities and those who wished to maintain counselors’ primary duty as vocational guidance professionals (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). Ultimately, the heart of this debate was the role of vocational guidance as a supplemental service to the learning in the classroom or a distinctive set of services with a different goal than simply educating students. Although no definitive answer was agreed upon at the time, the realization that academic factors influence career choice and vice versa has helped to move the profession from a systemic approach of strictly vocational guidance to a comprehensive approach in which career, academic and personal/social development are all addressed (ASCA, 2003). The disagreement over Davis’s Grand Rapids Plan launched a debate between competing professional identity models that continues in the profession to this day.
Competing Professional Identity Models: Educator or Counselor?
Even during the time of vocational guidance in which the counseling profession’s singular purpose was to prepare students for the world of work, disagreement over the best way to perform this duty existed. As the profession began to define itself during the 1930s and ’40s, school administrators heavily determined the professional responsibilities of the school counselor (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). When the profession expanded to include personal adjustment counseling as a reaction to the growing popularity of psychology, administrators reacted by expanding vocational guidance to include a more educational focus. During the 1950s, school counselors were placed under the umbrella term pupil personnel services along with the school psychologist, social worker, nurse or health officer, and attendance officer. Although the primary role of the school counselor throughout the ’60s and ’70s was to provide counseling services, concerns over the perception of the profession existed. As a result of the lack of defined school counselor roles and responsibilities, the position was still seen as an ancillary support service to teachers and administrators. It was therefore extremely easy for administrators to continue to add to the counselor’s responsibilities as they saw fit (Lambie & Williamson, 2004), aligning school counselor duties with their own identity as educators.
The 1970s brought about the beginning of school counseling as a comprehensive, developmental program. Some within the profession attempted to create comprehensive approaches, which included goals and objectives, activities or interventions to address them, planning and implementation strategies, and evaluative measures. It was the first time that school counseling was defined in terms of developmentally appropriate, measurable student outcomes (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). However, environmental and economic factors slowed the adoption of this new concept. The 1970s were a decade of decreasing student enrollment and budgetary reductions, which led to cutbacks in counselor positions (Lambie & Williamson, 2004). As a result, counselors began to take on more administrative duties either out of necessity or a desire to become more visible and increase the perception of the school counselor position as necessary. During this time, many of the counseling duties of the position were lost among other responsibilities more aligned with those of an educator.
In 1983, the National Commission of Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk,” a report examining the quality of education in the United States (Lambie & Williamson, 2004). Among its initiatives, the report jump-started the testing and accountability movement in education. Standardized testing coordination duties were almost immediately assigned to the counselor. In fact, over the course of the past century in the profession of school counseling, the list of counselor duties and responsibilities has steadily grown to include administrative duties such as scheduling, record keeping and test coordination. With the ever-growing and expanding role of the counselor, and in an attempt to articulate the appropriate responsibilities of the counselor, the concept of comprehensive school counseling programming, which was established in the late 1970s, grew in popularity during the ’80s and ’90s (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006; Mitchell & Gysbers, 1978). As time passed, programs became increasingly articulated and workable, and an emphasis on accountability and evaluation of practice emerged (Gysbers & Henderson, 2001).
Comprehensive School Counseling Programs
What separates comprehensive school counseling from traditional guidance models is a focus on the program and not the position (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). The pupil personnel services models of the ’60s and ’70s listed the types of services offered but lacked an articulated, systemic approach, and therefore allowed for the constant assignment of other duties to school counselors. The concept of comprehensive programming was created in response to this problem (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006).
As early as 1990, Gysbers offered five foundational premises on which comprehensive school counseling is based. First, school counseling is a program and includes characteristics of other programs in education, including standards, activities and interventions that help students reach these standards; professionally certificated personnel; management of materials and resources; and accountability measures. Second, school counseling programs are developmental and comprehensive. They are developmental in that the activities and interventions are designed to facilitate student growth in the three areas of student development: academic, personal/social and career development (ASCA, 2003). They are comprehensive in that they provide a wide range of services to meet the needs of all students, not just those with the most need. The third premise is that school counseling programs utilize a team approach. Although professional school counselors are the heart of a comprehensive program, Mitchell and Gysbers (1978) established that the entire school staff must be committed and involved in order for the program to successfully take root. The fourth premise is that school counseling programs are developed through a process of systematic planning, designing, implementing and evaluating (Gysbers & Henderson, 2006). This process has been described in different ways but often using the same or similar terminology (Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008). Lastly, the fifth premise offered by Gysbers and Henderson (2006) is that comprehensive school counseling programs have established leadership. A growing message in the school counseling literature is the need for school counselors to provide leadership and advocacy for systemic change (Curry & DeVoss, 2009; McMahon, Mason, & Paisley, 2009; Sink, 2009). Without the knowledge and expertise of school counseling leaders, comprehensive programs will not take hold.
The ASCA National Model
Only within the past decade has the school counseling profession as a whole embraced the concept of comprehensive programs (Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008), a movement which was spurred by ASCA’s creation of a National Model (ASCA, 2003). In 2001, ASCA created the first iteration of its National Model; intended as a change agent, it is a framework for states, districts and counseling departments toward the creation of comprehensive developmental school counseling programs. The ASCA National Model contains four elements, or quadrants, for creating and maintaining effective comprehensive programs (ASCA, 2012). The quadrants are the tools school counselors utilize to address the academic, personal/social and career needs of their students. The first, Foundation, is the philosophy and mission upon which the program is built. The second, Delivery System, consists of the proactive and responsive services included in the program. These services can be focused individually, in small groups or school-wide, and are delivered from—or are at least influenced by—the program’s Foundation and mission statement. The third quadrant, Management, is organization and utilization of resources. Because a comprehensive program uses data to drive its Delivery System, the fourth quadrant is Accountability, which incorporates results-based data and intervention outcomes to create short- and long-term goals for the program (ASCA, 2012; Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008).
The National Model is the most widely accepted conceptualization of a comprehensive school counseling program (Burnham, Dahir, Stone, & Hooper, 2008). It resulted from a movement toward comprehensive programs born out of school counselors’ need to clarify their roles and responsibilities. Beginning with the Education Trust’s (2009) Transforming School Counseling Initiative and continuing with the creation of National Standards for Student Academic, Career and Personal/Social Development, the National Model has been built upon the concepts of social advocacy, leadership, collaboration and systemic change, which are slowly but profoundly shaping the profession (Burnham et al., 2008; Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008). Since the release of the National Model, however, the movement toward comprehensive school counseling programs has remained slow (Hatch & Chen-Hayes, 2008). Such slow growth inhibits school counselors from standardizing or professionalizing their roles and responsibilities (Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008).
Consequences of Competing Professional Identity Models
Lambie and Williamson (2004) stated that “based on this historical narrative, school counseling roles have been vast and ever-changing, making it understandable that many school counselors struggle with role ambiguity and incongruence while feeling overwhelmed” (p. 127). While the addition of many responsibilities has been a result of the natural expansion of the profession from vocational guidance to guidance and counseling to comprehensive school counseling, the influence of administrators has directly led to the assignment of inappropriate duties. From the outset of the profession, an essential question has involved these two competing identity models: Should school counselors be acting as educators or counselors?
The historically relevant and often opposing sets of expectations for school counselors come from both counselor educators during training and school administrators (such as principals) upon entering the profession. There is evidence to suggest that school counselors are not practicing as the profession indicates, both in terms of the ASCA National Model and the Education Trust’s Transforming School Counseling Initiative (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Hatch & Chen-Hayes, 2008; Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Therefore, a common source of role conflict and role ambiguity is the school administrators’ perceptions of the school counselor function, a concern that Myers (1924) established and Lambie and Williamson (2004) reiterated. The concern that school counselors are being used as quasi-administrators instead of counseling professionals continues to persist.
According to ASCA (2012), school counselors are responsible for activities that foster the academic, career and personal/social development of students. The primary role of the school counselor, therefore, is direct service and contact with students. Among the activities ASCA (2012) listed as appropriate for school counselors are individual student academic planning, direct counseling for students with personal/social issues impacting success, interpreting data and student records, collaborating with teachers and administrators, and advocating for students when necessary. Among the activities listed as inappropriate are the following: registration and scheduling; coordinating and administering standardized tests; performing disciplinary actions; covering classes, hallways, and cafeterias; clerical record keeping; and data entry. In terms of role conflict, when faced with a task, school counselors often wish to respond in a manner that is congruent with their counselor identity, but are told to apply another professional identity—namely that of educator. For example, when a school counselor is asked to provide services to a student who has bullied, while also informing the student that he or she has been suspended from school for that behavior, the counselor may experience role conflict. Role ambiguity occurs when some of the duties listed as inappropriate are included as part of the counselor’s responsibilities. For example, if a school counselor is asked to coordinate and proctor state standardized aptitude tests, the counselor experiences role ambiguity, as this duty is noncounseling-related, yet requires a significant time commitment (Culbreth, Scarborough, Banks-Johnson, & Solomon, 2005; Olk & Friedlander, 1992). These examples are but two of many possible scenarios in which the conflicting messages from competing professional identity orientations contribute to role stress for practicing school counselors.
Strategies for Addressing Competing Models
Within the recent literature on school counseling, many articles highlight the differences between school counselors’ preferred practice models and actual functioning (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Culbreth et al., 2005; Lieberman, 2004; Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008), as well as between administrators’ view of the role of the school counselor and models of best practice within the profession (Clemens et al., 2009; Kirchner & Setchfield, 2005; Zalaquett & Chatters, 2012). However, these discrepancies were identified virtually from the outset of the profession (Ginn, 1924; Myers, 1924) and can be attributed in large part to the different orientations encountered by counseling professionals working in educational settings. Despite the concept of comprehensive school counseling and the creation of a National Model delineating appropriate roles and responsibilities, the reality is that school counselors utilize different service models depending on the region, state, district and even school in which they work. From a historical perspective, it is clear that administrators often impose their identity as educators on school counselors through the assignment of noncounseling duties. However, it is also clear that school counselors themselves have been unsuccessful in advocating for the use of current best practices. Ironically, strategies to prevent counselors from becoming quasi-administrators were identified as early as 1924.
Myers (1924) not only identified the risk for counselors to be overloaded with administrative duties, but also listed three strategies that could be used to combat this possibility. First, he suggested that “counselor[s] shall be well trained” (p. 141). This suggestion is especially important for counselor educators, who are responsible for training future counselors and acting as gatekeepers to the profession. In addition to relevant theories, techniques and practices in individual and group counseling and assessment, it is clear that school counselors-in-training also need enhanced knowledge and skill in advocacy. In order to achieve these goals, critical thought is necessary regarding school counselors’ handling of the role stress created by competing professional identity models. Emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with administrators also is critical, as history has suggested. Furthermore, comfort and enthusiasm in gathering and using data to provide evidence of effectiveness are essential skills. In short, in addition to preparing knowledgeable and skilled counselors, counselor educators are charged with preparing leaders and advocates; they should approach their work with school counselors-in-training with this intention.
Myers’ (1924) next suggestion was that “principal[s] shall understand more clearly what counseling involves” (p. 141). As the literature suggests, school counselors and administrators share responsibility because of the inherent difference in their orientations. For administrators and others who supervise school counselors, it is important to understand that the training and professional identity of a school counselor is different from that of an educator, and that counselors are trained to address not only academic issues, but career and personal/social issues as well. Without this understanding, it is easy to impose inappropriate models of supervision and noncounseling-related activities on the counselor. It is necessary for practicing counselors to develop a strong sense of professional identity beginning in their training program. For some counselors, it is difficult to differentiate appropriate from inappropriate roles and responsibilities. This process is complicated for the many counselors who are former teachers and have been trained as both educators and counselors. However, it is essential to be able to articulate to administrators and other stakeholders the role of the counselor in maximizing student success. Practicing school counselors should portray themselves as counseling experts with the ability to create and maintain a developmentally appropriate and comprehensive program of services as defined by Gysbers and Henderson (2006). Knowledge of the ASCA National Model and other relevant state models aids in the practicing counselors’ ability to position themselves as counseling professionals and to articulate their appropriate roles as such.
Myers’ (1924) final suggestion was that “there shall be efficient supervision from a central office” (p. 141). Supervision can be provided by building administrators, district directors of school counseling or even experienced colleagues. Practicing school counselors can receive three distinct types of supervision: administrative, program and clinical. Administrative supervision is likely to occur, as it is provided by an assigned individual—usually a principal, vice principal or other administrator (Lambie & Sias, 2009). Program supervision, because it is related to comprehensive school counseling, is often present only if the district, school or counseling department adopts a comprehensive, programmatic approach (Dollarhide & Saginak, 2008). Clinical supervision is perhaps the rarest of the three (Somody, Henderson, Cook, & Zambrano, 2008), and the most necessary, because it impacts counseling knowledge and skills, and decreases the risk of unethical practice (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009; Lambie & Sias, 2009).
As Dollarhide and Saginak (2008) described, school counselors are likely encountering evaluation of practice, but rarely participating in what could be considered clinical supervision. Evidence as to why school counselors do not receive as much clinical supervision as they do administrative supervision mostly surrounds the perceptions of principals, vice principals and district-level administrators that school counselors’ roles are primarily focused on academic advising, scheduling and other noncounseling activities (Herlihy, Gray, & McCollum, 2002; Kirchner & Setchfield, 2005). However, research indicates that a significant number of practicing counselors feel as though they have no need for clinical supervision. In a national survey, Page, Pietrzak, and Sutton (2001) found that 57% of school counselors wanted to receive supervision in the future and 10% wanted to continue receiving clinical supervision; however, 33% of school counselors believed that they had “no need for supervision” (p. 146).
One reason that school counselors may not desire or see a need for supervision is the memory of previously dissatisfying experiences. Most school counselors receive a majority of their supervision from noncounseling staff such as principals (Lambie & Sias, 2009), and yet the majority of school counselors consistently point to a desire for more clinical supervision to enhance their skills and assist them with taking appropriate action with students (Page et al., 2001; Roberts & Borders, 1994; Sutton & Page, 1994). Additionally, the majority of school counselors in Page et al.’s (2001) study preferred counselor-trained supervisors, a fact that corroborated the findings of earlier studies (Roberts & Borders, 1994). When one couples this information with the idea that many principals are attempting to use existing models of teacher supervision to supervise school counselors (Lambie & Williamson, 2004), it is clear that many school counselors may be receiving inappropriate and generally dissatisfying supervision from administrators.
Practicing school counselors are faced with the challenge of identifying and maintaining a professional identity while receiving conflicting messages from counselor educators, administrators and other stakeholders. Counselor educators are not only responsible for addressing future counselors’ knowledge, skills and personal awareness; they are also responsible for developing counselor trainees’ professional identities. School counselors-in-training should be aware of the possible ambiguous messages and responsibilities that await them upon entering the profession. An important skill often forgotten is advocacy; counselor educators can assist future professionals in developing skills that will assist them in educating their colleagues and administrative supervisors. One example of an important change for which current and future professionals should advocate is more clinical supervision addressing counseling skills and ethical practice. A counselor-trained supervisor, such as a director of school counseling services or an experienced colleague, can provide more appropriate and satisfying supervision because of his or her knowledge of the unique demands of the work counselors do.
A look back at the history of the counseling profession reveals that the struggle over a clear professional identity has inhibited the profession almost since its inception. Perhaps a solution to this problem can be gleaned from the words of those researchers present at the beginning of the debate. Myers (1924) provided three suggestions for combating the role stress brought on by competing professional identities within the profession. Counseling professionals should begin there when considering the essential question at the heart of this debate: Are school counselors acting as counselors or educators?
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The author reported no conflict of
interest or funding contributions for
the development of this manuscript.
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Daniel Cinotti is an assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology. Correspondence can be addressed to Daniel Cinotti, Department of School Counseling, NYIT, 1855 Broadway, New York, NY 10023-7692, email@example.com.