Diane M. Coll, Chandra F. Johnson, Chinwé U. Williams, Michael J. Halloran
A defining moment experience is a pinnacle moment or critical incident that occurs within a therapeutic context and contributes significantly to the professional development and personal growth of counselors. The aim of this qualitative study was to investigate how experienced counselors make sense and meaning of their defining moment experiences in terms of developing their clinical attributes. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine experienced professional counselors to investigate how defining moment experiences influenced their professional development. Five main themes were derived from analysis via interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA): acceptance reality, finding a balance, enhanced self-reflection and awareness, reciprocal transformation, and assimilation and integration. These themes provide perspectives on how facilitating conversations and reflection on defining moment experiences may enhance professional development and clinical attributes among counselors.
Keywords: defining moment experiences, professional development, clinical attributes, qualitative study, interpretative phenomenological analysis
The defining moment experience is a contemporary term to describe a pinnacle moment or critical incident that occurs within a therapeutic context and contributes to professional development and the personal growth of professional counselors (Prengel & Somerstein, 2013; Veach & LeRoy, 2012). The defining moment experience typically occurs in the early stages of counselor development and is considered a rite of passage, often serving as a catalyst for significant growth (Furr & Carroll, 2003; Lee, Eppler, Kendal, & Latty, 2001; Skovholt, 2012; Skovholt & McCarthy, 1988). A negative defining moment experience might entail initial exposure to a difficult client, which may have a negative influence on counselor perceptions of clinical competency. In contrast, a positive defining moment experience could involve a novice counselor’s first experience of effectiveness or making a therapeutic breakthrough with a client (Skovholt, 2012). Whether positive or negative, defining moment experiences provide great potential for counselor self-reflection and growth on professional and personal levels (Howard, Inman, & Altman, 2006).
Defining moment experiences are more likely to occur and have greatest influence among novice and early-career counselors from a counselor developmental perspective (Lee et al., 2001). In theory, novice counselors face several stressors, such as performance anxiety, rigid emotional boundaries, an incomplete practitioner-self, glamorized expectations, and inadequate conceptual maps (Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003). Defining moment experiences are likely to intensify these stressors and existing growing pains in terms of confidence and perceptions of identity within the counseling profession (Patterson & Levitt, 2011). Novice counselors also may find themselves deeply questioning their personal beliefs, biases, and assumptions, which can lead to some level of personal transformation or significant growth (Skovholt, 2012). Nevertheless, Furr and Carroll (2003) argued that the first defining moment experience carries the potential to accelerate counselor development regarding their behaviors (e.g., performance-based skills), cognitions (e.g., simple to complex), and emotions (e.g., feelings of inferiority or self-efficacy).
Several research studies have confirmed these propositions. Indeed, Bischoff, Barton, Thober, and Hawley (2002) reported that the initial counseling session with a client was a defining moment experience among early-career counselors having both a positive and negative influence on their self-efficacy. Similarly, Furr and Carroll (2003) reported direct client experience to be a defining moment in the development of counseling students, leading them to increased self-understanding and confidence as well as recognition of personal deficiencies. A qualitative study by Howard et al. (2006) also investigated defining moment experiences among practicum counseling students as they pertained to their overall professional growth. The findings suggested defining moment experiences influenced their professional identity, personal reactions, competence, supervision processes, and counseling philosophy.
Defining moment experiences also have been found to be important in the ongoing development of professional counselors (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). In their study over 30 years ago, Skovholt and McCarthy (1988) asked 58 mental health professionals with varying degrees of experience and credentials to submit narrative accounts of their own defining moment experiences. Common themes developed from the narratives included feelings of insecurity, learning to accept imperfections and limitations, transforming the experience into a specialty, the attitude of readiness to learn and grow from the experience, and dealing with unexpected events such as the suicide of a client. More recently, Veach and LeRoy (2012) reported several common themes in the defining moment essays of 37 professional counselors, including increased empathy, authenticity, honesty, self-awareness, resilience, compassion, connection, courage, and commitment. Two other publications (Prengel & Somerstein, 2013; Trotter-Mathison, Koch, Sanger, & Skovholt, 2010) have similarly used personal narratives of professional counselors to illustrate the significance of defining moment experiences in the ongoing development of counselors.
Theories of counselor development maintain that the process of growth and change continues throughout the career lifespan of counseling professionals, but may nonetheless entail different challenges at distinct stages of counselor development (Moss, Gibson, & Dollarhide, 2014; Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003; Zahm, Veach, Martyr, & LeRoy, 2016). For novice counselors, defining moment experiences are likely to intensify pre-existing stressors and provide a significant opportunity for professional development (Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003). In contrast, experienced counselors are more likely to be able to reflect and process the latent meanings of defining moment experiences for their own ongoing professional growth and development (Moss et al., 2014), making them a valuable resource for understanding the developmental effects of defining moment experiences. Yet there is little systematic research on how defining moment experiences contribute to the practice of experienced professional counselors. This study addressed this shortfall in the research literature by focusing on the following research question: How do experienced counselors make sense and meaning of their defining moment experiences with respect to their professional development and practice?
A qualitative research design was employed in this study and incorporated interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) of the defining moment experiences of professional counselors (Smith, 2004; Smith & Osborn, 2008). The IPA approach was considered a suitable methodology to reveal the complex issues associated with the defining moment experiences of counseling professionals, as it enables a rich level of data collection and interpretation by studying people ideographically (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). Semi-structured interviews were employed to collect data by providing participants the opportunity to discuss their defining moment experiences and give voice to their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes formed as a result of the experience.
The research team consisted of the first author, a research assistant, and an external auditor. None of the research team were in a dependent relationship or received monetary compensation for their work, and only the first author was significantly connected to the topic of defining moment experiences. The first author and principal investigator (PI) holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision and is a licensed professional counselor with over 20 years’ experience. The external auditor is a doctorate-level clinician with over 20 years’ experience, significant knowledge of IPA methods, and no vested interest in the study. The research assistant (RA) is a retired English professor who has familiarity with and understanding of qualitative data analysis. The RA was intentionally selected to provide independent data analysis, as she had no counseling background.
The study consisted of a purposive sample of nine experienced professional counselors who met the following inclusion criteria: (a) have a minimum of 10 years’ professional counseling experience, (b) be an active licensed professional counselor, and (c) experienced a defining moment in the role of counselor and expressed willingness to share related thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Participant demographics are displayed in Table 1 with respect to the pseudonym each counselor selected for the study, along with a description of their defining moment experience and their varied backgrounds in terms of gender, age, race, experience, and the nature of their reported defining moment experiences.
University IRB approval to conduct the study was received. An invitation to participate in a semi-structured interview on the defining moment experiences of professional counselors was advertised on the state therapist listserv as well as other established mental health agencies and professional counseling listservs limited to the southeast region of the United States. Participants also were recruited via the snowball method by initial contacts for referrals or recommendations for potential interview subjects.
Participants received a paper copy of the informed consent for review and signature prior to the start of each scheduled interview wherein participants were provided with a definition of defining moment experiences. Each participant chose a pseudonym in order to maintain confidentiality and, in accordance with Standard G.2.f. of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics (2014), the location, time, and format (by phone or in-person) of the interview honored each participant’s schedule and preferences. Moreover, interviews were conducted in a private space to maintain confidentiality and be free from distractions. Each interview was audio-recorded using a digital voice recorder and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. Two interviews were conducted in person, and seven interviews were conducted over the telephone.
Prior to their interview, participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire. Each interview consisted of 12 open-ended questions (see Table 2), with the five main questions being: (1) Tell me about a defining moment that occurred while working with a client(s). (2) How did this experience shape how you saw yourself as a professional counselor? (3) How did this experience shape your sense of clinical competency? (4) How did you regard the therapeutic relationship between client and counselor prior to your defining moment experience? (5) As you reflect on your defining moment experience, how has your perspective changed or not changed? Sub-questions also were asked to illicit the meaning and sense attributed to defining moment experiences. Each interview question was presented in the same order with each participant for consistency (Creswell, 2007). Follow-up impromptu questions were asked in between the established questions to obtain richer, more elaborate details or context, as needed. Each interview progressed at a pace that was set by the participant, allowing for the development of more elaborate data with each question (Hays & Singh, 2012).
Participant Demographics and Defining Moment Experience
A range of procedural steps were taken to enhance the credibility, dependability, confirmability, and transferability of the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and to counter any potential researcher biases (Morrow, 2005). To establish the credibility of the findings, descriptive field notes were taken during interviews to document observations and add context to the audio data. The field notes emphasized participant content, expressed meaning and PI observations (Creswell, 2007), and provided a means to confirm interpretations of interview data through data triangulation (Anney, 2014). Member checking was used to enhance the credibility of the findings (see Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005) by asking participants to check summaries of the interview content. Confirmability of findings entailed the use of analytic memos and a reflexivity journal to ensure objectivity in any interpretations made in the course of data analysis (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). Analytic memos were written throughout data analysis to record thoughts about the meaning behind participants’ words (Saldaña, 2009). A reflexivity journal was employed to assist the PI with preparing to interview each participant and enter their subjective reality by writing about her own defining moment experiences as a counselor prior to interviews (Hays & Singh, 2012). Moreover, the PI maintained the reflexivity journal throughout the interviews and data analysis processes. The PI made a consistent effort to bracket assumptions and biases to not superimpose her own experiences or subjective interpretations as a professional counselor (Smith, 2004; Smith & Osborn, 2008). The transferability of research findings was met by purposive sampling of participants based on their capacity to provide relevant knowledge on defining moment experiences (Anney, 2014). The criteria of ensuring dependability was met by employing the Dedoose qualitative research software program (Moylan, Derr, & Lindhorst, 2015) to independently organize, archive, and code interview data and field notes, as well as validate codes and themes derived from interview data (Silver & Lewins, 2014). The dependability of the data was enhanced by having the external auditor confirm the accuracy of (1) interview transcripts, (2) descriptive field notes, (3) the reflexive journal, (4) the theme codebook, and (5) Dedoose summaries and output.
Interview Questions for the Study
||Tell me about a defining moment that occurred while working with a client(s). This moment could have occurred in the early stages of counselor training or at a later time in your work as a counselor.
|| • What made it a defining moment?
|| • Do you have a takeaway from this moment?
|| • Is there anything else you would like to share about this experience?
||How did this experience shape how you saw yourself as a professional counselor? As a person?
|| • What did this experience mean to you as a counselor?
|| • What did this experience mean to you on a personal level?
|| • What assisted you with making sense out of this experience?
||How did this experience shape your sense of clinical competency?
|| • What strengths did you become aware of?
|| • What weaknesses or limitations did you become aware of?
||How did you regard the therapeutic relationship between client and counselor prior to your defining moment experience?
|| • How did your understanding of the therapeutic relationship change or not change after the
defining moment experience?
|| • How would you describe the therapeutic relationship between client and counselor as if you
were describing this to a layperson/non-clinician?
||As you reflect on your defining moment experience, how has your perspective changed or not changed?
|| • How did you make sense of the experience then?
|| • How do you make sense of the experience now?
Data analysis followed a 3-stage process as outlined by Pietkiewicz and Smith (2012): immersion, transformation, and connection. The immersion process began with the PI listening to each interview after its conclusion in order to review the content and record any additional observations in the field notes (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Each interview was transcribed by an independent contractor and the PI reviewed each along with the digital recording to ensure accuracy and facilitate deeper immersion in the data (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). The PI read the participant’s responses along with the recording during the review process to foster deeper immersion and understanding of the experience being shared (Bailey, 2008). The PI documented new observations and insights throughout the immersion process in field notes and via a reflexivity journal (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). The RA also independently engaged in the immersion, transformation, and connection stages with the interview transcripts.
The PI and the RA worked together to review and interpret all their notes about the transcripts and transform them into emergent themes consistent with IPA methodology (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Emergent themes were then connected together according to conceptual similarities to develop a thematic hierarchy (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). The final stage of analysis entailed a narrative account of each theme, including direct passages from the interviews. The PI and the RA also discussed and compared several levels of interpretation of interview content and of interpreted meanings to reach agreement on the final set of distinct themes. Moreover, the transcripts, notes, and themes were submitted to the external auditor, who conducted an independent cross-analysis to ensure their accuracy and clarity.
Data analysis with IPA methods resulted in five themes being identified and labeled based on the meanings associated with professional counselors’ defining moment experiences (see Table 3). The first theme was labeled acceptance of reality and captures how defining moment experiences led professional counselors to the realization that counselors are not always a good match for a client and cannot fully resolve any clinical problem that comes their way. The second theme, finding a balance, addresses how defining moment experiences shaped perceptions of clinical boundaries and the balance between strengths and limitations and external and internal forces. The third theme to be derived from the analysis, enhanced self-reflection and awareness, captures professional counselors’ understanding that defining moment experiences facilitated their own reflection and questioning of their intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. The fourth theme, reciprocal transformation, illustrates how the experiences shaped professional counselors’ understanding of the therapeutic relationship and acted as a mutual change agent for both counselor and client. Lastly, the fifth theme, assimilation and integration, encapsulates how meanings attached to defining moment experiences changed and were incorporated over time.
IPA Coding Scheme of the Meaning of Defining Moment Experiences of Professional Counselors
|Acceptance of reality
||Coming to terms with the realistic, sometimes limiting, aspects of the counselor role
|Finding a balance
||Perceptions of clinical boundaries and the balance between strengths and limitations and external and internal forces
|Enhanced self-reflection and awareness
||Facilitated reflection and questioning of intrapersonal and interpersonal processes
||Mutual change agent for both counselor and client
|Assimilation and integration
||How meanings attached to defining moment experiences changed and were incorporated over time
Theme 1: Acceptance of Reality
Experienced counselors made meaning of their defining moment experiences in the theme of acceptance of reality. This theme was derived to reflect participants’ thoughts about how their defining moment experience helped them come to terms with the realistic, sometimes limiting, aspects of the counselor role. Specifically, defining moment experiences were understood by counselors to help dispel the myth that counselors are a good match for any client and can “fix” and fully resolve any clinical problem that comes their way. According to Ellen, “some situations are beyond repair. If people wait too long to come to see us, we can’t help, and they can’t even make any changes for themselves.” For Jackie, the defining moment experience meant being comfortable with accepting the reality of the limiting aspects of the counselor role when a client didn’t want to change and wanted Jackie to do all the work. She reflected: “In that moment, I just remembered saying . . . you can’t help everybody. It just means I’m not a good fit (for everybody) and that’s okay.” Similarly, the defining moment experience of Alaina meant accepting the reality that “a client I cannot love is not right for me . . . I don’t agree celebrating [the fact of] working with someone you don’t have a connection with.” It also would appear from these defining moment reflections that the acceptance of reality was associated with deeper knowledge of counselor–client boundary conditions. Indeed, counselor–client boundary issues were a significant factor in the defining moments theme of finding a balance.
Theme 2: Finding a Balance
The theme of finding a balance was identified in participants’ understanding of their defining moment experiences as highlighting different therapeutic boundary conditions and balancing the fine line between internal or external limitations while gaining a sense of finesse and agility between opposing forces. Here, participants identified a dual connection between strengths and limitations, while expressing accountability for establishing a balance between the two factors for client benefit. By taking ownership of a specific personality trait as part of the defining moment experience, Lee came to understand the importance of balance and the potential for possible pitfalls if such a balance is not obtained: “It was my personal disposition to speak with conviction, which is both a strength and limitation. I am still this way of course, but I know when to scale it back—to strike that balance.”
Finding a balance through defining moment experiences was evident in participants sharing their experiences of entering uncharted or unfamiliar territories with some trepidation, only to find their own rhythm through setting boundaries. Alaina shared: “I understood I was really flying by the seat of my pants and the only thing I had that I really understood were my boundaries. It made my boundaries even stronger. They were very heart-wrenching limitations; it was very hard.” Moreover, Ellen conveyed how the defining moment experience highlighted the process of balancing between her own feelings of physical vulnerability and her inner strengths when she was working with a couple in an abusive relationship: “I needed to sit alone with him to keep her safe. It was like walking into the lion’s den; however, my use of self-intuition [and] wisdom was a strength. I was just going to tap dance with him when I saw him.”
Theme 3: Enhanced Self-Reflection and Awareness
Professional counselors understood their defining moment experiences as ones that especially facilitated self-reflection and awareness of intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. At the intrapersonal level, John highlighted how the defining moment experience “increased my awareness and clarity of my own internal processes.” At the interpersonal level, Lee shared: “I made a connection in my personal relationships where I’ve learned to create space for others.” The theme of self-reflection also was manifest in the level of self-questioning prompted by the defining moment experiences of professional counselors. Indeed, Jackie discussed how her defining moment experience led to “a lot of reflection; I started to question my passion and why I wanted to be a therapist.” Similarly, Gina reflected that “I was puzzled and confused; lots of self-doubt [and] reflection. I remember where I would question whether I was a good therapist.” Importantly, the self-reflection and awareness prompted by the defining moment experiences of professional counselors appeared to have confirmed their professional capacities, with Gretchen sharing: “I received affirmation of what I thought I knew—what my gut was telling me.”
Theme 4: Reciprocal Transformation
Professional counselors understood their defining moment experiences as entailing the theme of reciprocal transformation through shared vulnerability and trust. This theme was derived from counselors speaking to their awareness of the dynamic of change within the therapeutic relationship; defining moment experiences generated a broader understanding of the transformative power within the therapeutic bond. For example, Lee shared: “You know, it’s a two-way conversation. This guy came back, taught me a great lesson: just how sacred and fragile the bond can be. I think we both changed after that experience.” Reciprocal transformation was reflected in participants discussing how defining moment experiences were associated with shared feelings of vulnerability and healing. As stated by Ellen, “We work with vulnerable people and if we just pretend we’re not there’s no authentic connection. The relationship is the primary vehicle for healing. Vulnerability is a good thing as a therapist.”
Jackie discussed how her defining moment experience highlighted the importance of disclosure in transforming the therapeutic relationship into one of mutual trust: “You are both engaging in some sense of disclosure and that helps people to build trust. It’s ever-growing, it’s always changing. The relationship can change and grow as the two of you grow and change.” In a similar way, Jon’s understanding of his defining moment experience highlighted the importance of taking risks to transform the therapeutic relationship: “You are risking the possibility that something will happen so then emotionally they won’t go on with you. You need to be willing to clear the air and move forward. I think that’s the place where the relationship deepens.”
Theme 5: Assimilation and Integration
The final theme, assimilation and integration, represents the difference in meaning between how the defining moment experience was initially assimilated by professional counselors and how meanings gleaned from the experience continue to be integrated. Participants discussed the non-static nature of the meanings attached to their defining moment experiences. The meanings continue to be assimilated with time and experience and remain an integral part of their ongoing counselor development. For example, Jackie stated: “I needed to grow as a therapist. Now, I look at the experience differently. It really has evolved into knowing my limitations [and] my strengths.” For Alaina, “the meanings acquired more textures, they got better and continue with me today.” Similarly, Lee used the metaphor of winding a ball of yarn to explain the meaning associated with integrating her defining moment experience over time: “Then, it taught me more about the client. Now, it informs me more. It’s like a ball of yarn. As I acquired experience, there was more yarn to wind. It now informs me how to be with all clients.”
For John, processing the defining moment experience meant he went from a place of anxiety to becoming aware of the spiritual nature of counseling: “At first, the experience relieved some anxiety about whether I was able to do this work. What I appreciate now, that I was too anxious to be aware of at the time, is that this is spiritual work.” Finally, Ace integrated her defining experience of working with a victim of teenage sexual abuse by now conducting advocacy work: “What assisted me with making sense out of my experience was volunteering for child abuse agencies, serving on a board, [and] being an advocate.” Overall, each participant constructed meaningful interpretations of their defining moment experiences that continue to inform their work and passion as counseling professionals, whether as a source of inspiration or affirmation.
From novice to seasoned professionals, challenges occur within the therapeutic relationship that can provide growth opportunities to counseling practitioners to develop their clinical attributes (Orlinsky & Rønnestad, 2005; Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003). The findings from this study support and extend the idea that defining moment experiences represent one such challenge. Professional counselors in this study understood their defining moment experiences as growth opportunities associated with different meanings to their professional practice and clinical skills. The meanings of the defining moment experiences of professional counselors were interpreted to reflect five main themes relevant to counseling practice: acceptance of reality, finding a balance, enhanced self-reflection and awareness, reciprocal transformation, and assimilation and integration.
Professional counselors understood their defining moment experience as one that was a wake-up call to accept the reality that counselors are not ideal for all clients and all presenting problems. This finding supports theory and research that an idealistic and glamorized view of counseling is often a source of stress among developing counselors (Moss et al., 2014; Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003), wherein supervisors play an important role in guiding novice counselors toward the realistic position that it is not always possible to have a positive impact with clients. Indeed, the findings of this study provide distinct evidence that defining moment experiences of professional counselors bring them to a point in their career when they come to accept that the counselor role may produce limited success with certain clients on different occasions. As suggested by Skovholt and Rønnestad (2003) and the findings of this study, acceptance of reality is paradoxical in a helping profession like counseling; growth as a counselor occurs with the realization that some people and problems cannot be helped. This change of view also meant that the acceptance of reality was associated with deeper knowledge of counselor–client boundary conditions.
The meanings of professional counselors’ defining moment experiences were reflected in the specific theme of finding a balance in terms of participants navigating the boundaries between their strengths and limitations. Previous counselor development research (e.g., Furr & Carroll, 2003; Moss et al., 2014; Trotter-Mathison et al., 2010) has shown that establishing client–counselor boundaries is an important challenge to novice counselors, usually meant in terms of establishing emotional boundaries. To the counselors in this study, establishing such boundaries was about finding the right balance. Nevertheless, the meanings associated with the defining moment experiences of professional counselors extended beyond client–counselor boundaries to include balance between one’s own strengths and weaknesses, internal and external limitations, and finding a rhythm in uncharted or unfamiliar territories. It also was apparent that the participants’ ability for self-reflection and awareness was important for facilitating balance.
Experienced counselors also understood their defining moment experiences to entail enhanced self-reflection and awareness. Indeed, their willingness to self-reflect and take ownership for finding an optimal balance between strengths and limitations that were revealed through defining moment experiences has been clarified elsewhere as an important developmental step toward increased counseling competency (e.g., Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003; Thériault & Gazzola, 2010; Williams, Hayes, & Fauth, 2008). As identified by Moss et al. (2014), continuous reflection is required for optimal learning. Defining moment experiences for professional counselors meant self-reflection even to the point of questioning their suitability for the profession. Indeed, the best counselors are generally viewed as questioning what they do and why (Kottler, 2017). It would appear from the findings that defining moment experiences appear to bring that level of self-questioning into focus.
The findings also revealed the change-agent quality of defining moment experiences wherein the experiences of counselors led to the development of a broader understanding of the reciprocal and transformative power within the therapeutic bond. In line with previous research (e.g., Orlinsky, Botermans, & Rønnestad, 2001; Skovholt & Rønnestad, 2003), the findings clarified that learning within the counselor–client relationship was a significant influence on career development among experienced counselors. Moreover, reciprocal transformation was reflected in professional counselors acknowledging shared vulnerability within the counselor–client relationship. Other research (e.g., Trotter-Mathison et al., 2010) has similarly found the most powerful defining moments occurred when counselors took risks or a leap of faith and allowed themselves to be vulnerable. Indeed, the defining moment experiences of the professional counselors in this study were reported as opportunities to experience the transformative power of shared vulnerability to establish new learning and growth in both counselor and client alike.
Within the theme of assimilation and integration, professional counselors shared how meanings of their defining moments continue to be a solid foundation of inspiration for their purpose, passion, and advocacy work in the counseling profession. Siegel (2007) referred to this process as the power of recall and repetition, whereby as counselors self-reflect on definitive experiences, the repetition of each memory forges deeper, more meaningful connections in the brain. Whether counselors engage in self-reflection in present time or as retrospection, the repetition of recall begins to move newly acquired data from state to trait, thus furthering the integration of new information or insights (Siegel, 2007). This view is supported in Prengel and Somerstein’s (2013) study of defining moment experiences, which highlights the process of self-reflection as one that requires time and re-examination in order to deepen lessons learned. In kind, the findings of this study suggest it is beneficial for counselors to engage in self-reflective practices throughout their professional life; the practice of self-reflection appears to have facilitated deeper integration of originally assimilated meanings of defining moment experiences by professional counselors. Consistent with the view of Engels, Barrio Minton, and Ray (2009), assimilation and integration of significant meanings appeared to have a positive effect on the competencies of professional counselors in this study.
Altogether, interpretive analysis of the defining moment experiences of professional counselors suggested a set of interrelated meanings and themes that appear to facilitate the development of counselor capacities. Defining moment experiences appear to bring into sharp focus an important transition in counselor thinking—acceptance of the realistic nature of counseling in terms of the sometimes lack of counselor–client-problem fit. In a related way, defining moment experiences of professional counselors facilitated deeper thinking about finding balance in professional practice. Professional counselors reported deeper thinking in the form of heightened self-reflection and self-awareness as meanings they associated with defining moment experiences. One may posit that heightened self-reflection and awareness mediates the relationship between defining moment experiences and acceptance of reality and finding balance in professional counseling. Defining moment experiences of professional counselors also held significant meaning because they highlighted the reciprocal and transformative power within the therapeutic bond and because the meanings continue to be integrated. As shared by Jackie, “This was a great opportunity to reflect on where I was and who I’ve become . . . all with the same lesson from my first client . . . that thread continues to inform me.”
Implications for Counselor Practice
The significance of defining moment experiences to professional counselors raises implications for professional practice and the counselor development process. As suggested by themes identified in the findings of this study, experienced professional counselors appeared to find defining moment experiences helped them accept counseling realities, find balance within the counselor role, and understand the transformative power within the therapeutic bond. At the same time, defining moment experiences facilitated heightened self-awareness, providing professional counselors an opportunity to attune to their own internal processes. As such, the meanings associated with defining moment experiences tie in with standards set forth by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (2015), which aligns professional competence with counselor self-awareness via self-reflection. Facilitating conversations and reflecting on defining moment experiences may provide a focal point for continuing training of professional counselors consistent with the mission of ACA (2019). The findings of this study underline the potential benefits of practicing and modeling self-reflection throughout the careers of professional counselors, supervisors, and counselor mentors to enhance their ongoing development and clinical expertise.
At the same time, counselor training programs may incorporate the meanings of defining moment experiences into their courses. Indeed, some participants in this study reported on a defining moment experience that occurred as a counselor trainee, and previous research has revealed practicum and novice counselors find great benefit from reflecting on defining experiences when they worked with a challenging client or issue (e.g., Bischoff et al., 2002; Furr & Carroll, 2003; Howard et al., 2006). Providers of counselor education programs and supervisors could develop awareness of the potential for defining moment experiences to raise questions about the realities of counseling, finding a balance in the counselor role, and the transformative power of the therapeutic relationship. This may be facilitated by encouraging novice counselors to employ self-reflection techniques such as journaling, which has been shown in previous research to benefit counselor development (e.g., Burnett & Meacham, 2002). Novice counselors could be asked to self-reflect on a defining moment experience via journaling as a part of their practicum and internship programs and use supervision sessions to connect the meaning and significance of the experience to the development of clinical skills and attributes. The findings of this study provide some insights on what type of meanings may be discussed in such sessions, including how defining moment experiences may relate to acceptance of counseling realities, finding a balance within the counselor role, and understanding the transformative power within the therapeutic bond.
Limitations and Future Research
There are limitations inherent in this study that require acknowledgement. The sample of participants might have invoked a self-selection bias wherein participants who elected to take part in the study may have been more inclined to value and reflect on their defining moment experiences than those who did not elect to participate. The use of semi-structured interviews, whether conducted in person or by phone, could have increased the likelihood of response inhibition (Bischoff et al., 2002). The interview participants could have answered interview questions according to perceived socially desirable responses rather than provide a more accurate and honest account of thoughts and feelings associated with their defining moment experiences. Steps to ensure confidentiality, such as the use of pseudonyms for participants, may have minimized response bias; however, to what degree is uncertain. In addition, the sample of participants was limited to professional counselors who worked in private practice with an expertise in trauma. A final limitation of the study is the potential for researcher subjectivity to influence data collection (interviews) and interpretive analysis (thematic coding). Nevertheless, appropriate methodological steps were taken in this study, such as a reflexivity journal and independent coders, to enhance the objectivity and trustworthiness of the data collection and interpretation procedures and outcomes.
The research findings provide directions for future research on defining moment experiences of professional counselors. To date, there is very little empirical research on defining moment experiences and their significance to professional counselors. Whereas this study provides a unique contribution to the counselor literature, future research may broaden the sample criteria to include not only experienced professionals in other regions of the United States and in other countries, but also licensed clinical social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, and clinical psychologists. Research with a range of professionals would broaden knowledge about the significance of defining moment experiences to their ongoing professional practice. Moreover, research that broadens the focus on counselors to include an investigation of the role of supervisors in defining moment experiences would be worthwhile. Finally, research may follow up on the revelation from two participants in this study that defining moment experiences led them to question their suitability for the counseling profession. Research on the defining moment experiences of individuals who chose to leave the field may shed light upon the goodness-of-counselor-fit within the counseling profession.
In conclusion, findings from this study support and contribute to the professional counseling literature by revealing the meanings associated with the defining moment experiences of professional counselors. Consistent with models of counselor development (e.g., Moss et al., 2014), experienced counselors showed a comparatively strong capacity to deeply reflect and process the latent meanings and implications of defining moment experiences for their ongoing professional growth and development. Defining moment experiences appear to help professional counselors accept the realities of counseling, find a balance within the counselor role, and understand the transformative power within the therapeutic bond. The findings contribute to existing literature by illustrating how meaningful interpretations of defining moment experiences continue to deepen over time and enhance counselor practice, especially when opportunities are taken for self-reflection. Application of knowledge on the significance, meaning, and implications of defining moment experiences in counselor training programs and supervision sessions provides an opportunity for enhancing the clinical attributes of professional counselors.
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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Diane M. Coll is a professional counselor at Argosy University. Chandra F. Johnson is an associate professor at Argosy University. Chinwé U. Williams is an associate professor at Argosy University. Michael J. Halloran is an honorary associate professor at La Trobe University. Correspondence can be addressed to Michael Halloran, School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Kingsbury Dr., Bundoora, Australia, 3086, email@example.com.
Leann Wyrick Morgan, Mary Ellen Greenwaldt, Kevin P. Gosselin
The National Office for School Counselor Advocacy stated that secondary students need better support from professional school counselors when making decisions regarding their postsecondary education and career. The present qualitative study explored school counselors’ perceptions of competence in the area of career counseling, and resulted in the following themes: challenges to delivery, opportunity, self-doubt, reliance on colleagues, and the use of technology. Recommendations for college and career readiness best practice were incorporated with the findings from the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy report.
Keywords: school counselor, career counseling, competence, postsecondary education, qualitative study
No step in life, unless it may be the choice of a husband or wife, is more important than the choice of a vocation. . . . These vital problems should be solved in a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person’s aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the relations of these elements to the conditions of success in different industries. (Parsons, 1909, p. 3)
Young people exploring career decisions are often left to their own searches to find direction in this complex process. Ninety-five percent of high school seniors expect to attain some form of college education, yet more and more are delaying entry after high school, frequently changing colleges or majors when they do enter, or taking time off throughout their programs (Altbach, Gumport, & Berdahl, 2011). According to The College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), professional school counselors need to better support students during the decision-making process in order to streamline their progress toward postsecondary education and career readiness (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). School counselors must balance this heady task with accountability in other areas, such as academic achievement, social and emotional development, and related administrative duties.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model for School Counseling (ASCA Model) was developed and recently updated by the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP), which supports school counselors and counselor educators by standardizing and enhancing the practices of these professionals (ASCA, 2012). With the release of NOSCA’s survey results, a new movement in school counselor reform emerged, which calls for standardization of practices involving college access for all students. According to The College Board (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014), this reform is necessary to highlight the lack of support students receive in their pursuit of higher educational goal attainment.
School counselors have historically lacked a clear identity in role and function (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Dodson, 2009; Johnson, Rochkind, & Ott, 2010; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009), and in response, many states have adopted the use of some form of the ASCA Model as a guide for practicing school counselors (Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin, Carey, & DeCoster, 2009). Not all states provide such guidance for their school counselors and, as a result, some school counselors are left with little continuity among schools, even within the same school district. Some counselor educators have called for more support and supervision for school counselors (Brott, 2006; DeVoss & Andrews, 2006; Somody, Henderson, Cook, & Zambrano, 2008); however, a gap between education and professional responsibility, and consequently liability, has remained apparent (Foster, Young, & Hermann, 2005; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). It is important to note that the aforementioned reform is linked directly to the roles and functions of school counselors (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). According to NOSCA, 71% of school counselors surveyed stated that they believed academic planning related to college and career readiness was important, but only 31% believed their school was successful in fulfilling students’ needs in that area (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). The gap between what they believe to be important and how they deliver information and assist students in using the information is critical.
To successfully bridge the gap and provide students with a consistent avenue for college and career readiness, more attention must be directed toward training school counselors and clearly defining the roles and functions of school counselors to other school professionals (Dodson, 2009; Mason & McMahon, 2009; McMahon, Mason, & Paisley, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009). Further inquiry is necessary to determine the possible impact of revised training and practice on the profession as well as on school counselors’ relationships with students, parents and the school community stakeholders. Counselor educators are not solely responsible for the role development of the school counselors they train; however, they have an increased personal responsibility as well (Paisley & Milsom, 2007; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). Consistent dialogue between counselor educators and school counselors-in-training regarding role competence in career development may provide an avenue to overall effectiveness.
Currently, professional school counselors are expected to offer comprehensive, well-balanced, developmental, evidence-based school counseling programs that target social and emotional supportive services, educational and academic planning, and vocational education for all students (ASCA, 2003; Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Dugger & Boshoven, 2010; Foster et al., 2005; Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin et al., 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). However, high school counselors continue to be scrutinized in light of the poor marks they receive from high school students and graduates regarding the counselors’ involvement in their respective postsecondary planning processes (Gibbons, Borders, Wiles, Stephan, & Davis, 2006; Johnson et al., 2010).
School counselors serve in multiple—and often demanding—educational and counseling roles. In addition, school counselors are asked to further the academic and educational missions of the school, seek teacher and administrator buy-in to an integrated comprehensive guidance program, and act in a proactive manner that will enhance collaboration among all facets of the school and community (Brown, 2006; Dodson, 2009; Green & Keys, 2001; Walsh, Barrett, & DePaul, 2007). Keeping these functions in mind, one can see how critical it is for school counselors to develop particular skills in order to provide services, to promote a strong professional identity, and to obtain regular supervision and consultation (McMahon et al., 2009).
In many cases, school counselors develop competencies in their roles while performing the duties assigned by their administrators or counseling supervisors; however, the basic educational training that occurs preservice can vary dramatically. In the field of counselor education, many issues impact the curriculum and philosophy of school counselor training programs including (a) the accreditation of the program by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and (b) the degree to which programs offer training in how to utilize the ASCA Model (ASCA, 2003). The CACREP training standards have gained popularity among state certification and licensure boards (such as those in Louisiana and New Jersey), and some boards now require all candidates seeking certification or licensure to have completed CACREP-accredited counseling programs in order to be eligible for professional certification or licensure. Certainly, not all counselor training programs are CACREP-accredited, and those that are CACREP-accredited likely vary in how they address the standards. Yet, many school counselor trainees will encounter similar standards presented in the newly revised ASCA Model as they pursue state certification or become involved in ASCA as a student or professional member (ASCA, 2012).
The ASCA Model provides a tool for school counselors to design, coordinate, implement, manage and evaluate school counseling programs, but the specifics on how school counselors address each area varies (ASCA, 2012). School counselors are expected to demonstrate competency in the areas of academic achievement, social and emotional development, and career counseling. However, career counseling competency is often minimized in relation to other areas because the accountability measures are not fully developed. Also, the results cannot be determined until years after students leave high school (Belasco, 2013; McDonough, 2005), and due to so many commitments falling upon school counselors, their time to provide specific career interventions can be limited (Bryan, Moore-Thomas, Day-Vines, & Holcomb-McCoy, 2011; Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010).
The leaders of ASCA (2012) have encouraged secondary school counselors to spend at least 40% of their day conducting career assessment, engaging in development and planning postsecondary activities with students (e.g., individual student responsive services, group guidance activities, college and career indirect services); yet, according to Clinedinst, Hurley, and Hawkins (2011), high school counselors devote only 23% of their time to this cause. School counselor education programs minimally address this disparity (Foster et al., 2005). Most programs offer one course in general career development theory, assessment and counseling, which would translate to roughly 6% of students’ training within a 48-hour program, and only 5% for programs requiring 60 credit hours of graduate work. Although CACREP (2009) has called for counselor educators to infuse career development throughout the program curricula, school counselors have reported they did not feel competent in the delivery of career programs (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014).
Given the convergence of an increased number of school counselor education programs seeking accreditation (Urofsky, personal communication, March 28, 2014), increased calls for accountability in school counseling programs (Wilkerson, Pérusse, & Hughes, 2013), and the growing influence of the ASCA Model (Martin et al., 2009), it seems imperative that school counselors be prepared to address the vocational and transitional needs of the secondary student. A gap exists between what is expected and suggested by the national standards for a comprehensive guidance program and what is actually being taught in school counselor preparation programs, specifically in the area of college and career readiness (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014; McDonough, 2005). School counselors must have an appropriate cache of career counseling techniques in order to be effective leaders, not just possess a basic understanding of career development theories (Zunker, 2012). Osborn and Baggerly (2004) suggested the following:
High school is a crucial time for students to make career and/or postsecondary training decisions. If there were any group of school counselors who needed to have a large proportion of their time devoted to career counseling, it would be high school counselors. (p. 55)
Bridgeland and Bruce (2014) stated in the NOSCA report that “counselors are also largely enthusiastic about supporting college and career readiness initiatives, but here again, do not think they have the support and resources to successfully promote their students’ postsecondary achievement” (p. 12).
Hines & Lemons (2011) proposed refocusing university training programs for school counselors to emphasize educational access, opportunity and equity in college, and career readiness, with an increased focus on interns utilizing college and career readiness curricula with students in their schools. They also recommended the revision of school counselor job descriptions to focus on postsecondary planning, the use of performance evaluations connected to student academic outcomes and college and career readiness standards, and the need for persistent professional development in order to cultivate effective college and career readiness counseling programs.
By continuing to examine school counselor training and consequent job competency standards, it may be possible to determine gaps in training and how counselors compensate for their lack of knowledge in serving their students. Career counseling theory and application play a role in how school counselors work with students in postsecondary planning, and where a lack of knowledge exists, a lack of services exists as well (Perrone, Perrone, Chan, & Thomas, 2000). The rising costs of higher education, paired with students’ lack of concise college and career planning, make the school counselor’s role more important than in past decades.
Borders and Drury (1992) determined that “school counseling interventions have a substantial impact on students’ educational and personal development. Individual and small-group counseling, classroom guidance, and consultation activities seem to contribute directly to students’ success in the classroom and beyond” (p. 495). School counselors have shared responsibility for students acquiring knowledge necessary for successful mastery of essential developmental skills at the secondary level (Myrick, 1987; Sears, 1999). The need for appropriate and relevant training of secondary school counselors is critical to ensure that the students they serve receive challenging academic paths that will impact their quality of life long after they leave high school (Erford, 2010).
The CACREP standards for counselor training serve as a guide for counselor education programs to include when determining elements and experiences essential for training competent school counselors. However, the standards were not established to provide any support or structure for the postgraduate professional working in the schools (Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Pérusse, Goodnough, & Noel, 2001). ASCA provides professional school counselors with support through the National Model to administer appropriate programming to students at the secondary level, including career planning. The question remains whether counselors-in-training receive access to the appropriate coursework and relevant experiences to adequately prepare them to fulfill their role in the schools, as suggested by historical perspectives (e.g., the vocational needs of students) and the current national standards for the profession.
The area of career development and postsecondary planning is one in which counselors-in-training may not receive adequate instruction or supervision (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Foster et al., 2005). With the acceptance of the 2016 CACREP standards revisions, counselor education programs would be required to demonstrate how they assess students’ competencies using data “gathered at multiple points and using multiple measures” (CACREP, 2014, p. 6). Counselor educators must determine how to measure competency in career development throughout their programs. Some programs offer one course in career counseling, development or assessment, while other programs may choose to meet the standards in other ways. While students may gain training experience in career counseling through internship hours at the master’s level, career development is not a required part of the internship experience. Through the use of standardized tests that measure students’ knowledge of career counseling theory (e.g., Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination, National Counselor Examination), counselor education programs would be partially meeting the requirements for CACREP accreditation under the new standards. Testing graduate students on their knowledge of career counseling theory, however, does not provide an indicator of the students’ ability to provide comprehensive career counseling programs upon graduation. Using multiple measures of competency throughout the program may be a more effective way to accurately measure professional skill and readiness to provide career services to students.
A recent review of the counseling and education literature yielded several articles confirming the deficiencies in school counselor training and the increased need for additional competence among school counselors to provide college and career readiness programming to students, including information on financial literacy and the cost of higher education (Belasco, 2013; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Some educators may argue that the standards have been infused throughout their school counselor training program curriculum, yet there is no evidence within the professional literature of a consistent standard of practice. As a result, the question remains: Can counselor educators provide the necessary curriculum and expect that counselors-in-training will retain enough information to be able to provide services competently to students?
The educational recommendations versus the professional expectations imposed upon the school counselor may seem unrealistic, and at times, inappropriate (Brott, 2006; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Foster et al., 2005). An inconsistency between the amount of preparation and the expectations of school counselors’ work roles is apparent (Dodson, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009) and is highlighted in the NOSCA report (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). One might wonder how and where school counselors obtain adequate preparation for their professional roles. The authors in this study attempted to explore and document this information within the context of the schools in which the participants worked. Once again, the need to reform school counselor education programs is evident, and the voices of these counselors may help identify the specific areas in which to begin.
The research questions proposed in this study were addressed using a qualitative research design. A phenomenological research inquiry (Creswell, 2013) was used to assess participants’ experiences, preparedness and perceptions of competency related to career counseling with high school students. The goals of using this approach stem from the core ideals of phenomenological research (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990; Wertz, 2005), which seeks to understand “how human beings make sense of experience and transform experience into consciousness, both individually and as shared meaning” (Patton, 1990, p. 104). Based on the premise that human beings by nature strive for a sense of self in the world of work and the knowledge that they have to use in their work (Crotty, 1998), it was imperative to develop an awareness of the relationship between the data and the participants within the context of the study (McCroskey, 1997; Merriam, 1998). With this goal in mind, participant responses were assessed using the methodological processes of grounded theory, and shared meanings grounded in the data were further derived (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
Participants were chosen using a purposeful and convenience criteria sampling method (Collins, Onwuegbuzie, & Jiao, 2007), and identified from the first author’s community network of school counselor colleagues located in two Midwestern states. These counselors referred other secondary school counselors in their communities to the current authors for potential participation in the study. To select the participants, the authors previewed a convenience sample of 18 secondary school counselors from urban, suburban and rural public schools. They chose specific participants based on differences in age, ethnicity, gender, number of years of experience as a high school counselor, and those who hold master’s degrees from both CACREP and non-CACREP programs. In an effort to diversify the sample, the authors did not select participants with similar characteristics. The authors directly contacted the identified school counselors, and the nine participants agreed to participate in the study (see Table 1 for identifying characteristics). Each participant and school name was changed to protect identity.
School Counselor Participant Information and School Information
Years of Experience
White female in her late 20s
|Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors
White female in her mid-40s
|Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors
White male in his late 50s
|High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White female in her early 50s
|High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White male in his early 30s
|High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White male in his early 60s
|Mayfield High School: urban; public; 2058 students; 27% F/R lunch*; 45% White, 39% Black, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 2% American Indian; 5 other counselors
Hispanic female in her late 30s
|Ridgemont Jr./Sr. High School: rural; public; 222 students; 54% F/R lunch*; 65% Hispanic, 31% White, 3% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; no other school counselors in building
White female in her early 30s
|Bedford High school: rural; public; 645 students; 10% F/R lunch*, 85% White, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; one other counselor
Hispanic female in her early 30s
|Hill Valley High School: rural; public; 401 students; 52% Hispanic, 45% White, 2% American Indian, 1% Black, 0% Asian/Pacific Islander; no other counselor in building
Note. All participant and school information has been changed to protect identities.
*Students receive free or reduced-fee lunch based on household income.
Procedures and Data Collection
As part of the data collection process, a personal audit trail (Merriam, 1998) was utilized to minimize and account for specific feelings or opinions formed by the primary investigator. As a former school counselor, the first author had areas of training, and professional and personal experiences that were similar to, or different from those of the research participants. The journal served as an appropriate place for the primary investigator to document feelings regarding these issues and issues of counselor training.
Merriam (1998) suggested that researchers share a common language with the participants of the study; to that end, in-depth, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews lasting 45–55 minutes were completed. The following nine research questions were asked:
Tell me about your overall experience in your counselor training program.
Tell me about your experiences in that program with regard to instruction you received in career development delivery models with high school students.
How has the training you received in career development prepared you for your work with students?
What type of continuing education training have you received in the area of career development since finishing your degree program?
Describe your level of confidence in your ability to provide students with career development information and guidance.
In what areas, if any, do you feel unsure (or less sure) of the information you are providing?
What would have aided you in attaining competency in career development and postsecondary planning?
How much career counseling did you do during your internship?
How did you see your preparedness in career development in relation to your colleagues’ preparedness?
The first author for the study recorded the interviews electronically and then transcribed or typed the interviews using a traditional word processing program. The information obtained from the transcripts was compiled into one data set, which represents the voices of all nine participants. This author also obtained official transcripts from the participants’ master’s degree programs in school counseling to track the number of courses they took in career counseling and development. The participants provided information regarding the accreditation status of their training program as CACREP or non-CACREP at the time they obtained their degrees. At the conclusion of each interview, the first author immediately moved to another location in order to write initial thoughts (i.e., field notes) regarding any physical or nonverbal responses of the participants. The first author wrote notes in a research journal regarding any personal researcher biases that emerged (Creswell, 2013). The field notes, transcript and program accreditation status served as additional data that were shared with the research team for triangulation purposes, specifically to enrich the data collected during each interview.
Interview data were subjected to a rigorous phenomenological reduction. Also known as bracketing (Husserl, 1977), this is the process of extracting significant statements from the actual, transcribed interviews with the participants. The authors utilized Denzin’s (1989) suggestions to extract statements, including (a) locating the key phrases and statements that speak directly to the phenomenon in question; (b) interpreting the meanings of these phrases as an informed reader; (c) obtaining the subjects’ interpretations of these phrases; (d) inspecting the meanings for what they reveal about the essential, recurring features of the phenomenon being studied; and (e) offering a tentative statement, or definition, of the phenomenon in terms of the essential recurring features (see Figure 1 for steps in analysis process).
Figure 1. Interview data steps
A total of 543 significant statements were analyzed and coded for inclusion in the theme-building process (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Curry & Bickmore, 2012). The nine counselors’ statements were then grouped into categories as similarities emerged among them. This process gave each statement equal weight in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made the statement (Patton, 1990). New categories were formed until each statement had been grouped, totaling 17 in all. At the conclusion, the sample was determined rich enough to reach saturation. According to Creswell (2013), saturation occurs when pieces of information are put into categories and the researcher begins to see repetition among the data being categorized.
Once saturation was reached, the first author’s epoche (journal) was utilized to control for bias, and member checking was used to confirm the trustworthiness of the data. The act of member checking includes obtaining confirmation from the participants that the extracted statements from the interviews were accurate and inclusive (Creswell, 2013). Each of the nine participants reviewed their statements via e-mail and confirmed the accuracy and true representation of their thoughts and feelings. Triangulation of the data (i.e., comparing the researcher’s journal to the participants’ verified statements) further confirmed the results. At that point, imaginative variation and thematic reduction were employed to provide an organized, rich description of the participants’ experiences (Creswell, 2013).
Imaginative variation. The process of imaginative variation (Denzin, 1989) asks the researcher to horizontalize the data, or place the extracted significant statements of each participant side by side to compare, group and organize the statements into comprehensive ideas. The first author collected overall themes by physically cutting the statements out and dividing them into groups of similar statements. This process gave “each statement equal weight” in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made a particular statement (Patton, 1990). The deconstructed data set made the meanings of the participants’ stories clearer.
Thematic reduction: School counselor themes. The meanings derived from the counselors’ statements were grouped into common themes. The authors read and examined the counselors’ statements until words or phrases surfaced that represented patterns of feelings or thoughts that were repeated consistently throughout. These common words or phrases were grouped into major thematic areas that represented the collective voice of the participants.
Four themes emerged that indicated school counselors experienced feelings of under-preparedness in helping students plan for postsecondary pursuits, including (a) awareness (subtheme: feelings of incompetence), (b) theory versus reality (subtheme: disconnect of formal education), (c) acquiring competence (subthemes: colleague networks and technology), and (d) training needs (counselor education programs).
Awareness: Incompetence versus competence. Positive or desirable characteristics of a competent school counselor, particularly in the area of career development, were compiled to create a textural portrayal that illustrated the picture of a highly competent school counselor. Collectively, the participants indicated that a competent school counselor would have the following characteristics: (a) the ability to secure accurate information and provide it to students quickly, (b) active membership in state or national school counseling organizations, (c) use of professional networks for professional development, (d) well-maintained connections with students in spite of large caseloads, (e) outreach to marginalized student populations, and (f) personal respect and reflection of the role of a professional school counselor.
When the more specific themes were examined, the counselors described characteristics of the competency levels they possessed; however, they believed they were not living up to self-imposed standards. Most of the counselors’ statements referred to their perceived lack of competency in performing their roles in the schools, as opposed to positive feelings of competency. One of the participants, Vivian, stated, “A kid would come in and I would think, please, let’s talk about suicide or something because I am not so hot in this [career counseling] area.” This counselor considered herself more prepared to assess a student’s risk for self-harm than to help guide him or her toward a career path. Vivian believed that her training had inadequately prepared her, and did not remember what she was supposed to do to help students look beyond high school. She expressed frustration and the need for more tailored training, specifically on how to deliver comprehensive career and postsecondary planning curricula. Another participant, Noah, stated, “I am sure those kids know way more what their plans are going to be and what their options are than I do, and that is not the way it is supposed to work. It is something that I should know.” This counselor had become aware that he lacked the skills necessary to work with students, and his perceived helplessness prevented him from being engaged in the process. This school counselor needed resources to fill the gap and help him reach his students.
Theory versus reality. Throughout the dialogue with the participants, one common thread was that the formal instruction and implementation suggestions from their graduate training were inadequate. One participant, Noah, strongly voiced his concern with these training deficiencies by stating, “I don’t feel like I had enough [career training], it goes back to . . . well, they gave us theories. I did not get any specifics on how to use them.” Another counselor, Alan, stated, “We had a very good understanding of the theoretical [career counseling] model. It was very lacking in how to convey it to the kids or how you work with kids. This is where I think it came up short.” The voices of all the participants reflected this type of statement. Some of the participants believed that they had been introduced to career counseling theory and some assessment tools; however, they noted that they had not received sufficient instruction on how to apply these concepts when working with students. In addition, none of the participants were able to recall a particular standard for career assessment or planning for secondary school counseling that they might use as a guide when working in the schools.
Colleague networks. In order to combat the noted deficiencies, participants reported forming both formal and informal networks with other colleagues to gain competence in the area of career development. Noah stated, “Luckily I had a friend or two . . . who were good counselors and . . . I learned a lot from them.” The idea of learning how to create and implement career development programming on the job resonated throughout the participants. Diane stated, “I still know that at any time I can call somebody who will know something,” and Vivian said, “Thank God for other counselors because I wouldn’t know where to start.” The importance of colleague networks to the perceived competency of each counselor was made apparent by all the participants, not just the ones represented here. They seemed to rely on one another most often to supplement the gaps in information, more so than consulting other resources available to them.
Utilizing technology. The school counselors made numerous statements regarding the use of technology at their jobs. They mentioned the use of specific programs, and the consensus seemed to reflect that everyone used computer technology in some capacity. Some counselors believed that particular programs purchased by their districts were not useful to them, while others pointed to the use of computers as a resource for gaining competency in providing career development counseling to their students. Vivian stated, “We finally decided to go with the . . . [career development online program], which now has been probably the most used resource by our kids, by our staff, and by the counseling office simply because it is so easily accessible.” Alan also noted the following:
We got it [the online career development program] not only for the kids . . . but for the parents, the community, PR, and making ourselves a viable part of their development. . . . This has been a big plus for us because it forces contact with every kid in an easy, very positive type conference.
A third participant, Kimberly, recalled, “I can point them in the right direction now. The computer is so much easier and the students respond to it.”
The technology-based career development programs appeared to be used more readily by the counselors than any other counseling tool. Some of the benefits of technology-based programs include the following: Students can access information independently (autonomy), students can access career information from any computer at the school or from their homes (accessibility), and counselors can provide answers to students’ questions quickly (time-sensitivity). The computer-based, Internet programs gave confidence to the counselors that the information was up-to-date and accurate. They used the computer and Internet-based programs to work more efficiently and provide students with consistent, research-based career development programming. This resource provided school counselors with confidence where they lacked it prior to using these tools.
Training needs. Participants were forthcoming about what they needed; for example, they would have benefited from specialized training prior to starting their roles as professional school counselors. Throughout the interviews, the counselors interjected their dissatisfaction with their preparedness upon completing their master’s degree programs, to varying degrees. Interestingly, the statements grouped into the training needs category were not gathered in response to a particular question, but rather as they naturally occurred throughout the interviews. Even the participants who stated they were satisfied with their training overall offered suggestions for improving school counselor training programs based on their unique experiences in the field.
Vanessa stated the following:
I think as school counselors, the counseling part one-on-one we see once [in] awhile, but it is geared more towards career and preparing the kids. . . . I think one thing that would have helped me a lot was maybe having college recruiters or admission counselors come into the class and talk about what they look for on an application or in essay questions. I think that would have helped me help my seniors this year.
Similarly, Diane said that it would have been helpful to know “just the day-to-day what does a career counseling program look like or what does a career counseling program in a high school look like?” Other participants did not identify specific training areas that would have helped them; but they acknowledged that continuing education was necessary based on what was provided in their graduate programs. Kimberly reflected, “I would say that out of the 75 kids that we have [grades] 9–12, I would say maybe 20% have a skill that they can use if they were to drop out of school. It is one area that I am really not comfortable in right now.” School counselors carry the responsibility to prepare students for post-graduation, but how they accomplish this task is left to the specific counselor, school or school district.
Jane’s statement reflects her desire for more specific training curricula:
I think that training programs hopefully will evolve and will begin to become more specialized . . . it [career development] is definitely an area that needs more than one class. Three credit hours when 55 are required? It is probably one of the most important things for school counselors to know.
Few counselors echoed this call for more coursework, but specialized training in and out of the classroom was seen as a necessary part of gaining competency for all participants. While a number of the participants were passionate about the idea of increasing training in career development within counseling training programs, the collective voice of the counselors’ statements demonstrated the variety of struggles and frustrations the participants encountered, and still encounter, along the way.
The purpose of this study was to understand how school counselors view their roles, and how they understand and deliver career counseling curricula to students. Nine counselors made statements consistent with feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in their ability to provide adequate career development programming to their students, as well as unpreparedness upon completion of their counselor education programs. The findings are consistent with the reviewed literature, given that even those counselors who made positive statements regarding their overall experiences in their programs clearly reflected uncertainty regarding their competence level in career development in general (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; McDonough, 2005), but especially in how to deliver useful career programs to students (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 2010). The particular training programs that these counselors completed to obtain licensure differed. Additionally, the secondary data collected from participants (i.e., CACREP vs. non-CACREP degree programs) indicate that accreditation and the completion of a course in career theory and application appear irrelevant regarding the participants’ perceptions of overall competency.
The authors noticed that the agitation in the counselors’ voices subsided when they discussed the steps they took to gain competency in this area. For some participants, it was a friendly colleague who showed them the way it had always been done, or the discovery of a new online resource that helped them quickly provide answers to their students’ questions. The counselors identified specific strategies that they used to improve their competency, but said that they relied heavily on their professional networks for support.
The three urban counselors reported that they were more prepared than their colleagues were in terms of providing career development programming that utilized technology. The three rural and three suburban counselors believed that they were close to or at the same level of competency as their colleagues. Additionally, all three urban counselors believed that funding or political obstacles within their respective districts prevented their success. Some participants also noted that they relied on technology because it had been purchased by their schools and was the only resource available. For a number of the participants, the isolation and lack of connection to other counselors furthered their sense of frustration and disconnectedness.
Participants employed professional mentoring and consultation in some cases; however, these counselors reported that they utilized informal, personal networking extensively. They described these relationships as casual, question-and-answer partnerships. These relationships were not formally structured with specific goals as in mentoring relationships, but rather were formed out of necessity for team building and information sharing among colleagues. The counselors valued these contacts more than any other resource they had acquired since completion of their degree programs.
The big picture of what it means to be a competent school counselor resonated loudly through the voices of the participants. They uniformly reported that despite their struggle to achieve competency, there was an overarching sense that their efforts were not enough. The counselors’ feelings of incompetence in the area of career development significantly impacted their ability to address the needs of students. The quiet desperation resonating in their statements magnified their perceptions of how they lacked what they needed to help prepare students for life after high school. School counselors have an understanding of who they would like to be in the schools, but oftentimes they believe they fall short (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Many school counselors lack the confidence or competence to navigate the college counseling process effectively, thus leading to overall perceptions of incompetence in career development (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert 2014).
The lack of competency in career development that these school counselors expressed may imply that a certain degree of insecurity and real or perceived incompetence are expected when one starts out in the field. However, if the degree of preparedness among these participants is at all representative, it may indicate that more focus on career development practice is needed in counselor education programs. According to Hill (2012), it is important to emphasize counselor-initiated strategies for college and career readiness interventions—something this group of school counselors found challenging. Addressing this need is a critical issue for school counselor educators as they design training curricula and experiences. Again, participants stated that they had received valuable information in their programs regarding the specifics of what career development is, but not how to use it with students. The missing link between knowledge and know-how for these counselors is palpable. School counselor educators and supervisors must take note and develop career counseling curricula that address the needs of their counselors-in-training, as well as the needs of the future students they will serve.
As a result of the information obtained from this study and with the support of the NOSCA report and other studies published in recent years, a need clearly exists for career development training standards to be integrated into graduate programs for school counselors (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Specifically, counselor educators may adequately identify deficiencies in the overall training model by isolating the differences between anticipated transitions, role adoption and professional development. Participants in the present study believe that they and future school counselors would benefit from a more applied, community-based experience, much like the professional development schools model suggested by Clark and Horton-Parker (2002), and a standard of practice to better serve their students.
The plan outlined by NOSCA includes implementing a process by which all secondary school counselors follow a set of standards while working with students on college readiness from academic, social and career perspectives (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Ideally, these standards would be consistent among school counselors across the country to ensure all students access to adequate college preparation and postsecondary planning. Graduate-level courses offered in the form of additional electives, such as counseling the college-bound student or career and technical education, would provide opportunities for growth in areas not currently available in most graduate counseling programs. In response to the growing need for high school counselor competency in postsecondary planning, some states are now offering an additional licensure endorsement for school counselors; for example, in Colorado, school counselors complete two graduate-level courses already offered within CACREP programs (i.e., individual counseling, career development) and one additional two-credit course in career and technical education, offered through the Colorado Community College System. Upon completion of the three courses, school counselors may then apply for the additional endorsement in career and technical education (Colorado Department of Education, 2014). This effort supports the Common Core Curriculum implementation in Colorado and many other states where school counselors are now expected to provide academic advising to directly reflect their students’ career cluster interests.
With the recent passing of the Langevin-Thompson Amendment to the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10, 2014), school counselors working in charter schools will now be asked to provide documentation of their comprehensive career counseling programs in order for schools to obtain priority status when applying for federal funding. This movement, which currently applies only to charter schools, may begin to find its way into all public school funding requests, thus making career counseling curriculum development and implementation a priority for all school counselors. With the support of ASCA, the Association for Career and Technical Education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, this movement will continue to grow, and the need for well-trained school counselors who are able to provide comprehensive career counseling programs will increase.
In this study, the authors used several measures in order to preserve the internal validity of the study, such as researcher epoche, triangulation and member checking. In keeping with the tradition of qualitative research, the participants were not studied in isolation but in environments in which the studied phenomenon continues to occur. It is safe to assume that the participants’ statements were not without bias, because few inquiries involving human interactions and perceptions are without bias. The authors selected nine participants from a convenience sample of high school counselors from rural, suburban and urban areas within two Midwestern states in the United States. The relationship of the counselors to the first author, although limited, may have reflected a need to please or demonstrate competency where little may have existed. Despite the limitations of the study, the findings contribute to the literature regarding school counselors’ perceptions of their abilities to effectively deliver career counseling programs. Also, the findings further emphasize the need to reform the training methods through which school counselors provide college and career readiness services to students.
Given the results of this study, it would be negligent to ignore the possibility that school counselors may be placed in positions with less than adequate training in career development. Counselor education programs have an obligation to prepare school counselors in more role-specific areas (e.g., college and career readiness), given that the national average ratio of students to school counselor is 471:1, which is well above ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250:1 (http://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/home/ratios10-11.pdf). Doing more with less has always been a challenge for school leaders, and preparing school counselors more effectively to meet the needs of their students may empower a new generation of counselors to lead students into the 21st century workforce.
The authors acknowledge that this particular study includes only the voices of nine school counselors; however, their voices loudly echo NOSCA’s findings and support the need for school counselor standardization of practice in promoting, teaching and facilitating career and postsecondary planning for all students (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Currently, most school counselor education programs do not highlight this area, yet this area represents the very heart of school counseling services at the secondary level. ASCA (2012) has deemed this area important enough to provide school counselors with standards with which to guide their daily activities, but training programs offer limited exposure to actual planning and implementation of career services. This study exposes a disconnection between training and practice standards in school counselor education, which has led to feelings of incompetence and discouragement in these nine school counselors. Regardless of how the counselors compensate for this lack of training, this phenomenon exists. Whether they graduated from CACREP or non-CACREP programs, all of the participants in this study believed that they were equally incompetent in providing career development programming to students. Therefore, future CACREP standards and ASCA Model revisions, as well as state credentialing boards, must include guidelines by which school counselors are trained, specifically reflecting their appropriate job duties and responsibilities in college and career readiness programming. Future school counselors may be better equipped to address the needs of their students, parents and communities if this area of training is expanded and integrated as an essential component of counselor education programs.
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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Leann Wyrick Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Mary Ellen Greenwaldt is a family case worker for Licking County Job and Family Services, Children Services Division, in Newark, OH. Kevin P. Gosselin is an associate professor and assistant dean of research at Texas A&M Health Sciences Center. Correspondence can be addressed to Leann Wyrick Morgan, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, College of Education, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, firstname.lastname@example.org.