Even the best of students can miss a deadline. But what if a student is perpetually tardy, appears to be just skating by or doesn’t quite grasp the specifics of personal-professional boundaries?
Such behaviors among psychology graduate students are
uncommon. But for a handful of students, they are a serious
problem — and if they persist, they may lead to professional
problems that could harm future clients.
Although there is no specific research linking psychology
student behavior problems directly to their success as
psychology professionals, research in the medical community
confirms that physicians who had been disciplined by licensing
boards were more likely to have had negative comments
regarding professionalism in their medical school files
(Academic Medicine, 2004).
“Professionalism is the area of competence where
psychology students often have the most difficulty, but it is
also the hardest to quantify and the most challenging for
faculty to address,” says APA President Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD,
a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine.
Not respecting the confidentiality of personal information
shared in the classroom and not following through on
homework assignments are some of the indicators that
students might struggle with professionalism upon
graduation, she says. Once graduates enter the field, it can
get worse: Work stressors, lack of social support, compassion
fatigue and the deterioration of knowledge are just a few of
the obstacles that influence competence and cloud the
ability to self-assess.
A group of psychologists and educators, including Kaslow,
have started to address such issues. In a 2012 American Psychologist article, the group proposed a new approach to professionalism, emphasizing that both an individual and the psychology
community are responsible for competent work and ethical practice.
How to get there, however, is so far unclear.
“How do we all be responsible not just for our competence
but also for that of our colleagues, in a way that is ethical but
also kind?” asks Kaslow.
Many roots of the problem
Some professional competence problems stem from the
graduate training system, in which professors can be tempted
to pass marginally competent students to the next level,
hoping problems will be addressed during internship or by the
licensure board, says W. Brad Johnson, PhD, professor at the
U.S. Naval Academy, who has authored books on mentoring
and professional ethics in psychology.
“We call it the hot-potato game,” he says. “We still have great
difficulty in psychology and other mental health disciplines
with passing the buck. Graduate programs are slow to
document and slow to intervene.”
That’s in part because mental health professionals tend to
be developmental and humanistic in nature, he adds. “There’s
able to practice?
Psychology educators are taking a harder
look at student competence.
BY KATHLEEN SMITH
SPECIAL SECTION FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS