Therapists’ Personal and Professional Development


This paper examines the personal and professional development of therapists. Its aim is to provide students of graduate program and therapists-in-training with valuable information which they can use for their growth. Its objective stems from the realization that graduate programs do not equip students with all the necessary information concerning the world of therapy, particularly in the real world scenario. Many articles have been reviewed in order to gain varied and extensive information.

The paper is organized into two major headings: personal development and professional development. Personal development deals with issues that affect the personal life of therapists while the professional development deals with issues that affect their professional life as they embark on the journey of mastery. It is hoped that the information provided in this paper would enhance the growth, both personal and professional, of students and therapists-in-training.


In graduate school, students are bombarded with hypothetical, scholarly, and practical learning. Throughout the program, the typical psychology graduate student’s time will be consumed by lectures, research and term papers, and ultimately, the real therapeutic practice. While this experience provides students with abundant information concerning the world of therapy, there are many issues that are never or are less frequently addressed by the program.

The aim of this paper is to discuss in detail a number of such issues. This paper makes the effort of developing more futuristic and competent therapists who are developed both personally and professionally. In order to offer therapists-in-training (described in this paper as graduate students and young professionals) with valuable information they may have lacked in graduate school, this paper will look deeply into the personal and professional development of competent and experienced therapists.

The paper is guided by a number of questions such as: “Are there specific mechanisms that therapists-in-training can utilize that would enhance their careers and make them competent and effective? What are some of the lessons and skills that a normal graduate program – that is focused on basic skills training – might fail to inculcate in students and which can be learned from more experienced therapists?”

It is highly unlikely that students of therapy can learn all the aspects of the profession from the graduate program alone. As a result, most students are not aware of other important yet ignored issues that affect both the personal and professional life span of therapists. It is only when they go into the real world after the completion of their program that therapists-in-training realize just how much more they have to learn.

Another important issue that is addressed by this paper is expertise in the helping profession of therapy. Questions such as, “Is it possible to be an expert in therapy? What are the different types of expertise? What are the stages through which a therapist-in-training has to pass through to become an expert? What is the future outlook for experts in therapy?” will be tackled. In order to address all these issues, the paper will review different scholarly material including books and journal articles. It is hoped that the paper will be useful for therapists-in-training as they continue on the journey of personal and professional development.

Personal development

There has been an increasing interest in the study of the development of the professional therapist both from the personal and professional perspectives. This interest emanates from different angles of investigation including career enhancement, supervision, expertise and wisdom (Ronnestad and Skovholt, 2003). Many research studies have been carried out to show the importance of the competence of the professional therapist in the quality of life of the clients.

However, competence does not just come about through the learning process that therapists go through in school but also through their own efforts to develop and better themselves as human beings. Personal development is indeed an important process that any professional in any field needs to go through throughout their career life. Personal development is even more important for students of psychology and therapists who are new in the profession.

In their manual, Becoming a therapist: A manual for personal and professional development, Cross and Papadopoulos (2001) encourage students and therapists-in-training to embark on the journey of personal development through, for instance, deep reflections about their career and how their experience would affect their performance. The manual is made up of questions and exercises that readers are supposed to work out to enable them reflect on their personal values, strengths and limitations which can positively or negatively affect their therapeutic practice.

Personal development necessitates an open outlook towards daily and changing experiences, willingness to experiment, interaction with the outside world and a serious reflection on different occurrences. The journey to personal development however begins with knowing oneself and comprehending the importance of the effect of one’s experience on the outside world.

According to Cross and Papadopoulos (2001), “personal development is of critical importance for counselors and therapists as they participate in the process of helping.” The authors assert that knowing oneself and having a personal insight help therapists to evade personal weaknesses and instead develop confidence in their unique experiences which in turn can have a lasting impact on their practice. The importance of personal reflection is usually mentioned to students in the course of their graduate programs. However, most therapy students are not well-trained to engage in such reflections on a regular basis.

The manual of Cross and Papadopoulos provides therapists-in-training with the means through which they can effectively engage in personal and professional development throughout their career lifespan. The manual reveals numerous occasions and landmark events that may have happened in the lives of the students and how such events can strongly shape their practice either positively or negatively. According to Cross and Papadopoulos (2001), “Landmark experiences are those which, on reflection, you name as shaping, molding or influencing who you are. They are events or happenings that have a lasting impact on us.”

The events can either oppose the perspective that the therapists have of the world or on the other hand they can validate their perspectives thereby providing them with strong proof which can increase their confidence and trust in themselves. The landmark events normally occur throughout one’s life span, from the family one belongs to, to the community, education and religious institutions and the personal relationships that one has with others.

The impact of such events and experiences on the professional life of therapists was studied by Ronnestad and Skovholt who found out that “family interaction patterns, sibling and peer relationships, one’s own parenting experiences, disability in family members, other crises in the family and personal trauma influenced current practice and more long term development in both positive and adverse ways” (2003, p.34).

Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) argue that personal development as pertains to therapists encompasses a number of aspects: the choice of Psychology as a career by therapists, identity development, personal therapy for the therapist and therapist trainees, comfort with feelings of ambiguity, avoiding perfectionism, implementing good self-care, definition of personal values and identification and use of personal strengths in therapy.

The choice of Psychology as a career

The therapy profession is one of the professions that center on one of the most crucial chores – the development of human beings. This profession is an extraordinary tool that helps to minimize the adverse emotional and psychological trauma as well as serious suffering that haunt the human race throughout the globe. Therapists are also capable of enhancing and fostering the maximum functioning of human beings (Skovholt and Ronnestad, 2003, p.1).

Despite the noble role that therapists play for the human race, it is surprising to note that many students of Psychology enter the field without knowing exactly why they entered the profession in the first place. Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) assert that students can avoid such a mistake through continuous personal development which would enable the students to question themselves and investigate their motivations in pursuing the Psychology field. The authors encourage students “to develop the skills of processing on multiple levels, as one does when one seeks to monitor and be in the therapeutic encounter at the same time,” (Cross and Papadopoulous, 2001).

Personal exploration would prepare students for the challenging and ambiguous nature of the therapy profession. It would also equip the students with the capacity needed to study events that unfold in their world of profession and to gain an open outlook towards different experiences and events. Most importantly, personal exploration would stimulate the curiosity of the students and their personal motivation to assist their clients to lead a quality life.

Identity development

The formation of identity takes place in all professions as students move from the theoretical environment to the practical world. However, for therapists the process of identity formation differs significantly due to the fact that therapists have to “develop a therapeutic self that consists of a unique personal blend of the developed professional and personal selves which include values and theoretical stance, emotional awareness and autonomy” (Skovholt and Ronnestad, 1992, p.507).

This is of course in addition to the development of therapists’ mind-set concerning their profession. Researchers such as Bruss & Kopala (1993), Skovholt & Ronnestad (1992) and Loganbill et al. (1982) found out that therapists use the individuation process to develop their identities as therapists. This individuation process is a long process which begins when therapist students move away from the protective shell of the authority figures in their lives, such as their parents and guardians.

The role of family in identity formation of therapists is important because it is through the family context that people’s values and world-view were initially developed. Cross and Papadopoulos argue that, “our self-concept, self-esteem and even our prejudices may initially develop through the context of our family. There is a need therefore in our quest for personal development to go back and examine those events that have influenced our beliefs and personalities,” (2001).

The identity formation process then continues when students begin their learning program under the guidance of their tutors and supervisors who play a big role in assisting the students to elucidate their roles. However, it is not until the students begin their own therapy programs and meet clients for the first time that their identity as therapists is solidified. Auxier, Hughes and Kline state that, “eventually, these students develop a solid non-threatened belief in their own autonomy, yet are equally non-threatened by their own occasional yet appropriate dependency,” (2003, p.1). Understanding the identity formation process of therapist students is important for a number of reasons.

It would enable the tutors and lecturers to offer education and supervision that is consistent with the developmental needs and experiences of the students. This in turn would offer the students experiences that promote their identity formation.

Personal therapy

Like their own clients, therapists are human beings and experience similar trauma and hardships that their clients go through on a daily basis. Just because they help other people to lead better lives does not mean that therapists are immune to the hardships that life brings. Therapists experience death of a loved one, failing relationships, and rebellious children etcetera. In recognition of the limitations of therapists, most graduate programs either encourage or mandate their students to undergo long sessions of personal therapy that would enable them to overcome the challenges they face in their personal lives so that they are better able to assist their clients.

Cross and Papadopoulos argue that, “effective counseling cannot be separated from effective living. As such, effectiveness training should be a primary goal of every helper because effective living is the most valuable and powerful technique any counselor can offer in a helping relationship,” (2001). The need for personal therapy is one of the most controversial issues in the world of therapy. While experts such as Cross and Papadopoulos (2001) believe that there is a need for therapists to go through personal therapy other researchers do not concur with this notion.

Other arguments have been made by Cross and Papadopoulos to support their notion. The authors believe that clients go to therapists for help because they believe and trust that the therapists are in a good position to help them sort out their problems. It is therefore logical that such therapists should be in a sound condition physically, emotionally and psychologically. However, just like a barber cannot shave himself, therapists cannot be able to help themselves when it comes to tackling their personal problems.

Personal therapy would assist therapists-in-training to identify their problems, their source and their solutions. It would also prevent therapists from imposing their own problems on their clients. “Acknowledgement of an area of personal difficulty is a victory. It is the first step towards acceptance, accommodation and resolution,” (Cross and Papadopoulos, 2001). Other researchers who support the notion that personal therapy is essential for therapists include Norcross (2005), Barnet-Levy, Lee, Travers, Pohlman & Hamernik (2003), Heron (2001), Strozier & Stacey (2001) and Wiseman & Shefler (2001).

All these scholars argue that personal therapy would increase the efficiency of therapists, promote a healthy relationship between the therapists and their clients, and protect the therapists from destructive interference by enhancing their self-awareness and empathy (Atkinson, 2006, p.407).

On the other side of the debate are scholars who argue that personal therapy is not a necessity for effective therapy. Many questions have been posed by those arguing against personal therapy and fail to validate its importance. These questions include:

“What if therapists who have received personal therapy are not necessarily more effective? What if a requirement for therapists-in-training to have personal therapy was arbitrary? What if other activities in training can discharge the tasks which personal therapy is there to discharge? What if there are more risks than benefits in therapy?” (Atkinson, 2006)

The first concern was addressed by researchers such as McEwan & Duncan (1993), Clark (1986), Lambert (2003), Macran & Shapiro (1998) and Roth & Fonagy (2005). In their work, these researchers found out therapists who underwent personal therapy were not necessarily more effective in their practice and in dealing with their clients than their counterparts. Instead, other factors such as experience determined the competence of the therapists.

The requirement to have personal therapy is considered by researchers such as Williams, Coyle & Lyons (1999) to be illogical. The scholars argue that, “people need therapy when their lives are not working, not because a training course demands it,” (Atkinson, 2006, p.408). Other arguments made against personal therapy include the fact that other activities within the graduate programs, such as personal development activities, perform similar roles that personal therapy performs. In addition, personal therapy can cause more harm than good to the therapists, for instance, through the existence of dual relationships (for instance, if the supervisor acts as the therapist of the student) and problems with privacy (Atkinson, 2006).

Comfort with feelings of ambiguity

The world of therapists is highly non-structured in the sense that what students learn in class is not necessarily what they find during their practice. This is especially the case in today’s liberal and highly diverse world. As a result, it is not uncommon for therapists to find themselves in ambiguous situations for which all the learning they did in graduate school did not prepare them. The graduate school emphasizes theories, concepts, and ethical issues which the tutors believe would help the students during their practice. Such theories and concepts only form the foundation upon which the students can base their practice once they become therapists.

Once in the field, however, the therapists-in-training soon discover that not all the theories and rules learned in the classroom apply to every situation. This realization is echoed by Cross and Papadopoulos who argue that, “rules imply a predictability of circumstances and such predictability typically eludes the therapist when working with real clients in the real world,” (2001). This is because therapy and the outcome of it differ from one scenario to another.

Even in cases where two clients present similar problems, the same therapy cannot be applied to both of them. The feeling of ambiguity is therefore inevitable for therapists and they should learn to deal with it so as to become effective in dealing with their clients’ problems. As Jennings, Hanson, Stovholt and Grier state, “well-defined problems are characterized by an agreed-upon solution and search protocol. With ill-defined problems that lack a clear or correct answer, the challenge is learning how to develop the ability to adapt and then perform,” (2005). Other researchers who have supported this notion include Fook, Ryan & Hawkins (1997) and Ronnestad & Skovholt (2001).

In discussing the issue of ambiguity in the helping professions, Fook and her colleagues argued that therapists fall into one of three categories:

  1. Therapists who have an apparent logic of rules governing a specific situation versus rules that do not govern any particular situation;
  2. Therapists who have developed a solid identity as professionals in their fields; and
  3. Therapists who are confident that they have the capability to manipulate a particularly difficult scenario.

Based on this categorization, Fook and her colleagues asserted that the ambiguity associated with therapy requires one to use more of wisdom and intuition and less on theories and concepts (Jennings, Goh, Skovholt, Hanson and Banerjee-Stevens, 2003, p.68). The work of Ronnestad & Skovholt (2001) also strongly concurred with the work of Cross and Papadopoulos (2001), Fook and her colleagues (1997) and Jennings et al. (2005).

While Ronnestad & Skovholt (2001) acknowledged the existence of ambiguity in the helping professions, they went a step further by offering advice on how therapists can deal with such ambiguity. Ronnestad & Skovholt (2001) carried out their research on twelve master psychotherapists who had a mean of 37.6 years in postdoctoral practice. The researchers found out that as therapists gain more experience in their profession, they gain huge pools of personal and professional development from which they can draw experiences to help them in their unpredictable work. The researchers also found out that these experienced therapists were engaged in deep personal reflections on a frequent basis. This led the researchers to assert that therapists can deal with ambiguity by “

  1. maintaining an awareness of the infinite complexities of therapeutic work,
  2. continuously reflect upon the challenges and difficulties that they encounter, and
  3. resisting premature closure,” (Ronnestad and Skovholt, 2001, p.186).

Avoiding perfectionism

Perfectionism is one trait that most therapists-in-training desire to achieve particularly as they begin their practice in real settings such as internship and field placement. At this juncture, supervision from their tutors is normally frequent and formalized. Anxiety over their practice becomes high as students strive to achieve their unusually high expectations. Students feel pressurized to perform better than they have ever done since the beginning of their program.

As a result, many tend to avoid placing themselves in situations that would make them make any mistakes as they strive for perfection. The result is always more destructive and less helpful as Ronnestad and Skovholt argue: “they usually act in a conservative, cautious and excessively thorough fashion. They are typically not relaxed, risk-taking or spontaneous. There is little natural playfulness or sense of humor in their work,” (2003, p.15).

The struggle for perfection often decreases when advanced students compare themselves and their progress with the work of the beginning students. On the other hand, the pressure to become perfect increases significantly when students compare their work with more experienced professionals. When this happens, students become aware of the long road ahead that they still need to travel to become experts. It is then that students feel even more vulnerable and lack confidence in their abilities as therapists. The need for positive confirmation is high and students resolve this by seeking advice and feedback concerning their performance from their supervisors, senior therapists and peers (Ronnestad and Skovholt, 2003).

Other researchers such as Theriault and Gazzola (2005) have also studied the need for perfection that most therapists experience. In their study, the researchers studied two men and six women therapists whose years of experience ranged from 10 to 29 years.

Theriault and Gazzola (2005) found that all the subjects of their study were preoccupied with the need to always be accurate in their work. As a result, they were always engaged in self-evaluation that involved questioning themselves deeply after each session they had with clients. Questions such as, “Was I right? Was I not right? Am I going to be able to do what I need to do in here? What if I can’t? What if they don’t like me?” (Theriault and Gazzola, 2005, p.14) were quite common among the participants despite their many years of experience.

The need to learn from mistakes could serve a vital role in the personal and professional development of students in the helping professions. Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) assert that one of the best things that the graduate program could offer the students would be to teach the students how to appreciate their personal unique strengths as well as provide them with a solid foundation through skills, theories and concepts.

These would in turn enable them to tackle their limitations and become better persons. The authors believe that the internal pressure to be perfect that therapists-in-training place on themselves drain them of energy that is much needed in their therapeutic practice. Cross and Papadopoulous argue that, “clients’ responses overwhelmingly confirm the value of honesty as opposed to an attempt to fake competence,” (2001).

Therapists-in-training should also learn to share their mistakes with their peers and supervisors. This would help them to realize that every one makes mistakes and making mistakes does not make one less effective. On the contrary, it makes a person better equipped and more competent as long as she/he is willing to learn from those mistakes.

Implementing self-care

Self-care is an extremely important value that therapists need to inculcate. The demanding schedule of the graduate school that involves numerous lectures, field work and dissertation writing often contributes to stressors that continuously attack students in the helping profession. It is therefore common for students to lack adequate time to take good care of themselves. Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) points out the incongruity characterized by many therapists-in-training who do a good work of advising their clients to lead better and quality lives yet the same therapists fail to do just that.

The authors advise therapists-in-training to take it seriously when they begin to lack enthusiasm or feel worn-out during therapy sessions. Such feelings of lethargy and exhaustion could be an indication that the therapists are in dire need of a break, personal therapy or stress management. The need for therapists to engage in self-care has also been recommended by other researchers such as Shapiro, Biegel & Brown (2007) and Garske (2007).

Shapiro, Biegel & Brown argue that, “caring for those who are emotionally stressed or distressed is often itself stressful. Therapists commonly experience “compassion fatigue” due to the emotional labor that is often a part of therapeutic work,” (2007, p.105). These authors assert that due to the nature of their work, therapists suffer from psychological or emotional problems at one point or another in their careers.

Such problems include but are not limited to high rate of depression, emotional burn-out, anxiety, self segregation, low self-confidence, low job satisfaction and problematic relationships. Stress not only affects the personal development of therapists but also their professional development through low attentiveness and concentration and reduced ability to make sound decisions. The young and new therapists in the field are particularly more vulnerable to emotional and occupational burnout as they strive for perfection in their work.

To reduce the level of stress and its impact on the personal and professional development of therapists, Shapiro, Biegel & Brown (2007) suggest that therapists should engage in intervention programs such as self-awareness, self-regulation and balancing of personal interests and the interests of others. Most importantly, however, the scholars suggest that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) would be more effective for therapists. Through their research, the scholars found that the MBSR has numerous benefits for professionals in the helping professions:

  • it minimizes the preoccupation with self-focused thoughts and feelings which could lead to emotional and psychological ill-health; and
  • it reduces distress and increases the general well-being of therapists (Shapiro, Brown and Biegel, 2007, p.106).

Garske (2007) also concurs with Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) and Shapiro, Biegel & Brown (2007) on the issue of occupational burnout of therapists. Garske believes that such stress in prevalent in the helping professionals. He states that, “burnout can be defined as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced accomplishment which can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind,” (2007, p.34).

Garske goes an extra mile by pointing out that some therapists use unhealthy stress management techniques such as smoking, excessive drinking and eating unhealthy foods such as junk food. Such coping techniques however increase rather than reduce the stress levels of therapists and further deteriorate their general well-being. The scholar proposes that there are various effective techniques of coping with stress that therapists can use on an individual level.

These include engaging in physical exercises, having adequate sleep and eating healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and connecting with their spiritual selves, for instance, through meditation. The author also suggests that therapists should take time to have fun by engaging in hobbies and fun activities such as partying with friends and family, going to movies and listening to music. This helps to reduce the level of stress by releasing the feel-good hormones.

It also provides the therapists with opportunities to share their problems with loved ones and gives them time to focus more on their personal growth rather than on the problems of their clients. The notion of the importance of having fun has also been supported by Cross and Papadopoulous who argue that, “it is equally important to have fun. There is a common misconception that all things of value are hard won. Personal development through self-knowledge and insight can be a source of excitement and amusement,” (2007).

Personal values and strengths

Values shape who people really are and are key determinants in how successful they become in their endeavors. The importance of therapists having their personal values is discussed by Cross and Papadopoulous who argue that therapists should take the initiative of identifying their values and expressing such values to their clients. As they state, “counselors who are so intent on remaining objective and often are overly anxious not to influence their clients run the risk of immobilizing themselves and appearing hollow and inauthentic,” (Cross and Papadopoulous, 2001).

The field of therapy does not just involve the attainment of particular knowledge and capability sets. It is an ill-structured and intricate experience and procedure that many experts are not in a position to describe. Some scholars argue that the profession of therapy is more of an art; others say that it is like a dance; and yet others believe that is more of a science. The decision to become a therapist is often done through a deep soul-searching and self-evaluation and many students wonder what value they could add in their dealings with clients to make their clients’ lives better (Cross and Papadopoulous, 2001).

This is because the outcome of any therapeutic relationship depends not just on the theories, ethics and concepts that the therapists learn throughout their graduate program. Rather, it depends on a number of other factors such as the personal values, strengths and weaknesses of the therapists. The authors also argue that people enter the field of therapy for diverse reasons. However, the authors are not really concerned with the reasons and the strengths that students discover through soul searching. Instead, they are more concerned with the fact that the unique strengths and weaknesses of therapists go a long way in determining the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the therapeutic relationships they have with their clients.

The authors state that, “there is no single and definitive list of personal strengths, rather there are particular characteristics or attributes that each of us values about ourselves,” (Cross and Papadopoulous, 2001). The therapy profession is not structured in a particular manner that any person can emulate.

This notion is echoed by other scholars such as House who asserts that, “a trans-modern world view necessitates that we move far beyond therapy as technology and a medical-model ‘diagnosis-and-treatment’ approach to care, and embrace instead the often uncomfortable reality that therapy as a hermeneutical healing practice entails many practitioner qualities that are beyond rational specifications,” (2007, p.438).

A critique of Becoming a Therapist: A Manual for Personal and Professional Development

The manual, Becoming a therapist: A manual for personal and professional development by Cross and Papadopoulous (2001) provides therapy students and therapists-in-training with useful information that they can use to enhance their personal and professional development while in graduate school and beyond. Although many of the topics addressed by the manual are taught in graduate school, the manual gives students the opportunity to reflect much deeper on them.

It enables students to understand how their relationships with significant others in their lives such as family, friends and peers as well as other external and internal factors can affect their therapeutic relationships with clients. The authors argue that the reflective journal that most therapy students use for development purposes is not adequate. Cross and Papadopoulous state that, “personal development is fundamental to professional and therapeutic practice.

Until now, the unstructured personal or reflective journal has by default become the sole vehicle for recording reflection through training,” (2001). The authors believe that the confidential nature of the reflective journal does not allow students to share their experiences with others and hence denies them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, the mistakes of others, and advice from other more experienced therapists.

The authors suggest that in addition to keeping the journal, therapy students should learn to share their experiences with their peers, tutors, supervisors and mentors who would help them in their personal and professional development journey. This journey is long and has multiple stages that each student has to pass through. The guidance of experienced therapists is therefore important to students and therapist-in-training.

The authors state that, “personal and professional development is not a one-off event or activity…. It is continuous and ongoing…. Each revolution is both informed by the encounters of the past and in turn shapes our encounters with the future,” (Cross and Papadopoulous, 2001). The major limitation of the manual is that no outcome research has been carried out to determine its effectiveness. Though it seems like a very vital tool for students and therapists-in-training, it would be even more important if research on its efficacy is conducted. This would help the community of therapists to know whether or not students who use this manual are more effective and more competent than students who do not use it.

Therapists’ own perceptions about self-development

The aspect of development, both from personal and professional angles, is a crucial part of every therapist. However, therapists have different experiences when it comes to development. Many researchers have tried to carry out and document the experiences of therapists as far as their development process is concerned.

One such study was done by Orlinsky et al. (1999). In their study, Orlinsky et al. (1999) made use of therapists from different fields including Psychology, Psychiatry and Mental Health. The scholars had two main objectives that they wanted to accomplish:

  • to determine the professional development experience of therapists throughout their career life-span; and
  • to determine the perceptions that therapists have about their own development. A number of questions guided these scholars in their study and included:

“What is the relation between perceived therapeutic mastery and level of professional experience? What is the relation between currently experienced growth and level of professional experience? What is the relation between a therapist’s perceived therapeutic mastery and currently experienced growth as a therapist? Does that relation vary at different phases of the professional career?” (Orlinsky et al., 1999).


Orlinsky et al. (1999) used database from the Collaborative Research Network of the Society for Psychotherapy Research from which 3,958 psychotherapists were available for the study. These participants were restricted in the Western world. Their professional experiences ranged from 1 to 52 years and the mean was 11.2. Their ages also varied widely and ranged from 22 to 90 years. Both genders were well represented; 56.1% of the participants were female while 43.9% were male.

The researchers then utilized the Development of Psychotherapist Common Core Questionnaire (DPCCQ) to derive the measures for the study. According to Orlinsky et al., “the DPCCQ is a lengthy multipurpose set of instruments designed to survey varied aspects of the professional and personal experiences of psychotherapists, counselors and other mental health workers,” (1999, p.205). The dependent variable was “perceived Therapeutic Mastery” whereas the independent variable was professional experience in therapy.


Orlinsky et al. (1999) found out that the perceived therapeutic mastery was strongly and positively correlated to the years of practice. This implies that as therapists spend more years in practice, their belief about their professional development increases. On the other hand, there was no relationship between years in practice and currently experienced growth. The results indicated that therapists from all the different career stages reported high levels of current growth even for those therapists who had been in practice for decades.


Orlinsky et al.’s study is limited in two ways: the participants were not selected on a random basis hence the generalizability of the results was low; and the study made use of the therapists’ experiences only and failed to include other external sources such as reports from supervisors. The results showed that the years of experience in practice is a key determinant of therapists’ perceived mastery. This finding is however disputed by Jarrett (2006) who argues that mastery of therapists does not necessarily come through the length of practice but through frequent sessions with clients who present similar problems.

On the other hand, the length of experience does not determine feelings of growth of therapists. Therapists with both less and more years of experience felt that they were still growing in their professions. This is probably because every day provides new and challenging experiences for therapists through which their learning and development are enhanced (Orlinsky et al., 1999, p.212).

Professional development: Gaining expertise

Therapy is one of the noblest inventions of the last century. It has assisted thousands of people across the globe to deal with personal and interpersonal problems and live healthy and fulfilling lives. However, therapists are sometimes confused about how much more they could help others, in this case, their clients. “It is like being in a fog and searching for mastery,” (Skovholt and Jennings, 2005, p.13). Is it possible to become an expert and a master in this field?

This search for more capability is indeed an important issue because competence in therapy determines the outcome of the therapeutic relationship. Skovholt and Jennings (2005) believe that the journey to mastery has four distinct elements: it is a lengthy process, the willingness to grow from one’s mistakes and from the clients, it is a continuous search through the uncertain nature of the profession, and it is made up of stages that the therapist has to go through one step at a time.

Characteristics of experts

The study of the characteristics of expert therapists has attracted many scholars as they search for what qualities these therapists share. One such study was performed by Jennings and Skovholt (1999) who categorized the characteristics of expert therapists into three groups: cognitive, emotional and relational (CER model). In the cognitive sphere, the scholars argued that expert therapists become masters by engaging in a continuous learning process through workshops, seminars, extra classes and extensive reading. Jennings et al. argue that, “experts function in their domains as though the skills required to excel come forth automatically, without a great deal of effort or thought,” (2005, p.21).

They draw strength from their lengthy experiences in practice and highly value the ambiguous and complex nature of human beings and the profession. In the emotional domain, the scholars found that master therapists are self-aware, insightful, and non-defensive and have an open outlook. They also continuously engage in activities that promote their emotional well-being such as meditation. This is because they know just how important their emotional health is to their work.

In the relational domain, master therapists have strong and desirable relational skills. They are warm, compassionate and sensitive with those around them and have a genuine interest others. Jennings and Skovholt state that, “they have developed skills of listening, observing and caring for the welfare of others,” (1999, p.7). The understanding of the characteristics shared by master therapists can go a long way in developing graduate programs that promote optimal personal and professional development of graduate students.

Types of expertise

Some scholars like Glaser and Chi (1988) assert that expertise is a unitary creation that pertains to any profession. This argument has been disputed by other scholars such as Brauer et al. (2004) who believe that the different experiences that experts in different fields go through lead to the development of different kinds of expertise. Brauer at al. categorized expertise into two distinct groups: advisory task experts and performance task experts. Advisory task experts are those who assess a particular problem in detail as well as the various alternative solutions to the problem including the strengths and weaknesses of the options and then propose the best option.

Performance task experts on the other hand are not as analytically in their decision making as the advisory task experts. Rather than weighing different options, the performance task experts choose the alternative they most prefer and then use their skills to make the option effective. Expert therapists fall under the first category – the advisory task experts – because they have to analyze different aspects of each problem presented to them and the available solutions before utilizing the most appropriate option.

The road to expertise

Is it possible for someone to become an expert? This is a question that many students and scholars ask themselves. Jennings et al. (2005) argue that expertise does not require any special gifts, talents or intrinsic intelligent. Any person can become a master at his/her profession. However, the journey to mastery is not smooth; it takes time, practice and dedication to become an expert. Indeed, the journey to mastery has several stages that each person must pass through before attaining the status of expertise. These stages, according to Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) include: “novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert,” (Daley, 1999, p.134). Each of these stages is characterized by a movement from more exterior to more interior techniques and rules that govern a person’s behavior.

Summary of personal and professional development of therapists

The literature reviewed in this paper emphasizes the importance for graduate students and therapists-in-training to engage in continuous personal and professional development. The lectures, theories, concepts and field-work that students undertake while in graduate school are not enough to prepare students for the real-world scenario. It is therefore up to these students to seek out and engage in those activities that would promote their personal and professional growth.

Although students strive for perfection in the field of therapy, they should keep in mind the importance of learning from mistakes. As such, they should not be afraid to experiment and to seek out guidance, clarifications and criticism from their peers and more experienced therapists such as their tutors and supervisors. Most importantly, they should engage in continuous self-reflection which would enable them to have self knowledge and become self-aware.

Only then can such students be confident enough to progress well in their ambiguous and complex profession. As seen in the literature review, the road to mastery is long and composed of different stages that must be passed through on a linearly basis; that is, from one stage to the next. This takes a lot of time, patience, determination and commitment. Despite this, it is encouraging to learn that anyone can become an expert as long as they are willing to put in the required effort.

Future outlook in expertise research

Orlinsky et al. state that, “unfortunately, most models of therapist and counselor development have focused primarily on the early phases of professional growth, and empirical research has mainly examined supervisees in their student or immediate postgraduate years,” (1999, p.208). Other scholars such as Stein and Lambert (1984) also discovered that the mean years of experience in practice in majority of research studies of expertise in therapy stood at 2.9.

As a result, the current literature of therapist expertise provides only a vague report of professional development in the advanced stages of the profession. In addition, much of the research has been conducted in the United Kingdom and may therefore not be representative of the situation in the United States and in other countries due to different conditions. A gap in the literature therefore exists in the sense that more studies need to be carried out on expertise on therapists with a higher mean of years of experience. Secondly, more studies need to be done in the United States and in other countries to determine whether or not the results differ and if so, what factors contribute to the conflicting results.

It also seems valuable for scholars to carry out a longitudinal study on the career life-span of therapists in the different fields of human service. Majority of the studies conducted on therapists have been done using participants from psychology, psychiatry and mental health professions. Therapists working in other fields such as nurses have been left out. The longitudinal research should start when students first enter the undergraduate programs and proceed to the graduate school.

The same students would then be examined throughout their graduate school and in every stage of their career span: from novice to advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Both subjective and objective measures of these participants should be taken to establish the factors that led the students to enter the field in the first place. It would also study which students perform better than others in their field and reasons behind this.

This would help the researchers to identify other characteristics that distinguish the expert therapists from the amateur ones. It would also be valuable to identify the number and qualities of students who continue with the profession and those who drop out of it. Most importantly, it would be worthwhile to study the activities that the successful students engaged in throughout their career-span to enable them become successful in their fields. Such s study would provide students of therapy with valuable information that would assist them in their personal and professional growth.


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