August 20, 2013

Doctoral training in clinical psychology

Doctoral training in clinical psychology
Brian A. Feinstein
Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student at Stony Brook University

Note: This article was originally published in Clinical Science Vol. 16 (1): Winter, 2013

Whether you have just begun your doctoral training or it is nothing more than a distant memory, you can likely attest to the challenge of a graduate education in clinical psychology.

Between the coursework, the research requirements, and the clinical responsibilities, the to-do lists can seem never-ending and each day presents new challenges. Still, I am able to appreciate the rigorous training required to complete a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so at Stony Brook University (SBU). As I near the completion of my fourth year of doctoral training, I am pleased to have the chance to reflect on my training thus far and to share some of the strengths of the clinical psychology program at SBU with other students and professionals in the field. SBU’s clinical psychology program shares a great deal with other clinical science/research-oriented programs – the foundational courses required by the American Psychological Association, the standard independent research requirements, and the practical experience in clinical assessment and intervention. Still, although all programs have their similarities, they also have their differences, and those differences are the reasons why I am so pleased with my training at SBU.

First and foremost, the clinical psychology program at SBU truly embraces the mission of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology in its commitment to the integration of clinical science and practice. In the context of a strong research program where the majority of students go on to pursue academic careers, the clinical training also provides students with the competencies to function as highly skilled clinicians. Students receive training in cutting-edge research methods from leading scholars in the field, while being treated as junior colleagues who are encouraged to collaborate with other students and faculty in the pursuit of joint research interests. Notably, there is a sense of mutual respect between students and faculty, which fosters a collegial and supportive environment to pursue one’s doctoral training in.
In addition to the rigorous research training, the clinical opportunities offered at SBU are wide-ranging and allow students to explore their clinical interests with a variety of populations. All students begin their clinical training in the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Krasner Psychological Center, in-house facilities that train students in evidence-based practices for assessing and treating anxiety disorders and the varied psychological needs of the broader Long Island community, respectively. As students adjust to the novel challenges associated with the novice clinician role, they can participate in a variety of in-house externships to receive specialized training with specific populations and techniques. For instance, students can receive training in the treatment of chronic depression using the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy, or they can receive training in behavioral medicine assessment and individual as well as group treatment for weight management and obesity through the SBU Obesity Program. These in-house clinical externships, which continue to develop, provide students with a broad range of training experiences in a convenient location that facilitates the balancing of clinical responsibilities with other on-campus duties.

Perhaps more important than the specific clinical opportunities available at SBU, the training itself has an emphasis on therapeutic principles of change, psychotherapy integration, and the integration of science and practice. Rather than training students in each “next best” novel treatment, SBU focuses on the mechanisms underlying behavior change that transcend specific clinical problems and therapeutic approaches (e.g., increasing awareness, facilitating corrective learning experiences). Emphasizing the value of activating these underlying principles of change, regardless of the specific techniques used to achieve them, has the potential to provide students with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying effective psychotherapy and to facilitate a flexible therapeutic style that can fit the needs of a diverse range of clients.

The clinical training at SBU also emphasizes the practice of psychotherapy integration, recognizing the limitations of traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy as well as the usefulness of techniques that are often rejected as experiential, humanistic, or the like (e.g., exploring a client’s emotional experience, using a therapist’s own reactions in therapy). Students at SBU are trained to embrace evidence-based techniques across different therapeutic orientations in the interest of instigating behavior change through the aforementioned principles of change. Further, in line with the integration of clinical science and practice, students are trained to approach their clinical practice in a scientific manner and to use their clinical experiences to inform their research endeavors. Students are encouraged to regularly collect outcome data on their clients using the Treatment Outcome Package, a computerized self-report measure designed to assess a variety of common clinical problems. Frequent administration of this brief assessment measure allows the therapist to examine a client’s change (or lack thereof) in symptomatology throughout the course of treatment. Such an empirical approach to monitoring treatment progress provides therapists and clients with a standard metric to understand a client’s level of distress and impairment, and it can alert therapists to problems that clients may not bring up in session that could have a considerable impact on treatment effectiveness.

The clinical psychology program at SBU also provides students with unique opportunities to receive training in teaching methods and clinical supervision, both of which are important areas to gain experience in for students who are interested in academic careers. Students are required to fulfill two teaching assignments – first preparing and presenting four to six lectures in an undergraduate course and then teaching a recitation section of a research and writing course for undergraduates. In addition to these requirements, students are able to participate in a graduate-level teaching practicum, where they receive formal training in teaching methods, and they are able to teach their own courses (both typically offered courses and courses of their own creation). Advanced students are also able to supervise beginning student therapists in their clinical work, while receiving training in supervision methods as well as supervision from faculty members on the supervision that they are providing their supervisees. These training opportunities in teaching methods and clinical supervision help to ensure a well-rounded doctoral education that will prepare students to engage in all aspects of academic careers.

Finally, SBU’s clinical psychology program genuinely embraces a commitment to diversity in all of its endeavors. There are currently three faculty members – Joanne Davila, Marvin Goldfried, and Nicholas Eaton – who are involved in research activities that focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in psychological research. In conjunction with the SBU Center for Prevention and Outreach, several members of the clinical psychology program at SBU also recently developed an online resource to help instructors foster an educational climate that is inclusive and supportive of LGBT students. In addition to these research and outreach activities focused on diverse populations, the clinical psychology program at SBU offers courses exclusively focused on diversity training and integrates sensitivity to diversity throughout all of the courses offered. As such, students are trained to appreciate diversity in a way that permeates their understanding of psychopathology and influences their varied activities as doctoral students.
In sum, the clinical psychology doctoral program at SBU has provided me with the knowledge, skills, and practical experiences to soon enter the professional workforce with confidence that my training has prepared me well for whatever endeavors I choose to pursue. The program’s commitment to the integration of clinical science and practice, its broad range of in-house clinical opportunities, its training emphasis on principles of change, psychotherapy integration, and diversity, and its teaching and clinical supervision opportunities are among the many program strengths that have contributed to my great satisfaction with my training thus far. It is my sincere hope that my fellow students in other clinical psychology doctoral programs are able to recognize and celebrate the distinct aspects of their programs that make their training unique and provide them with something novel to contribute to the field at large.

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