It is frequently noted that counselor practitioners in the field do not contribute nearly enough to research and publications, despite calls for them to do so. It is believed that research should inform counseling practice and practice should inform counseling research, yet there appears to be a breakdown between the two.
The counseling literature has presented several common hypotheses regarding why counselors in practice typically choose not to participate in research and publication efforts. These reasons include a lack of time, a lack of reinforcement, a lack of interest and a lack of experience in research.
Lack of time certainly seems like a valid hypothesis. It is undoubtedly a factor with considerable influence, especially for those counselors who are working in agencies where they must secure a large number of billable hours each week. Still, it is not necessarily the prohibitive factor.
Arguments can definitely be made that there is also a lack of reinforcement or a lack of interest for counselor practitioners to conduct research or to publish. For instance, employers at agencies and schools do not have their systems set up to reinforce this work in the way that universities do. However, this in itself is not inhibitive either.
Inexperience in the area of conducting research also seems like a reasonable factor that could impede practitioners’ contributions to research and publications. However, as a practitioner myself, I contend that a looming factor exists that has not been brought to the forefront. Namely, it is just not very easy to be out in the field and have access to channels to conduct publishable research. There are systems in place that are meant to protect our subjects (and rightfully so), but these systems do not lend themselves well to counselors in the field conducting research.
Furthermore, the path for practitioners to follow to get started in research is not always clear. A counselor in the field has access to clients but not necessarily access to university faculty, and without that, the counselor is stopped before he or she even gets started. The counselor could certainly conduct action research in efforts to inform his or her own practice. However, peer-reviewed, scholarly publications will not accept traditional research for publication without Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, which comes from universities. Furthermore, universities will not grant IRB approval to research proposals without having a principal investigator (PI), and this PI must be a full-time faculty member of the university.
This is the first and most difficult hurdle to get over in practitioners conducting research. The counselor must find a full-time faculty member at a university that is willing to be the PI on the counselor’s research, which is no small commitment. Then the counselor must hope that the faculty member remains at that particular university throughout the course of the counselor conducting and writing up the research. Otherwise the counselor goes back to the beginning again to locate a new PI and submit an amendment to the IRB board to get approval for this change. The whole process can be confusing and intimidating for counselors in the field to navigate.
Subsequently, the process of getting IRB approval once the counselor practitioner has formed a partnership with a PI is detailed and somewhat lengthy, but not overly complex. Both researchers in this partnership will need to complete certain trainings to ensure that they understand issues surrounding protecting their subjects. They will also complete documents displaying the informed consent process that will be used in their research and submit the detailed and complete plan for the research, which may require cultivating further relationships with other departments if advanced statistical analysis is part of the research plan. This relationship can be the lifeline that keeps practitioners involved in the research effort once the analysis of the data becomes advanced and possibly intimidating for the average counselor in practice.
Furthermore, the university should have comprehensive instructions for how the counselor will submit the research proposal for IRB approval. This will be done once the counselor has a PI and a complete plan for how the research will be conducted. In addition, if counselors plan to conduct their research at their agencies or in their school districts, they will need to secure additional approvals from those specific sites.
This is the less understood and more complicated side of research for many practitioners, but it can be sorted through. Cultivating relationships with faculty members in counseling and other needed departments at universities can ease this process.
In a 2005 article, “Collaborative Action Research and School Counselors,” Lonnie Rowell looked at these collaborative relationships, noting that research-oriented facilities were being developed to bridge this gap between university faculty and practicing counselors. In addition, they serve as a model to link counselors-in-training with counselor practitioners for action-based research.
But despite attempts to build stronger connections between researchers and clinicians, another important factor often impedes counselors from engaging in research. A 2010 study by Darcy Haag Granello published in the Journal of Counseling & Development looked at cognitive complexity among practicing counselors over the course of their careers. The study found that counselors do grow and develop over their careers, especially with 10 or more years of experience. However, seasoned counselors may “forget” that they did not always know a particular technique or approach or did not possess their current conceptual understanding of issues or relationships when starting out in practice. This lack of reflection on their own growth could lead them to erroneously believe that they have nothing to research or write about that other counselors do not already know.
Taking some of our own advice as counselors in this situation could prove to be the solution. If counselors are mindful about their practices and really reflect on what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it, plenty of ideas will follow. Alyson Pompeo and Dana Heller Levitt proposed in their 2014 article, “A Path of Counselor Self-Awareness,” that practicing counselors have an ethical responsibility to self-reflect on their practices. Being a curious observer of your own work as a counselor can lead not only to professional growth but also inspiration regarding needed research and possible publications.
The literature has identified several factors to explain the existing disconnect between counselor practitioners and research efforts. If we are to truly use research to guide practice and use practice to inform research, then a bridge needs to be built that will bring counselor practitioners into the world of research. If we acknowledge the need for developing connections between university faculty and counselor practitioners, plus the need for increased self-reflection in the field, perhaps the gap that must be bridged will end up being not quite so large.
Samantha McMorrow is a practicing school counselor with K-12 endorsement and a licensed professional counselor. She is also a national certified counselor and is certified as a chemical dependency counselor in Alaska. McMorrow currently serves as an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in its Counseling Department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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