The practitioner-scholar model of education is a graduate-degree pedagogical model that is focused on the practical application of knowledge rather than research-based scientific analysis per se.
Advanced degree graduate programs in clinical psychology and other specialty areas have two different major educational orientations:
- The practitioner-scholar model, and
- The scientist-practitioner model.
While the practitioner-scholar model is focused on practical skills training, the scientist-practitioner model is focused on research skills and scientific methods.
Practitioner-Scholar Model Definition
In the practitioner-scholar model of eduation, there is strong emphasis placed on training students to become clinical practitioners that provide psychological services to individuals and families.
Curriculum in this model provides a combination of courses in basic and applied psychology, extensive supervision during clinical training, and reading research relevant to their career aspirations.
The practitioner-scholar model is sometimes referred to as the Vail model because of its emergence at a conference in 1973 in Vail, Colorado.
Prior to this conference, the dominant model in clinical programs was the scientist-practitioner model which emphasized training students on how to conduct quantitative research.
Practitioner-Scholar Model Examples
- Focus on interpersonal skills for clinical practice: This university seeks students that have exceptional interpersonal skills that are well-suited to clinical practice with a diverse client base.
- Clinical mentorship: Sandra spends significant time working with her mentor to learn various techniques for personality assessment that she will use in therapy one day.
- Practice in controlled environments: In their third year of study, students in this clinical psychology Ph.D. program will spend significant time one-on-one with patients while being supervised by their mentor.
- Doing an EdD instead of a PhD: While the EdD is geared towards individuals looking to put their knowledge into practice, the PhD is primarily focused on conducting research.
- Practice-focused programs: Javier enrolled in a doctoral program that specializes in preparing students for a career in forensic psychology.
- Practice-focused streams within programs: Mrs. Arman will graduate from a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology with only a few research publications but several internships.
- Practice-focused research projects: Students in this school psychology program are assigned to different schools, interview different professionals at the school, and write case studies regarding their daily job responsibilities.
- Completing practica during a degree: Students in this clinical psychology program accumulate a total of 600 hours of practica working with local community health facilities.
- Daily clinical focus: Dr. Giono spends 8 hours a day with patients suffering from eating disorders and substance abuse problems. She has very little time to conduct research.
- Training workshop focus: This forensic psychology program allows students to participate in several law enforcement training workshops and observe the interrogation procedures of local detectives.
1. Lewin’s Force Field Analysis
Kurt Lewin (1951) was an early scholar in the application of theory to practice. He was particularly interested in organizations and provided significant contributions to our understanding of leadership and workplace dynamics. In many ways, his many contributions bridged the gap between science and practice.
One example of Lewin’s ability to provide a theoretical model that has become common in practice is the Force Field Analysis. It is used to identify factors that are facilitating or inhibiting organizational change.
- Driving forces are factors that support the change initiative and include: leadership, technology, and competition.
- Restraining forces work against change and include: fear of failure, unions, and organizational culture.
Lewin adeptly summed up the debate between science and practice, explaining that:
“Many psychologists working today in an applied field are keenly aware of the need for close cooperation between theoretical and applied psychology. This can be accomplished in psychology, as it has been accomplished in physics, if the theorist does not look toward applied problems with highbrow aversion and if the applied psychologist realizes that there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (p. 169).
2. In New Curriculum Design
It is easy to see a program’s emphasis by examining the curriculum. Those that subscribe to a practitioner-scholar model with have coursework that is heavily geared towards theory, extensive supervision of clinical practice, and a significant amount of time in residency or practicum.
This is exemplified when a new course is considered for a program. The design team will consist of a team of professionals with expertise in the course’s area of specialty. Generally, that will include the Program Director and various Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).
Additionally, in programs with a practitioner-scholar model, individuals with substantial practical experience will be called in. If the course is in school psychology, then professionals that have full-time experience working in a school for 10 years will be consulted.
Their insights will be useful and oriented towards the pragmatic. Because they have daily experience working in the school, they can provide a unique perspective on what students should be learning that can later be applied on the job.
3. As Self-Renewal
The traditional route to doctoral study is to go straight from a bachelor’s degree to a doctoral program. A secondary route may involve a master’s program in between. A third route is when a professional with several years of career experience decides that it is time to return to school.
“All leaders…at some point in their career find perspectives and beliefs as well as strategies and implementation techniques challenged as newer methods are introduced either through professional development opportunities or read about in books and journals” (Hebert, 2010, p. 35).
When a person has graduated in one decade, a lot can change over the subsequent 15-20 years. Since most working professionals have little time for full-time academic study, the only option is to put one’s career on hold.
That is a bold step, but one that many are willing to take.
They desire to engage:
“…a greater focus of education as a field of inquiry, higher personal and professional standards, professional breadth and depth, and the opportunity to integrate the body of knowledge” (Jablonski, 2001, p. 220).
In this example, engaging in the practitioner-scholar model is an opportunity for reinvigorating one’s career.
4. Evidence-Based Management
The debate over which is best, practical experience or research, exists in many professional domains. For example, in human resources, many have argued that there is a significant gap between what research has identified as best practices and methods that are actually implemented in the organization (Rynes et al., 2007).
“The gap between science and practice is so persistent and pervasive that some have despaired of its ever being narrowed” (Rynes et al., 2007; p. 987).
Evidence-based management refers to the practice of applying research in decision-making. The premise is that practitioners should base decisions not on personal experience, but on what the best scientific research suggests.
“Through evidence-based management, practicing managers develop into experts who make organizational decisions informed by social science and organizational research…” (Rousseau, 2006, p. 256).
To address this gap between science and practice, many working professionals can acquire science-based suggestions in various periodicals.
The most popular include: HR Magazine, published by HR’s major professional association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Harvard Business Review (HBR).
5. As Represented in Industry
The practitioner-scholar model is represented in several industries through a wide range of careers. Of course, the clinical psychologist works with patients suffering from mental health issues.
However, there are a multitude of other career options that combine scientific training with practical application.
- The Industrial-Organizational psychologist: An I/O psychologist uses their training to address workplace issues such as increasing worker productivity, developing effective personnel selection strategies, handling issues related to organizational culture, and designing surveys for market research or employee satisfaction.
- Forensic psychologist: The forensic psychologist works in the legal system. They may develop psychological profiles of criminals, provide expert testimony, provide training to law enforcement, or deal with child custody issues.
- School psychologist: School psychologists work within the school system and can be involved in diagnosing behavior disorders, learning disabilities, or help students with socio-emotional development.
- Human factors psychology: Psychologists that specialize in human factors work in product design to analyze and develop better interface systems, or create work environments that improve creativity, increase productivity, or minimize fatigue or injuries.
1. Offers Blended Training
According to proponents, the practitioner-scholar model offers the perfect blend of scientific training and practical experience.
Students that are trained under this model must take a core set of courses that provide a firm grounding in scientific principles and research methodologies.
In addition, the pragmatic side of the model ensures that students attain substantial clinical experience in their chose domain of concentration. That experience is heavily supervised by an experienced professional.
Thus, the model is considered comprehensive.
2. Provides Valuable Alternative Routes to Qualification
Before the emergence of the Vail practitioner-scholar model in 1973, there was but one option for those seeking advanced training beyond a bachelor’s degree.
Nearly all university graduate programs subscribed to the scientist-practitioner model.
Having an alternative to the research-laden focus of most programs offers a valuable alternative to those that wish to engage a career in service.
Community health centers, substance-abuse clinics, school psychologists, and human resources management fields are all more concerned with practice than research.
Thus, the practitioner-scholar model is more suitable to those with alternative career aspirations.
3. Emphasis on Practice-Focused Qualified Faculty
It seems a bit ironic that clinical psychologists that train others are not always evaluated based on their clinical skills.
Scientist-practitioner programs are driven by research accomplishments and faculty are evaluated based on their publication record.
However, the practitioner-scholar model places more emphasis on practice achievement and competence, such as the ability to train future practitioners. That involves a completely different skill-set than research.
Therefore, the practitioner-scholar model involves a more comprehensive evaluation of faculty.
1. Practices Not Tied to Science
Even if a particular graduate program offers a combination of both scientific training and supervised practicum, what happens after graduation is a completely different story.
Most working professionals have quite full schedules. At the same time, research advances are continuously achieved and published in various scholarly journals.
Unfortunately, while spending 10 years on the job, that academic knowledge is scantly absorbed.
Thus, the practitioner is whole, but the scholar is nowhere to be seen. To be fair, this is not the fault of the model’s theoretical premise, but in the way it is implemented in industry.
2. Personal Biases
The hallmark of any scientific discipline is the role of objectivity. The scientist has been trained to recognize personal bias and implement strategies to limit its influence.
However, the more the individual engages in service, the less scientific they become.
It is simply unrealistic to expect rigid scientific principles can be solely integrated into one-to-one conversations with a struggling client or troubled teen.
Based on these criteria, the practitioner-scholar model can never achieve a level of scientific distance and rigor that is acceptable to all.
3. Lack of Scientific Contributions
Although students in a program that implements the practitioner-scholar model are trained in research methods, their productivity can be insufficient according to some standards.
Students choose this type of program because of their interest in service. Conducting research is not a top priority for many. After graduating, they will take full-time positions in a mental health facility, school, or organization. Those work environments are often not conducive to research.
This means that students trained through the practitioner-scholar model do not make significant contributions to the science-side of the profession.
The practitioner-scholar model attempts to combine training students in the rigors of scientific inquiry, while at the same time helping them develop nuanced, practical skills applicable to service.
Although there are some excellent examples of how theory has driven practice, as in Lewin’s Force Field Analysis, the examples are few and far between.
It is simply a matter of interest and available time, which often precludes practitioners from conducting research at work. Not only may the resources not be available, but a full-time career involving 40-plus hours a week leaves little opportunity for much else.
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