The scientist-practitioner model is focused on providing extensive training to students in research and scientific methods. It is juxtaposed to the practitioner-scholar model.
Graduate programs in clinical psychology have different educational orientations:
- The scientist-practitioner model emphasizes developing research skills.
- The practitioner-scholar model emphasizes developing practical skills based on published science.
Scientist-Practitioner Model Definition
In the scientist-practitioner model, students are trained to become producers of scientific knowledge, use scientifically valid methods and tools in practice, and conduct practice-based research.
While they do learn practical skills, such as how to conduct therapy or administer assessment tools in a school setting, the emphasis is clearly focused on developing research skills.
The curriculum provides an extensive study of research methods and statistical analyses, and students are expected to be involved in research.
The scientist-practitioner model is sometimes referred to as the Boulder model because it was proposed and accepted at a conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1949.
Scientist-Practitioner Model Examples
- Focus on analytical rather than practical skills: This university seeks students that have superb analytical skills so they can develop into productive researchers.
- Conducting primary research: Sandra’s research interests in industrial/organizational psychology are on developing psychometrically sound techniques to assess worker motivation.
- PhD rather than EdD: A PhD program is usually focused on research, whereas an EdD is focused on practice.
- Courses on research skills: A scientist-practitioner course will have many classes specifically focused on research skills and theory.
- Focus on research publication: Mrs. Arman has been involved in several research studies during his graduate studies. So far, he has 7 publications and 10 conference presentations.
- Research-informed practice: Dr. Williams is reading the most recent research on bipolar disorder that she may consider for some of her clients.
- Practica are linked to research projects: This industrial/organizational psychology program requires students to participate in one year of practicum in the industry that leads to at least one published study.
- Working with a research advisor: Jasmine will continue her advisor’s research program as part of her dissertation.
- Ongoing research studies: Dr. Gonzalez is assessing the effectiveness of his marital counseling approach and will submit the results for publication when completed.
- The expectation of contribution to knowledge: It’s not enough to just master the content – students are also expected to generate new knowledge through research.
- Ethnographic work: A scientist-practitioner may conduct action research and ethnography in a setting with a focus on scientific analysis of practice.
Case Studies of Scientists-Practitioner Model
1. Lewin’s Force Field Analysis
Kurt Lewin (1951) was an early advocate of combining theory, research, and practice. He made significant contributions to our understanding of workplace dynamics and leadership.
One of Lewin’s most influential theories that has become prevalent in industrial/organizational psychology is the Force Field Analysis. This technique helps practitioners identify factors that facilitate or restrain change in the organization.
Factors that support and encourage change are called driving forces. These include leadership, technology, and competition. Factors that try to inhibit change are called restraining forces. These include fear of failure, unions, and organizational culture.
The debate between which is more important, research or practice, was succinctly summarized by Lewin:
“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 Curriculum Requirements
If considering various graduate programs to attend, their philosophical orientation can be discerned by examining the curriculum and program requirements. Programs that adhere to a scientist-practitioner model will be quite different from a practitioner-scholar program.
A first step is to go to the official website of the programs that interest you most. Each program will list course requirements in various categories:
- Research Core Courses
- General Core Courses
- Clinical Core Courses
- Clinical Practica
Each category will show the specific courses required and the total number of hours involved.
Each website will also indicate the number of hours required in internships and practica, as well as expectations regarding the master’s thesis and dissertation.
Although many programs explicitly state the model they implement on their website, it is best to conduct due diligence when making this consequential decision.
If given the opportunity, a conversation with former students can also be quite informative, as what is stated on a website may differ from actual experience.
3. In Program Evaluation
The term program evaluation refers to using scientific methods to assess the effectiveness of a program. While the goal of traditional research is to disseminate knowledge to professionals, program evaluation research is more utilitarian.
The primary goal is to examine the processes or outcomes of a specific initiative that will later be adjusted and refined based on the research results.
Patton (2010) offers a comprehensive definition:
“the systematic collection of information about the activities, characteristics, and outcomes of programs, for use by people to reduce uncertainties, improve effectiveness, and make decisions” (p. 39).
For example, clinicians in a mental health facility may conduct program evaluation research to determine the effectiveness of a stop-smoking treatment. Smokers in the program will be compared to smokers in a control group to asses if the program works, no not.
Similarly, an industrial/organizational psychologist working for a large multinational corporation may want to assess the outcomes of cross-cultural training on reducing conflicts among foreign workers.
4. Evidence-Based Management
One issue of concern regarding the scientist-practitioner model is that there is often a gap in what the research recommends and what practitioners actually implement.
If the key feature of the model is to train students to integrate research into their daily work, but they fail to do so, then that represents a significant failure and waste of time and resources (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).
This matter is demonstrated in evidence-based management, which refers to applying proven research to decisions and practices in human resources.
“Through evidence-based management, practicing managers develop into experts who make organizational decisions informed by social science and organizational research…” (Rousseau, 2006, p. 256).
Many working professionals may attempt to address this gap between science and practice by consulting science-based suggestions presented in various periodicals.
Popular publications include: HR Magazine, published by HR’s major professional association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Harvard Business Review (HBR).
5. Action Research
Action research is a systematic approach to assess the current state of affairs and identifying opportunities for improvement.
It is commonly practiced in school settings to evaluate instruction, classroom practices, or various aspects of the organization. A school psychologist will play a key role during the process because they will likely have the most thorough training to conduct this type of research.
Action research may be implemented to identify or assess the impact of a problematic issue, evaluate possible solutions, or engage in continuous improvement.
Data collection methods include:
- in-class observations
- field notes
- structured or unstructured interviews
- audio and/or video recordings
Steps in action research include: identify the problem, design a plan to resolve it, implement the plan, evaluate the plan’s effectiveness, reflect on the results, make the necessary adjustments, and then repeat the process.
Action research is an excellent example of the benefits of the scientist-practitioner model. The critical thinking skills and knowledge of statistical analyses developed in a graduate program will ensure the research is conducted to high scientific standards.
This will lead to valid results and foster confidence in the findings.
1. Critical Thinking Skills
Training psychologists to be scientists ensures that they will develop substantial critical-thinking skills. This will give them the ability to understand and evaluate published research with objectivity and higher-order thinking skills.
These are valuable skills that lead to practices based on proven scientific methods and tools. Psychologists will be able to evaluate the effects of treatments and offer clients the best treatment options with high quality care.
2. Benefits of Empirically Supported Practices
Using empirically supported practices has a number of important benefits. First, it allows clinicians to have confidence that their methods are effective and sound.
Secondly, it allows for some degree of standardization in practices, as opposed to each clinician applying their own techniques.
Third, having empirical evidence to prove the effectiveness of treatment allows the profession to defend against accusations. It provides legitimacy to the profession which leads to the confidence of the public and private sectors.
3. Continuous Production of Science
Training in the scientific method and conducting research on the effectiveness of treatment results in a continuous production of science. Failure to assess clinical practices through scientific means leads to a gap in research and practice.
This can lead to the application of unnecessary methods, methods that are costly and inefficient when other options are superior, or the implementation of methods that may be harmful to clients.
Therefore, the scientist-practitioner model has an important role in maintaining the profession’s scientific foundation.
1. Lack of Overlap in Skills and Interests
The personality characteristics and cognitive abilities of research psychologists and clinicians can be vastly divergent. Research psychologists have outstanding abstract thinking and prefer to think in a logical and structured manner.
Practicing clinical psychologists tend to be imaginative and prefer approaching problems, especially interpersonal issues, with an intuitive approach.
Moreover, researchers and clinicians tend to have incompatible professional interests; researchers have little interest in practice, and clinicians have little interest in research (Martin, et al., 2007). This means that students spend significant time studying subjects they have no interest in and will most likely not pursue after graduation.
2. Limits Availability of Valuable Practitioners
Being able to understand, evaluate, and conduct high-quality scientific research requires several advanced cognitive skills that not all people possess or can attain. No amount of training will install those abilities. However, those individuals may make exceptional practitioners.
The skills needed to develop rapport with a client or help those struggling with life overcome challenges, are abilities that do not always develop from reading research.
The emphasis on developing scientists denies the profession and clients the services of potentially great clinicians.
3. Practitioners, Not Active Researchers
Although students in a traditional clinical psychology program spend a great deal of time learning how to implement empirically based methods, and also evaluate their own treatment applications, they often fail to do so.
Many students are simply more interested in practice, not research. In addition, working as a full-time professional in a mental health facility leaves very little time to engage in research, which is extremely time-consuming.
This means that a substantial portion their training is failing to produce its intended results.
The scientist-practitioner model was created to provide the psychological profession with a foundation based on scientific principles.
This bolsters the credibility of the field and leads to practices that are grounded in research.
Students that are trained under this model will develop advanced research skills, engage in several research programs during their training, and then apply that knowledge after graduation when working as practitioners. In theory.
One of the main weaknesses of the scientist-practitioner model is that practicing professionals have very little time to consume or conduct research. In other cases, they may lose interest in research as issues faced in practice seem more pressing.
This produces a gap between research and practice that threatens the advancement of the profession and possibly denies patients high-quality services.
Davison, G. (1998). Being bolder with the Boulder model: The challenge of education and training in empirically supported treatments. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 66(1), 163-167.
Gillis, A., & Jackson, W. (2002). Research Methods for Nurses: Methods and Interpretation. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
Hebert, T. R. (2010). The scholar-practitioner concept and its implications for self-renewal: A doctoral student’s perspective. Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly, 4(1), p. 33-41.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.
Martin, W. E., Gavin, M., Baker, E., & Bridgmon, K. (2007). Analysis of the effects of gender and doctoral program emphasis on scientist and practitioner interests. American Behavioral Scientist, 50(6), 820–829. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764206296460
Patton, M. Q. (2008). Utilization-focused evaluation (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Rousseau, D. M. 2006. Is there such a thing as “evidence-based management”? Academy of Management Review, 31, 256 –269.
Rynes, S. L., Giluk, T. L., & Brown, K. G. (2007). The very separate worlds of aca-
demic and practitioner periodicals in human resource management: Implications for
evidence-based management. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5), 987–1008.
Stoltenberg, Cal & Pace, Terry & Kashubeck-West, Susan & Biever, Joan & Patterson, Terence & Welch, I. (2000). Training Models in Counseling Psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 28(5), 622-640. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000000285002
Stricker G. (2002). What is a scientist-practitioner anyway? Journal of clinical psychology, 58(10), 1277–1283. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10111