Counseling Psychology Research Paper

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This research paper is about the science and profession of counseling psychology. Key distinguishing features of counseling psychology are described, as are the main roles and work settings of counseling psychologists. In addition, basic areas of scientific inquiry are discussed.

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Counseling psychology is a specialty field within the broader discipline of psychology. This specialty is related to, but also different from, several other psychology specialties that are often characterized by the term ‘applied.’ The psychology specialties to which counseling psychology is most closely related are clinical, community, school, and industrial organizational psychology. Although each of these fields seeks to study and understand human behavior empirically, the fields also share the mission of applying scientific understandings to the solution of human problems and the betterment of peoples’ lives. It is in this sense that they may be termed applied specialties.

As is the case with any field or specialty, counseling psychology originated from a broad matrix of social, economic, and psychological forces. Its beginnings may be traced to the early part of the twentieth century. However, the designation of counseling psychology as a specialty within the American Psycho-logical Association (APA) first occurred in 1952. For historical analyses, the reader is referred to Gelso and Fretz (2000).

1. Counseling Psychology: Distinctiveness And Diversity

In this section, the features that make counseling psychology a unique specialty within psychology, as well as the breadth and diversity of this field, are described.

1.1 The Unifying Themes Of Counseling Psychology

As a way of clarifying the features that make for its distinctiveness, Gelso and Fretz (2000) proposed five unifying themes of counseling psychology. These themes, which have received substantial endorsement in the field, are briefly described below. The themes are best viewed as central tendencies, for there is also great variability around each theme.

The first unifying theme is a focus on intact, as opposed to profoundly disturbed, personalities. In earlier days, counseling psychology was thought of as a field that focused only on ‘normal’ problems. Today, psychologists trained in this fieldwork with clients at all levels of disturbance. However, in comparison to other health service fields such as clinical psychology and psychiatry, counseling psychologists continue to work more with clients closer to the normal range, and to devote more time to issues of psychological health and wellness.

The second unifying theme is the focus on assets and strengths, regardless of clients’ level of disturbance. Indeed, attention to strengths has been a hallmark of this specialty, and is most evident when counseling psychologists engage in preventive and developmental interventions, as opposed to remedial ones. Preventive and developmental interventions, rather than emphasizing emotional problems that have already emerged, seek to prevent problems and enhance growth. A few of the numerous examples of such interventions are enhancement treatments for couples who do well but want to improve further, career counseling for clients who want to understand fields that fit them best, and consultation with business organizations to help create healthy work environments.

The third unifying theme is emphasis on relatively brief interventions. Counseling psychologists engage in a wide range of interventions, for example, counseling, consultation, guidance. Also, many practitioners in this specialty conduct long-term psychotherapeutic treatments. However, a hallmark of the field has always been an emphasis on brevity. The use of the term ‘counseling’ is a reflection of this tendency, and currently popular brief therapies fit closely with such a counseling orientation. Generally, therapy lasting less than six months is seen as brief, although most counseling psychology interventions are of much briefer duration.

Emphasis on person–environment interactions is a fourth unifying theme. From its inception, counseling psychology has sought to balance the intrapsychic and the environmental, both in understanding development and in formulating interventions. Theories that have focused largely on intrapsychic explanations, such as psychoanalysis, have not had wide appeal. Current attention to the role of culture and multi-cultural issues is an example of counseling psychology’s commitment to incorporating the role of situation and environment in understanding personality and development, and in providing effective interventions.

The final unifying theme, perhaps more than the others, reflects counseling psychology’s distinctiveness. The field’s emphasis on educational and career development and environments has often been seen as its most distinctive feature. Throughout its history, counseling psychologists have theorized about and empirically investigated issues around career choice, problems, interests, development, and interventions.

1.2 Fundamental Features Of The Field

There are certain features of this field that, while not necessarily distinctive, are so fundamental as to require mention. First, counseling psychology is a doctoral level field in the USA in that the large majority of US psychologists who use the title counseling psychologist, and who join the Division of Counseling Psychology of APA, hold a doctoral degree. Second, since the specialty’s beginnings, it has strongly endorsed the scientist-practitioner model of training, which dictates that doctoral programs seek to train students as scientific researchers as well as practitioners of counseling psychology.

A third fundamental feature of the field is its attention to issues of culture, multiculturalism, and diversity. Although all fields within psychology have begun to pay attention to diversity in terms of race ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religious beliefs, and physical disability, counseling psychology has been at the forefront in these areas for many years. Attention to issues of diversity pertains to, for ex-ample, recruitment of doctoral students and faculty, empirical research and theory, and counseling practice. The fundamental emphasis on culture and diversity in the specialty is evidenced in chapters in the most recent edition of the Handbook of Counseling Psychology (Brown and Lent 2000) on the role of race and social class in development; gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation; gender issues in counseling; and models of multicultural counseling.

1.3 The Roles And Functions Of Counseling Psychologists

Information on where counseling psychologists work and what they do is basic to understanding this specialty. Gelso and Fretz (2000) present data on job settings indicating that over half the counseling psychologists who were members of the Division of Counseling Psychology (DCP) of APA were employed in college and university settings, either in academic departments (35 percent) or counseling centers (17 percent). A major change in recent years has been the increased appeal of independent practice, with approximately 20 percent of DCP members claiming this as their primary job. Furthermore, since many counseling psychologists who are in independent practice do not join the DCP, the 20 percent figure is likely a significant underestimate.

The remainder of counseling psychologists are distributed across a wide range of job settings, including hospitals (e.g., general, psychiatric, Veterans Administration), clinics, government agencies, business and industry, and rehabilitation facilities. Surveys over several decades indicate that these job patterns have been generally quite consistent, except for the increase in independent practice since about the mid-1980s, and a decline in the numbers of counseling psychologists in Veterans Administration centers.

Regarding job activities, the most basic finding of all surveys is that counseling psychologists are involved in an extensive range of activities. A significant number devote at least some of their work time to counseling and psychotherapy (individual, group, couples, family); consultation; psychological testing, assessment, and evaluation; research and writing; teaching, training, and supervision; and administration (Gelso and Fretz 2000). At the same time, the activities performed by the greatest numbers for the greatest amount of time are counseling and psycho-therapy.

2. Scientific Inquiry

The major areas of theory and research in counseling psychology reflect the above discussion. Below are described key scientific issues and topics in this field.

2.1 Methodological Considerations

A fundamental quality of science in counseling psychology since the late 1970s has been its emphasis on diversity of research methods and approaches (Heppner et al. 2000). As pointed to by most reviewers, beginning in the late 1970s, there has been an in-creasing press to incorporate research methods that go beyond the ‘received view,’ for example, quantitative-experimental research.

Within the context of this methodological pluralism, two notable patterns may be seen. First, stemming from postmodern thought that is evident in all scholarly disciplines, there has been a growing interest in the use of qualitative research approaches (Morrow and Smith 2000). Such approaches use verbal or even visual rather than quantitative data, gather data by observing and listening to what people do and say, and present results in the form of verbal descriptions and theories rather than statistics.

A second pattern actually moves in the opposite direction from qualitative research. That is, there has been a major increase in the use of highly sophisticated quantitative methods. Multivariate statistical methods now appear to be as common as univariate approaches. Especially prominent are techniques that seek to permit causal inferences from correlational data, for example, structural equation modeling.

2.2 Counseling And Therapy: Theory And Research

Regarding psychological interventions, counseling psychologists study essentially the same therapeutic process and outcome questions as do other applied counseling fields, for example, clinical psychology. After many years of outcome research, it is clear that, on the whole, therapy is effective; researchers now seek to discover what treatments are most effective when offered by what therapists for which clients experiencing what problems (Gelso and Fretz 2000).

Beyond this general statement, there are some therapy theories and topics that have been most influential in counseling psychology. Broadly speaking, cognitive-behavioral and experiential-humanistic theories of counseling have had the greatest impact (Heesacker 2000). As part of the strong cognitive-behavioral influence, theories such as Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive behavior therapy, Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy, and Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory have been particularly appealing to researchers and practitioners. Psychoanalytic theories have historically been less attractive to counseling psychologists, partly because these theories have conflicted with some of the major emphases of the field (e.g., strengths and assets, brevity, environmental influences). Fundamental paradigmatic changes in psychoanalysis in recent years, however, have made some of its theories (e.g., psychoanalytic self-psychology) more appealing (Gelso and Fassinger 1992). Social psychological conceptions have also had great appeal in recent decades. Theories such as social influence theory have been creatively extrapolated to counseling and therapy, and their propositions extensively investigated (Heesacker 2000).

2.3 Multicultural Counseling And Research

As noted, counseling psychologists have closely at-tended to diversity for many years. Since the early 1980s, however, there has been a mushrooming of theory and research on counseling and development as related to culture and diversity. The topic that has gathered the most scientific momentum is that of race and ethnicity in psychological development and treatment. This momentum is evidenced in the form of the high rate of articles on race, ethnicity, and culture in leading journals; major handbooks on the topic (e.g., Ponterotto et al. 1995); the creation of new journals; and the publication of texts and significant chapters. Although race and ethnicity are the most frequently studied topics under the umbrella of diversity, there are others. In recent years there has been a significant surge of research on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues in counseling and development. The study of gender, which may be placed within the diversity category, has been central in counseling psychology for nearly three decades (Heppner et al. 2000).

2.4 Career Development And Intervention

Whereas the development of theory and research on diversity topics has increased at a dramatic pace in recent decades, the topic of career development and intervention has been a mainstay of counseling psychology since its inception. Many consider this the strongest and most empirically mature area within the specialty (Heppner et al. 2000). As part of this strength and maturity, robust theories of career development and choice guided theory and practice over many years (e.g., theories by Holland, Super, and Krumboltz). There exist a number of journals, hand-books, and texts aimed at studying and elaborating career development and intervention processes. In keeping with the diversity movement, recent decades have witnessed much attention to career development in the lives of marginalized people. The study of career development and intervention in womens’ lives has been particularly prominent over many years.

2.5 Training In Practice And Science

The tandem topics of counselor training and re-searcher training are key areas of investigation. Of the two, counselor training and supervision has had the longer life. In particular, theory and research on the process and outcome of counselor supervision have been prominent since the late 1970s. Especially notable have been developmental models of counseling super-vision, wherein therapists are theorized as developing in certain stages, and supervision approaches need to be matched to those stages (Stoltenberg et al. 1997). Regarding research training, theory and research have examined both person and research training environment factors that contribute to graduate students’ and psychologists’ interest in, sense of efficacy for, and production of research and science (Gelso and Lent 2000).

2.6 Healthy Functioning And Human Effectiveness

Research and theory in this general area are natural extensions of two key unifying themes described earlier: focus on intact personalities and attention to people’s strengths. Although attention to positive qualities is a deep and widely shared part of the specialty, theory and research on the topic within counseling psychology had waned for a number of years, to the point that Gelso and Fassinger (1992) viewed this area as counseling psychology’s ‘unfulfilled promise.’ However, there has been an upsurge of scientific attention to well-functioning. The study of positive constructs such as subjective well-being, career self-efficacy, and problem solving all fit this thrust. So, too, does the emerging examination by counseling psychologists of biopsychosocial factors that promote positive physical health (Hoffman and Driscoll 2000).


  1. Brown S D, Lent R L (eds.) 2000 Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3rd edn. J. Wiley, New York
  2. Gelso C J, Fassinger R E 1992 Personality, development, and counseling psychology: Depth, ambivalence, and actualization. Journal of Counseling Psychology 39: 275–98
  3. Gelso C J, Fretz B 2000 Counseling Psychology, 2nd edn. Harcourt College Publishers, Fort Worth, TX (1st edn. published 1992)
  4. Gelso C J, Lent R W 2000 Scientific training and scholarly productivity: The person, the training environment, and their interaction. In: Brown S D, Lent R L (eds.) Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3rd edn. Wiley, New York, pp. 109– 39
  5. Heesacker M 2000 Counseling Psychology: Theories. In: Kazdin A E (ed.) Encyclopedia of Psychology. American Psycho-logical Association, Washington, DC
  6. Heppner P, Casas M, Carter J, Stone G 2000 The maturation of counseling psychology: Multifaceted perspectives, 1978–1998. In: Brown S, Lent R (eds.) Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3rd edn., Wiley, New York, pp. 3–49
  7. Hoffman M A, Driscoll J 2000 Health promotion and disease prevention: A concentric biopsychosocial model of health status. In: Brown S D, Lent R L (eds.) Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3rd edn., Wiley, New York, pp. 532–67
  8. Morrow S, Smith M 2000 Qualitative research in counseling psychology. In: Brown S D, Lent R L (eds.) Handbook of Counseling Psychology, 3rd edn., Wiley, New York, pp. 199–232
  9. Ponterotto J, Casas J, Suzuki L, Alexander C (eds.) 1995 Handbook of Multicultural Counseling. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA
  10. Stoltenberg C, McNeil B, Delworth U 1997 IDM Super vision: An Integrated Development Model for Super vising Counselors and Therapists. 1st edn. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

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