Specialization Designation

Professional psychology as a field includes rigorous training covering a broad range of competencies, often within the domain of a specified course of study such as clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, or another area. Due to a variety of factors, an increasing focus on competency-based training and recognition of specialty training, with accompanying board certification in that specialty, has evolved within the field. As a result, more psychologists seek board certification as a means of demonstrating competency in a specific area of specialization.

Within professional psychology, specialty areas are defined areas of practice or service addressing specific problems and populations. Specialty practice requires advanced knowledge, skills, and attitudes that have been acquired in addition to the more broad, general knowledge and training that serves as a foundation for professional psychology.

Specialization may begin during graduate training, yet it continues well beyond completion of the doctoral degree program. it is following several years of graduate study, completion of internship, and postdoctoral training that one becomes eligible to sit for the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP) leading to licensure for practice within the profession. In most jurisdictions, that licensure is granted as a generic license to practice within the scope of one’s training. Thus, licensure as a psychologist, in and of itself, is not considered recognition of specialization. Recognition of specialty in a specific area of psychology is generally made through a board certification process, most often under the processes established and conducted by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).

Entities Involved in the Evolution of Specialization and Specialty Designation

Several organizations, most related directly or indirectly in some fashion to the American Psychological Association (APA), have played some role in the genesis and evolution of specialization and specialty designation in professional psychology. Among these are APA entities such as the Committee on Accreditation (CoA), the Council for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology (CRSPPP), the Association of Predoctoral, Postdoctoral, and Internship Centers (APPIC), the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), the National Register (NR), the Canadian National Register (CNR), the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), and the Council of Credentialing organizations in Professional Psychology (CCoPP). A focus on postdoctoral training within the APA and CoA and the establishment of the CRSPPP significantly advanced progress in recognition of psychological specialties during more recent years. The Interorganizational Council for Accreditation of Postdoctoral Programs in Psychology (IOC), composed of several of these bodies, existed from 1992 through 1997 and led to the establishment of the Council of Specialties (CoS) in professional psychology.

The CoS was initially established jointly by the APA and the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and has provided a working definition of specialty in professional psychology similar to that provided above. Historically, ABPP has generally been recognized as the primary organization that examines, credentials, and certifies professional psychologists; the CoS indicates recognition of ABPP as the only such organization.

Graduate Education

In 1977, the National Conference on Education and Credentialing in Psychology established guidelines for defining a doctoral degree program in psychology. This conference served as the basis for eventual establishment of programs that became accredited by the APA. The joint efforts of the ASPPB and the NR have resulted in recognition of many programs that, although not APA-accredited, are deemed to meet sufficiently similar standards for the purposes of licensing and credentialing. Recognized as ASPPB/NR Designated Doctoral Programs, these programs can be found listed on the Web sites of the ASPPB and the NR. The course of study is for all practical purposes the same as that of an APA-accredited program, and these are often referred to as APA-equivalent programs.

To be so recognized, a graduate program must be clearly identified as a psychology program, be offered through a regionally accredited institution of higher education, be an integrated and organized sequence of study, have an identifiable and sufficient faculty to function adequately, include supervised practicum and internship training, and require a minimum of 3 academic years of full-time graduate study, among other items. The program must also require that students demonstrate competency in the areas of (1) scientific and professional ethics and standards; (2) research design and methodology; (3) statistics and psychometric theory; (4) biological bases of behavior, including physiological psychology and comparative psychology; (5) neuropsychology, sensation and perception, and psychopharmacology; (6) cognitive-affective bases of behavior, including learning, thinking, motivation, and emotion; (7) social bases of behavior, including social psychology, group processes, organizational theory, and systems theory; and (8) individual differences, including personality theory, human development, and abnormal psychology. As well, the programs must include course requirements in specialty areas. This graduate academic training establishes what have become recognized as the foundational competencies within professional psychology, while further postdoctoral training and experience lead to establishment of the functional competencies.

Specialty Recognition and Credentialing

The American Board of Professional Psychology

In the 1940s, the APA formed a committee to study credentialing psychologists. That committee led to the establishment of the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology (ABEPP) in 1947. It was recognized that although members of APA might belong to divisions of that organization that are more or less specialized, those divisions are interest groups and could not reasonably be presumed to represent their members as necessarily being specialists in the area. An inherent potential conflict of interest between protection of the public and advancing the interest of division members existed; thus, with support from the APA, the development and establishment of ABEPP as a separate entity proceeded.

Initially, ABEPP certified practitioners in areas it labeled clinical, personnel-industrial, and personnel-educational psychology. The latter two areas evolved into industrial/organization psychology (later becoming organizational and business consulting psychology) and counseling and guidance (later becoming counseling psychology).

The organization changed its name to the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1968. Additional specialty areas were added, until eventually it grew to include 13 specialty boards as of this writing. These are the following: child and adolescent psychology, clinical psychology, clinical health psychology, clinical neuropsychology, cognitive and behavioral psychology, counseling psychology, family psychology, forensic psychology, group psychology, organizational and business consulting psychology, psychoanalysis, rehabilitation psychology, and school psychology.

The original ABEPP organized with the express intention of certifying only the most advanced practitioners in a given area of specialization, believing that state psychological associations should be responsible for those less advanced. Over time, this focus led to concern among some that the organization was elitist and not representing the mainstream of psychological specialists. As well, the question of whether board certification is necessary continues, often with responses suggesting that although it may not be necessary to an individual now, it is essential to the growth of professional psychology in the long run.

Concomitant with a national pursuit of competency-based training throughout the educational and training years in psychology, the organization has evolved into the current ABPP, recognizing the need to examine and certify psychologists at a level of competency that is beyond that of generic licensure yet not limited to only the most elite. It is expected that, akin to individuals in medical specialty areas, most adequately trained psychologists would meet the criteria and be able to pass the ABPP examination in their area of specialty following the completion of appropriate residency training experience ranging from 2to5 years of postdoctoral training and experience.

Becoming Credentialed In Counseling Psychology

Recognition of competency in a specific psychological specialty entails multiple steps. All ABPP specialty boards have similar basic, or generic, requirements, with each specialty board having additional, specialty-specific criteria. A psychologist must undergo credentials review and licensure verification, submit practice samples for review, and pass an oral examination in the specialty area. Some ABPP specialty boards also include a written examination.

Specialty credentialing in counseling psychology is conducted by the American Board of Counseling Psychology (ABCP), a specialty board of the ABPP. Summary information about specialty credentialing through the ABCP is found below, while more details may be found at the board’s Web site (http://www.abpp.org/). The ABCP indicates that counseling psychologists engage in helping people with personal and interpersonal functioning by way of individual, group, and community interventions that deal with emotional, behavioral, vocational, and mental health issues. They may use preventive, developmental, and remedial approaches in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychopathology. They may engage in psychotherapy, assessment, teaching, research, supervision, and career counseling.

Credential Review and Licensure Verification

ABPP conducts a review of the education and training experience(s) of a candidate. This is conducted at a generic level for all candidates, and it consists of verification of training in an APA-accredited or ASPPB/NR-designated doctoral program, verification of internship and postdoctoral experience, and verification of licensure. When these criteria are established as having been met, credentials are reviewed by the ABCP at a specialty level to determine that requirements for appropriate training and experience in the specialty area have also been satisfied. In counseling psychology, the specialty criteria that must be met are (1) completion of an acceptable internship program, (2) 1 year of postdoctoral supervision, and (3) 2 years of postlicense experience. Acceptable supervision is one-on-one, face-to-face weekly supervision. All applicants must submit a copy of their curriculum vitae or resume. Graduates of a counseling psychology program accredited by APA must provide endorsement from two psychologists, and graduates of any program other than an APA-accredited counseling psychology program must provide attestations of their functioning as a counseling psychologist from two psychologists.

Practice Sample Submission

The ABCP requires that counseling psychologists submit a professional self-study (PSS) as well as a case study (CS). The PSS is a document that describes training and experiences that have led the psychologist to the specialization in counseling psychology, including a description of theoretical bases for practice and a description of the approach(es) the psychologist makes use of in assessment and intervention. The CS is intended to demonstrate the psychologist’s competency in counseling psychology. It may be an individual case, group work, or another demonstration of competency and may be submitted in written form. (The use of a video of the psychologist’s work may also be acceptable in some cases.) The PSS and CS are reviewed by board certified peers for evidence of adequate competency in the areas of assessment, intervention, consultation, and other areas appropriate to the practice of counseling psychology. Once this submission is approved, the candidate is invited to participate in the oral examination phase of the board certification process.

Oral Examination

The board uses an assessment center model to conduct oral examinations, wherein a candidate moves through several separate examination areas, each with a focus on a particular competency area. The oral examination is conducted over a morning and an afternoon and consists of five competency domains: (1) assessment, (2) intervention, (3) alternative interventions, (4) ethics, and (5) professional issues. The candidate interacts with different examiners during different phases of the examination.

The oral examination includes discussion of the PSS as well as the CS that were previously submitted during the practice sample phase of the process. Additionally, the candidate provides a videotape of an individual client session to the oral examination committee chair 30 days prior to the date of the candidate’s oral examination. The criteria used to evaluate oral examination performance are the same for all candidates without regard to their years of postdoctoral experience. On successful completion of the oral examination phase, the counseling psychologist is awarded the ABPP diploma in counseling psychology.

Future Importance

The importance of specialization within the field of professional psychology is growing. Becoming board certified through an organization such as ABPP can facilitate mobility, or a psychologist’s ability to practice in different states. Many states recognize a psychologist who has attained the ABPP board certification as having met the criteria necessary for licensure in the state and require only that (for example) an examination on state-specific regulations be passed prior to granting a license for the practice of psychology in that state. Board certification also represents increased responsiveness to protection of the consumer public. Recent developments have included states working to restrict the use of the term board certified or specialist to those psychologists who have attained board certification through an organization recognized by the state licensing body. It is anticipated that specialization and appropriate credentialing of specialists will continue to become more of the norm and expectation within the field of psychology.


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