Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Advocating to Support Graduate Student Education

Lessons Learned from Attending the APA Education Leadership Conference

From October 17th through the 20th I had the opportunity to represent Division 29 at the American Psychological Association Education Leadership Conference in Washington, DC. The focus of the conference this year was Translating Psychological Science to Educational Practice, Policy, and the Public. There were many wonderful speakers who talked about using psychological principles as we train educators, interact with journalists, and inform policy makers. The conference culminated in visits with senators, representatives, and their staff to encourage them to restore subsidized loan eligibility for graduate students as part of the Higher Education Act. The following are some of the lessons I learned while attending the conference.

Applying Psychological Science to Educational Practice

Dan Willingham, PhD, and Stephen Chew, PhD, provided two separate presentations on training and becoming more effective teachers by using what we know from our own science. As an educator myself, several principles stood out to me. Dr. Willingham discussed how we generally expect teachers to use tested and proven methods in their instruction. However, there are many times in the classroom when a specific tested or proven technique does not apply and, in those situations, we expect instructors to turn to scientifically grounded principles to identify new techniques that might work. As trainers of teachers, we often teach theory as a method for grounding the unproven techniques that teachers might use, but Dr. Willingham indicated that that is a mistake. He provided survey data showing teachers too often feel like their training is too abstract, that the theories taught often contradict each other and are confusing, and that it is difficult to take the leap to know exactly how the theory should be applied in practice.

As I listened to Dr. Willingham’s comments, I could not help but think about how these same ideas might apply to training in psychotherapy. We have the same expectations for therapists—use proven techniques in treatment and apply scientifically grounded principles to identify and use new techniques in treatment situations when the proven techniques might not apply. As trainers we often use theory to provide students with a grounding for their psychotherapy work. While I believe theory is important, I also recognize theories can seem too abstract to students. It is sometimes difficult for students to recognize how theoretical principles apply to psychotherapy practice, and students get confused as to how there can be empirical support for multiple competing, and even contradictory, theories.

Rather than teaching theory, Dr. Willingham suggested an alternative approach that I believe can also apply to psychotherapy training. He suggested training should be grounded in empirical generalizations. That is, in situations where a specific proven treatment technique may not apply, we should teach therapists to turn to principles that are (1) virtually always true, (2) show large effects, and (3) apply across many situations and theories. I interpreted this as spending more time training students in a common factors approach and the use of evidence-based relationship techniques. Although many already recognize the importance of spending adequate time training psychotherapists in the use of common and relationship factors, this is not a universally accepted idea across the field and we need to continue to advocate for this type of training.

Dr. Chew also shared similar ideas about how we need to primarily use proven teaching techniques, but we also need to be adaptable to situations when the proven techniques do not work or do not apply. He argued for the application of a theory or proven principles to determine the techniques we use in those situations, as well. One additional topic that Dr. Chew discussed was creating teaching moments; I found his suggestions could directly apply to psychotherapy supervision. He said that in order for teaching moments to occur, students need to be mindful and trusting. As clinical supervisors, it is important we build relationships of trust with our supervisees so they can be present and open in supervision, rather than being stuck on worries about how we might judge them negatively. Once students are mindful and trusting, Dr. Chew shared, we need to prime them for learning by helping them see there are things they do not know. As a supervisor, in addition to watching my students’ sessions, I have found I can more easily create teaching moments when I have them routinely watch recordings of their sessions. I then ask them to come to supervision having identified segments in which they felt like they did really well in their work with the client, and segments in which they felt lost or the client did not respond well to what they did. Once students are primed for learning, they can be taught new techniques or how to apply the techniques they already know to the areas where they may be struggling.

Changing “Continuing Education” to “Craving Education”

During part of the conference, I had an opportunity to attend and participate in a focus group on continuing education. In this group, we recognized that many of us see the current continuing education system as imposing requirements we simply need to fulfill in order to maintain licensure, rather than as an opportunity for lifelong learning. Members of the focus group were thus tasked with identifying recommendations for changing the continuing education culture. In general, we had a great discussion and deliberated the pros and cons of several different ideas. We recognized that most providers have intrinsic motivation for lifelong learning and we are constantly engaged in learning activities for which we do not receive continuing education credits. Given this, focus group members concluded that if we could somehow bring the continuing education requirements in line with the learning we already do, we would promote a shift in the culture and attitudes.

We generated several ideas and reported them back to the Education Directorate as possible ways to increase the intrinsic motivation toward continuing education. First, we suggested relevant continuing education opportunities be more accessible. It is sometimes difficult for psychologists to find workshops that fit areas of interest and training needs, particularly for those who live outside larger metropolitan areas. Some psychologists are often stuck taking whatever credits they can get; however, if more affordable training opportunities were available online, psychologists would have greater freedom to choose the ones they believe would be of true benefit for them. Second, the quality of the trainings needs to be more closely monitored. We all agreed it is difficult to learn when you passively sit in a seat and listen to a presentation. Speakers should be expected to more fully engage participants, to have them practice skills (perhaps over a couple of weeks), and come back with questions. Third, as psychologists we should seek to create a culture of learning with our colleagues. Whether through state organizations, clinics, or a network of private practice psychologists, continuing education might become more engaging if we plan to attend events together and talk to each other about what we gained after each event. Fourth, we believe that performing an annual or biannual self-assessment of competencies might help psychologists more mindfully plan out their continuing education needs over each licensure cycle. Last, we all agreed we engage in learning outside of the continuing education system and it should be easier to get credits for the learning activities we already do. One excellent example of this is being able to receive credits for performing a peer-review for the Society’s journal Psychotherapy (for more information on reviewing manuscripts for CE credit, please see

Sharing Psychological Science With Journalists

Also on the first day, Elana Newman, PhD, gave a presentation on methods for using psychology to inform journalism. This seemed to be an important area because much of what we do as researchers and practitioners has important applications for the general public; however, without the media, it is difficult to share what we have with others outside of our profession. Dr. Newman’s first point was to remember that the field of journalism has its own ethics and culture, which sometimes fit well with psychology’s, but sometimes do not. Overlapping principles include being accurate, truthful, minimizing harm, being independent, not letting biases influence what is reported, and being accountable. On the other hand, some differences include journalists being much more time driven and lacking a scholarship/research aspect to their field that informs their practices. Appreciating these cultural similarities and differences can help us as psychologists know how to interact with journalists. Some specific suggestions Dr. Newman provided for interacting with the media included not using jargon, explaining simply what research methods mean, focusing on answering their questions without trying to force your own agenda, sharing the facts and information in a quick and simple way that makes them ponder the implications, and building collaborative relationships by praising good media coverage when you see it.

Sharing Psychological Science With Policy Makers

Throughout the conference, we heard several talks on presenting the science of psychology to policy makers. Much of what we heard about working with policy makers was similar to what we heard about working with the media. For example, it is important to remember that policy makers are also very time-driven and they have hundreds of issues and opinions presented to them each day. When we talk to policy makers, it is important we present our message in a clear and concise way. We were told that one of the best ways to present a brief message to policy makers that will be memorable is to share a personal story pertinent to the issue—in other words, how has the issue impacted us or another one of their constituents personally? Second, we can make our own issue more important to policy makers when we link it to something they care about or something that is on their immediate agenda. Third, we should avoid jargon and use terms that are meaningful to them. For example, the word “research” means something different to psychologists (for whom it implies use of the scientific method) than it does to many legislators (for whom it implies searching references for information). Fourth, we should stick to one or two issues at a time and avoid larger political discussions that might not go anywhere. Last, we should thank them for their hard work, even if we do not agree with all of their policies.

Advocating for Restoring Graduate Student Eligibility for Subsidized Loans

One of the main purposes of the conference was to prepare us to advocate with legislators on behalf of graduate students. As part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, eligibility for subsidized loans was taken away from graduate students. Currently, students graduating from experimental PhD programs have a median debt of $30,000, from clinical and counseling PhD programs $80,000, and from PsyD programs $120,000. This significant amount of debt is thought to have an impact on potential students’ willingness to pursue a graduate degree, stress while in graduate school, and the type of jobs they are willing to pursue after graduation. It is estimated that students would save on average between $5,000 and $15,000 dollars if they were eligible for subsidized loans at the previous rates/amounts. Attendees of the Education Leadership Conference met with senators and representatives from 33 states on the last day of the conference. I visited the offices of Representative Simpson, Senator Risch, and Senator Crapo, all from Idaho. Each of them seemed to recognize that graduate student debt is a significant problem and they were all fairly receptive to the idea of restoring eligibility to subsidized loans as one possible solution. It was neat to be able to see first-hand how advocacy works, and to be able to speak up for an important cause. I would encourage others to likewise contact the offices of their legislators in Washington, DC, to share their opinions on this significant issue, or other issues they find important.

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Joshua K. Swift, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Idaho State University. He conducts psychotherapy process and outcome research, with a special focus on client factors (preferences and expectations) and premature termination. He is also a licensed psychologist.

Cite This Article

Swift, J. K. Advocating to support graduate student education: Lessons learned from attending the APA Education Leadership Conference. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 50(4), 70-4.



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