Psychotherapy Articles

Psychotherapy Articles

Supervisors Need Competence Too

Ask the Ethicist

Taline Andonian Asks

As graduate students we receive training not only in academia but in a myriad of different clinical settings, which often lead to a wide range of experiences in terms of supervision. Because of the emphasis that is placed on clinical/practical training for clinical psychology programs in particular a graduate student’s competencies are strongly related to the quality and type of supervision that he or she receives during practica experiences.  Given this, how important do you think it is for supervisors of graduate students to receive training in the area of supervision?  Should there be specific competency requirements for psychologists or other mental health clinicians who plan to train graduate students?

Dr. Barnett Responds

This is a really important question. Clinical supervision is an essential aspect of every psychologist’s professional training. We each participate in supervision during different stages or phases of our professional growth and development. Without it, we couldn’t develop the competence needed as professionals. Yet, the quality of the supervision we receive is of great importance. Inadequate, unethical, or insufficient supervision has serious ramifications for our developing competence as well as for the clients to whom we provide professional services.

Competence is generally thought of as being comprised of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, and the ability to implement them effectively. In general, we obtain much of the knowledge we need from academic course work, reading, attending seminars, and the like. We also should be able to obtain additional knowledge from our clinical supervisors. Our skills are developed primarily in clinical supervision. Our supervisors also serve as professional role models; we learn and develop many of our professional attitudes and values from the examples set by our supervisors.

Two types of competence: Clinical and supervision

It is essential that supervisors possess two major types of competence; competence in the clinical areas they are supervising and competence in being a supervisor. It is definitely important that supervisors have training in being a supervisor. Like any other clinical role, it has it’s own literature, research, and requisite skills. Merely having been supervised in the past is not a sufficient credential for being a supervisor. Also, just because a job may require a psychologist to supervise a certain number of trainees, that doesn’t mean one is competent to provide the supervision. One must first obtain the necessary training to develop needed competence so that one may provide supervision skillfully and ethically. There are different models of supervision, various methods of supervision, and a number of clinical and ethical issues supervisors should be aware of.

Some jurisdictions require clinical supervisors to have  a certain number of hours of continuing education in clinical supervision for their license to be renewed every two years if they are to provide clinical supervision. That’s a good start, but a minimal requirement. Training programs should require that potential supervisors submit documentation of their training, experience, and competence in providing supervision before being allowed to supervise students. This may involve submitting continuing education certificates, transcripts, a statement of professional experience, and/or letters of recommendation. But, often training programs have a difficult time getting supervisors for their students since the supervisors are often volunteers. As a result, programs may just be glad to get supervisors for students and may not be as careful or thorough in screening potential supervisors. Just as supervisees receive written and verbal feedback throughout the course of supervision, perhaps supervisors should receive written feedback and evaluations from supervisees that are shared with training programs.

Ethics, research, and informed consent

There are also many ethics issues that supervisors and supervisees should be aware of. Additionally, there’s a body of research that highlights the qualities of effective and ineffective supervisors (and supervisees!) that both supervisors and supervisees should be aware of. I also believe that there should be an informed consent agreement or supervision contract completed at the outset of the supervision relationship that clarifies all roles, responsibilities, obligations, and the like. These issues and other relevant ones are addressed in the PowerPoint slides below that are from a presentation on the topic I gave recently.

Be an active consumer of supervision

I hope this is helpful.  I wish you much success in your training. A final thought is to keep in mind that as a supervisee, you are an active consumer of a service. You must be provided with the needed oversight, training, supervision, mentoring, and role modeling that are needed for you to flourish and develop as a professional psychologist.

Jeffrey E. Barnett, Psy.D., ABPP is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland and a licensed psychologist who is board certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology in Clinical Psychology and in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Additionally, he is a Distinguished Practitioner in Psychology of the National Academies of Practice. Among his many professional activities, Dr. Barnett is a past chair of the ethics committees of the American Psychological Association, the American Board of Professional Psychology, and the Maryland Psychological Association. He previously served on the Maryland Board of Examiners of Psychologists and has been a consultant to licensing boards across a range of health professions. His numerous publications and presentations focus on ethics, legal, and professional practice issues in psychology. Dr. Barnett is a recipient of the APA’s outstanding ethics educator award.

Cite This Article

Barnett, J. E. (2010, August). Ask the ethicist: Supervisors need competence too. [Web article]. Retrieved from



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