Degree In Sight

When Colorado State University counseling psychology graduate student Serenity Chambers began an externship at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo., she ran into a conundrum: Because the site had never before housed a counseling psychology graduate student, she had no idea what her title should be or how to explain her training.

"It was tough because if I called myself a counselor, people would think that I'm a career or academic counselor," she says. "So the trick was to come up with another title that reflected my role and training."

Chambers and her supervisor eventually settled on counselor/psychotherapist to emphasize both her counseling training and diagnostic approach. Yet even before she started the job, a college administrator rejected the title "psychotherapist" because it suggested Chambers had already earned her degree. Chambers and her adviser swiftly changed the title to personal counselor.

Her confusion over how to characterize her training is not unique, says Gary Schoener, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis. Many psychology graduate programs don't discuss the topic in the classroom, he says, which leaves students unsure of how to describe their credentials.

That's why APA President and Ethics & Behavior Editor Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, urges students to be as clear and succinct about their current position and past experience as possible.

"The ethical way for students to refer to themselves is whatever term applies to their current status and then to explain what that term means," he says.

In doing so, students can head off any confusion and misunderstandings, he says.


When on internship or practicum, students should ask about their agency's policies on how to identify themselves to clients before their first client encounter, says Schoener.

For instance, supervisors at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System lead a professional behavior orientation that instructs trainees in introductions to provide their name, whether they are a practicum student, intern or postdoc, and their supervisor's name and contact information.

"Patients need to know that they're working with a student, not a licensed professional staff member," says Jeanette Hsu, PhD, psychology service training director at the VA Palo Alto.

She adds that in written communications, students should include their supervisor's name and contact information in case clients want to contact them.

At Schoener's center, he urges students to develop and practice an introduction with the same components that is also crisp and to the point. For instance, he suggests an introduction along the lines of, "My name is Gary Schoener, and I am an intern here who is supervised by Bob Smith. Here is his card. You are welcome to contact him at any time."

"You need to be clear," Schoener says. "The job of the therapist is to get moving by establishing rapport and getting down to business as soon as possible. It behooves you to not waste time telling them about yourself. That's not what they came for."

He adds that students should be prepared for inquisitive clients who will seek additional information about training and qualifications. Students who are unclear about their background could undermine their clients' confidence in the relationship, he says.


Although titles vary greatly depending on site and circumstance, a title students should never use is "PhD candidate" or "doctoral candidate," says Koocher.

The reason, he says, is that candidacy status may not mean much to the public, whose lack of understanding of psychology and academia may even cause them to confuse psychology and psychiatry. Although PhD or doctoral candidate may have meaning within an academic department, candidacy status varies by institution, and can indicate anything from first-year graduate students to students finishing their dissertation, he says.

Moreover, when students state that they are PhD candidates they may be in violation of two principles in APA's Ethics Code-"Informed consent to therapy," which requires trainees to inform clients that they are in training and being supervised, and "Avoidance of false or deceptive statements," which prohibits psychologists from misrepresenting their training, competence, academic degrees or credentials--says Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA's Ethics Office.

That's why Chambers now uses her introduction as an opportunity to educate clients who ask questions about her experience.

"I like to emphasize my training," she says. "I tell them that even though I'm not licensed yet that doesn't mean that I don't have experience--I have more than 3,000 hours of experience over the past five years."

Chambers, like many other graduate students, also notes her master's degree in written communication with clients.

Even in other types of programs, students such as Brad Brummel, an industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, can note their master's degrees to lend credibility to their work.

"Since I earned a master's degree, I note my degree as I say that I'm an I/O psychology doctoral student," he says.

He says that most people I/O students consult for are more concerned about their prior business experience than the status of their academic training.

Even so, Brummel makes certain that he's accurate when he presents himself. "You shouldn't say PhD expected or anything like that," he says. "Because you don't want to misrepresent who you are."

For more information about title-related issues, visit APA's Ethics Office Web site at

ZakStambor is a former staff writer.