Professional Identity Development: A Grounded Theory of Transformational Tasks of New Counselors

By Gibson, Donna M.; Dollarhide, Colette T. et al. | Counselor Education and Supervision, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Professional Identity Development: A Grounded Theory of Transformational Tasks of New Counselors


Gibson, Donna M., Dollarhide, Colette T., Moss, Julie M., Counselor Education and Supervision


Professional identity development is an important professional issue. Examining the lived experiences of counselors-in-training (CITs), the authors used grounded theory methodology to describe the transformational tasks that are required for professional identity development. Tasks include finding a personal definition of counseling, internalizing responsibility for professional growth, and developing a systemic identity--all simultaneously manifesting as students progress from focus on experts to self-validation. Counselor educators can facilitate movement through these transformational tasks by helping CITs to increase self-evaluating, self-motivating, and self-locating within a professional community.

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Professional identity is at the forefront of national awareness within the counseling profession. Its importance is clear: The first principle in the American Counseling Association's (2009) 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling is "Sharing a common professional identity is critical for counselors" (para. 2). Multiple ways to improve the collective professional identity of counselors exist through unity, legislation, licensure, communication, and self-advocacy (Cashwell, Kleist, & Scofield, 2009).

Counselor professional identity is the integration of professional training with personal attributes in the context of a professional community (Nugent & Jones, 2009). Contemporary definitions of professional identity seem to revolve around three themes: self-labeling as a professional, integration of skills and attitudes as a professional, and a perception of context in a professional community. According to Reisetter et al. (2004), professional identity is the view of self as a professional plus competence as a professional, resulting in congruence between personal worldview and professional view. Integration culminates in envisioning oneself as part of the professional community. Similarly, Auxier, Hughes, and Kline (2003) stated that professional identity is equal to the therapeutic self, which is a combination of professional (roles, decisions, ethics) and personal selves (values, morals, perceptions). The therapeutic self creates frames of reference (professional contexts) for counseling roles and decisions, attitudes concerning responsibilities and ethics, modes of thinking, and patterns of problem solving.

With integration of personal attributes and professional training, the individual contextualizes the new identity in a professional community in which the "self as professional" is tested via feedback from others, the third component of professional identity. This is a dynamic process for the evolving counselor as new input is compared with previous views, evaluated, and internalized or rejected (Auxier et al., 2003; O'Byrne & Rosenberg, 1998; Reisetter et al., 2004). The professional community helps the new professional maintain contact with the standards, expectations, and rules of the profession.

As can be inferred from these definitions, the professional identity development process is both intrapersonal and interpersonal. The intrapersonal process that results in professional identity development was described by Auxier et al. (2003) and Brott and Myers (1999) as individuation that results from a cycle of autonomy and dependence during professional skills acquisition. In the first phase of the cycle, new professionals rely on external authority figures and experts (program faculty members) for conceptual learning, experiential learning, and external evaluation during their graduate programs. In the second phase, new professionals encounter authorities in the profession (supervisors) and experience feedback on professional skills acquired during formal education. With this feedback, new professionals move toward an internal locus of evaluation as they examine, process, and internalize external evaluations (Auxier et al., 2003; Brott & Myers, 1999). …

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