The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code clearly states that we do not practice outside our scope of expertise. Sounds simple, right? The trouble is that psychological testing is such a broad field that it’s really easy to find yourself outside your scope of expertise. I was definitely a generalist when I started out, assessing both adults and children for a variety of concerns. Like most of us, I likely tread on the boundaries of expertise at some point or another.
So how do we determine competence? The language appears vague at first glance. Here’s what it says:
2.01 Boundaries of Competence
(a) Psychologists provide services, teach and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience. (Emphasis added)
When you look closely, the code specifies five areas that help determine competence. I see them as different stages in the progression from being dependent on others to being an independent practitioner (and thereby more “competent”). Let’s break them down:
- Education: All of us have classes in graduate school on assessment, but education can also include CE classes, webinars, or a la carte post-graduate courses like the NAN offers. Education is an important base for providing services, but certainly not sufficient to be competent.
- Training: Training and education overlap a bit, but I see training as more applied work. Maybe you observe someone giving assessments or practice administration and scoring with confederate clients. You’re starting to really learn the ins and outs.
- Supervised experience: Now we’re talking. This is the true work with “real” clients. You’re doing a lot of work independently but have the benefit of a fairly involved supervisor to guide, critique, and improve your practice.
- Consultation: You can do the work well, but need to consult with other professionals from time to time to stay on your game. Consultation is more of a peer-to-peer relationship to help flesh out particularly difficult or complex cases.
- Study: This is the last stage that represents the most independence. You’re knowledgeable and competent, but may need to read a little more to add a specific dimension to your practice. An example might be someone who is skilled at international adoption evaluations who would like to add domestic adoption evals to their practice.
Where you fall in the progression depends largely on training. You can do a lot of things in grad school and still be within your scope of expertise because you have extensive supervision and training available. As a licensed practitioner, it’s trickier. I don’t truly feel within my boundaries of competence unless I’m solidly in the Consultation stage or otherwise paying for supervision on a new area of practice.
The One Question to Ask in Determining Scope of Expertise
Determining competence requires an honest assessment of your skills. This is no place for ego and hubris. If I’m ever debating whether to take on a case, here’s what I ask myself:
“What will it be like to defend this in court?”
If the answer is anything in the neighborhood of “uncomfortable” or “scary,” that’s a good sign to turn the case down.
I’d love to hear your experiences (good and bad!) with competence and how you decide what to take on. Feel free to comment below or in our Facebook group (The Testing Psychologist Community)!