(Photo: Flickr/California Cthulhu (Will Hart) )
(Photo: Flickr/California Cthulhu (Will Hart) )

The American Counseling Association’s Professional Standards Committee has spent considerable time exploring the role of field placement in the development of counselors’ professional identity. Surveys on this topic were sent to professional counselors, counselor education programs, internship sites and graduate students. A review of the 148 completed surveys (out of approximately 1,000 potential participants) led the committee to develop a preliminary list of best practices that it is offering for discussion within the counseling profession.

Field placement experiences are a significant component of counselor education and a requirement of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) for accreditation in every specialty. Programs require as many as 12 credits of field placements (practicum and internship) in master’s degree programs. CACREP outlines the basic requirements for such professional experience in training. Beyond the minimal requirements for staffing and process, however, little guidance has been offered within the profession regarding what constitutes optimal field placement training. Much of the literature focusing on internships is limited to clinical supervision. Although supervision is no doubt an important aspect of internships, many other factors allow field placement to contribute, either positively or negatively, to the professional development of the counselor.

In 1995, Judith Scott suggested the role of counselor educators and professionals at field placement sites is to promote the positive growth of the student. In 2009, Richard Ponton advanced the idea that it is through transformative experiences in field placement that the student of counseling becomes a professional counselor. Sharon Lynch’s qualitative study in 2012 found data to support Ponton’s model, which suggests four identifiable components of professional identity development during field placement:

  • Transition
  • Transmission
  • Reflective experience
  • Transformation

Professional identity development in field placement is neither optional nor accidental. Rather, it is the function of intentional behaviors that promote such growth.

Counselor educators       

The survey responses returned by counselor educators suggest that academic institutions do not consistently match students to field placement sites. Rather, they more commonly view the academic program’s role as that of providing links between students and field placement opportunities. Of the counselor educator respondents, 42 percent indicated that their programs ensure that all qualified students have a field placement site. Furthermore, 82 percent of respondents stated that their programs provide students with a field placement manual, 88 percent said their programs provide an orientation for students and 85 percent reported that their programs provide written orientation materials for supervisors.

Our survey also sought information regarding coordination between academic institutions and field placement sites. Twenty-four percent of counselor educator respondents reported providing an orientation for all supervisors. Additionally, three-quarters of the respondents reported visiting field placement sites at least once each year, while 82 percent confirmed phone contact between the academic institution and placement site at least once each year.

Approximately one-quarter of respondents indicated their programs require supervisors to be licensed as professional counselors, while the remaining three-quarters said their students were supervised by counselors, psychologists, social workers or other mental health professionals. More than one-third of respondents said students in their programs are encouraged, but not required, to record and review video or audio tapes at their work in the field placement.

The survey also provided an opportunity for respondents to suggest improvements for their own programs. As is often the case, such open-ended feedback was rich with detail but clustered around a couple of main themes: the need for better communication with training sites and the challenge of taping requirements for field placement coordination.

Likewise, we asked respondents to comment on those aspects of their field placement programs of which they were most proud. Their responses tended to cluster around the quality of the field placement sites, the professional placement of students into paid positions following internship, and the orientation and quality supervision of students in field placement.

Field placement supervisors

Eighty-five field placement supervisors from across the country responded to the survey. Forty-five percent of the respondents reported having two to four trainees at their sites; 30 percent had five to 10 trainees; 15 percent indicated having one supervisee; and 9 percent reported having more than 10 supervisees at their sites. Regarding the nature of the work being done at these sites, approximately 12 percent were school counseling sites, while the remainder were mental health or community counseling sites.

Of the supervisors, 66 percent considered the students who came to their sites to have been adequately prepared for field placement. Thirty percent noted reservations about the students’ level of preparation, and 3.5 percent reported that students were not adequately prepared for practicum and internship. Ninety-two percent of the field placement supervisors said they had interviewed the students before their placement, and 26 percent reported conducting group interviews of students. Seventy-four percent of supervisors had provided an orientation for the students, and 57 percent reported giving their student trainees a manual.

Of the supervisor respondents, 55 percent indicated they had contact with the academic institution regarding the placement of particular students. Forty-five percent of field placement supervisors indicated having very little contact with the academic program, compared with 14 percent who considered themselves “partners” with an ongoing mutual interaction with a counselor education program.

When asked how their programs could be improved, the supervisors’ overwhelming response concerned better communication and more coordination with the academic institutions. Other needed improvements included the ability to provide more structured learning at the site and better preparation of students before entering field placements, especially in the areas of documentation and case management. The supervisors reported being most proud of the variety of experiences their sites offered to students, the value of the clinical expertise and crisis intervention expertise the staff could offer to students, and their ability to serve as a resource for emerging professionals.


Twenty-seven students responded to the survey. One-third of these students were in school counseling placements, and 90 percent of the total student respondents reported having one to five interns at their sites.

Of the total number of students who responded, 56 percent reported receiving no assistance from their academic institutions in deciding on a field placement site. Fifteen percent reported that the information they received regarding possible sites was either inaccurate or cursory, while 37 percent found the information to be accurate and helpful. For the most part, students reported positive and helpful experiences with their supervisors at field placement sites and on campus.

When considering choice of field placement site, 26 percent of the respondents reported distance as a factor. Other factors of significant importance to students when choosing a site were the client population being served, the site’s specialty and its reputation as a training site.

Issues, trends and concerns

Numerous issues, trends and concerns were noted and discussed by members of the ACA Professional Standards Committee. One current trend in counselor education is for universities to provide some guidance in acquiring fieldwork placement. This happens with varying levels of involvement, depending on the university. Placement is typically not assigned, thus allowing students to pick the site that is most amenable to what they desire to learn and experience professionally. Concern in this area arises when the number of students exceeds the number of available sites. This area is further complicated in distance learning universities, where geographical areas sometimes prohibit or interfere with a student’s ability to secure a fieldwork site and the university’s ability to offer additional assistance. As a best practice consideration, the Professional Standards Committee believes that universities need to be able to offer assurance that placement sites are available and within a reasonable distance from their students.

Levels of preparedness for field placement differ from student to student. Some students are first given the opportunity to undergo a practicum experience on campus. Others have yet to participate in any type of community-based practicum. These differences in preparation level often lead to a disparity in competencies and perceived weaknesses in areas such as case management and documentation. As a best practice, it is recommended that these competencies be accounted for and documented before a student begins fieldwork. Additionally, it is recommended that the student be better prepared for case management and documentation either through academic preparation or through coordination with the fieldwork site.

Another area of concern is that no across-the-board expectation exists in terms of the competency level of fieldwork placement supervisors. Although some states require a supervisory endorsement, others do not. Yet another option is acquiring the approved clinical supervisor (ACS) credential through the Center for Credentialing and Education. It is important to note that considering a supervision designation requirement may reduce the number of potentially eligible site supervisors. Best practice recommendations in this area involve requiring the fieldwork supervisor to verify competency in supervision skills, possibly requiring the ACS credential or providing continuing education in the area of supervision or related topics.

The ability to tape a session is a requirement of CACREP that seems to be better received at some placement sites than others, perhaps in part due to concerns regarding compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). At the same time, tape review is considered an excellent method for enhancing a student’s skill set and evaluating how the student is actually doing. In response to this trend and concern, it is recommended as a best practice that ACA develop a statement regarding the need to tape, the impact that such taping has on HIPAA and any concern regarding client confidentiality. Additionally, it is suggested that counselor education programs consult with site supervisors to develop a program that allows for taping and review with either the academic supervisor or the onsite fieldwork supervisor.

Fieldwork represents a shift in experience from a didactic environment to a clinical environment. Accompanying this shift are varying levels of assistance and commitment from universities. The dissemination of fieldwork information may take place via paper manuals, or some information may be available online. For students to be successful, members of the ACA Professional Standards Committee think that academic institutions should be encouraged to make their fieldwork manuals available online. Another recommended best practice is for placement sites to make information about the sites, the potential experience, the process, placement availability and deadlines for applying available online. Students are strongly encouraged to gain information about potential sites early on through volunteering, orientation by other students and site visits. Students should participate in pre-fieldwork orientation and have an understanding of the fieldwork process. These factors will contribute to the student’s overall professional development and fieldwork success.

Finally, concerns about enhancing collaboration between the universities and the fieldwork sites should be noted. In looking at this area, it is a challenge to prescribe how many times something such as supervisor contact with a fieldwork site should take place to make the experience more beneficial for the student. In response to this concern, a more aspirational perspective might be pursued. Noted barriers to collaboration include time, distance and, oftentimes, money. Best practice considerations include providing online materials that are essential to the success of the collaboration between site supervisors and academic supervisors, including required paperwork, clear expectations and a manual. In addition, providing a clear incentive for site supervisor participation would be viewed positively. An example of this might include providing a free course or free supervisory continuing education units. Also, each university should have a designated contact person with information relative to the fieldwork experience who is also knowledgeable about forming effective collaborations. Furthermore, institutions need to acknowledge and value the contributions of the site supervisors and the educational value they represent. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways, including providing a stipend to site supervisors, conveying them status as academic adjuncts or possibly even allowing them online library access.

We hope you will find this information and the suggested best practices beneficial to your development and monitoring of counseling field placements.

The information provided in this article was collected by members of the ACA Professional Standards Committee, including Richard Ponton and Jill Duba Sauerheber (committee co-chairs), Stephen Burton, David Carter, Kimberly Desmond, Neil Duchac, SoDohl Goldsmith, Jean M. LaFauci Schutt, Brigid Noonan-Klima and Hayley Stullmaker. 

David J. Carter is a professor in the counselor education program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). He has served as the practicum coordinator at UNO for the past 13 years. Contact him at dcarter@unomaha.edu.

Neil Duchac is a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at Capella University. Previously, he served both as a clinical coordinator and program lead. Contact him at neil.duchac@capella.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org


Comments are closed.