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Research, real life meet in Counseling Psychology Training Program

BC ­ before cancer ­ Avis Austin's life was in high gear. She had two bachelor's degrees, in biology and electrical engineering, and two master's degrees, in business and engineering-economics systems. When she wasn't in school ­ and sometimes when she was ­ she was working for Lockheed, where she spent 14 years in robotics and aircraft design and artificial intelligence.

But the cancer diagnosis forced her to reevaluate her priorities. "It's not something I'd wish on anybody in the whole world, but it really did help me rethink a lot of things," said Austin, who is now 45 and healthy.

Austin is completing year four of Stanford's Counseling Psychology Training Program, a 5-year doctoral program that includes a healthy dose of research and practical experience. For her dissertation, she'll work with breast cancer patients as they navigate an emotional landscape she knows well. Austin is one of a select cadre of students admitted to the program and like many of her colleagues she brings a wealth of professional and life experience.

The program is designed to train scientist practitioners to conduct research that advances the science of psychology while helping a diverse clientele create more satisfying lives for themselves. It also prepares students for licensure as psychologists in the state of California.

In their first year students are required to take a sequence of courses in cognitive-behavioral counseling. Under supervised training, they see Palo Alto area clients on a sliding fee scale at the Stanford Counseling Institute. In subsequent years students do supervised practical work in the counseling institute or in another setting on or off campus. Research requirements include a second-year project in which the student is the primary investigator and, of course, a dissertation. In addition, all students must apply for and complete a year-long internship that is accredited by the American Psychological Association.

The counseling psychology training program attracts more applicants than any other doctoral program in the School of Education. In September, five students chosen from an applicant pool of 135 candidates will enter the program.

"We're looking for self-starters," said John Krumboltz, one of the program's three faculty members. The others are Associate Professor Teresa LaFromboise and Professor Carl Thoresen. In addition to the usual academic standards, selection criteria include interpersonal skills and leadership ability. The program invites 10 to 12 finalists to spend half a day on campus meeting with faculty and current students, who have a lot of influence on admissions decisions. "The program is unique in that it allows all students in the program to interview applicants who advance to the finalists stage. That's where we get our best data," Krumboltz said.

Keeping the program small has its advantages, particularly since the faculty is so small. "They probably benefit from our weakness, which is our small size. The avenues are open for them to collaborate with people across campus. They have a lot of freedom to design a course of study that most meets their goals and objectives," said LaFromboise, who added that similar programs at other universities are more proscribed. LaFromboise said she and her colleagues look for candidates who have done a wide variety of things and have strong academic credentials but are also "very interesting people."

It was the people ­ and the academic rigor ­ who attracted Margo Jackson, who worked in a variety of therapeutic settings before coming to Stanford from Buffalo five years ago. She was drawn by the reputations of Krumboltz, LaFromboise and Thoresen.

"I wanted to work with students and colleagues and faculty that were not only good at what they did but were also good people," said Jackson, who begins an internship with Veterans Affairs this summer and is doing her dissertation on stereotype reversal training, a project designed to address unintentional racial biases that limit the effectiveness of multicultural counseling. "This program was small enough and flexible enough and also excellent enough," said Jackson.

The academic requirements for admission can be flexible in special circumstances. Although most of the students in the program have master's degrees in counseling or related fields, many have experience in industry and other seemingly unrelated fields. Eyzzz Bacarde-Evolfo entered the program in 1995 with two bachelor's degrees ­ in accounting and psychology from California State University-Northridge ­ and several years' experience working as a paraprofessional under the direction of licensed therapists. His professors at Northridge encouraged him to apply even without a master's degree to doctoral programs in clinical psychology and counseling psychology.

"Because I don't have a master's, I'm trying to augment my course work here in getting a psych minor and taking a lot of the core courses that I would have been exposed to in a master's program," Bacarde-Evolfo said. He is doing research in the Partners in Academic Excellence, or PAE, program in the university's Undergraduate Advising Center. He's studying the impact of the PAE program on the social and academic integration of black freshmen. "It's a great opportunity to work with my community as well as tie it together with my research in an area that's not researched that much," Bacarde-Evolfo said.

Like Bacarde-Evolfo, most students in the program design their course work to meet their individual needs and interests. Sometimes that can be problematic. Information about requirements or responsibilities is often transmitted so informally that some students find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. "It being a small program, a lot of stuff happens by word of mouth, and sometimes something will slip through the cracks," says Austin.

One of the plusses of the flexibility, however, is that students have a lot of room to explore. "It's kind of like being at this wonderful banquet and you have to figure out 'what am I going to take from it,'" LaFromboise said.

LaFromboise acknowledged, however, that with that banquet comes a great deal of responsibility ­ a full plate. In addition to fulfilling course, research and practicum requirements, some students work as teaching assistants.

"I'm not sure the rest of the school understands the role of a counseling psychologist in training," says LaFromboise. "Sometimes the students feel if only they had the luxury of focusing only on their research they might appear more stellar students."

"It gets harder and harder in terms of the roles that we have to balance," says Va Lecia Adams, who in addition to her program requirements is co-director of the Stanford Counseling Institute. She said that in the first year she and her colleagues have to readjust to being students; in the second year they often add teaching to their responsibilities; and by the third year they are learning to be students, teachers and researchers. "I think the program has done a good job of exposing us to those different roles little by little, so that it all starts to come together," she said. In her own research, Adams conducts support groups for mothers and daughters in East Palo Alto and Los Angeles.

Krumboltz says that one of his long-range goals for the program is to deal with issues before they become problems. He is currently working on a manuscript on violence prevention in schools. LaFromboise, who has done extensive work in American Indian communities, is interested in suicide prevention among that population. Thoresen, whose specialty is overall health and well-being, is doing work in reducing disease risk factors through improved lifestyles.

In the program's mission statement, the first goal is for students to "develop a personally satisfying and balanced life" ­ a tenet most students and faculty chuckle about when they are reminded of it.

"I think our mission statement is aspirational. This is what we are shooting for, and it provides a good reminder of where we want to go," said Krumboltz. "It's like the Ten Commandments: You may not always obey them, but they're good rules to follow," he said, adding, that students in the program are only attempting to do for themselves what they as counselors, attempt to instill in their clients.


By Elaine Ray