Developing a Personal Theoretical Orientation as a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student

Developing a Personal Theoretical Orientation as a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student

Micere S. Oden, M.S

A significant component of graduate training in Clinical Psychology Ph.D. and Psy.D programs is students acquiring knowledge of numerous psychological theories linking theory with clinical practice. The development of a theoretical orientation prepares students for practicum and internship by providing a framework for the assessment, intervention, and treatment of clients. A theoretical orientation connects to case conceptualization focusing on clinical understanding of the client’s concerns guiding the treatment process (Sperry & Sperry, 2012). This paper will discuss important factors to consider when developing a personal theoretical orientation as a clinical psychology doctoral student, which is important for professional development in the psychology profession.

The curriculum in professional psychology education programs includes coursework of various theoretical perspectives including and not limited to cognitive behavioral theory (CBT), person-centered theory, psychodynamic theory, and integrative therapy. When selecting a theoretical orientation students should be aware that graduate programs may “emphasize the theoretical orientations of their faculty” (Melchert, 2013). Exposure to different theories and practicing related techniques will help students in the selection of a personal theoretical orientation or integrative therapy approach that most accurately matches their worldview. According to Halgin (2006), personal life experiences play important roles in theoretical development and psychotherapy integration. Graduate coursework, volunteer opportunities, practicum, and internship offer educational and applied experiences for students to engage in self-reflection and discovery of a theoretical approach that fits their goals and vision of therapy.

The analysis and evaluation of personal beliefs and values, life experiences, and education are influential in the development of a personal theoretical orientation. For example, a graduate student working in a community mental health agency with adult survivors of child abuse might gravitate toward a psychodynamic approach. A hallmark of the psychodynamic perspective is that it focuses on exploring how clients’ childhood experiences and significant relationships provide insight into their current presenting problems. Alternatively, a graduate student facilitating an inpatient support group for clients with eating disorders might find cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) to be most appropriate. This approach focuses on identifying, challenging, and adjusting maladaptive thoughts of clients. Equally important, students may gravitate towards an integrative approach, which blends two or more single theoretical modalities.

As discussed earlier, some graduate programs are guided by the theoretical orientations of faculty. Considering this fact, students should consult faculty members to learn if the psychology department approves or disapproves of theoretical integration among students. Faculty that support an integrative approach play an important role in helping students obtain field experiences where they can combine different therapeutic techniques with clients. However, faculty that value traditional theoretical orientations in psychotherapy will unlikely complete letters of recommendation for students interested in an integrative approach. Attending professional conferences provides additional exposure for students to acquire knowledge about various theoretical orientations and network with professionals that use particular approaches.

The Internet is a valuable resource to search for psychological associations affiliated with specific theoretical orientations and typically provide resources, training opportunities, and conferences. For example, a Google search for “CBT associations” resulted in the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, and the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. Similarly, Internet search queries for psychological associations for person-centered theory, psychodynamic theory, integrative therapy, and other theories provide avenues for students to gain membership with professional organizations tied to a theoretical orientation. Additionally, accessing peer-reviewed articles in psychology databases provides further knowledge of theories.

PsycINFO established by the American Psychological Association (APA) is an abstract database where students can access scholarly journal articles, book chapters, dissertations, and publications in the behavioral and social sciences (American Psychological Association, 2015). PsycINFO allows access to seminal and contemporary research about theoretical orientations and psychotherapy effectiveness with diverse populations. Reading publications will enhance students’ understanding about the strengths and criticisms of various theoretical orientations as well as theoretical contributions to the field of psychology. Reading scholarly critiques will help students determine which theoretical approaches are useful for their professional development.

As graduate students engage in the process of developing a theoretical orientation it is important to have an open attitude to incorporate new learning and ways of thinking. Practicum, internship, and trainings will provide exposure to new techniques and theories to expand one’s outlook on the assessment, intervention, and treatment of clients. Changing theoretical approaches may emerge from personal choice or the requirement of a particular work setting. As such, developing a theoretical orientation might be an evolving process that is connected to personal and professional growth as well as work with diverse client populations.



American Psychological Association. (2015). Support center: PsycINFO. Retrieved from

Halgin, R. P. (2006). Thoughts about journeys to integrative psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 16(1), 73-83. doi:10.1037/1053-0479.16.1.73

Melchert, T. P. (2013). Beyond theoretical orientations: The emergence of a unified scientific framework in professional psychology. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 44(1), 11-19. doi:10.1037/a0028311

Sperry, L., & Sperry, J. (2012). Case conceptualization: Mastering this competency with ease and confidence. New York: Routledge.


Micere S. Oden, M.S

Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program

School of Psychology

Walden University


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.