One senior clinician told me that, at age 55 and with 30 years experience, he didn’t need to learn any more. It was an outrageous assertion. As expert and kind as he is as a clinician, he isn’t doing his job if he has really stopped learning about new developments in our field.

We can’t coast on what we think we know if we are to serve our patients well. What he, in fact all of us, learned in grad school was out of date within years of graduation. Some of the most important work we are asked to do may not have been taught while we were in school. Research findings challenge what we think we know. Solid, important research that is being done now, today, won’t get to us clinicians for years. According to an article in the APA journal in 2011, it takes on average 17 years for scientific advances to be applied in clinical practice.

Competence, then, requires being an active, interested, and consistent seeker of what is developing in our field. It’s been found that it is far better to underestimate our degree of effectiveness than to assume we know enough. We never do.

It is up to each of us to recognize and take seriously the importance of our own professional development. With concerted effort, we might earn the right to see ourselves as competent professionals.

Don’ts and Dos  For Your Professional Development

Don’ts

1.Don’t believe your own assessment of your competence. Researchers have found that self-assessment isn’t a reliable indicator of competence. The Better Than Average effect (BTA), the tendency to see ourselves as above average on positive traits and to ignore or downplay negative traits, has been repeatedly found to apply to therapists as well as the general population. By definition, we can’t all be “above average.”

2. Don’t confuse getting CEUs with getting an education. Although boards of registration, professional organizations and even insurance providers require clinicians to stay current with our ever-developing field, there is little quality control. All we have to do is sit through workshops and, Boom !, we have the CEUs that certify that we have fulfilled the requirement. But true evaluation of learning is rare. A satisfaction survey is not the same as a meaningful assessment of participant learning.

You may have to accept spending time and money for continuing education units that are useless and then spending additional time and money to get the education you need in a different way.

3. Don’t settle for “coverage” of an important issue. There are speakers who create razzle-dazzle PowerPoints that march the audience through a complicated issue or skill set. They cover the topic but that’s all they do. Real training requires working with the information by intellectually wrestling with practice cases, doing supervised work, role playing and/or having the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issue.

4. Don’t take the “easy way out.” Recently, a young therapist gleefully told me that there’s no point in going to workshops when you can obtain CEUs by reading articles and answering some questions. As if sharing a state secret, she went on to tell me you don’t even have to really read. All you have to do is look back at the article to find the answers. She may be right. But she’s not doing herself or her clients any favor by gaming the system.

Dos

1.Recognize that staying current is an ethical responsibility. We owe it to our patients to be all we can be. They come to us for healing. They pay us for our insights, our support and our time. It is only right and fair that we provide the best treatment possible.

2. Enhance your breadth of knowledge as well as your depth. Yes, it is helpful to your practice to develop a niche by focusing on a specialty or two. But to be an effective member of a treatment team, it is also crucial to widen our perspective to include awareness of new research, new treatment options and challenges to what has been thought to be true.

3. Look for workshops and learning experiences that challenge you. Watching PowerPoints or listening to lectures are the least effective ways to acquire new skills. Real learning takes active involvement. You will learn more and increase your confidence if you have to wrestle with new information through activities like simulations, application to case studies, practice using role plays and live supervision.

4. Be an active participant in conferences and webinars. Don’t just sit there. Resist the temptation to doodle or consult the latest posting on your phone when a presentation is boring. Ask questions, comment, engage with the workshop leader and the material. Use breaks and lunch time to talk with other participants about what you are learning.

5. Seek out externships. As a working professional, you may not have time to take ongoing classes or to do an additional internship. But you may be able to find an “externship” that will give you the practice you need to truly develop competence in a new area. Large training institutions and some large private practice groups sometimes offer opportunities to participate in training and get good supervision on a weekly or monthly basis for a year or two.

6. Work on your cultural competencies. Developing our sensitivities to issues of gender, race, class, sexual orientation and economic circumstances is not optional. A 2008 study by APA found that the practices of 86% of APA members served racial/ethnic minorities. We all need to take care to be sensitive to our own possible biases and to be conversant with treatments that various communities find helpful and acceptable.

7. Make time every week for reading your profession’s journals and/or participating in webinars. Designate a few regular hours per week as a time for staying up to date and for reflecting on research findings and its relevance to your work.

As long as we’re in practice, we owe it to our clients, and indeed to ourselves, to be always open to new information, new understandings and new experience. By doing so, we may become as competent as we think we are.