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A model of professional identity expression for mental health counselors.

Because professional identity is one of the most controversial and confusing issues within counseling, it is often studied and discussed. Yet there are no studies examining how professional identity is actually expressed. Because the topic is theoretical and sometimes abstract, counseling students in particular may struggle to understand how to express professional identity. This article fuses ideas expressed by Buyer (1990) in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate and the concept of practical intentionality into a theory-grounded model to help counselors to conceptualize, contextualize, and express their professional identity through application, discovery, teaching, and integration.


Professional identity persists as a topic of debate within counseling. Yet a unified professional identity for counselors remains elusive (Myers, Sweeney, & White, 2002), and the confusion, controversy, and challenges to establishing such an identity are well-documented (Gale & Austin, 2003; Goodyear, 2000; McLaughlin & Boettcher, 2009; Mellin, Hunt, & Nichols, 2011; Myers, 1995; Myers et al., 2002; Pistole & Roberts, 2002). As a result, professional identity is one of the most examined subjects within the profession. The vanguard principle of the American Counseling Association's 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling (ACA, 2009) reads "Sharing a common professional identity is critical for counselors" (para. 2). The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP, 2009) mandates that by 2013, all new faculty in counseling programs must have earned doctoral degrees in counselor education and supervision. These statements by ACA and CACREP, coupled with the consistent presence of professional identity in the counseling literature (Calley & Hawley, 2008), demonstrate the significance counseling has placed on professional identity.

Consequently, professional identity has been addressed in a variety of ways. Authors have examined such aspects of the subject as professional identity development (Carlson, Portman, & Bartlett, 2006; Gibson, Dollarhide, & Moss, 2010; Luke & Goodrich, 2010) and professional identity and diagnosis (Eriksen & Kress, 2006; Hansen, 2003). Attempts have been made to define what professional identity is (Auxier, Hughes, & Kline, 2003; Nugent & Jones, 2009; Reisetter et al., 2004); and the role of the professional identity of contributors to counseling publications has been debated (Goodyear, 2000; Weinrach, Thomas, & Chan, 2001).

Most publications about professional identity have focused on developing professional identity in counseling students (e.g. Gibson et al., 2010) and clarifying confusion about professional identity (e.g., McLaughlin & Boettcher, 2009). While clarity and development do deserve continued attention, another equally important aspect, how to approach the expression (observable behaviors) of professional identity, has been overlooked. There are studies that encourage counselors to engage in certain professional activities (see Myers et al., 2002), but none that provide students with a tangible schema to apply when approaching the expression of professional identity. The purpose of this article is therefore to provide mental health counselors (MHCs) and counseling students with the Professional Identity Expression (PIE) model to help them conceptualize, contextualize, and express their professional identity. This singular model integrates the seminal work of Boyer (1990) with the concept of intentionality (Owen, 2009).


A brief preliminary review of the concept of professional identity, and specifically the professional identity of counselors, is warranted. The concept of professional identity has been defined as integrating professional training and personal attributes within the context of a professional community (Nugent & Jones, 2009). This straightforward definition provides a dear context for a discussion of its expression.

Attempts to articulate professional identity for counselors, however, have not produced straightforward definitions. Practicing counselors, it has been found, largely identify with the values of human development, wellness, and prevention (Gale & Austin, 2003; Mellin et al., 2011), but that finding has not extinguished one of the essential controversies about counselor professional identity: the aspiration for the profession to remain affiliated with the philosophical focus of human development, prevention, and wellness versus practice realities that suggest a demand for expertise with a medical model that emphasizes pathology (Gale & Austin, 2003; Hansen, 2006; McGowan, 2003).

The elusive nature of a cohesive, specific professional counseling identity, as well as the confusion and debate surrounding the concept of professional identity, generally, has various causes. Professional counselors may have been educated at institutions accredited by a variety of accrediting agencies and had professors who identified with other mental health disciplines (e.g., counseling or clinical psychology), so they received mixed messages about professional identity. They also may be members of a multiplicity of professional organizations, some of which may ideologically conflict with one another. Professional counselors may also hold credentials that are not identical in their philosophies of helping (Gale & Austin, 2003). In the spirit of moving beyond the confusion into an unexplored dimension of professional identity, this commentary will discuss the expression of professional identity within the context of the general, conceptual definition of professional identity, which is consistent with the stated purpose of this article.


If professional identity is the integration of personal attributes and professional training, its expression is the manifestation of that integration. It is manifested in any observable behavior of an individual within a professional context, such as an MHC providing therapy for a client. This emergent model attempts to provide a mechanism for MHCs and counseling students to understand how professional identity is expressed.


The foundation of the PIE model subsumes Ernest Boyer's landmark 1990 work, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Boyer contended that the established definition of scholarship (being engaged in research and publication) should be broader: scholarship within a university should have the four components of application, discovery, teaching, and integration.

Application represents a move toward engagement, when an individual attempts to apply the knowledge base of a profession to significant problems, such as a counselor educator maintaining a counseling practice (Boyer, 1990) or a clinical supervisor working with a supervisee. MHCs are primarily trained to be clinicians, so application is a primary function of their job description and thus the primary way they express their professional identity.

Discovery is understood as research to produce disciplinary knowledge, which is the traditional activity within higher education. Though MHCs are traditionally viewed as clinicians, voices within the profession have discussed the importance of master's level clinicians being effectively trained and engaged in research (Huber & Savage, 2009; Whiston, 1996). In accordance with this scientist-practitioner model, MHCs should increasingly express their professional identity through discovery by reviewing assessment and treatment research, assessing their own clinical efficacy using research methods (outcomes research), and investigating and generating information and reporting it to the professional community (Haring-Hidore & Vacc, 1988).

Boyer (1990) described teaching as a professional activity that "both educates and entices future scholars" (p. 23). This definition communicates the pivotal role teaching has in inspiring students to excellence within their chosen profession. Though MHCs are not trained to enter the professoriate, they can and do teach in a variety of ways, such as serving as adjunct instructors and giving training workshops in the professional and local community. MHCs in clinical practice also teach when they give clients psychoeducational information in individual and group settings. Expressing professional identity through teaching may allow MHCs to both enrich their own professional identity and educate and inspire others to do the same.

Lastly, Boyer (1990) described integration as fitting research into greater intellectual patterns and making links between knowledge from different disciplines (Johnston, 1988). Boyer made the case for interprofessional collaboration because he perceived that future challenges of society would require comprehensive cross-disciplinary connections that would lead to more integrated understandings. Mellin et al. (2011) echoed the need for interprofessional collaboration, noting that because counselors "are addressing some of the nation's most complex social issues ... the counseling profession is increasingly emphasizing collaboration as a best practice strategy" (p. 141). MHCs can engage in integration by collaborating with other professionals in providing services, as well as connecting knowledge from other disciplines with the knowledge base of the counseling profession, as when counselors draw on findings from neuroscience to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (Jones, Young, & Leppma, 2010).

It is apparent that although Boyer (1990) intended his unique vision of scholarship to be considered by professionals within higher education, application, discovery, teaching, and integration are activities that all MHCs can engage in as professionals. Consequently, his four domains of scholarship naturally transfer into a model of professional identity expression. Table 1 summarizes those four areas and their application to the expression of professional identity by MHCs.


The second element in the PIE model involves the concept of practical intentionality. Practical intentionality has been broadly defined as "purposeful behavior toward some conscious outcome" (Owen, 2009, p. 175). Within the context of mental health counseling, practical intentionality has been described as "a therapist's rationale for selecting a specific behavior, response mode, technique, or intervention to use with a client at any given moment within the session" (Stiles et al., 1996, p. 402). These definitions explain intentionality as the "why" underlying a counselor's every action and utterance. The use of intentionality is also understood as a responsibility of the counselor; intentionality is the mechanism through which counseling theory, common factors, and evidence-based practices are translated into clinical practice (Stiles et al., 1996).

MHCs apply intentionality beyond the clinical setting (Ivey & Ivey, 2003). I contend that MHCs are responsible for applying intentionality to their professional identity and that they best express their professional identity when they do so intentionally. Three categories in particular illuminate how intentionality is applied to professional identity: (a) conceptualization, (b) contextualization, and (c) expression. These three areas are explored further in the following description of the model and the illustrative cases. Intentionality serves as the mechanism in the PIE model through which the concept of professional identity, is translated into the expression of professional identity.


The PIE model may help MHCs at all levels of experience and competency, but counseling students may particularly benefit. Because of the theoretical and sometimes abstract nature of the professional identity concept and the confusion surrounding it (Goodyear, 2000), it is reasonable to think that counseling students might struggle to formulate a clear, informed understanding of how to express their professional identity. They also may not be aware of the different avenues available for expressing professional identity or may have narrow perspectives about how to do so, so they may find it difficult to express professional identify. The PIE model can help MHCs and students to intentionally and diversely express their professional identity in two ways: (a) operationalizing the expression process, and (b) broadening the choices students and MHCs perceive for expression. Figure 1 illustrates the PIE model.


The model is cumulative, with each level informed by the level preceding it, and linear, as shown by the downward arrows that conned the levels. Intentionality is seen within each arrow, highlighting that it is an ever-present influence. The first level is professional identity. Professional identity is comprised of personal attributes and professional training (Nugent & Jones, 2009). A student or MHC addressing this level recognizes that professional identity is more than just academic training. The second level, conceptualization, involves an awareness and understanding of one's own professional identity. MHCs or students who are considering this level purposefully reflect on their professional training and personal characteristics and how the two might best interact within their careers. Contextualization, the third level, extends to the environments in which professional identity can be expressed. Students and MHCs at this level planfully consider the contexts in which they envision expressing their professional identity. The fourth level of the model is expression--specific observable behaviors linked to professional identity. MHCs and students at this level possess an informed and intentional picture of what the expression of their professional identity will look like. Lastly, the four diamonds at the bottom of the model represent the four areas Boyer (1990) described. These four domains categorize and organize the professional behaviors that counseling students or MHCs might consider for expressing their professional identity (see Table 1).


The PIE model may be used in a variety of situations. Because the purpose of the model is to help MHCs and counseling students to conceptualize, contextualize, and express their professional identity, three cases are offered to demonstrate the process of intentional expression. Two cases demonstrate MHC students using the model; the third illustrates an experienced MHC using it.

Illustrative case 1. Jessica is a third-year counseling student in her third semester of internship. In a discussion with her advisor, Jessica discloses that she feels that she has had little range in professional activities in her three internships and practicum and has a deep desire to be "doing more" when she becomes a licensed MHC. Jessica's advisor provides her with the PIE model so she can work through the process of understanding and intentionally expressing her professional identity.

Professional identity and conceptualization. Jessica examines the core of the model and notes that professional identity includes personal attributes and professional training. She perceives herself as having a strong professional counseling identity but has not examined how her personal qualities might inform her professional activities. Jessica conceptualizes herself as a compassionate, warm, kind, and caring person who greatly values creativity. She realizes now that being in a field placement where she does the same thing every day stifles her ability to express her creativity and does not provide her with a diverse range of options for expressing her counselor identity.

Jessica sees the four areas of expression at the bottom of the model and takes particular notice of teaching, recalling her positive undergraduate experiences as a tutor. She realizes that she has always really enjoyed giving class presentations as a graduate student as well. Jessica feels that she really enjoys teaching, and is certain that this is because teaching allows her to fully use her creativity.

Contextualization. Considering context allows Jessica to visualize how teaching would fit into her future counseling career. She knows that she enjoys giving presentations in class but does not want to be a professor or adjunct instructor, preferring to teach in a context that would allow more flexibility and freedom. She remembers a counselor she interviewed for a class assignment telling her that he did training for the child welfare program in his state. Jessica researches the child welfare program in her state and sees that she would be able to give training both in prescribed content areas and also in areas of her own choosing. She feels this would be a great opportunity to insert variety, creativity, and teaching into her counseling career while maintaining the professional identity of a counselor.

Expression. Jessica concludes that giving training will allow her to express her professional training and personal attributes. Jessica contacts the child welfare program in her state and initiates the process of becoming a trainer. She will be engaging in application (counseling), teaching (trainings), and discovery (examining the literature to prepare for training) in her MHC career.

Illustrative case 2. Samuel is in the second semester of his second year as a counseling student. He is enrolled in a practicum at a site where he primarily sees children and adolescents. Since beginning the program he has developed a strong counselor professional identity and knows he wants to specialize in working with children. From both his personal experience and professional training he recognizes that working with children requires collaboration with the educational system, but he is unsure of what this would look like when he becomes a counselor. In class, Samuel's professor introduces the PIE model.

Professional identity and conceptualization. Samuel reflects on the definition of professional identity in the model and determines that he is forming an identity as a counselor (professional training) who is intellectually curious and enjoys working with others (personal attributes). He thinks about this professional identity in light of the four areas of expression at the bottom of the model. Seeing the area of integration allows Samuel to put a name to what he wants to do professionally. He also identifies discovery as congruent with his professional identity, and, although he had not previously considered research, feels that it would be a great way to apply his intellectual curiosity within his counseling career.

Contextualization. Samuel knows that working with children will require him to work with professionals in the educational system and envisions carrying out integration and discovery within this context. He has also been looking at recent research identifying the importance of interprofessional collaboration for counselors (Mellin et al., 2011) and recognizes that he wants to enact his newly realized goal of discovery through interprofessional collaboration on research.

Expression. Samuel decides that integration and discovery will facilitate an authentic and intentional expression of his professional training and personal attributes. He will be engaging in interprofessional collaboration (integration) and research (discovery) in his MHC career. Examining the PIE model has enabled him to draw up a beginning blueprint for his career.

Illustrative case 3. Janson has been in private practice for 10 years. He has always found great meaning and enjoyment in his work as a counselor, but over the past year he has been experiencing burnout and feels his professional life is stagnant. A longtime colleague advises him to take some time off to refresh and reflect. During this time off Janson comes across the PIE model, which prompts him to contemplate how he defines and expresses his professional identity.

Professional identity and conceptualization. Janson developed a strong counselor identity, in his master's program. Although he considered continuing his education toward a PhD., he really enjoyed clinical work and did not want to invest additional time and money into a doctorate. As Janson considers his personal attributes, he sees himself as someone who enjoys guiding people in their development. He had always thought of this in terms of helping and counseling, but as he examines the four areas of expression he realizes teaching could be congruent with this personal attribute while allowing him to continue with his private practice.

Contextualization. As he reflects more about teaching, Janson comes to the conclusion that he wants to educate and train master's-level clinicians, and he thinks it is now time for him to pursue the Ph.D. He becomes excited at the prospect of being a university, professor and working with future MHCs, envisioning this addition to his career as a way to mitigate burnout and feelings of professional stagnation.

Expression. Janson determines that teaching will be an ideal intentional expression of his professional training and personal attributes. He begins contacting local universities that offer doctoral degrees in counselor education and supervision. As a university professor Janson will be engaging in teaching and also research (discovery), which he sees as another mode of guiding people in their development and therefore congruent with his professional identity.


The PIE model can facilitate a comprehensive awareness of professional identity and the diverse ways of expressing this identity in a counseling career. Counselor educators may introduce this model in both orientation and field placement courses as a method of prompting intentional discussion and reflection about how students might approach expressing their professional identity. Clinical supervisors and consultants can use this model as a way of keeping supervisees and trainees diversely engaged in the profession of counseling. Educators and supervisors who introduce students and supervisees to the concept of professional identity expression are likely to better prepare counselors and future counselors to intentionally and diversely express their professional identity. MHCs who are equipped to do this can only benefit the profession of counseling.

The CACREP (2009) standards for clinical mental health counseling reinforce this assertion and mirror the three illustrative cases. Standard A.3 emphasizes the "importance of relationships between counselors and other professionals, including interdisciplinary treatment" (p. 30). This standard parallels the case of Samuel and affirms the need for MHCs willing to work with professionals from other disciplines. Standard D.3 calls for promotion of "optireal human development, wellness, and mental health through prevention, education, and advocacy activities" (p. 32). This standard ties in with the cases of Jessica and Janson, placing significance on teaching and demonstrating that MHCs need to do more than exclusively clinical practice. MHCs serve the profession best when they are intentionally engaging in a range of professional behaviors.

The following questions are provided to facilitate exploration of the different elements of the PIE model. Parenthetical notations after each question identify the corresponding element within the model. The questions may be particularly helpful for counselor educators and supervisors working with students and supervisees.

* How would you describe your professional training? Your personal attributes? (conceptualization)

* How does the confluence of your professional training and personal attributes inform your professional identity as a mental health counselor? (conceptualization)

* What environments would you most enjoy working in? (contextualization)

* How congruent are those environments with your professional identity? (contextualization)

* In what professional opportunities could you engage in applying information from the counseling profession to significant problems? (application)

* How could you add to the body of knowledge in the profession of counseling? (discovery)

* What possibilities do you have to educate and inspire others about the profession of counseling? (teaching)

* What possibilities do you have to educate and inform your clients to help them reach their goals and enhance their lives? (teaching)

* What knowledge bases from other disciplines might be useful to link with the knowledge base of counseling, and how could you create those connections? (integration)


The primary limitation of this model is the absence as yet of empirical data to support its efficacy. Also, the four areas of professional identity, expression may be limited in their scope. The absence of resources for counseling students approaching expression of their professional identity warrants this initial discussion and model. The model is designed only to operationalize the process of professional identity expression for counseling students and MHCs and make them aware of the ways in which they might do that.

Empirical research examining the effectiveness of this model is needed, along with research investigating whether the four areas defined by Boyer (1990) are adequately comprehensive in describing how counselors express professional identity. Future research should also examine the issue of professional identity expression, since no studies were encountered in a review of the literature.


MHCs who intentionally and diversely express their professional identity best serve the profession of counseling. However, confusion and controversy surrounding professional identity may result in MHC students who are unfocused and narrow in their approach to expressing professional identity, and experienced MHCs may also never intentionally think through and plan ways they might express their professional identity. The PIE model is a device for counseling students and MHCs to use in approaching their expression of professional identity. Boyer's landmark work (1990) on scholarship and the concept of intentionality inform the theory of the model, along with newly articulated areas of professional identity expression: conceptualization, contextualization, and expression. The three cases demonstrate ways in which MHCs can apply the PIE model in practice. While the model has utility for any MHC, counselor educators and clinical supervisors are specifically encouraged to use it with students and supervisees. It is hoped that this article is an initial step toward examining this overlooked topic.


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David Burkholder is affiliated with Monmouth University. Correspondence about this article should be addressed to David Burkholder, Department of Psychological Counseling, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ 07764. E-mail:
Table 1. Boyer and Professional Identity Expression

Type of Purpose Mental Health Counselor
Expression Activities

Application Apply information to Clinical practice, mental
 significant problems health consultation and
 supervision, advocacy

Discovery Produce disciplinary Consume current research,
 knowledge assess client outcomes,
 conduct and publish

Teaching Educate and inspire Adjunct work, training
 workshops in the
 professional and local
 community, clinical

Integration Link knowledge from Connecting knowledge from
 different disciplines counseling with other
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Author:Burkholder, David
Publication:Journal of Mental Health Counseling
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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