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Research areas of emphasis in professional psychology: past and current trends.

Since professional psychology is a multifaceted and evolving field, examining trends and the emphasis that topical issues receive in the literature can provide a candid view on areas of concern to the profession. This study addresses the question: Where has professional psychology been and where is it going? This inquiry used a content analysis methodology, based on a bibliometric approach (see Nederhof, 2006), to gauge the extent of topical emphasis in the field over the past 2 decades. To that end, articles in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, for years 2012-2005 and 2002-1995, were categorized and the aggregated data compared between these 2 time frames based on main topic. The analysis indicated that the major areas of increasing emphasis in recent years are: Evidence-based treatments, veterans/ active military, multicultural and ethical issues, and natural disasters. This seems, in part, to reflect a) accountability in health care/mental health practice and b) the presence of wars and disasters in the national consciousness over the past decade. Areas of decreasing emphasis were: Graduate/internship training and education, managed care issues, and professional role. In addition, several topical areas have maintained equivocal emphasis over the past 2 decades, i.e., forensic, health, and child psychology, suicide, chronic pain, rural practice, and interpersonal violence. These findings provide a barometer on the diverse range of topics which have been emphasized or deemphasized over time. The perplexing issue is a) whether the published research in professional psychology reflects the issues and concerns of practicing psychologists in the field, and b) which issues will remain fundamental to practice and at the forefront of published research, despite the perennial challenges of an evolving profession.


Fowler and Newman (2006) highlighted several keen perspectives on the status of the field of professional psychology and offered a glimpse into the key trends in the field into the 21st century. It would be informative to obtain an objective view on both retrospective and prospective developments in the field and determine areas of emphasis as reflected in the literature. One approach to gauge such trends in professional psychology is to examine key bibliometric sources regarding where the field has been and where it is going (Kenkel, 2006; Norcross et al., 2002; Piotrowski & Keller, 1992; Schui & Krampen, 2010).

Content analysis methodologies have been applied to the scholarly and professional literature in order to address the evolution and devolvement of scholarly areas or topics of interest (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998). Indeed, studies, based on content analysis, have been reported during the nascent years in the development of professional psychology; for example, on such issues like professional competency and continuing education (Vitulano & Copeland, 1980) and applications of I/O psychology (Meltzer, 1973). Later, Weaver et al. (1997) conducted a topic-specific systematic review across 8 APA journals. More recently, content analysis has been used to study trends on multi-racial issues covered in counseling journals (Edwards & Pedrotti, 2008). The purpose of the current study is to: a) identify the major topical areas of research coverage in professional psychology, and b) to determine any shifts in emphasis across these areas over time.

Conceptual Framework and Study Design

Historically, the field of professional psychology encompassed the general areas of clinical and counseling psychology, with emphases in assessment, therapy, and program planning, but over the past 30 years has embraced adjunctive and specialty fields like organizational, forensic, and child psychology, as well as neuropsychology. It would be of interest to examine the specific areas within the field of professional psychology that have received the most scholarly interest in the recent past and determine the areas that are currently being emphasized.

Developments in the field, over the years, have best been captured by the flagship APA journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (PPRP), which has been published continuously since 1969; thus, PPRP was selected as the sole source for review in this content analysis. In order to obtain a contrast in time frame over the past 2 decades, articles were grouped into a 'current' (March 2012-June 2005) and 'past' (March 2002-June 1995) data-set for comparison purposes. Rebuttals, errata, and brief editorial comments were excluded from the analysis. The objective was to categorize each article in a topical designation that represented the main focus of the reference. This methodology corresponds to the function of 'Domain' in qualitative research (see Hill, 2012).


For comparison purposes, this discussion contrasts two time frames: Research published over the past 7 years versus articles over 10 years ago. Table l presents, in rank order, the topical areas that have increased in emphasis over the past decade (2012-2005 vs. 2002-1995). These are based on the number of articles that appeared during the designated time frame. Several of the major changes in emphasis, over time, are rather noteworthy and reflect a diverse range of topics. First, the dramatic increase in research on veterans and active duty military undoubtedly reflect the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the enormous impact on not only military personnel but also on families. Professional psychology has been at the forefront in addressing the myriad of mental health needs of current and former military members. Second, evidence-based treatment and practice most probably reflect the perennial pressure from both the public and private sectors regarding cost containment and verifiable approaches to both medical and mental health care. Third, although multicultural issues have garnered a major focus in both training and practice for the past 2 decades, there seems to be a major commitment on the part of the field to address the needs of an ever more diverse population in the U.S., both on an individualistic basis as well as collectively.

Ethical issues and concerns are a ubiquitous aspect of professional practice. It seems that the field has an invested interest in addressing challenging ethical issues and providing a framework wherein practitioners can adapt to guidelines. In recent years, both practitioners and policy makers have shared these views in print. Several other areas have witnessed a moderate increase in emphasis based on developments both within and outside of the field. Natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Cat 5 tornadoes, major flooding) have made their ominous mark on the national consciousness over the past decade and professional psychology has been a key advocate in mitigation efforts of affected populations, interventional resources in abating human stress, and facilitation of organizational response in crisis management. Furthermore, the past decade has embraced the Interact and concomitant technological applications such as the smart phone, social media, and information expediency. These advances have influenced the lives of most Americans and impacted the functionality of the practicing psychologist. At the same time, these advances in modem life have also exerted an inordinate amount of stress for the individual psychologist. Professional burnout, threat of malpractice, state regulations, and reimbursement concerns has made the modem practice of psychology rather challenging. Interestingly, religious and spiritual issues appear to play a central role in the treatment of individuals and families.

Table 2 highlights topical areas that seem to have been deemphasized in the professional literature. Although graduate and internship training have always been a cornerstone in the education of the professional psychologist, it appears that research in training topics was over-emphasized during the prior decade to the decrement (or neglect) of other clinical or practice topics. During the 1990s, practitioners were confronted by the challenges of managed care initiatives and related health care reforms (Riaz, 2006). Part of the field's response involved defining the unique, diverse role of the professional psychologist as well as promoting advocacy positions both within psychology proper and in political circles. Public policy and practice domain spearheaded these efforts during the 'managed care' era. Many of these issues have either been resolved or have abated from a central focus over the past decade. Some of the topical areas listed in Table 2 have seen dramatic shifts while others have experienced a modest decline in emphasis. The presentation highlights both general and specific trends in research attention.

Several topical areas have received nearly the same degree of emphasis (equivocal) over the past 2 decades, i.e., forensic psychology, clinical health psychology, suicide, adolescent issues, research applications, complimentary medicine, eating disorders, self-help, pain syndromes, clinical child psychology, rural practice issues, interpersonal violence, and sport psychology.


The main issue for the field, going forward, is: Does the published research reflect what is actually occurring in practice? Or, the issues that graduate faculty and practitioners are most concerned with? The analysis presented here provides a snapshot and informative matrix of major areas and broad trends, over the past 2 decades, in the field. In that sense, the current findings are considered exploratory in nature and serve as a basis for future bibliometric study.


Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y. (1998). Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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Edwards, L., & Pedrotti, J.T. (2008). A content and methodological review of articles concerning multiracial issues in six major counseling journals. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 411-418.

Fowler, R.D., & Newman, R.S. (2006). Future trends in professional psychology. In TJ. Vaughn (Ed.), Psychology, licensure, and certification: What students need to know (pp. 175-187). Washington, DC: APA.

Hill, C.E. (Ed.). (2012). Consensual-qualitative research. Washington, DC: APA.

Kenkel, M.B. (2006). Professional psychology: Expanding its discoveries, reach, and impact. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 587-589.

Kuehlthau, R.D. (2012). Shades of optimism: The future of professional psychology as seen by clinical trainers. Dissertation Abstracts International, 72(8-B), 4986.

Meltzer, H. (1973). The content of industrial psychology in Psychological Abstracts, 19271970. Professional Psychology, 4, 321-328.

Nederhof, AJ. (2006). Bibliometric monitoring of research performance in the social sciences and the humanities: A review. Scientometrics, 66(1), 81-100.

Norcross, J.C., Hedges, M., & Prochaska, J. (2002). The face of 2010: A Delphi poll on the future of psychotherapy. Professional-Psychology: Research and Practice, 33, 316-322.

Piotrowski, C., & Keller. J.W. (1992). Psychological testing in applied settings: A literature review from 1982-1992. Journal of Training & Practice in Professional Psychology, 6(2), 74-82.

Riaz, I. (2006). The effect of managed care on professional psychology. Dissertation Abstracts International, 67(2-B), 1164.

Schui, G., & Krampen, G. (2010). Bibliometric analyses on the emergence and present growth of positive psychology. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2(1), 52-64.

Vitulano, L., & Copeland, B. (1980). Trends in continuing education and competency demonstration. Professional Psychology, 11, 891-897.

Weaver, A J., et al. (1997).What do psychologists know about working with the clergy? An analysis of 8 APA journals: 1991-1994. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28, 471-474.

Chris Piotrowski, research consultant, University of West Florida.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Chris Piotrowski at
Table 1

Topical Areas of Increasing Emphasis in Professional Psychology

                                         2012-2005    2002-1995     d

Evidence-based treatments                    24           4         20
Veterans/ Active military                    22           3         19
Multicultural                                28          13         15
Ethical issues in practice                   16           5         11
Natural disasters/Crisis management          18           8         10
Professional competency                      14           4         10
Media psychology                              8           0          8
Therapist stress/Professional burnout        15           9          6
Religion/Spiritual issues                    14           8          6
Continuing education                          6           0          6
DSMACD                                        6           0          6
Internet/Online behavior                     11           7          4
Serious mental disorders                      9           5          4
Partner abuse                                 8           4          4
Grief counseling                              5           1          4
Termination                                   4           0          4
Mentoring                                     4           0          4

Note: 'd' denotes the differential between the 2 time frames.

Table 2

Topical Areas of Decreasing Emphasis in Professional Psychology

                                         2012-2005    2002-1995     d

Graduate training/Internship issues         16           66        50
Clinical practice issues/Professional
  role                                       2           25        23
Managed care                                 4           27        23
Public policy                                2           24        22
Prescription privileges                      6           20        14
Primary health care orientation             11           24        13
Psychological testing                        8           21        13
Recovered memories                           0           13        13
Psychopharmacology                           5           16        11
Advocacy of professional psychology          2           13        11
Therapy/intervention issues                  8           18        10
Boundary issues                              7           17        10
TeleHealth                                   9           16         7
HIV                                          2            9         7
Child abuse                                  1            8         7
Geropsychology issues                        8           14         6
Cognitive-behavioral therapy                 4           10         6
Gay/lesbian/transgender                      6           11         5
Client privacy/records                       5           10         5
Depression                                   4            9         5
Substance abuse                              3            8         5
Child custody issues                         3            8         5
Supervision in training                      2            6         4
Professional 'specialty' issues              0            4         4
Correctional settings                        0            4         4
Disabled clients/ADA                         0            4         4
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Author:Piotrowski, Chris
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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