The International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation

Professional Training in Psychology 
Quest for International Standards

Mary Nixon
University of New England

Reprint from:
American Psychologist, November 1990 Vol. 45, No. 11, 1257-1262

Education and professional practice in psychology occur in an international context, yet international standards of professional training have not been established. This discussion focuses on three principles: (a) The scientific discipline of psychology is more advanced than the application of psychology in professional service; (b) cultural and sociopolitical factors may stand in the way of achieving universal training standards; and (c) limited formal and informal cross-frontier accreditation of psychological training and professional practice already exist. A fist step in achieving universal minimum standards of training for professional psychology might focus on modes of examining higher degree theses and dissertations, and on making their contents widely available.

Correspondence may be addressed to Mary Nixon, Tuncurry, New South Wales, Australia, 2428.

Professional Training in Psychology
Quest for International Standards

A symposium presented at the 21st International Congress of Applied Psychology (held in Jerusalem, July 13-18, 1986) considered three aspects of the professional training of psychologists in Western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand (Australasia), Israel, and the United States: undergraduate, postgraduate, and practical components, and the duration of training. 1 Table 1 shows the major features of these training programs. The durations shown in years for each program denote the minimum time for completion; postgraduate candidates, in particular, often take longer to complete requirements of a program. For example, Coyle (1986) reported that the median registered time, from baccalaureate to doctorate, for United States students was 6.9 years; Cummins and Bennett (1985) found that Australian students took from 4 to 5 years to complete doctoral studies that followed a bachelor's or master's degree. Four of the regions shown in Table 1 usually require a first degree with an emphasis on the basic science of psychology before introducing professional training. The minimum duration of the undergraduate component is from 3 to 4 years. The undergraduate training is followed by graduate professional training taking minimum periods of from 2 to 4 years and leading in most cases to a master's degree. Supervised experience may be included in the graduate program or it may follow completion of the graduate degree. In Western Europe and Australasia the graduate professional training may not lead to a specific qualification; it may take the form of seminars, workshops, short courses, and supervised experience approved by the professional body concerned, by the state, or by both. The fifth region, Latin America, provides a 5-year first degree that incorporates both basic science and professional training, including practical experience.

The regions agree pretty well on the content of their basic scientific programs: general, experimental, developmental, social, and abnormal psychology, with appropriate research methodology, theory, and practice. Usually a broad introduction precedes some specialization in the last year or two of the undergraduate program. There is less agreement about a number of issues concerning graduate programs: (a) the ratio within the course of scientific theoretical content to professional practice; (b) the ratio of course work to independent individual study; (c) the extent of specialization, for example in clinical or occupational or educational psychology, compared with general professional principles common to all applied psychology; (d) the place or purpose of a thesis, research project, or report; and (e) the nature and location of practical training, and its assessment.

Agreement about standards in graduate programs, or even about criteria according to which they could be compared, will not come easily. One reason is that psychological practice occurs within a context of local sociopolitical conditions that originate in the cultural history and philosophy peculiar to that region. Therefore, the context differs from place to place around the globe and over time. The cultural history, intellectual climate, and heritage of the five regions shown in Table 1 may provide examples that illustrate why the teaching of professional psychology varies markedly from place to place despite relative agreement on the components of the scientific bases of psychology. To explore this theme it is necessary to look at the origins and uniqueness of the discipline of psychology.


Psychology is characterized by its focus on individual behavior and by modes of inquiry integral to European intellectual traditions. Its philosophical roots lie in Greek and Judaeo-Christian thinking, which link it to biological and physical sciences. Psychology shares with these sciences an origin in the European renaissance and its precursors. Its historical links with intellectual traditions other than European are tenuous at best: The clearest such links may be through the science that flourished at the height of Islamic power in North Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe between about 850 and 1400 A.D. ( New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1988 ). Indeed, Islamic preservation and extension of Greek and Indian achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine contributed greatly to the renaissance in Europe. As a modern science, psychology developed only in the 19th and 20th centuries, originally in Europe and North America. Its proponents have vigorously exported it, and both the science and the practice of psychology have grown up in all parts of the world that have aspirations to modern education, industry, and cultural development. That is, psychology has rolled in on the coattails of the Western industrial statist colonization of the world, beginning with the decline of the priesthood (W.G. Noble, 1989, personal communication 2 ).

Australia and New Zealand are countries with principally Anglo-Saxon populations, although with strong components of indigenous peoples and immigrants. The immigrants have come principally from Europe but also from the western Pacific basin, the Indian Ocean region, and mainland Asia. Educational and professional training models, including those for psychology, derive mainly from Britain. Educational programs in psychology increasingly make some allowance for the multicultural nature of the populations, sometimes by courses in cross cultural psychology at undergraduate or graduate level, but more often by workshops and seminars attended by practitioners. Australian and New Zealand psychologists, whether they work as researchers or as applied practitioners, adapt fairly easily to work in other, especially Anglophone, countries. For a long time, a good deal of regional and international exchange has taken place between Australia and New Zealand, and between those countries and Africa, Papua New Guinea, Southeast Asian nations, and the People's Republic of China, with psychologists studying, researching, teaching, and practicing in countries other than their own. Their colleagues there have been not only indigenous psychologists, but also British, American, and European ( Ord, 1977 ). An implicit aim of these exchanges has been to bring about comparable standards and procedures in training and practice across frontiers. It is at least possible that, in the process, developments of local, truly indigenous systems of psychology arising, for instance, from the philosophical bases of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Taoism, have been stifled. The teaching and practice of psychology in Oceania (around the western Pacific and Indian Oceans) raises a serious question about the universality of Western psychology: Is a psychology based on Western science the most appropriate medium for the examination and description of human behavior in cultures that derive from very different histories, traditions, and philosophies? For example, early researchers trying to assess the intelligence of tribal Australian Aborigines found that the Aboriginal participants, particularly the children, rejected the notion of individual performance because they operated on the principle that to complete a task or to solve a problem all the resources of the group should be called upon (D. W. McElwain, personal communication, December 20, 1989). In another case, watching a group of Thai graduate students administer a series of Piagetian tasks to provincial Thai schoolchildren demonstrated to me the yawning discontinuities between the cultural backgrounds of the graduate students and the roots of Piagetian theory (never mind the detail!), and between the competent spontaneous behavior of the children on the playground and their puzzled, worried approach to the tasks. This activity did not provide confidence in such a procedure for describing the children's behavior-in fact, it appeared irrelevant to it. The teachers of those graduate students had all gained higher degrees in Australasia or North America, and relfected this training in rejecting or ignoring the philosophical background of their own society in their academic work and imposing their imported epistemology and methodology on their students.

Observations such as these force us to admit that although there are obvious good things in the development of common international standards in psychological education and practice, their achievement may have features of intellectual imperialism and may delay or prevent recognition that human behavior may be described using very different descriptors based on very different assumptions. Díaz-Guerrero (1977 , 1989) has argued that mainstream psychology's failure to recognize and make use of belief and personality systems that appear to be specific to a given region and its culture impoverishes both theoretical and applied psychology. He believes that "The input of essential for the understanding of personality and social behavior"; that is, social organization and its underlying themes contribute very heavily to characteristic behavior in a given socioculture ( Díaz-Guerrero, 1989 , p. 238). Not only between different social contexts, but within a given culture as well, alternative descriptive systems are overlooked. Sarason (1981) described how American psychology's emphasis on the individual led, first, to blindness to the social context of behavior and, second, to subjugation of clinical psychology to psychiatry. Ho (1985) pointed to a major epistemological conflict between Wester clinical psychology's emphasis on the individual and Eastern, especially Chinese, adherence to collectivism. Here, then, are two of the barriers to establishing a worldwide, common approach to psychology, pure or applied. Recognizing these differences and noting their nature, we must ask whether it is possible to discern enough common features in the professional training of psychologists to tackle the question of international training standards. At the present time, is it possible to set out attainable criteria for the training of professional psychologists throughout the world? Is it desirable to do so?

International Standards for Training

The two major international organisations of psychologists, the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) and the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP), hold regular meetings and publish journals that show the respect that psychologists throughout the world hold for scientific inquiry. Papers presented at these meetings and in these journals demonstrate that psychologists around the globe share work orientations to health, welfare, education, and industry. Common threads are concern for individuals within their social groupings, commitment to empirical inquiry as a means toward problem solutions, and allegiance to practice grounded in high level, publicly recognized training. Psychologists recognize local goals (the needs and capacities of their own regions) at least to a limited extent. For instance, Ho (1985) argued for a creative synthesis between Chinese collectivism and Western psychology's individualism, in both clinical psychology training and delivery of services.

Active national associations of psychologists exist in the regions shown in Table 1 . These bodies are concerned with both the scientific discipline and the applied practice of psychology: They publish learned and professional journals, they organize conferences and seminars for their members, they formulate standards of professional behavior and monitor them, and they represent both the social contribution of the discipline and the interests of members of statutory authorities and to training institutions. That is, the national associations set up expectations in their members and in the public at large about the preparation and role of psychologists, and they strive for high standards in the delivery of psychological services. It is noteworthy that the IUPsyS encourages each of its member national societies to formulate a code of professional conduct that is acceptable to the union assembly. This expectation is potentially a major contribution to development of international standards, provided that the codes state common goals and common means for attaining them. When Schuler (1982) examined codified ethical principles for psychological research in Europe and North America, he found a good deal of commonality, but also differences in the values emphasized and in the forms of codification that make comparisons difficult. When such differences exist within the Euro-American psychological community, differences between those standards and the standards obtaining in countries outside Western Europe and North America, which are based on different cultural histories, economies, and levels of industrial activity, may well be greater and the commonalities less. Hence, the attainment of common worldwide standards for the professional preparation of psychologists may be infinitely delayed.

In the United States, Israel, and Australasia, statutory requirements have been promulgated to regulate the practice of psychology. These require some minimum level of tertiary study and of practical experience, and are administered by a body appointed by the state. In Latin America the position varies somewhat from country to country, as it does in Western Europe. In Britain, for example, the British Psychological Society (BPS), by virtue of its royal charter, was empowered by legislation in 1988 to charter those of its members who wish to undertake professional practice or otherwise to have their status as psychologists publicly recognized. That is, the BPS has the powers of a statutory body for the purpose of regulating the practice of psychology, and its membership requirements, in general terms, are the prerequisites for practice ( BPS, 1986 , 1986-1987 , 1987-1988 ). This arrangement is likely to remain unique, not only in Europe, but throughout the world. In other parts of the regions shown in Table 1 , a national or provincial government sets up prerequisites of training and experience that practicing psychologists must satisfy, and establishes a body that administers the requirements and monitors standards of psychological practice. The national or provincial association of psychologists usually plays an important (if indirect) part in formulating training and experience prerequisites and in their statutory adminstration. A dynamic balance may prevail between a psychological society's efforts to restrict practice to its own members (on the grounds of proper training, and members' welfare) and legislation to prevent monopolies. For instance, antitrust laws in the United States prevent the restriction of psychological practice to members of the American Psychological Association (Vivian Makosky, personal communication, August 1988).

Recognition of Training

In the United States and Australia, the national associations of psychologists accredit tertiary training programs for their own membership purposes. Such accreditation influences enrollments and public perception of the programs offered. Most countries subsumed in Table 1 have some form of accreditation of courses of psychological training offered at tertiary level. That is, an institution (or an individual) cannot assume that graduates of a given training program will be recognized as competent to practice until and unless the training program has been examined and approved. This scrutiny may take the form of satisfying an expert committee (appointed or recognized by the national or provincial government) that the courses of study satisfy certain intellectual and professional criteria, so that students would be permitted to practice after graduation. In the case of institutions funded from the public purse, provision of finance may be contingent upon the courses satisfying such criteria.

Disciplines with long histories, such as medicine, have achieved some limited degree of international accreditation for training programs. Expert committees set up by national or provincial governments scrutinize course of study. These committees may include persons or groups from outside the country who are acknowledged world leaders in the discipline. A consulting body, appointed by an internationally recognized society from among its own members, may be invited by training institutions in different countries or regions to evaluate their training programs.

Psychology has not yet developed such formal procedures, but the bases for them exist in the two international bodies (the IUPsyS and the IAAP), in the national associations recognized by these bodies, and in the statutory provisions that exist in many countries for regulation of the practice of psychology. These would provide the structures for international accreditation, but the functions of professional training programs still need to be set in both local and international contexts.

McPherson (1986) described moves toward harmonizing standards of psychological training in Western Europe, and asserted that such harmonization, agreed to be valuable in that region, would be equally valuable globally. He then went on to say that an even more pressing need was "for training to reflect the national context in which the professional psychologist will function" (p. 4). It may be worthwhile to describe some more recent moves in the European Community. The Commission of the European Communities requires each member state to accept, as equivalent to its own, qualifications in psychology obtained in other European Community states (within some limits, but without delay). The directive embodying this requirement will come into force in January 1991 ( F. M. McPherson, 1988 , 1989 , personal communication, January 18, 1990). The European Federation of Professional Psychologists Associations (EFPPA), to which Western European and Scandinavian psychological associations belong, has had a task force working for about three years to establish minimum standards of professional training. The association has achieved some general agreement about form and content, but no agreement yet on the minimum length of training (see Table 1 and footnote; F. M. McPherson, personal communication, January 18, 1990). The two aims, of achieving common international standards of training and of implementing training that answers the national or regional needs of a people, may be compatible and achievable in a region such as Western Europe that shares intellectual traditions, although clearly they are not achieved easily. Their compatibility and value in regions with vastly different cultural histories have not been established.

International Recognition of Qualifications

The middle to late 20th century has seen an extraordinary movement of peoples about the globe. As these people strive to establish themselves in countries other than those in which they were educated, they seek recognition for their training and professional experience so that they can pursue their careers. Countries in which significant numbers of immigrants have settled have set up statutory bodies and procedures for the purpose of evaluating the training and experience of those new arrivals who wish to practice their professions and trades. For example, the federal government in Australia has established a Committee on Overseas Qualifications within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Immigrants and intending immigrants send details of their education and training to this committee for a decision on their comparability with Australian standards. Three other evaluative procedures may be used as well: Immigrants may apply for membership in professional societies in their discipline; they may seek statutory permission (registration, certification, licensing, or chartering) to practice; and they may apply to enter graduate studies at a university or college. Each of these procedures entails examination of documented education and work experience, each may include interviews, formal examination (oral, written, practical), and each usually requires correspondence with authorities or referees in the countries from which the immigrants have come. As a result of these procedures, a largely informal international network exists for assessment of qualifications in psychology, aided by such publications as World of Learning (1984-1985) and The International Handbook of Psychology ( Gilgen & Gilgen, 1987 ), but heavily dependent on psychology departments in institutions of higher learning, national psychology societies, personal knowledge, and friendships across frontiers. Evaluation of qualifications by the committee, membership of the professional society, permission to enter graduate studies, and registration (or failure to gain such recognition) all function as forms of international accreditation in the context of migration across frontiers. These uncoordinated forms of international accreditation are all very well, but they tend to be slow and sometimes sloppy. A self-respecting discipline needs to give careful consideration to their adequacy.

Another point arises. Accreditation of the kinds described may adequately evaluate the theoretical training of those who apply, as this can be well described in terms of subjects studied, units of work successfully completed, sequences of specializations followed, degrees or diplomas gained, and work published. However, the suitability of these procedures for evaluating professional practices carried out in one cultural setting, in a given language, may not transfer to a different cultural setting and a different language. In fact, the matter of competence in the language or languages of the region in which a psychologist wishes to work may be as important as qualifications in psychology. The European Community directive that will come into force in January 1991, makes no provision for language tests (F. M. McPherson, personal communication, January 18, 1990).

That practical professional competence is harder to evaluate than scientific education follows from the fact that psychology has developed more rapidly as a scientific discipline than as an applied profession. The lag between science and application may be enhanced because psychology's social usefulness is less apparent than that of education and medicine, for example, but it means that criteria for evaluation of psychological practice are less well articulated than criteria for the scientific knowledge base. Every human society has developed procedures for dealing with individual and interpersonal conflicts, differences, and functional pathologies-if you like, indigenous applied psychologies have developed in the absence of systematic knowledge bases. Thus, when scientifically based applied psychology offers its problem solutions and techniques, its practitioners may well be told, "We know that-it's common sense," or, "That's not the way we do it here." In either case, psychologists' claims to expert knowledge and competence meet with claims of equal lay competence: Everyone is an expert on human behavior. The practitioners may flourish or starve, but a responsible profession should satisfy itself that the benefits that clients derive from psychological services are real and substantial as a condition for espousing particular training models.

The preceding discussion shows the necessity for a rigorous education, not only in the scientific content of the discipline, but also in its intellectual history and background, as a prerequisite for professional training. An informed intellectual concern for the discipline is a necessary condition for delivery of responsible and effective services. A well-articulated two-tier training system for professional practice is needed: a scientific education in psychology within its contexts, followed by systematic training in psychological services and their delivery. Such a two-tier system can be elaborated into a planned model, A + B + C + D, in which A refers to the initial education in the scientific discipline, B refers to training in psychological services and their delivery, C refers to practical induction as a component of professional training, and D refers to extended later training that increases knowledge and skills and incorporates new scientific findings, procedures, and techniques.

Toward Achievement of Minimum Standards

The dynamic balance between current scientific knowledge and techniques and the needs and resources of a region will very largely determine the content, sequence, and length of each component. Any international surveillance might be limited to agreement about minimum standards. A heavy responsibility rests on the regional or national associations of psychologists if psychological services are to meet the needs of the people in any given region. Together with the training institutions, the national associations must articulate the requirements for psychological services, the professional training that will enable those services to be delivered, and the prerequisites for entry to professional training. Through the International Union of Psychological Science and the International Association of Applied Psychology, consultation and help in establishing and accrediting training programs (e.g., content, staff, student work) might be arranged. The IUPsyS and the IAAP might consider ways of making scholarship more readily checkable and more easily available to those who should benefit from it. Perhaps, as a first step, higher degree theses should be presented (and examined) in a widely used language (e.g., English, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese), if necessary in addition to the mother tongue or in addition to the language in which the student was studying. If the language of study is not the mother tongue, scholars in the mother tongue and others in the student's home country would profit if the work were translated into the mother tongue. International associations of psychologists could contribute to dissemination of knowledge and to maintenance of good standards of scholarship by obtaining funds and personnel to enable translations and adaptations to be made. Such works could take three forms: (a) translation of a thesis into a widely used language and into the mother tongue; (b) publication in accessible journal, computer, or book form (e.g., microfiche); and (c) adaptation and translation into forms that professional psychologists, social workers, teachers, medical personnel, policy planners, parents, and so on, could use to inform themselves and to put the findings into practice.

Tackling these tasks would need to occur in the context of ongoing discussion of three major issues: (a) the nature of psychological theory, research, teaching, and practice in regions that have distinctive and different sociopolitical and philosophical outlooks leading to differences in assumptions about human nature and human needs; (b) the place of psychological practice in nations whose economies differ sharply from one another in extent of industrial development (this is likely to be associated with sharp differences in the resources available to psychology, and in access to psychological services); and (c) the nature of psychological service-for instance, a free social service provided by psychologists employed by the state, or a service provided in return for a fee by privately practicing psychologists.

Even a first step of this kind demands very substantial resources-funds, people, goodwill, and diplomacy. The international community of psychologists might attempt to achieve this quite modest goal before trying to proceed beyond it. If this goal can be reached, then perspectives on psychology would expand well beyond European-derived psychology and would begin to embrace other philosophical heritages and other ways of viewing human behavior.


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1.  Thanks are due to Vivian Makosky, who convened this symposium; to Rogelio Díaz-Guerrero, F. M. McPherson and Theo Jonkergouw, Ronald Taft, and Bonnie Strickland, who wrote and presented papers at the symposium; and to R. Ben-Ari and Yehuda Amir (1986) , whose paper was made available to the symposium.

2.  I am endebted to W. G. Noble for this metaphor.

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