Navigating Supervision: Ten Tips for Psychology Graduate Students

by Jessica Cowan, SCP/ Section 10 Campus Representative

For many of us, when we begin our graduate-program work the concept of clinical supervision is a mysterious concept. We hear about supervision experiences from students further along in their training, and it’s perhaps conceptually and briefly addressed in initial coursework, but other than knowing that we will one day be assigned a supervisor(s) and that they will, in unknown ways shape our clinical training the nature of supervision can remain elusive… until you find yourself suddenly in supervision. Many of us are asked by our first supervisor questions like “what are your goals for supervision?” or “what kind of experiences are you interested in gaining?” and we may feel unprepared to respond. We may not know how to navigate transitions between supervisors, how to address conflicts with our supervisor if they arise or how to make the most, and get the most, from our supervision experiences. With this in mind I sought the collective wisdom of supervisors and supervisees in my program to come up with a list of best practices for supervisees in clinical psychology training. There’s something on this list for everyone, regardless of your level of experience with clinical supervision.

  1. Expect Every Supervisor to Be Different… in their theoretical orientation, their approach to the supervision relationship (formal, less-formal, highly involved or more hands-off etc.), how they structure supervision sessions (do they expect a case presentation, or is it a free-flowing dialogue?).
  2. Talk About Expectations…in your first supervision meeting so that your subsequent supervision sessions are efficient. Do they want formal case presentations for each client? Do they want to review/approve progress notes weekly in supervision or on their own time? Do they want evidence based rationale and references for proposed/utilized interventions? These are some examples of questions you can ask to understand your supervisor’s expectations.
  3. Don’t Be Afraid to (Try to) Negotiate…if their expectations and your expectations aren’t aligned. For example, if you prefer to spend supervision time discussing interventions/sessions instead of reviewing progress notes/charting then see if your supervisor would be willing to only review notes/charting in-session if they have a question or a problem arises.
  4. Remember, It’s Their License On the Line…even if you don’t agree with your supervisor’s approach/instructions, remember that their professional liability and reputation are at stake. If conflict arises or you feel that something your supervisor recommends may be ethically unsound…
  5. Talk to your Director of Clinical Training or Follow Your Program’s Clinical Training Policies…about any conflicts that may arise in supervision. Don’t go to other students or un-designated faculty about issues that arise in supervision without first addressing it with your supervisor and/or your clinical training department.
  6. Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Clarification/Confirmation…if you’re unsure of a supervisor’s recommendation/request. For example, if a supervisor requests that you try a specific intervention, you could clarify by asking when and how they would like you to implement that intervention with the specific client and what resources you might use if you’re unfamiliar with that intervention: “It sounds like you’d like me to use mindfulness skills training with Ms. X during our next session, is there a specific mindfulness skill that you have in mind?
  7. Prepare Questions in Advance…and if you’re having a hard time coming up with questions for supervision, talk to other students about questions that have been helpful for them during supervision. One question that others shared for this blog was “tell me how you arrived at your current theoretical orientation?” which allows you to get to know your supervisor’s perspective better.
  8. Be Open to Critiques and Feedback…even if they’re not delivered in the way you prefer. Don’t be afraid to say “how would you like me to do X next time?” If you don’t agree with something your supervisor wants you to do differently, try to see it from their perspective and realize that even if you don’t agree with something it may present an opportunity for growth/learning.
  9. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks or Be Vulnerable…in supervision. If you were thinking about trying an intervention/technique that you’re unfamiliar with, but that you think would work well for the client, talk to your supervisor about how you can gain experience in that area without violating the ethics of competency. Be open to saying things like “I don’t know” or “I’m feeling unsure/anxious/nervous” so that your supervisor can help you grow and learn in those areas.
  10. Be On Time…Seriously. This was the one piece of advice that all supervisors and supervisees had to share.

Jessica Cowan is a graduate student in the Antioch University Seattle Clinical Psychology PsyD program