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Infusing Community Psychology Practice Competencies into Doctoral Training

Infusing Community Psychology Practice Competencies into Doctoral Training by  Gabriel P. Kuperminc, Wing Yi Chan, Scot Seitz, Christyl Wilson

Author(s): Gabriel P. Kuperminc, Wing Yi Chan, Scot Seitz, Christyl Wilson


Since 2008, the Georgia State University doctoral training program in Community Psychology has made several modifications to coursework requirements, qualifying examinations, community practicum requirements, and advisement processes. Recognizing that graduates pursue trajectories ranging from independent consulting practice to academia, the primary goal was to provide greater flexibility in shaping training to match the types of careers that students envision. Accordingly, the Community Psychology Practice Competencies and the closely aligned Community Psychology Value Proposition provide a useful framework for helping guide students and advisors in selecting relevant coursework and field experiences that match the students’ training goals. In this paper, we focus on two specific areas in which we have infused the Competencies. The first area is practicum field-work, for which we have created a process built around the Value Proposition: students identify a potential field experience, work with community contacts to develop a statement of work focused on building experience and expertise in as many as four competency areas, and negotiate relevant deliverables. The second is advisement: Students are asked in their year-end progress reports to reflect on the extent to which they have gained experience with each competency during the year, and to identify a subset of focal competencies to gain experience and expertise in the coming year. With their advisors, students can then use this information to map out and modify their training plans. The paper describes the materials we have developed and provides preliminary quantitative and qualitative information about how the use of the Competencies is beginning to benefit students, advisors, and community partners. We describe successes and challenges we are encountering and conclude with the next steps we anticipate in the evolution of our training program.


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Since 2008, the community psychology doctoral program curriculum at Georgia State University (GSU) has undergone a series of modifications that reflect our faculty’s vision of aligning the training we provide to the wide range of career paths that our students pursue after graduation. A set of 18 core competencies associated with community psychology practice in the United States (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012; Wolfe, Chien Scott, & Jimenez, 2013) informed some of these modifications. In this article, we discuss how the community psychology program at GSU has begun to incorporate these competencies into the curriculum. We also present a case study to illustrate how a focus on competencies can enhance students’ applied field experiences (Kuperminc, 2011).

The refinements to our curriculum were motivated by a shift in the composition of the faculty and a recognition that we needed to attend to the diverse interests of our students, preparing them for careers both within and outside of the academy. The need to train students for jobs outside of the academy has ignited rigorous discussion within the field (Dalton & Julian, 2009) and the discussion has been fueled in part by Dziadkowiec & Jimenez’s (2009) summary of results from a survey of graduate training programs conducted by the Society for Community Research and Action’s (SCRA) Council of Education Programs and the Practice Group (now recognized as the Practice Council). Those authors concluded that many community psychology programs did not have specific criteria in place to evaluate their training of practitioners. Instead, programs tended to emphasize skills that are closely aligned with the work of academic community psychologists, such as program development and applied/community research, but underemphasize skills that more closely characterize the work of practitioners in the field, such as collaboration, consultation, and advocacy.

Building on the results of the survey and expertise of community psychology practitioners, the Task Group on Defining Practice Competencies developed a set of 18 competencies to promote more comprehensive and meaningful training in community psychology programs. These core competencies encompass five domains (displayed in the results of Table 3).

In parallel to the development of the core competencies, Ratcliffe and Neigher (2010) spearheaded an effort to develop a “value proposition” (p. 5) in order to communicate in practical terms the types of knowledge and skills that community psychologists can offer to a wide range of community settings. By emphasizing what community psychologists do, the value proposition, therefore, offers a means of marketing community psychology competencies to an external audience (See Table 1).

Table 1: Summary of Community Psychology Value Proposition (See PDF version or photo below)

Competency-Based Graduate Training in Community Psychology

The development of community psychology practice competencies has occurred in the context of a broader movement within professional psychology toward identification, training, and assessment of competencies as a means to ensure high quality in the delivery of human services (Kaslow et al., 2004). While recognizing a longstanding resistance among community psychologists to the adoption of rigid accreditation requirements for professional practice in the field (Dalton & Julian, 2009), proponents of the competencies have argued for the need to identify and articulate a core set of skills and competencies that offer a “clearer and consistent understanding of the qualities of a community psychologist that could enhance the ability of the field to advertise for jobs and market graduates” (Wolfe et al., 2013, p. 2). Accordingly, the practice competencies have been seen as offering guidance for the training of effective practitioners and for defining and marketing the field to potential consumers and community partners. It is with these dual objectives of articulating a coherent framework to guide training and communicating the value of our work to external audiences that GSU began to infuse the competencies into its doctoral program.

The Context at GSU

The 30th Anniversary celebration of GSU’s community psychology program in 2013 offered an opportunity to reconnect with alumni, primarily through personal contacts and social media. We have been able to gather current or recent employment information for 61 alumni who earned a Ph.D. either in community psychology or our dual community-clinical program from 1996 through 2015, including 43 graduates of the community program and 18 graduates of the clinical-community program (See Table 2). Among the community program graduates, 28% (n = 12) were most recently employed in academic positions (including tenure track and non-tenure track teaching or research faculty positions). Largely due to GSU’s location in Atlanta, a similar proportion (30%, n = 13) of community graduates were in government/public health positions, typically serving as behavioral scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The largest proportion (42%, n = 18), were practitioners employed in positions that included community consultation, program development, or evaluation. Among the 18 graduates of the clinical-community program, the largest proportion was employed in clinical practice (61%, n = 11), in positions that often included some engagement in community consultation, program development, or evaluation. The others were employed in academic/clinical settings (22%, n = 4), community practice settings (11%, n = 2), and government/public health settings (6%, n = 1). 

Table 2: Types of Employment Among Current or Recent Ph.D. Graduates (See PDF version or photo below)

This snapshot of alumni underscores the need for a flexible curriculum that can prepare students for a broad range of professional career paths. In discussions of how best to maintain a coherent program that offers comprehensive training in the field and empowers students to take greater control over the direction of their training, our faculty agreed that it would be important to shift some of the responsibility for choosing courses and practicum field placements to students and their advisors. The competencies could then be used as a framework to help students, in consultation with their advisors, to be more intentional about identifying and working toward their unique training goals. The competencies also offer a framework for ongoing reflection about the extent to which students are gaining exposure to, experience with, and expertise in (Kloos, 2010) the areas of competence they view as most critical to their professional development.

Infusing the Competencies into Advisement and the Practicum Experience

As we considered the ways in which we could infuse an explicit use of the competencies, we quickly realized that it would be necessary to adapt them to recognize skills associated with doing clinical work in community settings that characterize the training of our dual-degree clinical-community students. Moreover, we recognized that we might also need to further adapt the competencies to account for specialized skills that align with careers at the intersection of community psychology and public health. While such adaptations will likely evolve over time, we settled on three areas in which to begin introducing the competencies in our curriculum: the introductory course that all doctoral students take their first year, student annual reviews, and practicum field placements. In the paragraphs that follow, we describe the steps that we have taken to date, and offer some preliminary lessons learned by summarizing results of data that we have gathered and providing a brief case example.

Introductory course

Students take an introductory course in community psychology during their first semester in the doctoral program. One way of introducing the competencies has been to assign students to learn about the career of one or more community psychologists, either through readings (e.g., Kelly & Song, 2004; Song & Kelly, 2008) or through making direct contact with a practicing community psychologist via a resource provided by the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA, 2016). In preparing a presentation to the class, students are encouraged to delve into and reflect on the salience of various competencies for different career paths.

Annual review

Students are required to complete an annual report each spring, summarizing their accomplishments during the year. The student’s report is then used for discussion during a formal advisement meeting and in the preparation of an annual assessment of student progress. As part of this assessment we incorporated a simple survey, asking students to (1) indicate the competencies they have been exposed to during the past year, and (2) select up to 5 competencies that they would like to gain experience with during the upcoming year (see Appendix A). The former provides our faculty with information that can help assess areas of strength and gaps in the overall training program, and the latter provides a starting point for discussion between advisors and graduate students about course selection, the types of field placements to pursue for required practica, and other activities related to the students’ training.

Table 3 shows results from the 2015-2016 academic year annual report survey. Not surprisingly, the majority of students reported exposure to most of the competencies listed in the area of Foundational Principles, although only about one in three students reported exposure to #4: Community Inclusion and Partnership. Similar to findings in Dziadkowiec and Jimenez’s (2009) report, students in our program were more likely to report exposure to many of the competencies associated with applied research (e.g., Program Evaluation) and academic community psychology. Nearly all of the descriptions of “other” types of competencies involved training in advanced methodology and statistics, such as Geographic Information Systems and Multi-level modeling. Further analysis of these data revealed that students in our dual clinical-community program (n = 9) reported exposure to fewer competencies (M = 6.56, SD = 3.05) than did other community students (n = 13, M = 9.77, SD = 5.28).[1] Also, 1st and 2nd year students (n = 7) reported exposure to a higher number (M = 9.14, SD = 4.98) of competencies in the past year than did 3rd and 4th year students (n = 10; M = 8.40, SD = 4.58) and students in their 5th or higher year (n= 4; M = 5.75, SD = 4.11). Reflecting the diversity of career paths that we expect our students to pursue, students highlighted a wide range of competencies that they wished to pursue in the upcoming year, which were distributed across all 18 competencies.

Table 3: Exposure to Competencies in Past Year (check all that apply) and Focus for Next Year (select up to 5). Annual Review Survey Responses for 2016 (n = 23). (See PDF version or photo below)


Students in our doctoral program are required to complete 3 semester-long practica in community settings. The vast majority of practica are unpaid; however, when funds are available, it is acceptable for students to be compensated for their work. Whereas faculty have ongoing relationships with various community organizations, students have the freedom to negotiate practicum experiences with organizations and community settings of their choosing. In order to communicate the type of work that our students can complete, our faculty’s task was to develop materials that would describe potential practicum activities in a language that would be meaningful for various community agencies, and for community partners with whom we do our work. For this purpose, we felt that the language of the competencies contained too much professional jargon and technical terminology to be accessible to many community partners, and concluded that the language used in the value proposition (Ratcliffe & Neigher, 2010) would be more useful. Using this language, we developed materials to assist students in presenting themselves to community agencies and negotiating a feasible project that would produce concrete and meaningful deliverables. We developed a flowchart outlining the steps that students would take to identify a site and negotiate terms of a practicum project (see Appendix B). We also developed a one-page flyer describing the types of “services” that our practicum students are able to provide (see Appendix C). In addition, we developed a statement of work listing items in the value proposition that would be the focus of students’ practicum work, a format for detailing a work plan with a timeline and expected deliverables, and a form for obtaining formal agreement among the student, advisor and site supervisor (see Appendix D).

We reviewed materials from practica completed from 2014 to 2016. Practicum placement settings varied from clinical settings and trauma centers to local evaluation firms and community organizations. Students engaged in different types of practicum activities including analyzing data, performing needs assessments, facilitating psychosocial support groups for adolescents, designing outreach efforts, developing surveys, and conducting field observations. Table 4 presents a summary of the knowledge and skill areas endorsed by 12 students that completed community practica between 2014 and 2016. The most common knowledge and skill areas involved applied research, including program evaluation, organizational assessment, and dissemination. Less frequent were knowledge and skill areas that involved community capacity building and community development.

Table 4: Exposure to Knowledge and Skills During Practicum Experience (mark up to 4) (See PDF version or photo below)

A Case Example

A new relationship formed with one community organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), offers a case study of one setting in which this practicum process has been successful. IRC is an international refugee resettlement organization that has offices across the globe. IRC’s Atlanta office is the largest resettlement agency in the state of Georgia. Representatives of IRC contacted our program chair and expressed an interest in developing a partnership with the community psychology program. They were especially interested in evaluation of their various resettlement programs to document long-term success. Faculty met with representatives of IRC and learned more about the needs and strengths of the organization. After a careful discussion, it was agreed that the practicum program was the best way to provide needed services and to develop a long-term partnership with IRC. Subsequently, we invited IRC to come to one of our brown bag meetings to discuss possible practicum opportunities. Prior to their presentation, faculty shared the newly updated statement of work and the value proposition document with IRC and explained to them details of the practicum requirements, the skills of our students, and the training provided by our program. After a representative from IRC presented at our brown bag meeting, several students expressed interest in working there and one was able to arrange a practicum project for the following semester. Using the value proposition document and statement of work, the student negotiated with her site supervisor to develop a project, a timeline, and a list of deliverables. The project addressed the following competencies: #1 (Plan and conduct community-based applied research), #2 (Evaluate programs and services), and #5 (Assessment of organization or community). Specifically, the project involved developing logic models for each of IRC’s four programs and focused on delivery of health services, economic empowerment, case management, and community engagement. IRC wanted to use the logic models to aid subsequent grant seeking and program evaluation. The student, along with her faculty and site supervisors realized that substantial stakeholder involvement would be necessary if the student was to complete such an ambitious project in a single semester. The student was able to meet multiple times with the directors of each program within the organization. Reflecting on the experience, the student wrote the following:

I … learned that, as an evaluator in-training, I have a lot of knowledge and insight to offer to these program managers. The leadership team did not perceive the same amount of overlap and integration between services and programs as I, an outsider, did. I was impressed by how much each program had to gain from one another and I was excited to cast light [on the areas of overlap]. I feel like this helped in creating a … paradigm shift among the leadership … [toward] building bridges more. As is evident in the logic models, each program director and… program … [is] essential in accomplishing each goal. Although each goal may have a point person and many different funding sources which force programs into silos, I saw the leadership team begin to emphasize program integration and communication more each time I spoke with them. Although my job was to create logic models for the IRC, I feel that I also helped improve their sense of community among the program directors. For the past few months I’ve served as a bridge between the programs and now it seems that they want to build some [bridges] of their own.

To ensure that our newly developed practicum process is useful for the community partners, we also requested feedback from the site supervisor who worked closely with the student.

Prior to participating in GSU’s practicum, IRC had recently identified a new strategic plan. Thus, the leadership team at IRC was looking for students to help with evaluating the feasibility of the strategic plan. Together, the site supervisor and the student decided that developing logic models to identify how each program area is related to the overall strategic plan would be a helpful product for the organization. The site supervisor was complimentary of the process through which the student articulated skills that she expected to acquire. She found the skills very relevant to the organization’s work. She also noted that many of the leadership members felt that they had the opportunity to learn new skills while working with the student. She said, “program evaluation, facilitation of planning, and others are concrete skills that few leadership team members have experience with or have the capacity to do well, and it was a huge benefit to have the student identify what needed to be done and lead the facilitation.” Finally, the site supervisor suggested that more frequent check-ins with the student’s GSU advisor would be very helpful to ensure that the organization meets the needs of the students.

Overall, both the organization and the student found the newly updated practicum experience helpful and effective. The organization received a final product that met their short- and long-term needs. Also, the statement of work and the checklist of skills assisted the organization to develop a feasible and meaningful practicum experience collaboratively with the student. The updated flowchart also makes the negotiation process more transparent and manageable for the student. More importantly, the student reported feelings of competency and accomplishment because the student was able to initiate and document concrete changes within the organization.      

Conclusions and Next Steps

We have found many aspects of the CP practice competencies and the value proposition to be helpful in our annual review and practicum processes. Incorporation of the CP competencies in the annual review has encouraged students to reflect on their career goals and the specific training they want to receive before graduation. In addition, the value proposition has been especially useful for guiding students’ decisions about the types of practicum experiences they want to pursue. Further, the value proposition enables us to communicate effectively the “services” that our practicum students can offer to community organizations, and enables students and their community partners to establish clear expectations about practicum projects and deliverables.

Although we have found the competencies to be helpful, we also identified challenges to effectively using them for our annual review and practicum processes. Specifically, in the first year that we began incorporating the competencies into the annual review, students reported wanting to focus on most or all of the competencies during the next academic year (even though students were asked to limit their selection to only 5 competencies that they wanted to emphasize during the upcoming year). Unfortunately, without greater focus on a smaller number of competencies these ratings offered little guidance to advisors for recommending coursework or practicum placements the students could focus on during the upcoming year. It is possible that the wide range of competencies was overwhelming to students and they had difficulty determining which competencies were most important for their career goals.

As the competencies are further developed, it may be useful to further delineate foundational, core, and specialized competencies (Kaslow, 2004). The current competencies list includes a set of five foundational principles. These foundational competencies represent the basic values and perspectives that all community psychologists should possess (e.g., an ecological perspective, ethical and reflective practice). For the remaining competencies, it may be helpful to differentiate between core and specialized competencies. Core competencies represent knowledge, attitudes, and skills that should be developed by all community psychologists, although individuals will develop each of the competencies to varying degrees (e.g., program evaluation, consultation). Finally, specialized competencies are required for work in specific subspecialties of community psychology (e.g., community organizing, academic community psychology). This categorization of CP practice competencies may help students focus on a more targeted set of competencies in their graduate training (specifically, the foundational and core competencies along with a select few specialized competencies).

In addition, categorizing competencies as foundational, core, and specialized would be useful in identifying the unique strengths of graduate training programs. It is likely that most graduate programs already emphasize the foundational competencies; however, given the relatively small size of most programs, it is unlikely that every program will be able to cover all of the specialty areas represented in the field. Further elaboration of the competencies has the potential to enhance the “truth in advertising” that applicants seek as they search for graduate programs that can best serve their professional goals.

Dzidic, Breen, and Bishop (2013) critiqued the focus of the competencies on specific knowledge, attitudes, and skills rather than on the orientations and values that community psychologists should embody. They argued that the competencies should be “positioned as tools for understanding, rather than as understandings” (Dzidic et al., 2013, p. 2). The distinction between foundational, core, and specialized competencies may provide a structure to address Dzidic et al.’s concern. Specifically, the foundational competencies can represent community psychology orientations and values (e.g., empowerment perspective, appreciation for diversity) whereas core and specialized competencies can emphasize specific community psychology knowledge and skills. Although the foundational competencies may need to be revised (e.g., adding certain virtues that community psychologists should embody), the distinction between foundational and core/specialized competencies can help clarify our “way of being” and our “way of doing” (Dzidic et al., 2013, p. 6). Such further differentiation of the practice competencies could also be useful for graduate training programs by specifying the broad orientations and values that should be fostered as well as the more specific knowledge and skills that should be developed by students.

In addition, the CP competencies may have been more useful in our annual review process had we asked students to indicate the level of training they sought for each competency. Kloos (2010) introduced an approach to rating the level of exposure, experience, and expertise that students obtain. When completing the annual review, students could indicate the level of exposure, experience, and expertise they hope to receive for each competency, thereby allowing students to express their interest in a wide range of competencies while also specifying the degree to which they want advanced training.

In conclusion, GSU’s initial steps to infuse the competencies into doctoral training in community psychology have emphasized familiarizing students and faculty with the competencies and to begin using them as a framework for guiding individual and program-wide decisions about training. We believe that these initial steps have been successful in that they provide students and advisors a clear and common language for identifying goals and tailoring coursework and field experiences to students’ professional goals. A next step is to refine the processes for assessing students’ achievement of the competencies while they are in graduate school and tracking the critical areas for ongoing professional development once our students move on to their careers.

[1] Given that these data reflect responses from all of the students who were currently in residence at the University, and the small sample size, we did not conduct statistical analysis of group differences.


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Download the PDF version to access complete article, including Tables, Figures, and all Appendices. Appendices A-D appear in the PDF Version of this article.


Table 1: Summary of Community Psychology Value Proposition
Table 2: Types of Employment Among Current or Recent Ph.D. Graduates
Table 3: Exposure to Competencies in Past Year (check all that apply) and Focus for Next Year (select up to 5). Annual Review Survey Responses for 2016 (n = 23).
Table 4: Exposure to Knowledge and Skills During Practicum Experience (mark up to 4)


Gabriel P. Kuperminc, Wing Yi Chan, Scot Seitz, Christyl Wilson Gabriel P. Kuperminc, Wing Yi Chan, Scot Seitz, Christyl Wilson

Gabriel Kuperminc is Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Georgia State University where he directs the doctoral program in community psychology. He is currently conducting two federally funded evaluations of youth mentoring programs. He directed the evaluation of Georgia BASICS, a federally funded program of screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT) for alcohol and drug use in healthcare settings. He consults on youth development and substance abuse prevention with various organizations, including the National Mentoring Resource Center, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the Georgia Governor’s Office on Children and Families, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Kuperminc is Associate Editor of the Journal of Adolescent Research and was recently appointed as Action Editor for the Journal of Community Psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Community Research and Action, and the Society for Applied Anthropology. Email: Corresponding address: 1112 Urban Life Georgia State Univeristy. 

Wing Yi Chan is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University.?Her research focuses on promoting positive youth development among adolescents and young adults from diverse backgrounds. Her most recent research examines how civic and political participation can prevent problem behaviors and promote successful transition to adulthood. For example, her recent projects investigate how to encourage immigrant adolescents and college students to engage in civic and political activities. Her work also addresses the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based interventions (e.g., mentoring, service-learning) designed to promote academic success.

Scot Seitz is a doctoral student in the Community and Clinical Psychology Program at Georgia State University. Mr. Seitz has conducted research in both Public Health and Community Psychology. As an undergraduate at Emory University, Scot’s research focused on the transmission of infectious nematodes and viruses in the United States and Bolivia. After teaching sixth grade science for two years as a Teach For America corps member, Scot became interested in the design and evaluation of positive youth development programs. Currently, he is working with Gabriel Kuperminc to evaluate a youth mentoring program, a positive youth development afterschool program, and a teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS prevention program. As a former educator and current graduate student, Scot is also interested in creative approaches to graduate student training in both Community and Clinical Psychology.

Christyl Wilson is a doctoral student in the Developmental Psychology program at Georgia State University. Prior to graduate school, Christyl was a Teach For America corps member and taught elementary school for 3 years. She is interested in positive youth development, education, and youth program evaluation. Currently, Christyl works with Dr. Gabriel Kuperminc to evaluate a group mentoring program and a sexual health intervention for youth.

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Keywords: Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Education, Doctoral Training