The three-year-long Case Conference/Professional Development sequence is at the heart of the Institute's program and is a key forum where students focus self-reflectively on their development as clinicians, as well as develop critical thinking and problem solving skills as applied to clinical situations. In this small group setting, graduate students integrate their work in clinical placements with their academic studies through ongoing discussion of their experiences as developing clinicians. While learning about the basics of therapeutic technique and clinical skills, diagnosis, applied psychopathology and current psychological theory, students are discussing their clients, agencies, supervisors, and academic classes. The standards of ethical responsibility and the legal reporting mandates expected of practitioners are also covered. In each area, experiential learning is concretely integrated with material from academic courses, as well as information from relevant research and readings. This experience forms the basis for the attitudes that foster lifelong learning: an attitude of open inquiry, self-reflection and the application of new learning to clinical practice.
Each year, the focus of the Case Conference reflects the key developmental tasks of the students. The first two years provide an intensive experience in clinical education. The 1st-year Case Conference is designed to help entering students build a sense of themselves as professionals. Unlike traditional case conferences, it pays specific attention to students' needs as beginning clinicians and to the nature of the relationship between the participants in the clinical endeavor. For students with extensive clinical experience, it provides the impetus to reconsider the fundamentals of their work and progress toward a doctoral level of proficiency in their practice.
Case Conferences are organized so that students in each Conference work in a wide range of placements. This provides the opportunity for students to be exposed to the details of working in different settings. Reflecting this diversity of placements, case presentations may focus on intakes, on work with groups, with families and children, on emergency cases or individual psychotherapy. Each student develops a familiarity with the various settings and is exposed to the types of cases encountered there.
This variety creates a challenging learning experience, as students also discuss the broader issues as they apply in each setting. For example, students address currently vital questions such as: What are the implications of multicultural diversity for assessment and diagnosis? How do they diagnose patients without over-pathologizing them? How should they handle issues related to safety: suicidality, homicidality, child abuse? How can they address the most common biological or organically-based problems seen in the mental health setting: organic depression, drug and alcohol problems, medications? How do they work with other mental health professionals: psychiatrists, social workers, child care workers, case workers? How is confidentiality maintained while keeping records at agencies? What are the pros and cons of self-disclosure, when is it useful and when is it potentially counter-therapeutic?
In the context of these discussions, students begin to develop a professional identity. They learn how to present cases to other professionals, how to most effectively formulate cases and techniques for treatment, how to pose questions that may facilitate work with particular clients, how to function as consultants, as supportive co-scientists working on particular cases, much as the practicing clinical psychologist and client work together to help the client overcome his or her problems.
In the 2nd year Case Conference, students make increasingly sophisticated case formulations and continue to integrate material learned in their academic courses. For those students doing their 2nd year practicum at the Wright Institute Clinic, a year-long Intake Conference in which students formulate diagnoses and discuss intakes, complements the Case Conference.
The first two years of the Case Conference Series also provide an opportunity for students to develop a key mentoring relationship with the Case Conference Leader and collegial relationships with their peers. In line with the overall program philosophy, the Case Conferences emphasize the importance of human relationships to professional practice. It is an understood philosophical and practical position that the work of the conference is going on through the relationships between the students and their teacher, and among the students themselves. These relationships are considered central to the successful development of the students' professional identity as clinical psychologists as well as to the development of their clinical skills.
Most students stay with the same case conference group for the first two years of the program, facilitating the development of these learning relationships that create the environment of safety required for the in-depth learning of clinical work. The Case Conference Leaders, by maintaining a formal structure and a problem-focused series of discussions, enable students to talk freely about their work experiences, and in some cases, about their more personal experiences and histories that affect their work. In addition, the Case Conference provides an important experience of team building and working collaboratively with other professionals for the good of the client. Finally, the Case Conference setting and the close relationships between the Case Conference leaders and their students make it possible to monitor carefully each student's performance in handling critical clinical issues on a day-to-day basis. It also ensures that the students are acquiring the skills they need to practice in accord with the current standards of care.
In the third year, the Professional Development Seminar represents the culmination of students' efforts to integrate knowledge with practical clinical concerns. It offers a place for students to reflect on their academic and clinical work, and to consolidate their identities as professionals preparing to work in multiple roles. The Seminar also focuses on the students' tasks of writing their dissertations and preparing for their internships; tasks which the Institute sees as foundational for each student's future professional authority.
Case Conference Leaders meet with each other on a weekly basis to discuss students' progress, the evolution of the conferences, problems or concerns, and curriculum development. This forum provides an opportunity for the Case Conference Leaders to reflect on their own work with students and to gain valuable consultation and insight in the context of a collegial work group. In this way, there is another layer of mentoring and modeling, as Case Conference Leaders engage in the same self-reflective and collegial learning approaches that they are seeking to impart to students.