Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Counselor Education

Major Professor

Melinda M. Gibbons

Committee Members

Casey A. Barrio Minton, Joel F. Diambra, Kristina C. Gordon


The novice counselor phase, also referred to as the prelicensure period, encompasses the first two to five years of professional practice. This phase is widely believed to be the most critical period of professional development (Rønnestad et al., 2019). Novice or prelicensed counselors (PLCs) face a host of challenges as they leave the protection of a training program and enter the workforce. Without proper support, PLCs may find themselves exhausted, overwhelmed, and questioning their fit for the field. While many studies have examined the impact of defining moments for student counselors, there is little existing research on mental health counselors in the prelicensure period of development. This qualitative Enhanced Critical Incident Study (ECIT; Butterfield et al., 2005; 2009) examined three primary constructs: the types of defining moments PLCs experience, the impact of these moments, and the application of these moments to the Cyclical Trajectories Model of Counselor Development (CTM; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2013). Utilizing a two-phase format, surveys collected defining moment stories from PLCs around the country, and then follow-up interviews were conducted with a select number of participants to further enrich the findings. A total of 21 participants and 28 stories met study criteria and produced a total of 148 critical incidents. These incidents were organized into five themes and 26 categories. Results indicated that PLCs experienced the most impactful defining moments in supervision and with clients. Applying the CTM, how PLCs processed these experiences made a direct impact on the developmental trajectory they followed: toward continued growth or toward stagnation. Therefore, supervisors and educators need to be attuned to this process and offer practical ways to address adversity faced by PLCs. Implications include modeling tolerance for ambiguity, teaching effective reflective practices, and nurturing cognitive complexity in PLCs.

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