Becoming competent

While studying for a PhD directly after completing a Masters qualification in speech and language therapy does offer many advantages, such as not having the opportunity to lose the habit of studying regularly and not having to adjust to a fairly hefty loss of income as would occur if moving into a PhD after a period of work, there are also disadvantages.

I has three years Excel and Powerpoint ..: that may be but it doesn't make you competent, or does it?I completed a Masters course in Language Pathology in September 2007. Rather than moving directly into a clinical speech and language therapy post within the NHS (the most usual route for newly qualified SLTs) I continued on to PhD study/research. Generally, newly qualified SLTs (i.e. freshly qualified from University) register as ‘newly qualified ‘ with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT; i.e. the professional body for SLT in the UK) and are expected to become ‘competent’ SLTs (i.e. fully qualified) within the first 12-24 months of clinical practice. Those paying attention to the dates would notice that it is now 4 years (48 months) since I qualified, hence well beyond the 12-24 months that most people will generally register. I recently got a firm wake up call on this by a recent survey of newly qaulified therapists issued by the RCSLT. I opened the link to the survey and saw I had to enter the year I qualified. Rather than being faced with an open text box, I was confronted with a list of check boxes my only options were the years 2011, 2010, and 2009. Needless to say this had two effects on me: 1) it made me feel old (I’m not quite sure why); and 2) it made me realise that in the eyes of my professional body, I should be a proper ‘grown-up’ SLT by now.

I have now finally submitted my PhD and therefore my next priority to is submit the forms that will enable me to register as a fully qualified SLT. So, while completing the forms, which is broken down into 9 broad areas of competence/skill (e.g. Communication, Personal and people development, Health, safety and security, and so on), I have to wonder to myself: I am really competent? Have I done enough to really be a confident SLT who can stand on my own two feet if I were to suddenly find myself dropped into an NHS SLT setting?

Skill: i haz itWhile I have gained a wealth of experience and skills throughout my time doing a PhD my clinical experience has been fairly restricted. Part of my PhD has involved conducting a speech and language therapy study (i.e. seeing if people with aphasia improve in their language abilities after administering a particular type of therapy). I have also been working within the Aphasia Centre at Newcastle University, an in-house speech and language therapy clinic which offers 1:1 and group based therapy for people with aphasia and where students gain experience in working with people with aphasia. So, it is not as if I haven’t been practicing my clinical speech and language therapy skills. However, these skills have been developed in a vastly different context in which most SLTs will experience their first step into working as a professional. Just as one example: the type of clients I have been working with have been much more homogeneous than those seen in a typical of an SLT working with adult patients/clients. In other words, people in NHS settings are likely to see a lot more people with a lot more variety in terms of the impairments to language they suffer from. Perhaps the biggest difference though has been the limited exposure to the working procedures of an actual ‘real-world’ SLT practice which has a waiting list, strict time restrictions in terms of dosage (i.e. the number of sessions that treatment can last), and all the associated bureaucracy that comes along with these things, not to mention limited awareness and access to training opportunities (all of which have their own spaces on the competency form).

So I think my main point here and my main problem (besides really hating filling in forms asking me to record my skills), is that as my experience has been vastly different from most people I am really forcing myself to think laterally when completing these forms. RCSLT does recognise that different people will work in different contexts and there is definitely leeway in the forms to account for this. However, some boxes on the form definitely pose a huge problem for someone in my position. For example, box number 5b) relating to the area of ‘Quality’: “works as part of a multidisciplinary team and understands the roles of other members of the team”. For my part, I should be providing some tangible evidence that I have met this requirement. But, this presents difficulties for me as generally there is little involvement from other professions in my working context (e.g. phsyiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses, psychologists, etc.). Am I forced to remain ‘incompetent’ simply because this opportunity doesn’t exist to me in my current situation?

Naturally, one could say “well you know what competencies are on the form, you should work out a way to make sure you do this. After all, it is YOUR responsibility to provide evidence of your competency“. Valid point. However, if I were to seek out such experience (e.g. by actively discussing my activities with other professions), I would see this as being tokenistic, i.e. I’d only be doing it for the sake of the form and my motivation for doing so wouldn’t be in the right place to allow me to fully gain from the experience. I’m sure others may disagre with this view but this is my opinion – I’ve always found it difficult to gain something from an experience if it is not immediately relevant to what I am doing at the present time.

I think this post is mostly just me rambling and finding some distraction from actually completing the aforementioned forms and I’m not sure what my overall message is for this. I’m not trying to knock RCSLTs competency framework because, despite my own personal opinion of completing such forms, I can appreciate how they provide opportunity for reflection and can give a certain structure to professional development. I think my main point is probably to highlight some of the things to be thinking about if considering PhD research immediately upon qualification from University – and to probably be a bit more efficient than me and not leave things until after submitting your PhD and when you suddenly realise: “it’s about time I looked for a job then!”

And to answer my own self-posed question about whether I am actually competent I can just say: … I think so … maybe

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About chrissp1980
Currently a lecturer in speech pathology in North Queensland, Australia. I'm lecturing in acquired disorders of speech and language and also attempting to enthuse students in conducting clinically-relevant projects using principles of Evidence-Based Practice. Wish me luck!

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