The transition from coursework into early practice settings, like student teaching, is difficult for professional education students. It is marked by personal and professional stress and identity transitions. A central challenge that novice professionals face is in trying to reconcile who they hope to become as professionals with who they are expected to become. Left unresolved, this struggle to develop professional identity can lead to self-doubt, burnout, and disillusionment. By examining the process of professional identity formation as novices take on their new professional roles, this study sheds light on the challenges faced by students in professional education and how programs might better support them to meet those challenges.
This was a comparative case study of two professional education programs—one in teacher education and one in clinical psychology. Drawing from field observations across settings of professional education, interviews, email correspondences, and focus groups, this study investigated the emerging professional selves that three novice teachers and three novice clinical psychologists constructed across their first year of professional preparation. Building upon prior research on possible and provisional selves, this study examined the narratives that professional education students shared about their desired and feared professional selves as they engaged with their new professional role. The first stage of analysis considered what possible and provisional selves novices crafted and how these changed over time. The second stage of analysis examined why possible and provisional selves were constructed and revised; this stage of analysis focused on the influence of various programmatic settings (coursework, fieldwork, supervision) and the kinds of opportunities available within these settings to imagine, observe, enact, and evaluate emerging professional selves.
This study found that while novices constructed many narratives about possible and provisional selves that came and went, other narratives became more enduring and prominent across the year. These narratives represented “core selves” that played a critical part in how novices identified as professionals and how they engaged with their professional education programs. At each site, novices crafted core selves in relation to problems of practice that were common to their particular profession (teaching or clinical psychology); that novices' core selves were related in this way suggested that programs, and the professions they represented, strongly influenced them.
Looking more closely at how programs influenced the development of core selves, this research identified and analyzed five ways in particular—through the framing of program models and through opportunities for imagination, observation, enactment, and evaluation. The findings presented here describe how these two programs were similar and different along these five dimensions, and how these similarities and differences influenced the formation of core selves. For example, opportunities for imagination during coursework often inspired novices' early formulations of core selves, while also giving them an image to hold onto when they were observing models or having experiencing that contradicted these images. Sometimes novices retained doubts over whether the core selves they imagined during coursework were truly feasible in the workplace settings they would be entering. Opportunities to observe other practitioners who represented their core selves, and succeeded with them, helped novices to shed doubts, while also presenting them specific elements with which they could elaborate their own emerging core selves. Furthermore, opportunities to enact a given core self in practice settings (including course simulations and fieldwork) seemed especially important; in particular, successful enactments helped novices to fully identify with and take ownership of core selves. Core selves sometimes took shape in ways that led novices astray, e.g. by obstructing practice or much needed development. In such cases, opportunities for feedback from mentors were critically important to put these wayward core selves back on track.
This research contributes to a better understanding of how novices construct emerging professional identities and how professional education influences this process. Thus, this investigation has implications for the design of professional education, including how to frame program models and structure programmatic settings, and opportunities within these settings, to support the development of core selves. Because programs largely reflect the professions in which they are nested, the findings of this study also have implications for the professions of teaching and clinical psychology more broadly.