Lavanya Pillay


Therapists providing psychological treatments routinely pose and test hypotheses about mechanisms of change. When they use systematic, objective, and scientific methods to do these tasks, clinicians can simultaneously provide quality care and contribute to the field’s understanding of the mechanisms of therapeutic action (Persons, 2007).

Psychologists in practice have a unique opportunity to further develop the field in which they work. Psychologists are constantly identifying ways and means to assist their clients, so in essence, Persons (2007) is right, hypotheses and strategies are constantly being tested. So why not rethink the manner in which this is done by using scientific methods? This implies that data on the topic has to be systematically collected. In this article some practical advice is provided for those practitioners who want to undertake research as part of their work. To this end we would like to suggest that a number of steps be carefully considered in the planning of research.

Step 1: Think about the ethical considerations related to the study.

Currently there is no body to which you can apply for ethical clearance, unless you are enrolled at a University. Consider partnering with a colleague at a University. Perhaps also consider partnering with a registered research psychologist. The HPCSA also has a list of registered psychologists and the DRM can also be contacted in this regard. If this is not possible then ensure that ethical standards related to research have been followed, namely informed consent, confidentiality and the right to withdraw at any time.

Step 2: Know your topic.

It is important to have an overview of what has been done and what suggestions have been made for future research. It is also important to know whether what you are seeing in practice is the same or different to what others have found (Jackson, 2012). Google scholar is always a good place to start. While access to the full article may not always be possible, the abstracts will usually be accessible. This gives an idea of the article focus, methodology employed as well as the findings. The American Psychological Association has a number of databases and publications that may be worth reviewing. These can be accessed at There are also a number of open access journals that can be explored, for example Frontiers in Psychology. A directory of open access journals is available ( over and above publishers providing open access journal lists such as the list by Elsevier which can be accessed at

Step 3: Know what you are going to do.

It is advised that you write a short document. In the document you need to clearly state what you want to explore, why you want to explore this particular topic and what your objectives are. Formulate a research question as this will make the choices related to methodology easier. It is also important at this stage that you have an idea of the theory you will be using to assist you when reflecting on findings. As a practitioner you will already have a fair idea about this as you have a preselected/predetermined way of working with clients or you may have attended a CPD workshop where a different theory was used in a therapeutic intervention.

Step 4: Elaborate on the document started in Step 3.

This is related to the scientific method you will use to explore your topic. Many practitioners will feel more comfortable working qualitatively, quantitatively or even using mixed methods. Regardless of the overarching methodology, you will need to describe your participants especially with regards to who will be included and who will be excluded. You need to state the reasons for these decisions so that readers understand the choices you made. You will also need to select your instruments that will be used. As you have already explored the topic you should have a fair idea of the type of instruments used in previous research, but you may also want to do something different. For example, where inventories have been used previously, you may want to conduct interviews. It is vitally important that whichever instruments are selected, they are appropriate to the research question. You need to read up on the questionnaires and inventories in order to ascertain how they were developed and if they are psychometrically sound. The instruments also need to be appropriate for your participants and relevant for the treatment plan. Furthermore, how the data will be collected is important to think through. How many interviews are required and how long will the interviews be? How the data will be analysed will also need to be decided upon. Once again, as you have read extensively on the topic you will know what has been done in this regard. If you are undertaking statistical analyses be aware of the underlying assumptions of the various tests you are employing. You do not necessarily need to purchase software to assist with the processing and analysis of data. There are free downloadable packages available such as PSPP which is similar to SPSS.

For a list of quantitative software packages visit  For qualitative software packages visit You can also contact a statistician or research consultant to assist you in this regard.

Step 5: Once you have a research plan, find a critical friend.

As mentioned earlier, it may be beneficial to link up with a colleague at a University or with someone that undertakes research regularly, such as a registered research psychologist ( ). Please feel free to contact the DRM for assistance as well. This will give you peace of mind that what you would like to research will not cause harm.

Step 6: Have fun.

Undertaking research can be time-consuming and you may even feel overwhelmed. However, it can also be fulfilling and will ultimately make you a better practitioner and assist in establishing you as an expert in your field.


Jackson, L. (2012). Research methods and statistics: A critical thinking approach (4th ed.). USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Persons, J. B. (2007). Psychotherapists collect data during routine clinical work that can contribute to knowledge about mechanisms of change in psychotherapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 14(3), 244–246.

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