Staff Perspective: “To Be or Not to Be”…a Military Psychologist

Staff Perspective: “To Be or Not to Be”…a Military Psychologist

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in southern California, I walked into my Air Force recruiter’s office and said, “I need to pull out of the application process.” I had spent the last three months meeting with my recruiter, filling out forms, gathering letters of recommendations, and preparing for the next steps.  I had spent the last year helping my Armenian parents understand that I wanted to pursue a career as a military psychologist. You may be wondering, what do my parents have to do with this? As an Armenian-American female I was expected to follow cultural norms such as living with my parents until I was married.  Not only was I the first to attend college, I was the only one in my extended family to pursue a doctorate. My father once asked if I can get a doctorate from the local community college since it was down the street and I didn’t have to drive a long distance. Convincing them that it was the right decision for me to join the military was a challenge. For me, joining the Air Force as a military psychologist meant I would be challenged personally and professionally.  I would be serving my country and standing side-by-side with others who gave an oath to do the same. I would learn firsthand from experts in the field on best practices and evidence-based treatments. I would travel and learn from other cultures. The list went on. For my parents, it meant that I would be far away, inevitably deployed to a war zone, and in harm’s way. 

When they asked me what would be the difference between what I learned as a military psychologist versus a civilian psychologist working at a Veterans hospital, I didn’t have a concrete response.  Looking back, at that moment I realized I didn’t know a whole lot about what it meant to be a military psychologist.  I didn’t have any friends who were in the field and I was the first one in my graduate school pursuing this career path. At the time, I had done two years of clinical work at two different Veterans medical centers in the Los Angeles area. I shrugged off their question and continued the application process.  The week before my decision to withdraw my application, my mother experienced severe health complications. With the pull to be near my parents and having a vague understanding of the career path I was so adamantly pursuing, I decided to not be a military psychologist.

Fast forward 10 years— colleagues and I at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) were discussing the importance of preparing psychology graduate students for a military-focused career.  Providing graduate students an opportunity learn about the role of military psychologists and having them think about whether or not a DoD/VA internship is something they would want to pursue.  It’s this discussion that led to one of our most recent civilian training programs—The Summer Institute: Preparing for a Military-Focused Career.

The Summer Institute: Preparing for a Military-Focused Career

In June 2015 CDP at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) offered our first iteration of the Summer Institute. We had 23 doctoral students in attendance, including 14 Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) students. The six-day course was very well received. Since the June iteration, we made some changes to the program including shortening the course to five days and adjusting the topics offered.  The second iteration of the Summer Institute will be held June 6-10, 2016 in Bethesda, MD on the USU campus where many of the nation’s military medical personnel are educated. Like last year, the Summer Institute will provide trainees with practical information about working with Service members and Veterans through didactic, experiential, and panel sessions. Students will also have the opportunity to receive feedback about their performance and assistance in targeting their training goals, including applying for a military internship.

Participants in this program will receive training on topics including:     

•  Types of clinical and assessment opportunities for military psychologists
•  Deployment cycle stress and common clinical problems
•  Cognitive behavioral therapy used with military patients
•  Ethical dilemmas unique to the Department of Defense and deployment

We want to provide students with an opportunity to strengthen their backgrounds in military behavioral health while augmenting their more general graduate coursework. In the long run, we believe the Summer Institute will contribute positively to the education of trainees who aspire to become the next generation of culturally-sensitive behavioral health providers for military and Veteran populations. 

The application deadline is December 31, 2015.  To learn more and apply to the program, please visit

Diana Sermanian, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist working as the Assistant Director of Civilian Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.