Guest Perspective: Career Path of a Military Spouse

Guest Perspective: Career Path of a Military Spouse

Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Intermittently, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.

As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).

That being said, we’re very happy to offer a platform where we can feature these individuals and the information they have to share. We’d like to make this an ongoing dialogue. If you have questions, remarks, or would like more information on a topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on our Facebook page, and we’ll pass them along to the author.

By Erin Ottenwess
Guest Columnist

When my husband decided to join the US Navy, he and I were still dating. I had recently graduated with my Master’s degree in social work and just started my first “real” job, working as a substance abuse counselor for incarcerated adolescents. I still remember the day he told me he was thinking of joining the military. He asked if I was okay with his decision. I said I supported him, but would have to decide if I wanted to follow him down this path. I was scared of what lay ahead. Would he need to go on deployment? Would he be in danger? Where would we have to live? We discussed all the pros and cons and, though there was still a lot of uncertainty, we decided being a family was the most important thing for us. We ended up getting married a few years later, shortly before he began active duty.

At the time, I had the vaguest understanding of what being a military spouse meant. I knew he might have to be away from home for long periods of time. I understood we would have to move from our home state, where we had both grown up and where our families and entire support network lived. Having just worked hard to earn my degree, I wondered if I would be able to follow my career path as intended. I assured myself naively that I would be able to find a job anywhere. I even had thoughts of being some sort of power couple on base; working to fight injustice from both sides (my husband is an attorney).

I quit my first official job a few weeks before we moved to our first duty station, halfway across the country. As excited as I was for this new adventure, I knew this transition would be difficult. Having to build a support network from scratch was something I had yet to experience; never mind having to build a new professional network. I spent five years in school learning about my state’s resources for social work clients. I familiarized myself with agencies for which I might want to work, and built contacts through internships and volunteer opportunities. My graduate school internship led me to my first full-time post-graduate school position. Without these contacts, I wasn’t sure I would be able to find work easily.

On top of building a professional network in a new state, my chosen profession required a license to work in most positions. I worked for two years after graduate school to obtain enough supervision hours to gain my license, and I also spent time studying for and passing my state’s licensure exam. Research into social work licensure taught me that each state has its own unique licensing requirements, and whether I would be able to transfer my current license depended on the state. Unfortunately for me, I was moving to California, a state that has the strictest requirements for social work licensure. I learned from a California licensing board representative that it would take me over two years to complete all the required coursework and be able to take the exam to become a licensed social worker in California. This was less than perfect timing, since my husband was only stationed there on three year orders.   

Not to be deterred, I started applying for jobs that did not require a license a few months before we left. I knew this meant that I was likely over-qualified for these positions, and that I might have to take a lower salary. I had one organization reach out for an interview, but ultimately I did not make the cut. The other agencies likely did not give me a second look after seeing my out-of-state address and education on my resume. I arrived in San Diego worried about my future in the social work profession. I continued my job search on the ground, attending networking events and applying for any jobs I could find that were remotely related to social work. I even started the process of becoming a volunteer at an agency that served at-risk youth when they did not have any paid positions available, just to be involved in my desired line of work.

We spent a few months in Newport, RI while my husband attended school prior to PCS (permanent change of station), and while there I decided to take a class at the base family services center. It was there I learned about federal contracts that hire behavioral health providers with licenses from any state in the USA to work on military bases. At the time I was not that interested, as I was still focused on working with my target population of at-risk youth. Nonetheless, I stored that information in my memory. As I began to get more desperate in my job search, I remembered this tidbit and decided to look into it. I was able to find an open position to apply for in San Diego at the same base as my husband and, after applying twice, I was asked to come in for an interview and ultimately offered a position, which I accepted.

We began our PCS journey in January, and I started my new job in July. Six months is a long time for anyone to go without work, and it takes a toll mentally and emotionally. I felt ashamed not being able to contribute to my household financially, especially since I had supported myself as a single person for several years before getting married. I did not feel comfortable going out and spending our limited funds on shopping or daily outings, so I stayed home often and focused on trying to find work. This led to feeling isolated and restricted, which did nothing to improve my outlook. In the end, I took a position not working with my desired client population, and had to learn many new techniques and information to be able to work well with my new clients. Much of the effort I had put into mastering my work with teens prior to moving felt wasted. 

My new job included providing counseling for Service members and their families. During my time there, I encountered many spouses who were dealing with similar issues finding meaningful work. They had spent time and money earning degrees in education, the medical field, or similar professions, and when their active duty spouse came up for orders they were forced to leave their positions and try to find work in a new state with different regulations and licensing requirements. The same issue came up for spouses that were not in professional roles, but enjoyed their previous jobs and had difficulty finding gratifying employment once they moved. This issue led to frustration, disappointment, and overall dissatisfaction with military life.

I worked in this position for one year and nine months before it was time for us to move again. I decided to use the move as an opportunity to reconnect with my desired client population of at-risk youth. Our next destination was in rural Georgia, and I started looking for jobs to apply for a few months before we moved. Unfortunately, I found very few positions in which I was interested; everything was either too far away or a position for which I was over- or under-qualified. Not being knowledgeable about the population and agencies that served the community I was moving into hurt my chances of finding the right fit for me. Again, I began to feel desperate; was I destined to work outside of my desired career path forever? I ended up applying for and being offered a position working with the same population as in San Diego, for a lower salary, which I accepted because I did not want to be out of work for an extended period of time again.

I felt frustrated and disappointed; I thought I had wasted my time in San Diego working in a job that did not further my career, and I did not want to spend more time doing the same in Georgia. At the same time, I wanted to contribute financially to my family and did not want to experience the isolation and lack of growth from not engaging in my profession. So, I chose to take the position. I was able to work with youth a few times during my time there, but not nearly to the level that I desired. I continued to look for opportunities for growth, and started to include work I would not have considered a few years prior. I made the decision to change my mindset, to see the difficulties I experienced as an opportunity to expand my horizons, and potentially find new areas for growth. I decided to be flexible and adapt to my circumstances.    

Ultimately, I decided to apply for a position that included management potential and allowed me to work remotely. This meant I could move my job with me wherever we were stationed next, as long as it was within the continental USA. I felt very fortunate to find this position and to have the right set of skills they were looking for, so that I was able to move into the job. I have worked in this position for three years now, staying with the role through another PCS, and have experienced new opportunities and conquered new challenges. I enjoy my work, but still want to get back to working with teens in some capacity someday. As always, I continue to worry about what the next PCS will bring. If we head overseas, I will likely not be able to keep my position. If that happens, it would be back to the drawing board.

Changing my mindset to see the frustrations and limitations of being a military spouse with a career as an opportunity for personal and professional growth gave me the space to try new prospects. This is not to downplay the hardships that I and many military spouses face; I still struggle with whether or not I made the right decision in taking a position outside of my career path. The fact that a military spouses’ employment comes second to our partner’s career is difficult to manage and can lead to stress in our relationships. While other professionals in the civilian world undoubtedly face obstacles to finding satisfying and career-boosting positions, being a military spouse carries with it the additional barrier of not being able to choose where you live, or for how long. This, along with the stress faced by many military spouses who are solo caretakers for their children while their partner is deployed, can cause a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction.  

There are programs available to help military spouses find positions that are in line with their career goals, and to help make transitioning to a new state easier as a licensed professional. However, as a member of a helping profession who works to improve the lives of military families, I think there is more we can do to help military spouses find more meaningful positions that align with their career goals. Supporting a military spouse in increasing their job satisfaction can have a positive effect on the Service member as well. This can include helping spouses build resiliency and adaptability, but it also includes helping make the road to licensure and job searching easier. We need to take care of our military spouses if we are to truly support our uniformed men and women.

Erin Ottenwess is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has worked in the field for nine years. She holds a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Michigan and is currently the Clinical Manager for a federal contract providing behavioral health services for active duty sailors and their families. As the spouse of a Navy officer, she has experienced the ups and downs of the military lifestyle firsthand. Helping military families improve their lives is a passion that she will continue to follow wherever life, and the Navy, takes her.

Related entries:

Staff Perspective: Employment Concerns for Military Spouses
Staff Perspective: Military Family Appreciation - A Focus on Military Spouses
Staff Perspective: Male Military Spouses - "Invisible" Family Members