Probably the very best resource available to graduate students interested in becoming military psychologists today is a program offered by the Center for Deployment Psychology called, The Summer Institute: Preparing for a Career in the Armed Forces. In 1998 when I was a graduate student contemplating internships, life was somewhat different. We did have cars, running water, and the Internet, but we did not have smart phones. In fact, most of us didn’t even have cell phones. We had cordless phones at home. If you wanted to send a quick message to a friend that meant sending an email and waiting for a reply - possibly for hours. When we wanted to research internship sites, we actually had to go to the school library and pull out books that listed all of the APA and APPIC approved internships. Good schools also kept files with paper brochures about internship sites and their contact information. If you were really lucky, your internship site had a website that provided helpful information as well, but that was not a sure thing back then. If your chosen internship site was in, say Boise, Idaho, good luck trying to find useful information online about living in your dream city. To be fair, some cities likely had great websites in 1998, but the availability of information at your fingertips was nowhere near what it is today. I can vividly recall the hunger with which I tried to find pictures or descriptions online or in travel books about the cities I was considering moving to for internship. There was never enough information to satisfy my curiosity.
Adding to my frustration and anxiety about choosing the best internship sites and how to rate them was the fact that 1999 would be the first year that psychology would participate in the computer match program. All of my peers from the years ahead of me in school had waited by the phone on match day and negotiated with all of the sites offering them a spot and made their decision sometime over the course of the day after multiple phone calls. My class would simply wake up and at approximately 10 a.m. (maybe it was 9 – I cannot remember), we would get an email telling us what site we had matched to. Your decision needed to be strong and clear when you submitted your ranking preferences prior to match day because there would be no last-minute decision making, haggling, or changing your mind. The computer would do it for you.
In the spring of 1998, I had decided to consider applying to the Navy for internship. My spouse was a Marine Corps officer, and the military seemed like a great training opportunity according to their brochure. However, I had to choose between different locations, and I wasn’t really sure what a military internship would entail. More intriguing for me was trying to find out what my duties as a military psychologist might be after internship. I was desperate to find out what my life would be like as a Navy psychologist and where I might get stationed. This was like trying to find a unicorn wearing a wreath of four-leaf clovers. The closest I got was somehow I obtaining a list of psychology billets with exotic locations and strange titles that were completely unhelpful. The titles were extremely cool sounding, like SEAL Team psychologist, but they told me nothing about who could be given those assignments or what they entailed.
In all honesty I’m making myself sound less informed than I probably was, but I vividly remember my desire for more information as I made a decision to sign up for four-plus years of military service. I did call the training directors and worked closely with a recruiter. And that year I was blessed enough to have a recruiter who had funds to fly me, all-expense-paid, to my Navy interviews and escort me – providing a very well-informed tour guide and source of information about what it was like to be an officer. Plus, I was married to an officer. But neither my spouse nor my recruiter could tell me all that I longed to know about military psychology. I wanted to know things like what tests I would be expected to administer on internship, what should I study or learn to prepare for my internship, how would my practical experience be viewed on internship interviews, what therapies should I study to be better equipped for the military population (the list went on and on…). By the time I was able to meet the training directors, I had already submitted my application for commissioning as a Navy Officer and been processed into the military (one of the more awkward experiences of my life at age 27, as it involved walking like a duck in only my underwear with a group of scared girls all 10 years younger than me, in addition to other poking and prodding by medical professionals) all of which came before I submitted my internship application.
Current graduate students interested in joining the military as psychologists have many more avenues for information than I did back in 1998. One of the most exciting current sources of information is the Center for Deployment Psychology’s The Summer Institute: Preparing for a Career in the Armed Forces. This is a one-week opportunity for graduate students in their second through fourth years of school to come to Washington D.C. for one week in the summer and learn about military psychology, meet training directors from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and learn about specific evidence-based assessments and treatments used by military psychologists. In addition, students will spend the week interacting with current and former military psychologists who can offer a wealth of knowledge about the diverse and rewarding opportunities available to uniformed providers. This would have been like winning the lottery for me back in 1998.
Each year as I watch The Summer Institute unfold I feel a twinge of envy towards the students as they make friends with like-minded peers from around the country, learn information that will help them choose clinical practice opportunities to enhance their eligibility and competitiveness for military internships, and attend one of their first professional trainings geared directly to their training level and career interest in serving military patients.
In 2018, for the first time, participants will also be given a one-day training in evidence-based treatment of suicidal patients, something that every internship I applied to asked about, and I felt under-prepared for back in the last millennium.
The experiences available to students at The Summer Institute extend far beyond anything one can get using the Internet and their smart phones. I highly encourage any graduate student seriously considering joining the military to apply for The Summer Institute – it’s a phenomenal way to kick-start your military career.
Libby Parins, Psy.D., is a former Navy psychologist. She has been with the CDP since 2007 working at Navy and Army Psychology Internship programs. Currently Dr. Parins is the Assistant Director of Civilian Training Programs at CDP. She loves talking with graduate students and new psychologists interested in careers in the military. If you would like to contact her she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.