Staff Perspective: Pathways to Military Psychology

Staff Perspective: Pathways to Military Psychology

Regina Shillinglaw, Ph.D.

When thinking about what to write as a blog entry related to Pathways to Military Psychology, I came up with a blank at first. I could not figure out the reason for this, because I spend most of my workdays steering doctoral Psychology interns toward independent practice as military psychologists. Then I realized that part of my brain freeze may be due to overload: this is one of our busiest times of year in the internship program. We are in the middle of our APA re-accreditation process AND it is application time! ‘Tis the season—for making merry, evaluating intern applications and trying to select the strongest class possible for the 2019-20 class. Once I realized this, I had an idea and asked myself: What do prospective interns need to know about what military psychology entails? It would be impossible to include all answers to this question in a blog, but I was able to boil down some of the highlights from my perspective into these ten points.

Top ten things to remember as you consider a military internship:

1. Do your homework.
As with any big decision, it is important to do your research and find out all you can about what it’s like to embark on a military internship and military psychology career. I think that most intern applicants have done this kind of research before in their lives when investigating grad programs, practicum sites, and other opportunities. However, I continue to hear about applicants who have not learned enough about the job before actually applying. So, what does good research look like? Good research involves talking to people, for the most part. Begin by talking with a Health Professions recruiter, but don’t stop there. In general, recruiters know about general military requirements, but less about the psychology requirements. After talking with a recruiter, you want to look at websites and written material from the internships. Next, talk to training directors, military psychologists, and current military interns. This is an integral part of becoming informed about the job. Also, go visit the sites of interest if you can. You definitely want to do this if you get invited to an Open House during the application season. Most sites would be happy to give you a visit and a tour outside of this. Just call and ask!

2. You have to join the military.
It seems that this would go without saying, but every now and then someone overlooks this not-so-minor point. In order to complete a doctoral Psychology internship with any branch of service (i.e., Army, Navy, Air Force), you must apply for and be awarded a commission in that service (and be accepted into the Psychology internship). In other words, you must be on active duty. This means that you are a Service member for the duration of your commitment, and you are subject to the privileges and responsibilities of an active duty member. It is not a job you can quit if you change your mind, so take it seriously! As a military member, you will likely be deployed at some point in your career (not during internship). This means that you may get sent to places where there is a war going on. This is a highly rewarding experience, but it is not an experience that non-military psychologists have (for the most part). Some people would not consider military psychology because of this fact alone. Make sure you can see yourself doing this if you are considering military psychology. It is important to ask questions about this when talking to military psychologists.

3. It does not have to be a life-long commitment.
In spite of all the recommendations in #2 above, military psychology does not have to be a life-long commitment. It is perfectly okay to accept a military internship if accepted, complete your service commitment (ask your recruiter about details regarding this), and then get out. Of course, those of us who train military psychologists hope for retention so that we can keep psychologists who have the skills and time in service. And, in reality, lots of people join thinking they will complete their commitment and then move on—but then they come to realize the benefits of being a military psychologist (professional and personal ones) and stay for a 20+ year career! When making your decisions about internship and the early stages of your career, it is perfectly acceptable to “try it on” for the first term and go from there.

4. You will be challenged.
I completed a military internship (although it was a while back—1997-98), so I do not have a great point of reference from experience about comparing the effort put in to a military internship vs a civilian one. However, I know that getting in to the military internships is difficult, and my experience tells me that a military internship is not for someone who is seeking the easiest road. The hours are sometimes long and the expectation is excellence. On the other hand, military internships do not put the main focus on “output” in terms of patient load. Instead, they put the main focus on training the interns. That said, learning how to be a professional military psychologist means you have to know how to manage a robust caseload, so interns are expected to learn how to do this. Another challenging point about being a military psychology intern is that you will be in your final year of your doctoral clinical training AND learning how to do so in the military context. It is a lot to do in a year! The Army will offer the option of a two-year experience, and that surely has its benefits. Again, this is a point you want to consider when deciding whether or not to apply and what branch(es) to consider.

5. You will be rewarded.
Being an Air Force psychologist was definitely a rewarding time in my career. I found it challenging, fun, and exciting. I also noted that it was a lot of work and I had more responsibility than my grad school peers from the beginning of my career. This, to me, was rewarding. If you would find this to be a drawback, military psychology is probably not a good fit for you. Military interns begin their process with officer training, and this is where the reward begins! It is difficult mentally and physically, and interns learn right away to push themselves, lead, and follow effectively. This learning curve continues in the internship year with all sites pushing interns to learn more and maximize their skills. However, you have the support and foundation of your supervisors and peers so you are not “going it alone.” After internship, the teamwork continues when you become part of a mental health clinic at your next assignment. Again, much is expected of all team members but there is always someone to turn to for support, consultation, advice. One of the most rewarding parts of military life is the camaraderie and relationships that you can build. Another important point about the rewards of military psychology include the outstanding pay and benefits that they receive—for the Service member and family members/dependents.

6. It is all-or-nothing.
In our line of work, we often teach clients how to NOT think in “all or nothing” terms. But….sometimes situations are all-or-nothing. Such is the case with becoming a military psychologist. Refer to bullet point # 2 above: you have to join the military. This is a commitment that is not necessarily for a life-long career, but it is for several years (ask your recruiter about specific number). Barring some event that results in an early separation from your initial service commitment, you will be obligated to the military until the end of your commitment. The overwhelming majority of people see this as a huge benefit (i.e., a great steady job for several years after internship), but others do not. Refer to bullet point #1 above. Do your homework to make sure that this is a path for you!

7. You don’t know what you don’t know.
During internship (and life), there are times when you will not have all the information. Since you will be doing your research about military psychology (bullet point #1 above), you will be as prepared as a person can be to launch onto this career trajectory. I encourage you to talk to more experienced (often older) people in making this decision, and to continue to rely on them. During internship and throughout your career you will have the opportunity (and obligation) to listen to and follow the guidance from supervisors, more senior psychologists, and people who have “been there before.” Always keep your critical thinking skills handy, and consider situations from multiple perspectives. Try to not get entrenched in your way of seeing things to the exclusion of considering the perspectives of others—even if you are committed to your view. Time has a way of showing all of us that being open to others’ views is almost always the better way, even if we return to a previously held belief or opinion. Lifelong learning happens when we think critically, listen to each other, and remain open to what differences can teach us.

8. You won’t be going it alone.
Refer to #5 above. Teamwork is a foundation of military service. This is true in the infantry, on submarines, in aircraft, in medical care, and in all military environments. Part of learning to be a psychologist is learning the professional skills of consultation, supervision, being a part of the team. The same is true in military psychology—there is always someone there to help you if you reach out. Even if you are the lone psychologist in a deployed location, you can call, Skype, or email with someone for consultation or just a conversation. In the clinic in which I work, we are always busy training residents, seeing patients, doing training, responding to crises, etc. Sometimes it gets overwhelming but the constant positive is the cohesion among the team. Of course, we are not all best friends and sometimes disagree, but there is a sense that we are working toward the same goal, even when we may have different opinions. My observation is that many military psychology environments are this way—a group of dedicated, hard working professionals who have fun at work, too!

9. It is a great platform.
Having done a military psychology internship, you will have many doors open to you that you may not have had open otherwise. Of course, there is the obvious benefit of having a great secure job for the three + years after internship with the possibility of a 20 + year career. But even if you serve your initial commitment and choose to move into the civilian sector, your CV will boast experiences that illustrate outstanding training, unique levels of responsibility, and experiences that other psychologists have not had. This sets you apart from colleagues and makes you a more competitive applicant when/if you decide to apply for another job.

10. Like life, it will have ups and downs.
If you do embark on a military psychology career, I encourage you to approach it with a mind of adventure and curiosity. It will be a new experience, even if you have prior military service in some other career field (and most interns do not). You are in for a treat in the form of a culture change (the military is its own culture!); a growth curve (you will push yourself and do things you may have not thought possible!); an additional family (see bullet #8 above); new experiences (both in and out of psychology); and the chance to really be part of something bigger than yourself.

So, there you have it. As I said initially, there are certainly more pieces of information to know if you are considering applying for a military internship. But, hopefully this top ten list will get you thinking, get you asking, and get you excited about the possibility of taking this step. Now, I have more internship applications to review!

(The follow-up to this entry can be found here Pathways to Military Psychology, Part 2. You may also be interested in Dr. Deb Nofziger's entry Staff Perspective: Becoming an Active Duty Behavioral Health Provider – An Unpreparable Journey)

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Regina Shillinglaw, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She is currently located at the Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Ohio.

Staff Perspective: Pathways to Military Psychology | Center for Deployment Psychology


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