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Staff Perspective: Pathways to Military Psychology, Part 2

Staff Perspective: Pathways to Military Psychology, Part 2

Regina Shillinglaw, Ph.D.

In my previous entry, I wrote about the top ten things to remember when considering a military internship or a military psychology career. In this post, I think it makes sense to write a bit more about the officer training experience required of all Air Force psychologists. More importantly, I have some “most helpful points” to share from recent graduates.

It used to be the case that newly commissioned Air Force psychologists went to a five-week training experience called Commissioned Officer Training (COT). At that time, new psychology trainees participated in COT with other newly commissioned health care professionals (medical doctors, psychologists, nurses) along with JAG officers (in the legal field) and chaplain officers. However, officers who were taking more operational positions in the Air Force attended a separate Basic Officer Training (BOT), which consisted of more weapons training, additional mock deployment experiences, and a more intense physical training program. A new Officer Training program which begins in January 2019 seeks to more closely align these two programs with the idea being that all Air Force officers need the same degree of operational training. As a result, new psychology trainees will receive more experiences in deployment-related skills and operational readiness than they did previously. The new name for the combination of COT and BOT classes is Total Force Officer Training (TFOT) and will last eight weeks. In the classes that are adjacent to the start of an academic year, interns will be allowed to graduate from TFOT after five weeks in order to arrive at their internship sites on time.

There is a wealth of information online about COT, BOT, and officer training in general. However, I thought it would be interesting and helpful to readers of the blog to hear from interns who have recently been through this training. Therefore, I asked a few recent graduates of COT about their perception of “most helpful” aspects of the experience. When I took my informal survey, some of them literally laughed out loud at the thought of recollecting on the training period as “helpful” because it is definitely one of those life experiences that a person wants to see in the rearview mirror! Don’t get me wrong—it IS helpful (necessary, in fact) and everyone has fond memories and great relationships from officer training. But, it is difficult and kind of a pain in some ways (e.g., the sleep deprivation and requirement to have your dorm room inspected). Given that, let’s hear some of the “most helpful” points from recent COT completers.

Here is a summary of some responses from some recent COT graduates about the most important lessons they gained from COT:

1.Even if you would prefer to ‘fly under the radar’ during COT, you WILL be thrust into some leadership positions. This helped to increase my confidence and communicate well under pressure.
This is a true statement and one to take to heart, especially if you are the type of person who has a harder time taking the lead or being in the spotlight. I personally recall being very homesick during my first two days of COT, and I most certainly wanted to be “invisible” so I could get acclimated to the new environment in private. However, my flight commander decided I should be the ranking trainee of the flight (in spite of my protests) and threw me right in to being a leader and a decision-maker (with his support and the support of the rest of the flight). It turned out to be a great learning experience for me—and, I got over my homesickness much faster as a result!

2. Since there are tests and assignments as well as other tasks, you learn to prioritize importance. Some tasks seem meaningless, but are required, so you learn what really is necessary.”
This is a good skill—prioritization. Not only in the Air Force, but in many domains of life, there is a lot to do and everything is not equally important. Knowing what to do first and what can wait until later is a helpful skill. Officer training helps you prioritize efficiently.

3.COT can bring out the best and the worst in people and I found that my conflict resolution skills were often needed.”
As an Air Force psychologist, managing relationships among teams is a valuable skill that you will bring to the table. Learning to do this begins right away—in officer training!

4. COT helped me to know how to wear the uniform and get used to the idea of being in the Air Force.”
This intern said that it seemed like a small thing to be grateful for, but that it was hugely helpful. Indeed, sometimes the simplest building block can be foundational, and the above observation is an illustration of this. Military indoctrination has been going on for hundreds of years—more than that when you consider other cultures across the globe—and its purpose is to do exactly what this intern noted. The idea is that a newly commissioned officer must change his/her identity to incorporate being a Service member into how he/she sees himself/herself--and behave accordingly: from proper wear of the uniform, observation of customs and courtesies, leadership capability and other aspects of military identity. Certainly, officer training does not complete the job of helping an officer make this transition, but it is a significant and crucial first step.

5.I was glad to see the diversity that there is in the USAF medical field.”
The military in general is a microcosm of the US population representing men and women from various races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, varying socio-economic backgrounds and cultural influences from across the globe. Every day, we encounter diversity among our colleagues and patient population as well as in Service members in other career fields. This is seen as soon as officer training begins.

6. It was fascinating to see Psychology present in so many activities during COT.”
As noted above, being knowledgeable about team behavior is a critical skill that military psychologists bring to the table. Actually, one of the most important roles you could play as a military psychologist is that of consultant. Within the medical community, we offer valuable recommendations about patient compliance, safety, and disease management (just to name a few areas of consultation). Outside of the medical realm, we offer leaders critical information about their troops’ well-being, safety, family needs, work schedules, and other areas of life management. In general, we consult with leaders in and out of the medical community about enhancing performance. Psychology truly is present in almost every aspect of military service.

7. The most helpful aspect of COT was learning to trust myself. To be a good leader, you need to portray confidence, and COT gives a good introduction to that. You have no choice but to trust your body, your mind, and your Wingmen.”
This intern’s “most helpful” point about COT is another foundational point. Officer training will force you to test your limits and push yourself further than you may have done in the past, and this results in greater self confidence. Many psychology doctoral students have confidence in important areas such as academics, people skills, and probably networking. However, military officer training requires trainees to push themselves into possibly uncharted territories such as physical training and exertion, operational functioning (e.g., setting up a hospital for a deployed setting), out-in-front leadership, and on-the-spot decision making, just to name a few. Many of these skills get tested out in front of a team which is different from quietly building skills behind the scenes. While unnerving at first, these kinds of activities do build confidence and help you to rely upon yourself and your teammates.

Hopefully, the above “helpful points about officer training” from recent COT graduates will be useful to those of you who may be hoping or planning to attend COT (or TFOT beginning in the new year) in the future. I will borrow from a recommendation I made in a previous blog about how to approach a military psychology career and suggest that you approach TFOT with a mind of “curiosity and adventure.” You will learn, you will grow, and it will be different from anything you have done before. And, if you are like most, some of the tough experiences along the way will turn out to be the most helpful ones after all.

(See also 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, Part 2 | Center for Deployment Psychology

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