Military Psychologist Career Guide

The Basics

Imagine being deployed with the military and having to leave your family behind. Now imagine being part of a detachment that goes to war, where you witness death and destruction first hand. The stress associated with such a job can easily get to you and cause significant problems in your social, emotional, and mental functioning long after you’ve left the military. Ensuring that soldiers are equipped to deal with the unique stressors of their job both during and after their service is the primary duty of military psychologists.

What is the Role of a Military Psychologist?

Military psychologists have many of the same roles and functions found in traditional settings. Often, military psychologists are called clinical military psychologists because of their emphasis on assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders in military clients. In this capacity, military psychologists offer therapeutic services, such as counseling, as well as training and psychoeducational programs for military personnel, such as substance abuse education classes.

Military psychologists also engage in research. Naturally, military psychologists are interested in topics of research that most often impact members of the military. For example, a military psychologist might explore how different personality types are suited for combat, how to improve the treatment of PTSD, or how to most effectively help military personnel deal with stress.

There are some areas of work that are exclusive to military psychology. Psychologists in this field are often called upon to evaluate officer candidates to determine whether or not they have a psychological profile that will allow them to carry out the duties of their position. Military psychologists also work with recruits and enlisted service members to conduct psychological evaluations, offer emergency and trauma-related services, and organize programs that help military personnel and their families cope with issues related to their service, such as frequent relocations and deployments.

Another aspect of military psychology that sets it apart is that military psychologists spend as much time trying to prevent problems as they do treating problems. Because of the nature of military service, with high levels of stress, the potential for intense combat situations, and the presence of an abundance of weaponry, having personnel that are psychologically healthy and stable is of the utmost importance. As a result, military psychologists develop and implement intervention programs to help service members cope with the stresses of their job in a healthy manner.

What is it Like to be a Military Psychologist?

Practicing psychology in the military can be incredibly rewarding, but also incredibly stressful. Military psychologists have the opportunity to work all over the world and in many different settings, which appeals to many people because of the potential to travel and work with clients in clinics, hospitals, or even on naval vessels or in or near combat zones. Being a military psychologist is also a point of pride for many in the field, because of the importance of the work they do to keep service men and women and their families safe, happy, and mentally healthy.

Being a military psychologist can be incredibly stressful, however. Especially for psychologists that are deployed in combat situations, the day-to-day stressors of facing danger can quickly wear them down. And when psychologists must then also treat military personnel for the mental and emotional traumas that result from combat, the job becomes that much more difficult.

The high-stress environment is not exclusive to combat, however. Many military psychologists work stateside at military bases or hospitals. Clients are often mentally and emotionally broken, with a variety of issues that greatly impact their lives. Progress can be extremely slow at times, and the regulations and red tape that military psychologists must deal with can often lead to additional stress. The rapid increase of suicide among military members is an additional stressor on the minds of military psychologists. As a result, many non-enlisted military psychologists burn out and change careers.

Why Military Psychology is Important?

Military psychology is important for a variety of reasons. First, military psychologists help determine who is fit for service in the military and who poses a risk. This ensures the safety of military personnel and the general public because individuals that have a poor or questionable psychological profile are not accepted into service.

For individuals that serve in the armed forces, military psychologists play an important role in helping them cope with the stresses of the job, both during and after their service. As mentioned above, military psychologists offer intervention programs, such as stress-reduction classes and substance abuse prevention programs, to enlistees and officers to ensure they remain psychologically and emotionally capable of fulfilling their duties.

After military personnel complete their service, military psychologists serve the important function of addressing any issues that might arise as a result of service. Military psychologists are the first line of defense when it comes to helping service men and women readjust to civilian life and cope with their problems in a healthy manner. Thus, military psychologists are necessary to ensure veterans have the resources they need to lead a healthy, happy life.

What Degree is Required to Become a Military Psychologist?

Military psychologists have an extensive education that begins with a bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate studies should focus on psychology, although related areas of study, such as social work, are also appropriate. Most bachelor’s degree programs at public universities require students to meet certain criteria, such as having a minimum 3.0 GPA and 21 on the ACT. Other requirements, such as specific coursework in high school or satisfactory performance on the SAT may also be required.

The next level of education necessary to become a military psychologist is graduate school. While some schools offer military psychology tracks, it is not necessary to major in military psychology in order to practice military psychology. Graduate studies can be in a wide variety of areas, including clinical or counseling psychology, forensic psychology, or neuropsychology, to name a few. Regardless of the area of emphasis, graduate studies will involve advanced coursework in clinical practice and/or research, which will prepare students to conduct their work with competence. Graduate programs usually take at least 2-3 years to complete, depending on the degree program.

Many prospective military psychologists go on to obtain their doctorate. Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs are both popular, with a variety of degree programs available in the military psychology realm. These programs shift focus from coursework-driven studies to actual practice. Internships and post-doctoral placements give students on-the-job experience working with military personnel. The opportunity to conduct research on military psychology topics is also a part of these doctoral programs.

Licensure as a military psychologist requires completion of several criteria. Generally speaking, psychologist licensure is reserved only for individuals that have a doctorate. Licensure requirements typically include at least two years of supervised practice under the direction of a licensed psychologist and a passing score on state and/or national examinations as well.

What are the Differences in the Practice of Military Psychology from that of Civilian Psychology?

A primary difference between military and civilian psychology is that military psychologists work in much different environments. As noted above, military psychologists work in highly specialized locations, such as veterans’ hospitals, aircraft carriers, and active operating bases in combat zones. Additionally, military psychologists work only with military personnel and their families, and rarely, if ever, see clients that are not associated with the armed forces in some manner.

The subject matter that military psychologists and civilian psychologists deal on a day-to-day basis can also be much different. Whereas a civilian psychologist might work with one client that has dissociative identity disorder, then a client that has anorexia, then another client with anger management issues, military psychologists work most often with clients suffering from PTSD, stress, substance abuse issues, and grief. There is also much more of a focus on crisis and emergency interventions in military psychology, due simply to the nature of the work in which military personnel are engaged.

Naturally, working within the realm of the military is a much different situation than working in one’s own practice or as part of a community mental health center. Military psychologists, whether they are enlisted or not, must navigate the distinct culture of the military, deal with decisions made by higher-ranking officials, and operate within military guidelines of treatment.

What is the Average Salary for a Military Psychologist?

Salary of a military psychologist generally depends on the rank that one occupies in the military. In 2011, the average salary for an army captain with a couple of years of experience was around $51,300 per year, whereas a colonel with over 14 years of experience earned around $93,180 per year.

What Careers are Similar to Military Psychology?

Although military psychology is a highly specialized field, there are still a number of other disciplines that are closely related, including:

Military Social Worker – Like military psychologists, military social workers provide counseling and therapeutic services to military personnel. However, military social workers also strive to ease the transition for military service members back to civilian life. This might include helping veterans find educational opportunities, employment, or housing.

Navy Research Psychologist – As the name suggests, Navy research psychologists focus their time and energies on research rather than counseling clients. Workers in this field seek to develop policies and programs to ensure Naval enlistees are properly trained. For example, a navy research psychologist might devise a program to assess the ability of an enlistee to serve in a highly specialized environment, such as a submarine.

Clinical Psychologist – Clinical psychology is the discipline upon which military psychology is based, so there are many commonalities. Clinical psychologists engage clients in therapy and counseling, as well as psychoeducational courses and trainings to prevent and treat mental and emotional issues. Assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders is a common duty of clinical psychologists as well.

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