Preparing to Serve

How to become a military psychologist.

Posted Jun 22, 2015

I previously authored a blog describing the field of military psychology. To summarize, military psychology is an especially broad and diverse area of psychology because it subsumes all of psychology’s traditional sub-disciplines. It is the focus on the relevance to the military that ties these sub-disciplines together to form the field of military psychology. Thus, to call oneself a military psychologist provides little information about the sort of psychologist you may be. Because of the challenges and adversity of nearly 14 years of war, clinical psychology and its role in helping military members and their families deal with repeated combat deployments is easily recognized by the general public as a major component of military psychology. What is less clearly obvious to the general public is that biological, cognitive, social, industrial/organizational, and human factors psychologists – just to name a few – also contribute to military psychology.

Public domain
Source: Public domain

               Given this diversity within the discipline, it is not surprising to learn that military psychologists work in a variety of settings including hospitals and clinics, laboratories, and academic institutions. Moreover, military psychologists may either actively serve in the military, or they may be civilians whose skills and expertise are relevant to one or more aspects of the discipline. Besides those who are in the military, others work as civilian employees of the military (for example, I am a Department of Army psychologist employed to teach at West Point) in a wide variety of capacities, as teachers and scholars at traditional universities, in government or private laboratories, in industry, or as specialists who contract with the military to offer service or research. It is hard to imagine a field that offers more diverse opportunities for psychologists than military psychology.

                I am often asked by undergraduate and graduate students, as well as by people who already have an advanced degree in psychology, how to become a military psychologist. An inspection of the American Psychological Association’s Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology reveals virtually no graduate programs that specifically call themselves “military psychology.” If one aspires to be a clinical psychologist or a social psychologist, by contrast, there are scores or even hundreds of programs to consider. So what is the best advice to give or to follow for becoming a military psychologist?

                The first thing I do is to make sure they understand the broad nature of military psychology, much as I have briefly described above. Most interested parties find this discussion empowering because it allows them to focus on the sub-discipline of psychology for which they have the greatest passion, but making it relevant to military psychology through the way they frame their studies. A student interested in clinical psychology, therefore, can enroll in a doctoral program that teaches them the requisite skills need to be a clinical psychologist, and along the way toward their doctorate they can seek out opportunities to gain experience with military members, their families, or veterans. In conducting research and writing papers within specific courses, they may work with the faculty to develop themes and content that are military relevant but that also reinforce the general concepts, skills, and knowledge required to be a competent clinical psychologist. Their dissertation and internships may also be designed to establish professional expertise within a military context. The same can be said about other areas of psychology. Graduate students in industrial/organizational psychology may frame their work in a military context (after all, there are few organizations that are as large and complex as the military). Human factors engineering students can find research topics that help them understand design principles but apply these principles to military systems. 

                Based on this perspective, I advise aspiring military psychologists to (1) find out what sub-discipline of psychology in which they have the most passion, and (2) find a graduate program that can frame the content of their work in a military context. The second objective requires that prospective graduate students carefully look at the academic and clinical interests of faculty members at a given institution. They may be able to find faculty with a record of scholarship or practice within a military context. Universities situated near large concentrations of military personnel may be more likely to have clinical faculty with ties to the military, or researchers whose research is funded by the military.

                The most important advice I offer is to become the very best psychologist you can be. Get the best education possible, make the most of your graduate experience, and immerse yourself in clinical skills development and/or research. In the end, what the military needs are competent psychologists with a desire to support the needs of the military. While gaining domain expertise (that is, working explicitly with military populations or research questions) may be desirable in graduate school, a strong foundation in the science and profession of psychology – even in the absence of extensive domain-relevant education – will set up the new graduate for success as a military psychologist.

                I also like to direct people to the student chapter of the Society for Military Psychology, Division 19 of the American Psychological Association. With sub-chapters at many universities across the United States, this group of psychology students (mostly graduate students, but undergraduates can also join) offers a rich source of mentoring and professional development. The student chapter offers grants to support research projects among its members, and offers dynamic ways for its members to become increasingly involved in military psychology, across all areas of psychology. Student members receive the journal Military Psychology and the Division’s official newsletter The Military Psychologist as part of their membership privileges. Many of its members, upon receiving their graduate degrees, enter into jobs in military psychology.

                I also recommend joining APA Division 19’s Facebook group. They frequently post job offerings, research and internship opportunities, and discussions about issues of contemporary relevance to military psychologists. Like the student chapter, it can serve as a base of networking and building “situational awareness” about the field.

                In closing, there is no set path to becoming a military psychologist. Becoming a competent psychologist with a passion for the discipline in general is essential. Explore the various ways that psychologists can contribute to the needs of the military. Be active in APA Division 19, and begin building your professional network. With a combination of passion and clear cut goals, military psychology has a place for just about anything you might want to accomplish in a career as a psychologist.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.