How to Become a Military Psychologist
Psychology is a broad field of study with many different avenues and opportunities available to its dedicated scholars. One setting in which psychologists are in demand is in the military.
There are many active personnel, veterans, and their family members who are looking for help treating their mental and emotional health. The United States military has opened a lot to the idea of utilizing psychologists to treat their personnel and are taking an active approach in developing research-backed techniques for counseling personnel.
Military personnel rely on psychologists to help them cope with many mental and emotional conditions, and this is a field with an increasing demand for such specialists. If you are thinking of becoming a military psychologist, here is everything you need to know before you get started on your career path.
Overview: What is a Military Psychologist?
A military psychologist is someone who works within a specialized branch of psychology, serving in any segment of the Armed Forces. They treated active personnel, retired veterans, and their family members. They do everything from performing psychological evaluations to counseling clients.
Military psychologists can work in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. Active and retired personnel, as well as their families, experience trauma related to their work that military psychologists are specially trained to treat. The Military has utilized military psychologists for decades, but it is now incredibly common and normalized for personnel to seek help.
The career outlook for military psychologists can vary somewhat. Given that active-duty service, National Guard, and reserve members are able to access a lot of counseling services for free, there is a high demand for military psychologists who can treat them. There are well over 1,000 clinics, Veterans Crisis Line services, and clinics available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In 2021 alone, over 1.7 million military veterans received mental health care through the VA. Since the screening of veterans for potential mental and emotional health conditions has increased, numbers of veterans treated each year continue to rise.
You can work for an independent practice contracted through TRICARE or through the government itself. Employment in this field is projected to rise by 23% from 2020 to 2030, earning a median annual income of $48,520.
The salary for a military psychologist can vary a little bit based on which branch of the military you enter. The median income for a clinical psychologist serving as a 0-1 second lieutenant commissioned officer is $39,444 in the U.S. Airforce. Serving as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army has a starting salary of $39,445 while the U.S. Navy has a starting pay of $33,949. There can be some incentive pay, board certification pay; and other bonus pay that do not get factored into these base pay rates.
Furthermore, as a May 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicates, there is an earned a median salary of $78,200 for civilian clinical and counseling psychologists. If you decide to just work as a social worker, you can expect to earn an annual average income of $50,390. A non-military psychologist has an annual average income of $81,040.
How to Become a Military Psychologist
Earn a bachelor’s degree
You can become a military psychologist after completing your graduate and post-graduate education. Students start off by earning their bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Most major in Psychology and/or minor in a specific field of study in Psychology.
Earn a master’s degree
From there, you might go on to pursue a master’s degree in either clinical or counseling psychology. This type of program takes about two years to complete, although there are some accelerated programs out there. You might take these courses at a traditional college or university or at a military school. If you choose the latter, you might have your tuition and living expenses covered during your time there by the military.
Earn a PhD or PsyD
Finally, you will need to go on to get your PhD or PsyD from an accredited program. This can take anywhere from two to four years. You will also likely have to complete an internship prior to beginning your career as a military psychologist. This internship generally lasts for about one year, and you will be able to pick the military branch that you would like to work in.
Day in the Life
Military psychologists have busy days – there is no doubt about that. They perform multiple tasks on a regular basis, including performing psychological assessments, conducting research on various projects (especially those involving post-traumatic stress disorder), and treating mental and emotional conditions in active and retired personnel and their families.
Some military psychologists conduct pre-enlistment mental health screenings that reflect how mentally and emotionally capable these recruits will be in their military roles. The military can make for a high-stress career, so those who enlist need to be able to handle stress well. These evaluations also help place recruits into military roles that are best suited to their unique characteristics and goals.
When counseling military personnel, military psychologists are required to assess, diagnose, and treat everyone’s mental and emotional health. There are some common issues that come up for military personnel, including:
- Sleep disturbances
Military psychologists can provide different types of counseling, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. This can be conducted in an individual, family, or group setting. It all depends on what the military psychologist deems most effective and what the person being treated is comfortable with doing. What’s more, these personnel may receive treatment at any time – prior to deployment, while on active duty, or after returning home from deployment.
Military psychologists see a lot of parents, spouses, and children of enlisted personnel and veterans, too. Family members experience a vast array of different emotions and mental health conditions, especially related to the deployment of their loved ones who have enlisted. Those who have lost loved ones might need grief counseling to help them process some incredibly difficult emotions.
Military psychologists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, military bases, military clinics, and government-run research facilities. During wartime, they can be required to travel with the troops on deployment. They might either stay on base with the troops or somewhere nearby where they can easily access the base as needed.
Licensure, Certifications and Continuing Education
After you complete your post-doctoral internship program, you will need to apply for licensure. You will need to pass the certification exams before you can apply for licensure. Then, you will need to apply for and earn any additional certifications for specializations you wish to pursue. There are specialization options for military psychology that you should probably pursue.
It is important that military psychologists stay up to date on trends and research being done in the field of military psychology. Continuing your education and attending national and international conferences can help you broaden your knowledge and share your own work with others. This will give you the opportunity to network with others in your field and outside of it, helping to open new ideas for research, development, and implementation of psychological best practices for military personnel.
There are some unique licensing requirements for military psychologists, as they must be able to support the health care program known as TRICARE, which is given to active military personnel and their families. You will need to pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). There will also be state-specific licensing requirements.
Military personnel need highly educated and well-trained military psychologists to help them cope with the extremely difficult emotional and mental issues that serving in the armed forces can cause. In the past, the United States Armed Forces served as a pioneer for things like intelligence testing and psychological screening processes. These days, things are different regarding how recruits are assessed and treated, but the importance of psychology is still at the forefront of the military’s approach to caring for their personnel.
Becoming a military psychologist takes time. You can expect to be in school for at least eight years, if not longer. Then, you must factor in a year-long internship that will help you gain necessary experience prior to sitting for licensure exams. You will get the chance to explore how you wish to specialize prior to licensure and continuing your education throughout the span of your career as a military psychologist is highly encouraged.
This is a career meant for those who have an innate desire to help people who are under immense pressure. You, too, will find yourself dealing with pressure from your job, so you will have to be able to apply your knowledge of coping skills to yourself as well as to the clients with whom you work. It is indeed hard work, but it is ultimately rewarding for those determined to help others in need.