Career Center

Erica Jarrett, PhD

As a health psychologist in training, Erica Jarrett, PhD, never saw herself working for the military. A hospital, clinic or health center, sure. Or better yet, the federal government. But now, nine years postdoctorate, here she is treating military families in the General Internal Medicine outpatient clinic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and she's been doing it for seven years.

She had no idea how much she'd like the work.

"It's extremely rewarding," Jarrett says of her job as chief of Walter Reed's Health Psychology Service. "I have lots of latitude integrating health psychology services throughout several medical specialty clinics. It's interesting work and I get to see people developing resilience — finding their way back to their former emotional and physical selves."

Jarrett is among the 7 percent of APA members who work with or for the U.S. Department of Defense. But it might come as a surprise that she isn't a uniformed officer; she's one of many who serve as civilians. A case in point is the U.S. Army. Of the 600 clinical psychologists it employs, three quarters are civilians, according to the Army surgeon general's office. Another surprise: Preparing for, and securing, these civilian slots is not as difficult as you might think. As with most jobs, landing one takes a basic understanding of what's available and some strategic smarts that they don't put in your grad school handbook.

The civilian option

Why choose to serve as a civilian? The ability to remain a private citizen is often a big driver, says Will Wilson, PhD, past president of APA's Div. 19 (Society for Military Psychology). Some — like Jarrett — would rather avoid the uncertainty of being deployed anywhere, any time, possibly into war zones.

And while being sent around the world might appeal to those seeking adventure, the constant uprooting can be tough if you have children and an employed spouse, says Wilson.

If you're interested in the more stationary civilian route, you have options:

  • Direct employment by DoD. The military employs psychologists from many specialties, including child psychology neuropsychology and psycho-oncology. It also hires psychologists to conduct industrial/organizational and human factors research and consulting. Soldier-recruitment studies are typical, as are analyses of how soldiers will operate new military equipment, says Bill Strickland, PhD, a Div. 19 officer who served in the Air Force and is president of the Human Resources Research Organization, based in Alexandria, Va.

    "Do you really need a uniformed person to do lab research?" asks Strickland. "No. You need people who will be there 10 or 15 years and understand the whole research and grants system."

    Incentives: Civilians get promoted more often, says Strickland. They generally cruise through the military grades — or salary tiers — faster than officers do, he says. Another bonus: Researchers working in DoD labs typically don't need to run after external grants or worry about staffing and operating costs, says Mike Matthews, PhD, a Div. 19 past president. For instance, when Matthews worked for the Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences, the institute had a budget of around $23 million a year of research funding. With such resources, the 75 civilian psychologists employed there rarely had to seek external funding.

  • Contract appointment with DoD. Contracted employees do the same work as full time DoD psychologists, but they're employed by an agency that operates a government contract with the DoD. Jarrett, for example, started her tenure at Walter Reed as a contracted employee, then was hired directly by DoD two years later.

    Incentives: Contract positions give you a possible inside track into military work and can turn into direct military employment. Or, if you're not sure about military employment, contracting can give you a taste.

  • Serving DoD personnel off-base. Many soldiers balk at seeking psychological services inside the military because they worry about being stigmatized or exposed, notes Larry C. James, PhD, president of Div. 19 and dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University.

    Even though therapist-patient privilege is protected in the military under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as it is in the civilian world, service members must sign a waiver allowing providers to share session content with commanding officers if a patient might endanger the success of a military mission, for example. These guidelines apply to both civilian and military psychologists, but many service members seem to be more comfortable going the civilian route.

    "Most [military personnel] still will go off the bases for services," says James. "Some will even drive an hour for counseling."

    Incentive: The need is huge, says James. Thousands of officers are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

How you get there

You don't need specific doctoral training to work for the military, but there are some strategic ways to find mentors and groom yourself for these positions:

Seek training from deployment psychology centers. Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., and spread throughout the country, these training programs prepare behavioral health professionals for work with soldiers and their families. The training is free and some of it is available online and in conjunction with APA for continuing-education credit.

Join APA's Div. 19. With membership in APA's Society for Military Psychology comes access to 400-plus military insiders with plenty of advice and job tips. Students pay $10 to join; APA members and affiliates pay $27 to join.

Secure a military-associated predoctoral internship or postdoctoral fellowship. Many Veterans Affairs hospitals offer predoctoral internships and postdoctoral positions. The Army and Navy also offer internships, but require active duty service as part of the package.

Look in the right places for jobs. The go-to place for military listings is the USAJOBS website. The Navy has its own jobs site. If you're interested in I/O or human factors, check the individual military research labs.

It also can't hurt to peruse the usual listings, including newspaper classifieds and PsycCareers, APA's online job-seeking service. After all, an unassuming newspaper ad led Erica Jarrett to her contractor-turned-psychology chief position at Walter Reed.

Bridget Murray Law is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.