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The Career Column: An Officer and a Psychologist

Lynn A. McFarland
Clemson University

Were all too familiar with the issues the U.S. military and its soldiers are currently facing. The news has covered everything from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse to how our soldiers are coping with being away from home for such long periods of time. Questions arise as to how military leadership can be improved, ways we might better prepare soldiers for deployments, and what we can do to facilitate their transition back to civilian life. Clearly many of these questions relate to the type of work I-O psychologists perform, and the military employs psychologists to answer just these types of questions. But, being a psychologist in the military is not your run-of-the-mill career path. In fact, very few folks go into this type of work. Given that our military has been the focus of so much attention lately, it would be worthwhile to examine those among us who do this kind of research in the military to understand this career path and what benefits or disadvantages it may entail. 

To learn about this unique career path, I spoke with four psychologists who currently work or have worked on I-O related issues as officers in the military: Paul Bliese, Tom Britt, Michael Grojean, and Darren Ritzer. Given that each of these individuals came about being military psychologists in very different ways, its interesting to review how each of them came to be in the military and where they are now. 

Paul, Tom, and Darren were in the Medical Service Corps and worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), which is part of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. Paul never considered joining the military until after he completed graduate school. In conducting his job search, he ran across some researchers at the WRAIR and joined because he thought the work would be interesting and allow him the opportunity to conduct research and publish. When individuals join the Medical Service Corps, direct commissionees do not enter as typical recruits in the sense of going to boot camp. Rather, there is a 6- to 7-week officer basic course that teaches the fundamentals of being a Medical Service Corp officer. Thus, after the relatively short officer basic course, Paul immediately began working as a researcher. Paul notes that he initially only planned on staying with the Army for 3 years, but 12 years later hes still with them. Paul is currently a major in the Army and is commanding the U.S. Army Medical Research UnitEurope, which is a special foreign activity of the WRAIR. The research unit is located in Heidelberg, Germany. 

Tom Britt was awarded an ROTC scholarship in college. After he graduated, he owed the Army 4 years. However, he took an education delay to go to graduate school and get a degree in social psychology. After graduating, he was assigned to WRAIR in Washington DC and was later stationed at the research unit in Heidelberg, Germany. While in DC, Tom adjuncted at George Mason University and is now a civilian and tenured associate professor in Clemson Universitys I-O psychology program.

Darren Ritzer got involved in the army through ROTC, which he used to pay for his undergraduate education. Like Tom, he also owed the Army 4 years of active duty after college and was originally assigned as a military police officer. He then got an educational delay to go to graduate school for his PhD. The Army gave him 5 years to get his degree, and then he went back to fulfill his obligation. When he returned he found he was a Medical Service Corps officer working at Walter Reed. While serving, Darren adjuncted at George Mason University. Before leaving the military he achieved the rank of major. When he decided to become a civilian he took a tenure-track position at Winthrop University in the psychology department. 

Unlike Darren, Tom, and Paul, Mike was not affiliated with WRAIR during his military career. Mike is a former U.S. Army Major with 23 years of active service in the military. His father was in the armed forces and therefore it was natural he join after high school. While serving, he took college courses on the weekends and got a BS in human resources management. He was then selected to teach at West Point, which meant he was given 2 years to obtain a masters degree in one of the top five I-O programs in the country. Given his interest in leadership, he chose the University of Maryland. In just 2 years he was ABD and finished his dissertation while teaching at West Point. Hes now the director of the Aston Centre for Leadership Excellence in the business school at Aston University in the UK. The Guardian recently wrote a story about Mike. If youd like to learn more about how he got involved with the military and what hes doing now, just go the following Web site: http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,,1223488,00.html.

As Mike notes, the big difference between those working at WRAIR and those who go through his track (advanced civil schooling or ACS) is that those at WRAIR are a part of the Medical Service Corps of the Army and typically get their PhDs before entering service or shortly thereafter. Those going through ACS typically have served 5 to 7 years in a function branch (e.g., infantry, armor, etc.) and then are selected based on merit to attend graduate school to ultimately teach in the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership at West Point. 

The funny thing is that three out of the four I spoke with had no idea they would end up a researcher when they joined the military. It was just something that happened. In fact, neither Tom nor Darren realized they were to be working under the Medical Service Corps when they graduated. But all agree the journey worked out well for them, and they gained considerable experience that prepared them for their civilian lives. They were also able to contribute to the military in a unique way.

Nature of the Job

There are not many research psychologists in the Medical Service Corps of the Army. In fact, there are only about 30, so it is a rather unique position to be in! Whats it like being an officer and a psychologist, you ask? It is very different from civilian life. I think Darren put it best when he noted the big difference is that, unlike a civilian organization, the Army really owns you. There are physical standards, behavioral standards, and more restrictions than you find in the real world. Officers have to pass a physical fitness test twice a year. There can be a fair amount of travel and the Army can essentially send them anywhere they want (though most research psychologists end up at either WRAIR in DC or in Heidelberg, Germany). 

On the other hand, this particular type of job is perfect for someone who enjoys conducting applied research. Those working under the Medical Service Corps are encouraged to conduct research and to publish their work. In fact, in some ways its like having a well-paid post-docno teaching is required, only research. The problems research psychologists focus on are applied. However, with only 30 research psychologists, the implementation of research-based solutions is generally coordinated through other Army organizations. Although research psychologists in the military are not generally the ones doing the broad-scale application of what they learn from their research, Tom notes they do make the results of their research available to commanders and others who implement findings. Thats where the applied value of the research comes in.

For someone like Mike who was at West Point, he certainly was required to teach but was also given a large research staff. So, again he was able to get a good deal of research conducted and in fact that was a part of his job. 

It should be noted that to be a research psychologist in the military, you must have a PhD. Those with masters degrees could be assigned anywhere in the Army and would only end up in a research position by chance. 

With all of this research being conducted, what are they actually studying? As Darren notes, because WRAIR is a part of the Medical Research and Material Command most of the research they do focuses on health. Broadly speaking, Paul notes that research psychologists work in one of three areas. The first is in the applied behavioral science area focusing on social and organizational issues that impact health such as occupational stress, combat/deployment stress, leadership, unit cohesion, and individual risk factors such as adaptability and resilience. A large focus of this work is to develop and test interventions to improve soldier health and performance. For example, Tom was involved with a longitudinal study of U.S. peacekeepers who deployed to Bosnia. The goals were to establish baseline values of work attitudes, motivation, and psychological/physical health prior to deployment, in order to assess changes in these variables during deployment and then following deployment. He also examined the types of experiences during deployment that were related to thriving after deployment. The second area where research psychologists work is in physiological psychology. In this area, research psychologists work to develop new ways to protect soldiers from neurological injury in addition to examining the neuropsychological and behavioral effects of various chemical agents. The third key area where research psychologists work is in the area of sleep and performance. This work involves modeling the effects of sleep restriction and sleep deprivation on cognitive performance, and developing and testing new ways to maintain performance and manage sleep regiments. Further, because Mike was selected to teach leadership and behavioral science, most of his work focused on leadership development. 

Pros and Cons of an Officers Life

Like any career path, there are pros and cons to the life of a military psychologist. First, in terms of disadvantages or cons, there is the issue of the military owning you. This can be problematic if you dont like being told what to do or are very much attached to your autonomy. As with any organization, however, there is some degree of negotiation between the needs and interests of the individual and the needs of the organization, so individuals certainly do maintain some degree of autonomy. After ones initial 3- or 4-year obligation, for instance, one is generally free to leave the military at any time. Second, moving and traveling frequently can be a problem as well. Although there have historically been fewer moves for individuals in the Medical Service Corps than for individuals in other areas of the Army, traveling both nationally and internationally can occur. For instance, Darren traveled to Bosnia (three times), the Middle East, Germany, Italy, and all over the U.S. He was away from home for up to 7 months at a time! This amount of travel can be tough, specially for those who have families and those trying to develop a research program. On the other hand, depending on where you are in your life and career, the travel may be a desirable characteristic of the job. It can serve as an opportunity to learn new things and face new challenges. Third, the military is an organization based on rank progression, so it is possible to have ones military career ended by an inability to achieve a certain rank. During times of downsizing this has occasionally happened to research psychologists. 

Working in the military as a psychologist also has its advantages. First, those in the Walter Reed group are specifically paid to do research. As Tom notes, research must have direct implications for the military and fit with existing research programs; nonetheless, there has traditionally been enough flexibility in the system to accommodate researchers interests. Second, this can be an interesting and challenging career path. One must learn and adapt to an entirely new culture and address important and challenging problems that are often specific to the military. Third, one unique reward associated with a military career is the expectation that one will have a second career after military retirement (which can occur after 20 years of service). The pension one gets after retirement (for 20 years of service) is generally not enough to quit working, but it does allow for flexibility in second career choices. Finally, theres also the sheer satisfaction you get from knowing the work youre doing is benefiting your government and the soldiers who serve the U.S. military.

In addition to the pros and cons of a military life, I wanted to find out if psychologists in the military face any conflict between their roles as psychologists and their roles as officers. Paul notes that ones professional Army identity is tied to ones rank, so its as if you have two livesones standing in the professional community of I-O psychologists and one in the Army defined to a large degree by rank. Although military research psychologists are required to conduct research and publish (which would certainly benefit them professionally), such efforts may not be linked to promotions. Further, as one gets promoted in the Army there is less time for research. Leadership and administrative roles can begin to take precedence as one moves from conducting research to directing research programs. Paul notes another potential source of conflict research psychologists may encounter is the need to balance applied and basic research demands. Officers are expected to serve as consultants to the Army but also to contribute to the scientific literature by publishing. As many I-O psychologists have experienced, it can be difficult to balance these roles well. 

Transition to Civilian Life

I also wanted to find out how difficult it may be to transition to civilian life after a tour with the military. I went into this thinking it might be tough, given the unique demands and environment of the military. However, those I spoke with who are currently civilians had a very easy transition to civilian life. Not surprising, given that their jobs were primarily academic, all three of them went into academia. For instance, Mike decided he wanted to pursue an academic career in Europe. Within a few months he had an academic position with a 5-year contract! Both Tom and Darren are now professors. It seems that because psychologists are encouraged to conduct research and publish, this makes a former officer very marketable for academic positions. 

Military or Civilian?

Is a military career for you? If you dont mind traveling, are not anti-authority, are willing to give up some degree of autonomy, and would like to do a ton of research, you may want to consider joining the Army after you obtain your PhD. Those who join have a 3-year commitment. You could enter with the mindset that it is a well-paid post-doc and if you find the military lifestyle isnt for you, you could always end your commitment in 3 years. However, perhaps youll find a good fit and be off to an exciting career with the military!

If military life really isnt for you but you find the environment fascinating to study or just want to help the military in some way, there are plenty of ways civilian folks can contribute. For instance, even as a civilian, Mike is still committed to helping the military. He has plans to go to Iraq to conduct a leadership study of junior officers serving in the Army. He hopes to begin the study when a new battalion begins its tour of duty in March. The goal is to examine how leaders pay attention to, measure, and control events, how they react to crises, reward and punish, and recruit. He is conducting this research in conjunction with the WRAIR group in Europe. 

You dont have to go to Iraq to do this kind of research. You can help on the home front as well. For instance, Tom continues to care about the health and well-being of service members and has had a contract with the WRAIR for the past 3 years to study psychological issues facing soldiers on different types of military operations. He was the lead editor on a recently published volume applying psychological principles to military peacekeepers (The Psychology of the Peacekeeper: Lessons From the Field) and is currently an editor on a soon-to-be published four-volume series on military psychology. 

Further, several research organizations cater to the military and the military always submits RFPs for research that would help the armed forces. So if youre committed to helping the military or you just find this type of research fascinating, but dont have the stomach for military life, you dont even need to leave home to get involved.


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