Author’s Note: I would like to extend a personal thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Barnett, whose suggestion to write out my thoughts on my transition from the military to civilian life as a graduate student allowed me to focus my energy and feelings on this major change in my life.
2,969 days…just shy of eight years. This is how long I spent as an active duty Airman, or more specifically, as an officer in the United States Air Force. If you count the four years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) throughout college, it totals almost 12 years responding to the call of duty.
Considering the fact that I am now 31 years old, it is safe to say my entire adult life has been spent serving in the military ranks. I knew I wanted to join the military since I was 12 years old, after reading Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line: An American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989) the summer before eighth grade. I knew I wanted to be part of something “bigger than myself.”
Next, came commissioning into the officer ranks, two deployments, four relocations, and hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who humbly served alongside me. I loved every second of my time in the service because it taught me teamwork, leadership, integrity, service before self, and discipline.
Six months ago, I decided it was time to leave the service I loved and pursue my next dream of becoming a clinical psychologist. Growing up with my father working in this field, I was always interested in psychology. However, it was my time in the service that solidified my desire to be involved in clinical psychology as my next career.
As an officer in the military, your people are (in many ways) more important than your mission, and it was the experience of helping my subordinates through difficult times that made me realize I wanted to practice psychotherapy full time. As I am sure most of you know, it is quite a lengthy process, and committing to half a decade of school at age 31 is a bit daunting.
This past December, I finished my first semester of the PsyD program in Clinical Psychology at Loyola University Maryland. I spent a majority of the semester adjusting to civilian life, learning how to be a student again, and coming to the realization that service to the country comes in many forms.
I met my 12 classmates at fall orientation, and we will all attest that we coalesced quickly from the first day. After four months together, I can say they are the most supportive and nurturing group of individuals I have had the honor of knowing.
As a former military service member, I do not make that statement lightly. Military members quickly bond together as we constantly move around, spend holidays away from family and friends, and serve together in support of a shared mission. So, when I say my cohort is like a family, I speak as someone who has a great deal of experience making family out of those with whom I work.
I noticed early on that my cohort varied greatly in age and experience. The youngest woman in my class is 21 years old, fresh out of college (and out early, I might add). Wow, do I admire her! It took me eight years post-undergrad to gather the courage to apply to a doctoral program. This young woman knew what she wanted before she had graduated with her undergraduate degree.
Out of my classmates, there are 11 others like her: driven, ambitious, and extremely intelligent young professionals. I admire them all, as I admire the young men and women who graduate high school and enlist into the service. They all are on a mission to better themselves, a quality that cannot really be learned, but is innate within you. Whether such betterment comes through military training or education, it makes no difference to me. Yes, there is an age difference between myself and my classmates, but ambition is admirable no matter the age.
Another difference in my cohort I quickly noticed was the variance in experience. Impressive is not the right word for what my classmates brought to the program: several master’s degrees, externships at VA medical centers, experience working with children whose diagnoses fall on the autism spectrum, participation in research, skills working in inpatient centers, and jobs in psychometric assessments, to name a few (my classmates also no doubt brought in high GPAs and GRE scores, but I have nothing to confirm this but the knowledge that they are all extremely bright) —and all before the age of 30!
In no way does this diminish the importance of my own experiences; however, while I have led and trained military members, spent time in the “sandbox” (in my case, Iraq), and had involvement in national military events, these individuals are going to help me learn about my new passion by sharing their experience in the field. In return, I hope to lead by example to show them how teamwork, discipline, leadership, and a commitment to service will help them as they continue through graduate school and transition into roles as clinical psychologists.
I previously mentioned the transition out of military life and into life as a graduate student was difficult. The structure I was used to living in was no longer present; instead, I faced a more fluid path that I would determine.
For the first time in my adult life, I decided what interested me, what I wanted to do with my career, where I wanted to live, and how I wanted to affect change in the world. This was a novel experience for me. Since my freshman year in college, I was told “you’ll have a chance to voice your desires on job and location, but it all comes down to what the Air Force needs.”
This newfound freedom was a bit intimidating! I immediately sought out mentors and, with their support, have since found myself creating my own structure, using my ability to plan to help me sort out an often hazy outlook regarding which electives to take, which externships to apply to, and anticipating the daunting APPIC process.
Another now-absent aspect of life in the service is the heavily-structured hierarchy I became accustomed to functioning in every day. In the military, you wear your hierarchical-mark on your sleeve or collar in the form of rank. It, along with badges and ribbons, displays your experience—anything from which wars of which you have been a part to specific training you have received to your level of expertise in any number of tasks.
These things do not exist in academia (or anywhere outside the military in all honesty). To those who have never lived in this kind of culture, the lack of such apparent structure may not seem to be something to which one need adjust.
So, there is not much of a hierarchy—who cares? It makes everyone relative equals and promotes collaboration. As far as learning about peoples’ experiences and training, just ask them! Or, if necessary, read about them on their websites. Who needs to wear this stuff on their clothing…to work…every day?
To this I say: Imagine walking into a grocery store with no labels on the packaged food. You do not know which brand is which, what a product is made with, or even how much it costs. It would be disorienting, at least at first, until you figured out how to manage your way through purchasing what you need.
Well, that is what the first semester of graduate school felt like for me. In this professional setting, which seemed to be missing something I relied upon heavily, I needed to come up with another way to manage my surroundings and navigate towards those who could help me mold a path for myself as a clinical psychologist.
Throughout my first semester, many asked if I thought I made the right decision by leaving a military career I truly loved to go back to school as a civilian and eventually start an entirely new career in my mid-30s. Throughout the semester, I was challenged by the transition into civilian culture, being a student again, and living without a paycheck for the first time in my adult life.
However, I have no doubt that I made the right decision to return to school for my doctoral degree in clinical psychology. I also have no doubt that Loyola University Maryland is the right place for me to do this, because of the support I have received—not just from my classmates, but also from the faculty and senior students as well. I also believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I will be able to take the lessons of integrity, service, teamwork, discipline and leadership the military taught me, and influence the field of clinical psychology in a positive way.
Cite This Article
Houk, M. (2016). From airman to student. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(1), 59-61.
Atkinson, R. (1989). The Long Grey Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.