ABPP certification for military psychologists

We disclose the top four reasons military psychologist should become board certified

By Carrie H. Kennedy

Board certification has become an increasingly sought after advanced professional credential for psychologists, providing a means to assess competency and communicate high professional standards to the public. While board certification is not required for most psychologists, military psychologists are strongly encouraged to become certified. There are many reasons for pursuing board certification but the top four for military psychologists are: 1) obtain the highest recognized professional credential in the field; 2) obtain a credential which is easily transferable to post-military work; 3) earn a means for easy licensure mobility and 4) obtain a higher salary. This article will focus on board certification as it pertains to military psychologists and make recommendations for military psychologists who are considering becoming certified. It should be noted that this article is largely based on the experiences of Navy psychologists.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized that board certification for psychologists is an important credential and denotes the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) specifically as its organization of choice for granting recognized board certification for active duty military psychologists. Military psychologists are not discouraged from becoming board certified by any legitimate board, however DoD recognizes ABPP specifically for Board Certification Pay (BCP). In 1994 psychologists were approved for additional pay based on earning board certification through ABPP. This took two years to implement and pay was made discretionary for 1995 and mandated for 1996. Initially, board certified psychologists received between two and five thousand dollars annually depending on how many years of service the psychologist had served on active duty (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (HA) memoranda of September 22, 1994; September 6, 1995; HA Policy 95-013). In 2009 this was changed to a blanket six thousand dollars annually for everyone regardless of how many years one had in service (e.g., NAVADMIN 057/10 Special Pay for Health Professions Officers of the Medical Service Corps). It is important to note that the Public Health Service also offers financial incentives for psychologists (dependent on how many years one has in the service), as does the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (qualify for a step increase at the discretion of the local hospital).

The Navy encourages its psychologists to become board certified, though the number of board certified Navy psychologists has not changed much in the past few years. Of the 99 psychologists who are eligible for board certification (i.e., post-doctoral time and supervision requirements met), 19 are currently boarded as compared to 16 in 2006. This lack of growth is thought to be partially due to the high deployment tempo, which is a chronic and recurrent disruption to the board certification process.

To mitigate the inherent difficulties in completing the board certification process during wartime, Dr. Victoria Ingram, President of the American Board of Clinical Psychology (and former Army psychologist) noted in an interview that ABPP organized a military task group in 2009 and issued special considerations regarding ABPP exams for psychologists in the military or recently returned. The task group instructed all specialty boards of ABPP to provide significant flexibility in scheduling and extending due dates for military psychologists facing deployment or returning from deployment (some Army psychologists have reportedly used their mid-deployment R&R to return to the states to sit for their board!). In addition, the task group also instructed all specialty boards to consider “whenever possible, someone familiar with the conditions under which military personnel practice should serve on the ABPP evaluation committee. Specialty boards should ask the committee chair to pick examiners most apt to be knowledgeable about the practice of psychology in the military.”

The Clinical Psychology specialty seems to be the most preferred board for military psychologists and routinely facilitates military mentors and military board members (some Navy psychologists report having been assigned an all-military board). In the Navy for example, 18/19 active duty boarded psychologists are credentialed in Clinical Psychology with only one in Counseling Psychology. It is important that new military psychologists understand that one can be boarded in any of the fourteen specialties to meet the DoD requirements for BCP. Each psychologist should choose which specialty board to pursue based on their own circumstances, training, experience, and interests.

The process by which to qualify for and obtain board certification is explained in detail on the ABPP website, however it is worth noting the early entry program for those who are early on in their training.  Military psychologists can begin the ABPP process prior to internship/residency graduation and prior to licensure. The advantages of this program are a tangible $100 savings in the initial application fee and more importantly the assignment of a mentor early in the process. This enables the individual to move through the process as smoothly as possible. See complete details on the specialty certification.

Other recommendations for military psychologists pursuing board certification are to utilize a formal mentor, advocate with the specialty board for at least one military board member and choose practice samples and cases based on those circumstances most pertinent to the individual’s training and experiences.

The Clinical Psychology specialty board has sufficient military psychologists such that applicants are usually able to be assigned a military mentor. Using the Navy as an example, new Navy psychologists can also obtain a mentor directly from the community just by asking one of the existing board certified psychologists, most of whom are willing to serve in this capacity, as well as any of the Navy’s internship training directors, all of whom are board certified. Obtaining a military mentor may be more difficult in some of the specialty boards which do not have a significant number of military psychologists already certified and in this case it is prudent to accept a non-military mentor for the specialty and to ask a military psychologist for guidance with the general logistics of the process and for special matters, such as when the clinical or ethics case requires special consideration because of the military environment.

Having at least one military board member is important for these same reasons. Clinicians with no experience with the military may have difficulty with patients who are armed during a session, have combat related problems or for whom return to duty decisions must be made (as examples). Ethical issues can also have different dynamics given the plethora of military instructions and laws which pertain to military members and medical/mental health care. The specialty boards recognize these issues and ABPP as a whole has been responsive to the needs of the growing number of military psychologists.

About the Author 

Carrie H. Kennedy, PhD, ABPP is a neuropsychologist with specialization in military psychology and aviation psychology. She is an active duty Commander in the U.S. Navy and has deployed to Cuba and Afghanistan. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, is a past Chair of the Conflict of Interest Committee for the National Academy of Neuropsychology, and she has served as Member-at-Large of Division 19. She serves on the editorial boards of Military Psychology and Psychological Services and has published four books, Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications (Guilford), Military Neuropychology (Springer), Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment (APA) and Ethical Practice in Operational Psychology: Military and National Intelligence Operations (APA).