Career Corner

AP-LS Student Committee Career Corner

Interview with Jorge G. Varela, current associate professor at Sam Houston State University and former U.S. Air Force psychologist.

By Dana L. Formon

The Career Corner is intended to highlight the individuals who work at the intersection of law and psychology, where they come from, how they got there and how their experiences influence their research, teaching and/or practice. This edition of Career Corner profiles Jorge G. Varela, PhD, associate professor of psychology and the director of clinical training for the Sam Houston State University Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program. Varela's background not only includes working his way through academia and the tenure process, but also a career in the U.S. Air Force as a psychologist.

AP-LS Student Committee: Dr. Varela, to start, would you mind taking us through your training and career? A brief synopsis, if you will.

Varela: Sure. I attended Miami Dade Community College where I obtained an AA, and then went to Florida International University where I got my BA in psychology. Two years later, I was accepted to the University of Alabama where I got my PhD in clinical psychology in the psychology-law track from 1993 to 2000. I interned at Wilford Hall Medical Center, which is the large U.S. Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Including this internship year, I served nine years then in the U.S. Air Force. My first assignment out of internship was at Maxwell Air Force Base where I was a staff psychologist for two years. Then I was reassigned back to Wilford Hall as a staff psychologist and internship faculty member working at the Behavioral Analysis Service, which is where we conducted fitness for duty evaluations for those going through basic training. In 2006, I was reassigned to Kirtland Air Force Base as the mental health flight commander, which is basically a clinic director, and I had oversight over mental health and alcohol abuse services and the family maltreatment program. In 2008, I received a faculty offer at Sam Houston State and I decided to leave the military and I've been here ever since.

AP-LS Student Committee: So when you were in graduate school, you studied on a psychology-law track, so is it safe to say you've always had forensic interests?

Varela: Absolutely. Yes.

AP-LS Student Committee: Were you able to do any forensic work then at Wilford Hall while you were in the Air Force?

Varela: Very little. Now, when I started graduate school, I had no intention … or even the idea … of serving in the military. But as internship approached and I was making decisions about where to go and where to apply, I looked at the Air Force, and the other branches of the military, and I discovered that there were potential opportunities there that were interesting. Another consideration for me at the time was that I was interested in having a career in law enforcement psychology, and the job ads I had seen as a graduate student all indicated military experience as being relevant experience that they would consider. So it seemed like this military opportunity and those internships would be more beneficial than just a good training experience, but could also provide a segue into potential long-term careers.

AP-LS Student Committee: You mentioned doing fitness for duty evaluations. Forgive me, because I'm not completely familiar with the military, but is that a lot of what psychologists might be used for?

Varela: There is some variation from branch for branch, because different branches might have different missions. I would think most psychologists across all branches are treatment providers, and that at some point they would be asked to perform some kind of fitness for duty type of thing. But there are also very specialized tasks, for example like where psychologists work with the survival schools, or making mental health policy for the military, or even working with how to get best-performance out of people who fly planes or soldiers or things like that.

AP-LS Student Committee: So tell me now if you could, a bit about leaving the military. What prompted you to leave?

Varela: Ultimately, I lost my interest in pursuing law enforcement psychology and it was no longer singularly what I wanted to do. But, the decision to change my focus was gradual and I still felt like the Air Force was providing me with a lot of good experience. What happened was that my initial commitment had been extended so that I could receive funds towards my student loans, and I enjoyed what I was doing and resigned for service so I could continue paying off my student debt. But then at this point, my service commitment was up again and I decided to apply to post-doctoral fellowships because it felt like a transition period for me. In that process, I was told that Sam Houston State University was hiring and that I would be qualified as an applicant, so I applied and within a month was hired. It was a crazy transition to go from an officer in the military to an academic.

AP-LS Student Committee: Would you mind reflecting back a bit on your time with the Air Force? Like, how it might have impacted you or just on your experience in general?

Varela: It was definitely a positive thing for me. There were times where it was stressful, because there's rank structures and hierarchies, people who are above you have authority over you, people below you who you have authority over … so that took getting used to. Also, I was deployed twice to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a psychologist, I didn't face the same dangers that other service men and women did … patrolling neighborhoods in towns where danger was all over the place … I was on base, and in that sense I was protected. There were occasional mortar and rocket attacks, where you would have to get down on the ground and seek shelter, and there was time away from your family. But I learned a lot about camaraderie and leadership in the military, because that's what you do as an officer, you're a leader. It taught me a lot about how to consider those people who work for you and with you, which were things I might not have learned otherwise.

AP-LS Student Committee: So once you left the Air Force, you started working at Sam Houston. How did that transition in experience work out for you? Specifically, from military to forensic focus?

Varela: Well all the things I was doing, fitness for duty, fitness to carry a weapon, fitness for nuclear weapons, fitness for top-secret clearance…. All of those kinds of evaluations require you to look at a set of rules that carry the weight of laws, and apply what we know about assessing someone's psychological functioning to match with the laws that you have to abide by. It's the same way we evaluate someone's competency to stand trial, for example. We use what we know as psychologists to check for rational and factual understandings of someone's case and their ability to work with their attorney. I feel there is very much a forensic dimension to it. And, the military also has a justice system! I had to do evaluations on people for mental state at the time of an offence, and competency evaluations for people who were getting court-martialed.

AP-LS Student Committee: Overall then, how was the transition to becoming a faculty member?

Varela: Well not having to wear a uniform was nice. I joke and say that's why I like to wear cargo pants now, it reminds me of the days when I was in the Air Force. What was interesting too was that in the Air Force, everyone works towards one goal, and everyone is always on the same page. Once I got out and got into academia, I found that some people emphasized more research training, others emphasized more clinical training and there were differences in opinion. Those differences are obviously fine, and there's not always a right answer, but it was a different experience to be around people who worked towards different goals. Now, as a tenure-track faculty member, your performance is largely based on your publication record. The idea was kind of scary that I could work really hard, every day, and still something may not get published, and then I'd lose my job. I had never been in a position before where I knew I could work hard and still possibly lose my job. Obviously, other things count too in getting tenured, but early in your career it's really dependent largely on publications. However, it was also really neat that I could (within limits) come and go as I'd like. If I wanted to leave at 4:00 or 4:30 instead of 5:00, I could. It was a kind of freedom and flexibility that I didn't have in the Air Force.

AP-LS Student Committee: Now that you've set up shop at Sam Houston, what kinds of things do you research?

Varela: When I arrived at Sam Houston, my research was primarily at the intersection between forensic psychology and multicultural issues. I've leaned towards assessment research because I prefer assessment in general instead of providing treatment through therapy. I have an interest in diversity because I come from a diverse background and speak fluent Spanish. The reason I also really focus on diversity research is because it's an area that hasn't been looked at as extensively in forensic psychology in relation to other areas of psychology. I've also developed an interest in things related to sex offender risk assessment because it's an area of practice that I've gone into.

AP-LS Student Committee: And where would you point students looking for new areas of research, primarily dealing with multicultural or forensic issues?

Varela: I would definitely look into immigration because it's not only a hot topic in our own public and political discourse, but also an emerging area of practice in psychology and especially within the immigration justice system. Psychologists are already involved, but I think it's something that will continue because we have such a substantial amount of immigration to this country. We had a large amount, for example, of unaccompanied immigrant minors to the United States last year and so there's room for research within the kinds of psychological distress these adolescents might experience; and then there's always research within asylum-seekers, refugees and related topics.

AP-LS Student Committee: Since you've been at Sam Houston, you've been tenured and have recently been dubbed the director of clinical training for the psychology program. How has that been?

Varela: Going from an assistant to an associate professor was not that big of a transition. The one big change is that the pressure of losing your job is gone (related to getting published), which is a nice weight to have off your back. Becoming DCT was a bigger transition because it came with a whole new set of job responsibilities. The administrative tasks related to accreditation of the program, scheduling classes, student concerns, hiring committees, helping students with internship applications, things like that have all been things I am involved heavily with now.

AP-LS Student Committee: Do you have any parting wisdom for students who might be interested in a career path such as the one you've had?

Varela: Bottom line, you can do anything you want as long as you're competent. My military experience, while extremely valuable, did not make or break my forensic career. I didn't have a forensic internship and I didn't do a post-doc, but I do competency to stand trial and sex offender evaluations. If you think the military might be a place you can see yourself, give it serious thought and go for it. Forensic experience is everywhere; you just have to be willing to get it …. And live every week like it's Shark Week.