Path to the VA: Perspectives and advice from VA psychology leaders

There are just as many paths to finding oneself working at the VA as career paths within the VA.
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By Rachel N. Ward

The Veterans Health Administration employs and trains many of the clinical and counseling psychologists in the U.S. as a part of the larger mission to serve those who have served us. Many students also hope to work at a VA one day; however, not all of those in training have access to the mentorship that can help guide them through figuring out if a VA career is right for them. Considering how diverse the career of a clinical or counseling psychologist can be working at the VA, it’s understandable that many graduate students are confused and possibly even intimidated by the prospect of what their future at the VA could be. 

To help shine some light on the paths a career within the VA can take, I had the opportunity to interview several VA psychology leaders about their careers at the VA, the benefits of working within the VA, the role of mentorship and supervision in their careers, and any advice they would give to graduate students. This special issue of the VA Section Newsletter synthesizes their incredible careers, experiences and guidance into one article.

Thank you to those who participated in interviews: 

Matthew Miller Matthew Miller: acting director, National Suicide Prevention Program Office

Judy Hayman Judy Hayman: executive director, Montana VA Healthcare System

George Shorter George Shorter: associate chief of staff,  Mental Health for North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System

Jeffrey Bates Jeffrey Bates: clinical director, Associated Health Education, Office of Academic Affiliations, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs


Beret Skroch (no image provided):
program manager, Primary Care-Mental Health Integration Team, Minneapolis VA Medical Center

The path toward the VA

Given the number of career paths one can take in the VA, it is unsurprising that there are just as many paths to finding oneself working at the VA. Some are veterans themselves; both Matthew Miller (U.S. Air Force) and Beret Skroch (U.S. Navy) are veterans. Miller described having an “incredible experience serving in the Air Force,” and after serving his country through military service, ended up in a job at the Saginaw VA as deputy chief of staff. Influenced by the suicide of a close colleague while serving, Miller stated that his career took a shift toward suicide prevention and eventually ended up in his current position. He described his current position as the “least important” compared to his support staff, but acknowledged his own important role in suicide prevention not only in the veteran population, but also in the general population  through helping with the development and implementation of suicide prevention strategic planning and programming across various government services. Meanwhile, Skroch  described coming to the VA after receiving training in primary care mental health integration (PCMHI) in the military as a “natural fit.” While the population that she works with is different, she finds her work serving those who have served our country rewarding, not only through her work at the Minneapolis VA, but also through her roles as a VISN 23 lead and  in a national VA group developing PCMHI competencies and trainings for the VA.

Others describe a more serendipitous path towards the VA. For some, like Judy Hayman, a colleague told her that there was an open position. For George Shorter, he “didn’t mean to come [to the VA].” As a trainee psychologist, he stated that he was supposed to be in academia, but disclosed that he ended up not being in love with all aspects of academia and wanted to be closer to the results of his work. A fellowship at a nearby Army base while still in graduate school gave him a taste of what applied research was like — and he loved it. However, he was not sure if the military was right for him and ended up going to a VA for his internship. He has now been at the VA for 22 years. Currently, Shorter works to figure out resource allocation for mental health and is a leader for a team of people who provide mental health services within his part of the VA system. Jeffrey Bates arguably was also not supposed to end up at the VA. With his training and the initial portion of his career oriented toward forensics and corrections, he spent years working in the Bureau of Prisons before taking a staff psychologist position at the VA. Why did he undertake such a career change? The combination of the VA’s mission and the ability to serve in various roles were important factors as they aligned more with how he saw himself wanting to help others. Some of his daily activities include consulting with training programs in 40 different professions, allocating funds for training positions, and writing policy related to clinical training, to name a few.

Benefits of working in the VA

An enduring theme across all whom I interviewed was the many benefits of working in the VA system. From working with exceptional, talented people and taking part in training the future of the field, the numerous opportunities the VA system offers were mentioned repeatedly. The flexibility of a VA career, the ability to seek out leadership positions and engage in different responsibilities besides clinical work alone are all benefits. Skroch in particular enjoys having a “well-rounded list of duties.” This view was echoed, with Shorter stating that, you will never be bored with a career in the VA, that the VA will constantly challenge you. He also highlighted the benefits of being a federal employee and the portability and support that comes along with federal employment. For Bates, on top of the benefits of the leadership opportunities, the ability to work with individuals from other professions and learn about their careers is a draw. He stated that the “answers are in the conversations” and that, when you are only around other psychologists, you can forget what is important about our field and our training that helps us to facilitate difficult discussions. Hayman and Miller both touched on the numerous opportunities that the VA has for psychologists that are not found elsewhere, particularly leadership opportunities. The VA is unique in how it showcases the psychology profession, allowing for those willing to become involved with something greater than what is currently in front of them. This “something greater” tended to be serving this country’s veterans. For all interviewed, being able to help veterans both personally through clinical work and on a larger scale through leadership positions was one of the most appealing parts of working at the VA. The satisfaction of helping to provide the best care possible and of working constantly to improve the quality of that care for veterans is clearly one of the largest benefits of working in the VA system.

The importance of supervision and mentorship

The support and guidance received from incredible mentors was highlighted as critical to the success of these VA leaders. Strong mentorship was described as being pushed to test your limits, to reach for new opportunities, specifically leadership opportunities, and being supported in the face of both successes and failures. Shorter explained that without the guidance of specific mentors, there are several opportunities that he never would have taken. Hayman and Bates echoed this opinion. Skroch stated that her supervisors helped her get involved with activities that led to her current job and national connections. Meanwhile, Bates credited mentorship as the “only reason I am where I am.” He described mentorship as a thread that has gone through his entire career and has provided a platform for personal and professional growth. Both Skroch and Miller described how their time in the military also provided important mentorship. Miller emphasized the importance of getting mentorship from other allied fields. He reported receiving advice from psychiatrists, and even optometrists, on professional development issues that he has remembered to this day. Finally, Hayman alluded to the impact of supervisors and mentors who were less supportive, in that they taught her how not to be a mentor.

Career shaping moments

Overall, the development of these incredible careers appears to be the culmination of many moments, as stated by Hayman. Others were able to identify specific pivotal moments, such as their decisions to shift their careers to the VA in the first place. Bates acknowledged that his decision to leave the Bureau of Prisons was a changing point in his career after he lost the training program he had been trying to develop. Once he shifted his career to the VA, mentorship encouraging him to seek out leadership positions was another important moment. Overall, he described the conversations with his mentors and his interpersonal relationships as most important, stating that “you can’t get anywhere without a team of people behind you.” Shorter stated that his decision to intern at the VA was incredibly important, as well as his experience being a leader for the Association of VA Psychologist Leaders. But, he also credited his experience with patients as influential. He explained that some patients have resonated with him forever and have shaped his outlook on life, thus shaping every decision that he makes. Miller identified two important factors in his career: The first was the death by suicide of his close colleague and friend that led him to a more personalized pursuit of understanding suicide personally and clinically. This would eventually lead him to go back to school to get his master’s in public health in order to bring about change on a more systemic level. He also described the experience of going back to school as important, stating that the challenges of going back to school after so many years helped him to re-identify with the challenges that current veterans face after coming back to civilian life.

Advice for current trainees

Leaving the best for last, I ended the interview by asking about any advice they would give themselves if they could go back in time, or any advice they had for current trainees in clinical and counseling psychology. The reaction to this question was often comical at times, though the advice always spoke of lessons learned and years of experience. Miller memorably said, “this too shall pass and don’t give up” before talking about the importance of being open to continuing education, both formal and informal. He stressed the importance of being curious and not limiting yourself. Hayman echoed this opinion, stressing the importance of being curious to experiences you might not otherwise consider and accepting of all feedback before determining its relevance in your personal and professional growth. She advised to be kind, respectful and professional with everyone you interact with, including yourself. In a statement that will likely resonate with most current graduate students, if Hayman could have gone back in time, she would have told herself to be less self-critical. Shorter stressed the importance of networking and taking risks; he said that it is important to “collect people” and to take advantage of all opportunities to serve. He said that once you find your niche, it is important to think about how you will share it.

Lastly, he stated that it was incredibly important to not just network, but to find people who have your back and who will help you to deal with the successes and failures. The advice that Bates would give himself is to “turn the rudder, not the wind.” He said that it’s important to realize what you can and cannot control. He also advised current trainees to “suck up the awkwardness” and put yourself out there. By putting yourself out there, you are opening yourself up to opportunities, especially by talking to already established individuals. As a gentle reminder, Bates stated that the worst someone can say is no, and you never know how a conversation will affect you down the line. Skroch wished that she could have told herself, “Don’t be so serious. Enjoy the journey.” She also stressed the importance of finding a mentor and being open to opportunities, stating that the opportunities she never thought of were the ones that changed her life. Overall, advice centered around taking advantage of all opportunities, even if you feel awkward doing it, and to find needed mentorship and support.

Final synthesis

There is not one path to the VA and there is not one path once you are already in the VA. However, despite the diversity of paths to and within the VA, it is clear that those working at the VA are influenced heavily by the mentorship they have received along the way. Many have worked for the VA for many years, and for all involved, the ability to be on the front lines of the mental healthcare field while also serving our nation’s veterans are sustaining factors behind their continued careers in public service. And what should a graduate student (any anyone interested in working at a VA or continuing with their professional development) take away from this collection of interviews? Take risks, put yourself out there, be kind to everyone, including yourself, and build yourself a network of supportive mentors and peers.

Resources

Mentoring

Getting a VA internship and postdoc

Careers in the VA

Author bio

Rachel N. Ward Rachel N. Ward, a student at Palo Alto University in California, is a 2020 VA Section student representative.