Many military spouses, particularly women, often struggle to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” Personally, I tend to find myself floundering and muttering some long-winded explanation that usually starts with something like, “Well, right now I’m doing XYZ, but my degree is in LMNOP…” followed by some nervous chuckling and the explanation that I am married to a member of the United States Marine Corps.

The challenges of being a military spouse are not limited to those working in the field of behavioral health – they can affect people across all industries and backgrounds.

The spouses of active duty service members, or MilSpouses, are chronically unemployed, underemployed, or working in fields very different from the ones in which we’ve trained.

Throughout this article, you will see excerpts from conversations with MilSpouses like myself who struggle with balancing their chosen careers and their marriages to military members. Many of us are educated, driven, and career-minded women, but we struggle due to the unique circumstances of military life – not the least of which is the frequent relocating.

First, I will talk about the challenges that MilSpouses of all backgrounds and careers may face. Then I will share my own personal story of working in behavioral health while also being a MilSpouse.

The Career Challenges of a Military Spouse

According to the 2013 Military Spouse Employment Survey, a whopping NINETY percent of female spouses of active duty military members are underemployed for their level of experience, education, or both. These female MilSpouses are also making an average of 38% less money than their non-military counterparts.

While many assume that most MilSpouses choose to stay at home, especially when they have children, the survey found that over a quarter of respondents simply couldn’t find work that matched their education level or skillset, and another 17% reported being unable to find work that would accommodate their active duty spouse’s schedule. (Only 11% reported choosing to be homemakers exclusively).

“Moving is an obstacle in this field for three reasons.

First, identifying viable places to locate ongoing research is a time-consuming challenge. Dropping into a place with different educational policies, cultures, and systems means that I have a lot to learn before I can identify locations for further data collection that will build on what I have already done (only to repeat the process two years later).

Second, access depends on establishing relationships. This means I am always reaching out to people, trying to find ways to ask questions and establish trust. This is so much easier when you are a known quantity, rather than someone new to an area.

Third, each institution has different systems. I have been able to work for local universities during each move, but each move demands I transfer all my files, technology and working knowledge of the current system. So, I’ve lost so much time and work in these transfers. These tasks have not been impossible, but I do think they mean I have not been able to run as fast as others.”

– Michelle D., Education Researcher

MilSpouses whose professions require licensure or certifications tend to have even more difficulties transitioning employment across duty stations; more than half have faced difficulties with obtaining licensure following a move, and they spent an average of over $200 for the pleasure.

“The biggest challenge is getting a credential in each state and the money that has to be put out once moving.”

– Leas H., Special Education Teacher

“California has no reciprocity with any other states for attorney bar admissions, so I will have to take the bar exam over again if my husband (Navy officer) gets stationed outside of California. I was valedictorian of my law school graduating class and I got a job right out of school at a very prestigious global law firm. Because of the military, I might have to start all over again at any time. It is disheartening.”

– Jacquelyn L., Attorney

My Personal Story – Being a Clinical PsyD and a Military Spouse

I graduated from my clinical psychology PsyD program in California two months after my husband and I moved to NC. I was fully expecting to find a post-doctorate opportunity that would fulfill the requirements for psychology licensure in CA, as the plan is to return there once my husband’s current enlistment is over.

I contacted every local psychology office and clinic, as well as college campuses as far as 90 minutes away, attempting to find somewhere that would train and supervise me in accordance to the California Board of Psychology’s requirements. Several agencies expressed interest in my CV, but every one of them required that I become a Licensed Psychological Associate (a Master’s-level licensure).

Obtaining an LPA can take months, involves standardized testing and several letters and forms, and worst of all, none of the hours I would accrue would be transferrable towards a doctoral license in CA. I would be starting from scratch once I returned home either way.

Rather than go through all of that, I spent a few months underemployed in a position typically filled by recent college graduates. On a whim, I applied for adjunct instructor positions, and ended up with a position that I love. On the downside, I typically only teach one class per term (two nights of two-hour classes per week) due to low enrollment in the program.

My husband and I will also be moving again at the end of 2016, so I will find myself pounding the proverbial pavement for work once more. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a post-doc that will overlook my time away from clinical work, or a teaching position that affords me more than one class at a time. Either way, I’ll be playing catch-up to establish a new network and new connections, much like MilSpouses in a host of other careers.

Although the following quote comes from someone on a much different career path than behavioral health, the challenges it addresses feel very familiar to me:

“I have tons of job options relating to hair, skin, and nails, so I feel employable anywhere in the country… However, building a client base isn’t exactly easy when you move somewhere new and no one knows you.”

– Rachel M., Cosmetologist

The Silver Lining, Hope for Change, and Resources

Thankfully, it isn’t ALL gloom and doom for MilSpouses with careers. Military bases and facilities typically accept clinical and medical licenses from any state.

There is legislation in progress at both state and federal levels that would serve to alleviate various aspects of relocation, including resolutions for conflicting licensure requirements and options to offset professional relocation costs. There is also a growing number of supportive organizations and programs.

Most importantly, MilSpouses are forming communities for themselves, to aid in networking, outreach, and mutual support.

Resources for MilSpouses with Careers:

Joining Forces: Support for our Service Members, Veterans, and their Families

Military OneSource: Spouse Education & Career Opportunities (SECO)

Military OneSource: Military Spouse Employment Partnership

Military by Owner: Ultimate Guide for Military Spouse Employment

Military by Owner: What About Me? Coping with Military Spouse Career Challenges

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