How did you become interested in Personality Assessment?
Like most psychologists, I've always been fascinated with human behavior, but I became particularly interested in personality assessment in the late 1980s. I had an M.A. and was working as an alcohol and drug counselor in a residential facility. The residents all took the MMPI as part of their intake process and we had a clinical psychologist by the name of Paul Metzger, Ph.D., who would come in for weekly consultation sessions. Paul would meet with the treatment team, interpret the MMPI profiles of our clients, and make recommendations for treatment planning. I became fascinated with the accuracy of the information and the insights that Paul was able to provide using the MMPI results. That exposure to Paul's assessment and clinical skills convinced me that I needed to return to graduate school to earn my doctorate in Clinical Psychology and led to my focus on developing skills in assessment.
Tell us about your current job. We are interested in hearing about the different things that people do who work in the area of personality assessment.
In addition to being a Clinical Psychologist who loves psychological assessment, I am a Private Pilot and aviation is my passion. So, I am one of those fortunate people who can say that I found my "dream job." I am the only Clinical Psychologist in the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine. All of the other clinicians are physicians with specialty training in Aerospace Medicine. I'm here because in 2008 the FAA began using the MMPI-2 as the psychological screening component of the medical examination for Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATCS) applicants. The FAA needed a Clinical Psychologist who had expertise with the MMPI-2 and who also understood aviation. I had served as a Clinical Psychologist in the U.S. Navy for 7 years of active duty (including 2 years aboard an aircraft carrier) and do my Navy Reserve work at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, where I had gained specialty training in Aerospace Psychology, become acquainted with aviation norms on the major tests, and so forth. So, I was a good match for the position. My main duty is to manage the psychological examination process for ATCS applicants. That consists of reviewing the MMPI-2 Extended Score Profiles of 1000-1500 ATCS applicants per year, and determining which applicants can be immediately cleared and those that warrant further evaluation. Those requiring further evaluation are referred for a complete psychological evaluation to Clinical Psychologists in private practice who have expertise in personality assessment. Once those evaluations are completed, I carefully review them and then make a recommendation regarding the applicant's psychological fitness to the Flight Surgeon who is working that case. It became clear very early on that, for this program to work well, the FAA needed to identify Clinical Psychologists with the right assessment skills, and to provide them with some training on conducting aviation-specific evaluations and FAA regulatory standards. So I became the FAA's recruiter and trainer of those psychologists. I have been providing specialty workshops at SPA and a few other conferences to further that endeavor. Once I was hired, it became clear that I could do more for the FAA than what was originally conceived. I serve as a specialty consultant reviewer of pilot and ATCS psychological evaluations for Regional Flight Surgeons, Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) physicians, and the Federal Air Surgeon to achieve resolution of medical certification issues. I also serve as the consultant to the Federal Air Surgeon on policies related to the psychological evaluation of pilots and controllers. I provide expert testimony at NTSB hearings as needed. And, in an effort to fine-tune the ongoing utilization of the MMPI-2 as the screening tool for ATCS applicants, I coordinate projects with research psychologists.
What are the most interesting and/or meaningful aspects of your job?
The most interesting aspect of my job is definitely the application of psychological assessment in the aviation environment and getting to combine my interest in psychological assessment with my passion for aviation. The most meaningful aspect is undoubtedly the pursuit of safety in the National Air Space. The FAA has made huge gains in aviation safety over the years. The fatality rate for airlines is now less than 2.5 per 100 million passengers flown! From a statistical standpoint, that means that you would have to fly daily for over 35,000 years before being a fatality! You're literally safer in a airliner than in your home. Despite those gains, however, we are constantly striving to improve on aviation safety and fine-tune preventative measures. Being part of that work and working with the caliber of professionals in the Office of Aerospace Medicine is very gratifying.
Tell us how you initially learned about and joined SPA.
I learned about SPA from my friend and colleague Ray King, Psy.D. Ray was working for the FAA at CAMI and led the effort to make the MMPI-2 the screening measure for the ATCS applicants. Ray was very helpful in getting me oriented to the FAA's MMPI-2 screening program while it was in its infancy and provided me with support as I helped it to grow. Ray was a Fellow at SPA and invited me to attend the annual conference in 2008 in order to present a paper with him.
How has SPA impacted or benefited you or your career?
As a Navy Clinical Psychologist, I had been limited to one major conference per year, and had never attended SPA. Once I attended with Ray King in 2008, it became my favorite conference. At that meeting in 2008, I ran into my old MMPI-2 mentor, Dave Nichols, Ph.D. We made a lunch date and then, remembering a prior commitment, Dave asked me, "Chris, do you mind if Alex Caldwell joins us for lunch?" I was delighted! I'm telling this story because it illustrates something special about SPA. Dave, Alex and I had lunch that day and I mentioned that I had been trying to sort out some underreporting response sets commonly observed on the ATCS screening profiles. Those guys were incredibly helpful. Essentially, I received a 2-hour personal consultation from two of the top MMPI-2 minds on the planet! And that has been typical of my experience at SPA. SPA gives you access to the top people in the field, and they are welcoming and incredibly collegial and gracious with sharing their expertise. In addition, I have been able to use SPA as a pool of highly-qualified clinicians with the kind of interest and expertise in psychological assessment that is necessary in FAA consultants.
As we look forward to SPA's 100th anniversary in 2038, what do you think is important in order for the field of personality assessment to thrive and to benefit others?
Personally, I was horrified to learn that the APA accreditation requirements for graduate programs in Clinical Psychology have become so lax in terms of training in assessment. Assessment used to be the defining skill set for our field, but has become, essentially, a specialty area for a subset of Clinical Psychologists. I have observed this phenomenon in my job where I have the opportunity to read psychological assessments completed by a wide spectrum of psychologists from around the country. Some, like those that the FAA has carefully chosen as consultants, do very capable and well-documented evaluations. Others, who have been consulted by pilots or controllers seeking evaluations on their own, frequently reveal a lack of expertise, poor documentation, and, in some cases, questionable ethical practices. So, the skill set that was formerly the defining feature of our profession can no longer be assumed to be possessed by all licensed psychologists. That creates problems for clinicians seeking to make a helpful referral and for clients seeking services. How are they supposed to differentiate licensed psychologists who are capable of performing a competent psychological assessment from those who are not? Perhaps a formal designation of specialty qualification in assessment is the answer. I believe that addressing that issue in a well-reasoned and coordinated manner will be important for the field of personality assessment to continue thrive and benefit others.