A Career in the Commission Corps

Servicemember of the commission corps

In my fourth year of optometry school, I had the enriching experience of working within the Indian Health Services (IHS) during my placement in Montana. This opportunity not only proved to be highly rewarding but also sparked my interest in an unconventional career path within the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Surprisingly, this option had not been brought to my attention during my academic journey, prompting me to share insights into this lesser-known branch of our nation’s uniformed services.

The Commissioned Corps is not part of the armed forces but rather a team of public health professionals who provide essential public health leadership and service roles within the Nation’s federal government agencies and programs. As optometrists, working in the Indian Health Service is just one job option. You could also work for the CDC, FDA, BOP, NIH, CMS, even Commissioned Corps headquarters, and the list goes on. So, depending on the agency you work for, you could be in a clinical or nonclinical position.

What are the benefits of a career with the Commissioned Corps?

Besides setting yourself up for success in terms of retirement, the Commissioned Corps offers being part of something greater than oneself and a glimpse into a facet of life often unseen by civilians. In terms of compensation and benefits, the Commissioned Corps is highly competitive. I listed below what a new graduate can expect:

  • Base pay O-3: $61,225 (as of 1/2024)
  • Basic Allowance for Sustenance (BAS): $316.98/month (nontaxable)
  • Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH): Varies (nontaxable)
  • Student loan repayment
  • Paid holidays
  • 30 vacation days/year
  • Unlimited sick leave
  • Noncontributory health insurance
  • Contributory & noncontributory retirement plan
  • $100/month special pay as an optometrist
  • Retention bonus ($5K-$10K annual depending on 2-4 year commitment
  • Fellowship bonus $500/month 
  • Assignment pay bonus ($1,300-$2,600 monthly depending on 2-4 year commitment
  • Contributory retirement plan   
  • Financial support for higher education through the post-9/11 GI Bill

Although the base salary as an officer is lower than expected, with all these benefits and the stability of a retirement plan, the Commissioned Corps can be a financially smart decision.

What opportunities for career advancement are available to optometrists within the Commissioned Corps?

Career advancement comes with promotions given the amount of years you’ve served. As you promote, your number of responsibilities will grow. If you are working in a clinical role, this may look like more administrative work within the hospital or even working as the clinical director. You can move to different locations throughout the country (or world, in some cases), or even switch agencies that you are working for if you would like to try something different.

What are some of the challenges faced in this mode of practice?

Entering a government agency entails navigating bureaucratic challenges. Moreover, within the military, a strict chain of command is established from the moment of joining, requiring continuous responsiveness to the directives of superiors, surpassing the demands encountered in other professional environments. Recognize that your primary role is that of a military officer, with optometry as a secondary responsibility.  Additional responsibilities, such as working on administrative tasks after clinic hours and completing regular computer-based training, are integral to the role of a military officer.

Furthermore, one is subject to being “deployed” in support of numerous natural disasters and public health emergencies to provide essential clinical care to those in need, as well as ensure sustainable health care service delivery. Although rarely or never deployed, flexibility is a crucial part of the Commissioned Corps. Most optometrists would assume the role of either logistics or operations during an indecent command structure type of deployment.

How does the application and selection process work for individuals interested in joining the Commissioned Corps as an optometrist?

The application process is directly through the United States Public Health Service website, USPHS.gov. There are a few quick screening questions on the website, and, if you meet all of the screening requirements, then you can begin the application process. You submit all of the required materials and then undergo a board review and interview. After board clearance, you will have to wait for medical and security clearance and a presidential nomination. There are disqualifying medical and dental conditions, and those should be reviewed before beginning the process.

One unique thing about the Commissioned Corps that is different from other Uniformed Services is that you also have to apply for the job that you are interested in, and it is recommended that you do that simultaneously while you are applying for the Commissioned Corps. If you are interested in working at the IHS and are already employed there as a civil servant, then it is just simple paperwork that needs to be completed. Once employment has been secured and all of the clearances and nominations have been completed, then you will be issued a call to active duty and complete a two-week basic training course. The timeline of the entire process is generally about a year long once you begin the application.

Are there ways to get involved as a student?

Yes! There are two programs available depending on what year of school you are in: the JRCOSTEP and SRCOSTEP programs. Students in health-related undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs can train alongside active-duty officers during their school breaks in the JRCOSTEP program and be paid, and receive health benefits, housing and travel allowances. The benefits of the COSTEP programs are exceptional. For the SRCOSTEP program, you receive monthly pay while you are still in school at an O-1 level, a monthly nontaxable housing allowance based on your location, health care, and any travel costs required to be in the program.

Additionally, you could apply for the USPHS Ready Reserve (similar to Reserve components of other military branches) or the Public Health Emergency Response Strike Team if you have a strong desire to participate in rapid and more frequent deployments. The benefits of these opportunities may differ from the regular Commissioned Corps and you should check the USPHS website to learn more.

Further information: www.usphs.gov

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