Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector
Bringing Science to National Policies
Joan Tucker and Rebecca Collins, RAND
As graduate students in social psychology, neither of us imagined that our research careers would lead us to work in a policy "think tank." At our respective institutions, we received training heavily focused on basic research and from there began careers in typical academic positions. However, throughout our training and early career, we both had applied research interests. So, with each of us having a juncture in our career paths, we decided to leave academia and join the world of policy research at RAND.
RAND is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution that helps improve public policy through research and analysis. (RAND is a contraction of the term "research and development"). Consistent with the RAND mission, we conduct studies that serve the public interest, and we disseminate findings to policy makers and practitioners, as well as to other professionals. Thirty of the 600 full-time researchers currently employed here are PhD psychologists, with social psychologists being the largest subgroup (nearly all major fields of psychology are represented).
Although some people know RAND for its national security work, that accounts for only half of current RAND activities. The other half consists of domestic policy projects on topics including: HIV and AIDS; drug abuse prevention and treatment; depression; healthcare quality, utilization, and financing; classroom size and other education reforms; gun policy; and the impact of drug treatment and "three strikes" sentencing policies.
It's an exciting environment rich with opportunities to learn something new and bring science directly to bear on some of the country's most pressing issues. For example, when President Clinton was formulating a policy to end discrimination against gays in the military in 1993, the Secretary of Defense asked RAND to provide information and analysis. Several psychologists were part of the research team, providing expertise regarding group cohesion and performance, prejudice, organizational factors, violence, and sexual behavior.
This is one key way in which life at RAND differs from an academic career. Researchers here often are able to see their findings applied immediately to important areas of social concern. We have found that the opportunities for applying our background and skills to such content areas to be among the most rewarding aspects of working at RAND. Our own current projects include an examination of how television portrayals influence adolescent sexual behavior; studies of the interface between substance use and risky sexual behavior in several populations (young adults, people living with HIV, impoverished women); and work on the long-term psychosocial and behavioral consequences of early substance use.
Having joined RAND after spending several years in academic positions, we can draw a number of other similarities and differences between these research settings. During our first weeks at RAND, we were struck by the extremely fast pace of life here. We are often juggling four or five different research projects (often with conflicting timelines!) and coordinating with coworkers who have several of their own "balls in the air." We have also found RAND to be a more social environment compared to an academic department. Project staff meet frequently, and there is always someone down the hall with whom to discuss a new idea and develop a proposal. Often, we build on one another's achievements by piggybacking studies onto ongoing projects.
The RAND collaborative structure has allowed us to learn from others and has facilitated building research in new areas. For example, we moved from studying the basic processes involved in coping with illness (Collins) and social support (Tucker) to examining the determinants of health behavior. These transitions would have been more difficult in an academic environment. The collaborative nature of our work means that building collegial relations with other researchers and finding areas of mutual interest are important ingredients for a successful career here. A healthy curiosity about new areas of research is essential.
Despite some differences, we have found that working at RAND is similar in important ways to our experiences in academic settings. Both are challenging and exciting environments where researchers are given autonomy in pursuing their own research interests and career paths. Colloquia series, brown bag lunch meetings, and other opportunities for intellectual exchange also contribute to an academic-like environment at RAND. And since joining RAND we have continued outside professional activities, attending research conferences and keeping up with professional journals just as we did as academics.
Like university professors, RAND employees are salaried. Our funding comes from varied sources, the bulk of it from federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. However, we fund our salaries through our own and other researchers' grants, and we don't have a tenure system. That means we have to stay actively involved in research and apply for funding on a regular basis. RAND has a graduate school in public policy which offers opportunities to teach and to work with graduate student research assistants. A survey course in behavioral science focuses on social psychology, and is taught regularly by psychologists on the RAND staff.
RAND also has a summer associates program that brings graduate students from universities across the U.S. to work with RAND researchers for a few months on projects that fit their backgrounds. Since coming to RAND, we have worked with psychology students from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and UCLA. RAND's affiliations with local universities such as UCLA are strong, with some staff holding joint appointments.
One drawback to working at RAND is the struggle to retain one's professional identity. Psychologists there are often lumped in a category with other social scientists with very different theoretical and methodological backgrounds. And we sometimes get funny looks from colleagues at APS and other conferences who are surprised to see a nonacademic institution on a name tag. On occasion, these colleagues have even assumed that we are not psychologists, resulting in some very confusing conversations! It seems an academic affiliation is part of many people's 'psychologist' schema.
Working at RAND is certainly not the same as holding an academic position. But it is uniquely similar to academia, compared to other private sector organizations. Thus, it offers a fresh and viable opportunity to those who feel that academics is not for them, but still want to conduct high quality, independent, objective research on topics important to society.