Interested in developing large-scale programs to prevent child abuse? Have some great ideas for making a government agency less bureaucratic and more customer friendly? Or perhaps you'd rather help decrease recidivism by counseling inmates in a federal prison.
These diverse vocations have at least one thing in common: Psychologists who are employed by the federal government perform them every day. And, according to W. Rodney Hammond, PhD, director of the division of violence prevention at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), careers in the federal government offer opportunities for psychologists to apply their training to real-world problems.
"I felt that I wanted to try to make a bigger difference, impact, on problems that I was seeing in the world and in the community," says Hammond. "These are only things that you can do from the vantage point of being involved in an agency, particularly a federal agency, whose mission includes this kind of topic and whose range of impact is worldwide."
Meet four psychologists who are doing just that, putting their doctoral degrees to use as public servants.
RESEARCH FOR SAFER SKIES
Dr. Loren Groff is studying how weather, pilot training and other factors contribute to non-commercial airplane accidents.
A former commercial pilot, Loren Groff, PhD, went back to school to pursue a doctorate in organizational and industrial psychology at Wichita State University to learn why pilots sometimes make fatal judgment errors. After earning his degree in 2002, a job designing studies to answer that question for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) seemed like a natural choice.
Groff researches weather-related causes of noncommercial aircraft accidents. When such an accident occurs, he and his colleagues assess a number of different factors, including the type of equipment in use, the qualifications of the pilot and the weather information available to the pilot. They then compare accident reports with information from successful flights in similar conditions to determine what might have contributed to the crash. He hopes to collect information that might help federal agencies develop regulations that could save lives.
Groff's former adviser, Alex Chaparro, PhD, a psychology professor at Wichita State University, notes that working for the NTSB provides Groff an opportunity to apply his knowledge as a pilot and a psychologist.
"In working with the NTSB, Loren gets to see the interplay of how policy and real-world constraints interact," says Chaparro.
Moreover, Groff says that while his training as a pilot is a plus, the skills he learned in psychology, such as study design and statistics, come in handy much more often.
"There are so many psychologists here at the NTSB because dealing with accidents and how to improve aircraft is a human problem," he says.
EXPLORING CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION
As a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Erin McClure has learned the nuts and bolts of magnetic resonance imaging and grant-writing.
Writing a research paper as a graduate student, getting it published in the Psychological Bulletin and attracting the attention of a top researcher may not be the most common way to land a job at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), but it worked for Erin McClure, PhD.
"Her article on facial expression processing was one of the best articles I had ever read," says Daniel Pine, MD, head of child and adolescent research on mood and anxiety disorders at the institute. "It was just beyond my imagination that a student would be capable of writing that."
Because of the quality of her graduate work and a budding interest in brain science, McClure won a position at NIMH as a postdoctoral fellow three months after graduating in 2001. In this capacity, she is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the differences in brain activity between mentally healthy and anxious or depressed children.
In particular, she hopes to capture the way children's brains respond to real-life social stressors—no easy task when the participants must be lying down, immobilized in the MRI machine's horizontal cylinder. Building on work by Jim Rilling, PhD, an anthropologist at Emory University, McClure gets around this difficulty by using a modified form of the classic prisoner's dilemma.
While in the MRI, the children are fooled into thinking they are playing a game with another participant, when in fact they are playing it against a computer. The participants then choose whether to cooperate with the fellow "player" using a special button box with no metal parts. The researchers attempt to upset the participants by having the other player betray them, informing the participant of the situation via a computer screen projected so the children can see it from inside the MRI cylinder.
"People get intensely emotion al about it," says McClure. "And we can see how their brains react to social stress."
Eventually, she says, this line of research will allow scientists to understand how the brains of depressed or anxious children respond differently to stress than those of mentally healthy children.
And while she eventually would like to return to academia, McClure appreciates the skills she has gained from working at NIMH—from writing grants to interpreting MRIs.
"I have been able to take what I learned in grad school and apply it to things that are more complex," says McClure. "I have had the luxury of a lot of time without teaching responsibilities and coursework to focus on really shaping my skill set."
According to Pine, students searching for a similar opportunity might want to consider a NIMH internship while still in graduate school. Information on how to apply can be found on its Web site at www.training.nih.gov/student/index.asp.
ASSESSING PUBLIC HEALTH PROGRAMS
Dr. Jennifer Wyatt helps improve violence prevention programs through her post at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a behavioral scientist in the division of violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jennifer Wyatt, PhD, evaluates federally funded programs intended to prevent child maltreatment and intimate partner violence. She also works with researchers outside of the CDC to develop studies of such programs—tasks well suited to her background in developmental psychology and the underpinnings of behavior change.
"I was never drawn toward academics as a career," says Wyatt, who graduated in 2002 and began working for the CDC in 2003. "Much to the consternation of my professors, an applied position is really where I wanted to be."
With this goal in mind, Wyatt centered her graduate research on evaluating public health programs, including a youth court system, an abstinence-education program and a center serving sexually abused children, to name a few. At the CDC, she designs similar evaluations of federal programs, including prevention programs for partner violence and child maltreatment.
"Jennifer was attractive to the CDC because she had some good solid experience conducting large-scale studies and managing complex data sets," says her former adviser, Brian Wilcox, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Wyatt encourages other psychology students who are interested in public health to consider looking beyond the usual places where psychology job openings are posted; one example is the American Public Health Association's Career-mart at www.apha.org/career.
TURNING A JOB INTO A CAREER
As an organizational psychologist at the U.S. Department of Labor, Dr. Isabel Perez helps divisions meet their own goals.
Isabel Perez, PhD, first took a job at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as an undergraduate to shore up her business skills for a future career in advertising. But she soon changed directions because of a budding interest in the inner workings of offices and decided to go on to graduate school at the California School of Professional Psychology (now Alliant International University) in San Diego to become an industrial and organizational psychologist. Luckily, Perez was able to keep her job by transferring to the DOL's San Diego branch.
Although Perez kept the job for financial reasons, it blossomed into a career opportunity once she earned her doctorate in 2003: The DOL promoted her to a full-time internal consultant working on short-term assignments throughout the department.
In her new job, she develops standardized measures that DOL divisions can use to assess employee productivity and customer service. She also helps managers find ways to improve their division's performance, such as by implementing ways to assess organizational effectiveness.
For example, Perez served in the department's work force security office, which provides grant money to state labor regulatory agencies for unemployment insurance, among other programs. She interviewed these DOL employees and learned that one of the most important duties they filled was to provide information to states about how to use DOL grants. She then developed an employee survey to determine how well the office was doing in regards to public accountability and service quality.
Perez says she was lucky to find a job that grew into an opportunity to put her new skills to use, but her former adviser Richard C. Sorenson, PhD, a psychology professor at Alliant, adds that her drive certainly also played a key role.
"Someone who can work full time while going to graduate school and turn that into a career launching point has a great deal of vitality and persistence," says Sorenson.