Cover Story

Brick wall and stone pathway

As a scientist-practitioner groomed for academe, Diane Elmore, PhD, never expected she'd forgo her teaching calling. But on a postgraduation fluke, she took a two-year position working in APA's Public Policy Office, an experience that prompted her to rethink her long-term career goals. Rather than return to academe, she went on to work for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as a legislative assistant for a year as part of APA's Congressional Fellowship Program.

"Policy is the path that's less traveled but it can open up exciting opportunities you never thought you'd get into," said Elmore, who finished the fellowship this year and has a new position in APA's Public Policy Office. At the same time, she noted, it's a path that's not necessarily as straightforward as academia.

"In policy, there isn't a set trajectory, you have to pave your own way," she said.

At an APA 2005 Annual Convention session sponsored by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), she and fellow psychologist policy experts Susan Dudley, PhD, and Roberta Downing, PhD, each talked about what inspired them to pursue policy jobs. Here's a look at their career paths and their advice on how newcomers can break into the policy world.

Roberta Downing, PhD

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Her Path

Fresh out of a social psychology doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Downing chose to put her research career on temporary hold to learn how her chosen topic—discrimination against the poor in health care—applied to policy. She became an APA Congressional Fellow and spent a year working for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on the health policy staff of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). There, she focused on legislation involving health disparities, women's health care, obesity, family planning and HIV/AIDS. Now, she's resuming her research career—more policy savvy—with a research fellowship through the Kellogg Community Health Scholars program at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Her Career Advice

Get involved with advocacy initiatives as early as possible through APAGS (see box), by joining APA's Public Policy Advocacy Network listserv or by forming relationships with your members of Congress through letters, networking or office visits, she said. Keep in mind that some faculty may think advocacy isn't as valuable as coursework or research, she said, but participating in advocacy can provide important insight into how research is directly related to policy.

Her Take on Psychology and Policy

"I've been struck by how few psychologists are on the Hill," she said. With "politics trumping science" lately, she said, more psychologists are needed to translate and promote psychological research for lawmakers.

Susan Dudley, PhD

Director of Policy Research, National Research Center for Women & Families

Her Path

As an Auburn University at Montgomery psychology professor with expertise in physiological psychology and reproductive issues, Dudley became immersed in grassroots advocacy in the 1990s to fight anti-abortion legislation in Alabama's state legislature. She learned, among other things, how to do grassroots organizing, call a press conference, and write and deliver testimony to legislative committees. Her hard work eventually helped defeat the anti-abortion efforts, she said, and by the time it did, "I was hooked forever" on policy work. Dudley eventually left Alabama for Washington, D.C., where she networked for several months until she found an entry-level policy job at the National Abortion Federation. She stayed there nine years and worked her way up to deputy director of that organization. She has since done advocacy work for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and the National Breast Cancer Coalition and is now at the National Research Center for Women and Families.

Her Career Advice

Follow your passion and think creatively about ways to get involved with local policy work if you don't live in Washington, D.C., and if you don't have access to a policy fellowship program—as she did with her work in the state legislature. Moreover, you can find jobs outside of Congress in Washington, D.C., at advocacy organizations working on a wide variety of important issues.

Her Take on Psychology and Policy

Psychologists' research and people skills are excellent qualifications for policy jobs, said Dudley.

"As psychologists, we understand that how something is presented can be just as important as what is presented," she said.

Diane Elmore, PhD

APA's Public Policy Office

Her Path

When as a new psychologist Elmore first worked for APA's PPO—through a Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues fellowship—she felt like she'd taken a few professional steps back.

"I was just climbing my way to professional comfort and was back at the bottom of the learning curve," said Elmore, of learning to read legislation, prepare briefings and navigate the Washington, D.C., policy world. "I felt like a first-year student again."

As she got the hang of it, Elmore said, she saw how her research and clinical work with trauma survivors could be applied to policy and how policy affected psychology research and practice. During her congressional fellowship, Elmore was responsible for Sen. Clinton's mental health and aging portfolios. In her current APA Public Policy Office job, she oversees APA's advocacy efforts on aging and trauma issues.

Her Career Advice

Get your feet wet through policy fellowships such as APA's Congressional Fellowship program and others that offer a taste of policy work if you aren't sure if it's the career for you, she advised.

Her Take on Psychology and Policy

"Policy is all about relationships...this town is built on relationships," she said. "Who is better at developing relationships than psychologists?"

Advocacy Opportunities

Students can learn more about state and federal policy activity by joining the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students Advocacy Coordinating Team (ACT), which monitors federal and state legislative activity that affects psychology education, science and practice. The network also advocates for psychology students' needs. Students can serve as ACT state or regional advocacy coordinators, and as campus representatives. For more information, visit APA APAGS Advocacy.

Students can also stay up-to-date on key policy issues by joining APA's Public Policy Advocacy Network, an electronic listserv that supplies monthly action alerts and information updates on such legislative issues as same-sex marriage and campus mental health services. 

J. CHAMBERLIN