Nicole Bereolos, PhD, is considering two very different career tracks: one in academia and another as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. The academic route appeals to her because it offers the chance to work with interesting colleagues and develop her own research program; the applied route is compelling because it pays well, puts her higher on the career ladder than academia would, and gives her the chance to combine her research experience and clinical training.
At this point, she's leaning toward clinical trials work. "The pharmaceutical world tends to do pretty well, even in a bad economy," says Bereolos, who attended the behavioral medicine graduate program at the University of North Texas and is now completing a research postdoc at Brown University. "There will always be the need to cure cancer, HIV, diabetes and other illnesses." As a result, she's spending most of her time looking for jobs in that field—though if the right job appeared in academia, she would consider it, she says.
Bereolos is one of hundreds of research-oriented grad students considering careers in applied fields, and their numbers are growing. In 2000, about half of psychology doctoral students on research tracks took jobs outside of academia, compared with 30 percent in 1975, according to APA and other statistics compiled by Claremont Graduate University psychologists Stewart I. Donaldson, PhD, Dale E. Berger, PhD, and Kathy Pezdek, PhD, in "Applied Psychology: New Frontiers and Rewarding Careers" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006). Applied psychologists' many roles include helping the government assess and minimize terrorist threats, designing technology to help elderly people navigate their homes, and helping businesses develop effective leaders and teams.
Applied jobs are increasingly attractive because it's becoming harder to secure tenure-track positions in academia, experts say. They also may be gaining more cachet as real-world problems such as global warming, terrorism and economic upheaval become more pressing and the market requires more sophisticated solutions, says Donaldson, director of Claremont Graduate University's Institute of Organizational and Program Evaluation Research.
"Employers are increasingly seeking people who understand and can apply the scientific method and critical thinking to help make good decisions on a variety of complex problems," he says.
While applied work can be compelling, there are points of caution as well. Finding your niche can be a challenge, for example, and applied jobs may lack the eventual security of tenure-track academic positions.
That said, "An applied career can be just as exciting as an academic one"—and sometimes more lucrative, says APA Deputy Executive Director for Science Howard Kurtzman, PhD, who supervises the directorate's Office of Applied Psychological Science. If you're considering a research job outside the ivory tower, here are some pointers:
Assess yourself. Students who pursue traditional academia tend to focus on one or two main areas of study, often following a mentor's area of interest. The applied world differs from this model by requiring breadth as well as depth, since you'll be spending time exploring a variety of job options, and "real-world" jobs demand that you get along with a wide variety of people, says Berger, an applied psychology professor at Claremont.
In addition, applied psychologists often work in jobs with more structured routines and hours, bottom lines, goals and products than their academic counterparts, and they may relish the regular sense of accomplishment that comes from successfully met deadlines, Kurtzman says.
That certainly describes Christopher Vowels, PhD, a research psychologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute in Arlington, Va. Vowels knew early on that he wanted a job where he could see the results of his work fairly quickly.
"Even in grad school, I wasn't just interested in getting into a lot of theoretical debates," says Vowels, who attended the cognitive and human factors graduate program at Kansas State University. "If there's a problem, I want to figure out how to solve it."
The Army Research Institute has proven to be an excellent fit, Vowels says, letting him contribute to and evaluate projects aimed at improving military training, performance and technology.
Practice private-sector skills. After six years of grad school, chances are you've got excellent research and statistical skills. However, in applied settings, employers are just as interested in how well you can communicate that knowledge in user-friendly ways, says Berger.
"You need to be able to think about your audience, about what they know and what they need to know," he says.
Employers also seek those able to manage and work with a wide variety of people, Donaldson says.
"You need management skills to accelerate or advance in many fields," Donaldson says. "If you don't have that social insight piece, your career will move much more slowly." To gain such experience, he recommends taking management and professional communication classes, applying for supervised internships where you can practice these skills, and seeking opportunities to make professional presentations at conferences, for example.
Stay open and network. Finding your direction can be more difficult in the applied world than in academia because the path is less set, experts add. So it's important to stay open and to continuously consider which directions interest you.
"You can't stay in the ivory tower," says Kurtzman. "You need to be fully engaged in the world, talking to people in all kinds of fields." That stance will help you understand your options and develop your communication skills, he says.
Attending conferences, talking with people in APA divisions geared to your interests and joining relevant listservs are some ways to do this, Vowels says.
Another is chatting with people in settings you want to learn more about. "Take the opportunity to get the perspectives of people who are walking the walk," he says. In particular, talk with recent graduates in jobs you're interested in, he advises. "They'll give you an unadulterated view of life after graduate school."
Get real-world experience. Once you've homed in on areas of interest, get real-world experience, experts urge. Seek out summer jobs, internships, postdocs or fellowships in settings that grab you, they recommend.
With the help of his adviser, for instance, Vowels found a fellowship through a multi-university, Department of Defense program called the Consortium Research Fellows Program that led directly to his job at ARI. Meanwhile, Bereolos got a master's degree in public health to further enhance the medical side of her vitae. Other students seek MBAs, law degrees or other extra training that gets them where they want to go.
When searching for jobs, map out tangible routes to getting there, they add. Identify specific employers and set up informational interviews—talks with representatives at companies you are interested in to learn what the company does and to make contacts there—to get a feel for what different settings are like.
Whatever your choices, let your passion guide you, Donaldson advises: "When you do, you'll end up in all of these really interesting places."
Think creatively. There are many applied jobs without "psychologist" in the title that are great fits for scientifically inclined psychologists, experts say. So when seeking jobs, read the descriptions and consider how your skills may fit a given position, rather than the title itself.
That approach worked well for Craig Thomas, PhD, now chief of a branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that oversees and supports the country's health departments in their efforts to prepare for emergencies, including natural disasters, disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks.
He knew he wanted a career where he could use his scientific training to serve society in a meaningful way, so in graduate school he took an internship helping to evaluate mental health services for a county mental health department in California. The experience opened his eyes to the fact that government jobs abound that call for a strong social science and people skills, but that aren't strictly pegged for psychologists.
"If you're interested in health and human services, transportation, justice, agriculture, education, child care—these are huge areas of government that offer many opportunities to apply social science training to solving some of our more challenging problems in real time," he says. For his part, his internship led to a position at the CDC evaluating HIV prevention programs, which in turn landed him his current position as branch chief of an area of increasing national importance.
Interestingly, maintaining an open mind may lead some students considering applied paths back to academia, but in novel and often lucrative ways, Donaldson adds.
Some of his students have ended up teaching in schools of management, business, health, health administration, public health and multidisciplinary behavioral science, for example, sometimes making twice what they would in departments of psychology. Others who work in academic settings run applied research programs in the real world as well.
Working at it and maintaining an open mind will eventually land you your plum job, Berger predicts.
"I have a lot of students who say, 'Oh, I was lucky to get this job; it's just what I want,'" he says. "But luck comes to those who prepare—as well as those flexible enough to say, 'This isn't what I ever thought of, but it looks interesting. Let's give it a try!'"
By Tori DeAngelis