When social psychologist Steven Breckler, PhD, had been at Johns Hopkins University for 11 years and hadn't gotten tenure, it was time to develop a plan B--a change that's led him down an even more fulfilling career path.

Through chats with colleagues and an ad in a division newsletter, he found out about an intriguing possibility: a two-year "rotator" position at the National Science Foundation. He applied for and got the job in 1995, which involves, among other things, managing the NSF's $4 million funding portfolio for social psychology.

Although he didn't exactly know what to expect from the position, "once I got here and started talking to people, it became more attractive to me," he says. And over time, Breckler came to like the job so much--and NSF him--that his temporary position as program director for social psychology in NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) became permanent.

"By the time I was here for three years, I was in love with the job," Breckler says. "You're able to be an advocate for your field and plug into new things that are happening. It's really challenging and fun."

Indeed, the rotator position, he and others say, is a post many psychologists may want to consider.

The job description

NSF rotators--so called because people temporarily "rotate" out of their academic position into NSF and back out again--is a unique phenomenon in federal science agencies. While other agencies offer similar high-level, short-term posts, NSF is the only agency with this kind of position. The importance the agency places on the role is witnessed, for example, by the fact that about half the program directors in the SBE directorate--which funds the bulk of psychological research at NSF--are rotators.

The positions are a visible demonstration of the agency's commitment to science's value on independent thinking, says Breckler. "It's not necessarily healthy for a field to have all long-termers," he explains. "Rotators bring in fresh thinking and fresh approaches. Having both rotator and permanent positions ensures both a constant flow of new perspectives and creativity as well as institutional knowledge and experience."

In a broad-brush sense, rotators perform two duties:

  • Managing two major grant-review processes each year; and

  • Representing and developing new funding opportunities for one's field and for psychology in general.

Within these areas, rotators are responsible for coordinating review panels and outside reviewers for 70 to 80 research proposals each funding cycle. They organize training workshops and give lectures around the country to inform researchers about upcoming opportunities and initiatives. In a general sense, they network with players both in NSF and in their own field to develop initiatives based on the most intriguing new developments.

"If you want to be effective for your science, here's one way to do it," says Merry Bullock, PhD, associate executive director in APA's Science Directorate, who was a rotator in 1994. "Being a rotator is a marvelous thing to do, even if you just take a year or two away from your life. It's rewarding to be able to foster the discipline from a broad perspective."

Rotator jobs are usually two-year positions, but can last anywhere from a year to four years depending on a person's circumstances and whether the situation is a good fit, adds Joseph L. Young, PhD, the soon-to-retire program director in human cognition and perception in the SBE directorate. People take the jobs for a variety of reasons, he adds: They might be stalled in midcareer and want new input, want to understand the federal funding bureaucracy better or have a spouse who gets a job or a child who goes to college in Washington, D.C. "There are a number of reasons people might want to do it, and all of them are valid," he says.

Rotator jobs open up all the time. In the next year or two, for example, NSF will need new rotators in many of SBE's psychology-related programs. In addition, other programs throughout the agency--for example, in decision science and animal behavior--hire psychologists as rotators. Likewise, psychologists have taken on extremely high-level rotator positions. Norman Bradburn, PhD, who was provost at the University of Chicago for 10 years, now directs the entire SBE directorate, and Philip Rubin, PhD, heads the SBE's Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, which oversees many of the programs psychologists are involved in.

Job perks

NSF rotators say the job opens some doors that aren't accessible in traditional academic settings. Guy Van Orden, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Arizona State University and new rotator who is assuming Young's post in human cognition and perception, says he's pleasantly surprised by the amount of good research that comes across his table.

"It's just like a job search where you have too many good candidates," he says. "Here, we get more excellent grant applications than we could ever fund. I'm already doing a lot of reading in areas I know very little about."

The job also presents a tremendous opportunity to lobby for and expand an area of interest in such ways as getting your field involved in agency-wide initiatives and developing new initiatives relating to your field. Breckler, for example, is working to ensure that social psychology makes its mark in a large transdisciplinary NSF initiative on Internet technology.

"The Internet represents a new landscape where people can interact, and there are a lot of social psychologists doing great work in this area," he says. "Part of my job is to make sure NSF hears about those contributions, and to make sure social psychologists find out about funding opportunities in this area."

In addition, he's leading a major initiative, earmarked in the federal 2003 budget, that will launch several national centers devoted to the science of learning. There's a place for social psychology here, too, he says, as a growing body of research demonstrates the importance of social variables in learning.

Because NSF funds a good deal of multidisciplinary research, rotators also have a chance to dialogue with other disciplines, says social psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz, PhD, professor of psychology and Manuel Yellen Professor of Social Relations at Brandeis University and a rotator from 1994 to 1995.

"There's a lot of collaborative work and a lot of give-and-take between programs and disciplines," says Zebrowitz. "Not only do you talk to people from different disciplines on a regular basis, but you read the same grant proposals and consider funding them together. It's a much more multidisciplinary experience than you get in academia."

Likewise, there's a unique opportunity to see the workings of the Washington bureaucracy up close. "I learned a lot about how money makes it from the government into the pots of scientific research," says Zebrowitz. "It was like taking a high-school civics class, except that it was more in relation to what I wanted to do."

Occasionally, rotators get to start something really new. Lawrence Parsons, PhD, who's program director in the NSF's new Cognitive Neuroscience Program, was hired as a rotator to create the program in this cutting-edge area. Cognitive neuroscience often employs the power of recently developed brain-imaging techniques to examine the brain, behavior and psychological functioning in ways that previously weren't possible, explains Parsons, who came to NSF from a job as professor of radiological sciences at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. While there are lots of potential applications for this research in health and medicine, the NSF program will emphasize the study of basic processes that underlie normal functioning, he notes.

"My goal is to look at the most cutting-edge and neglected areas of research and extrapolate ahead to see what might be the most important developments for cognitive neuroscience 10 or 15 years from now," Parsons says.

'Chinese water torture'

A rotator's job, however, is not without flaws. Dealing with the glacial pace of government can be frustrating, even amusing, those involved admit. Merry Bullock jokes that getting some of the research initiatives off the ground when she was a rotator was not unlike Chinese water torture. "They may have happened, eventually, but it was a very slow process," she says.

In addition, the learning curve is steep, those involved say. "It's an awesome responsibility at first--you see all of these different proposals coming at you and you know a lot is riding on them," Breckler says. "It took me two review cycles to figure out what was going on," he adds. "It can feel like you've just figured out what you're doing, and then it's time to go home."

The experience is worth these pitfalls, however, Bullock believes. In a global sense, it gives researchers a chance to give something important back to their field of origin, she says.

"Every researcher wonders what the long-term impact of their work is going to be," she says. "One way is to contribute new findings to your area through research. Another," she adds, "is to use your expertise and vision for the field to serve in a granting agency"--the essence of the rotator position.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.