Beyond the Ivory Tower: APA graduate student and public policy intern takes research from the lab to the Hill

Keeping policymakers abreast of what psychological research has to say about key legislative issues.

By Caroline Fitz, PhD

Caroline Fitz, PhDPursuing a PhD here in the nation’s capital has its perks. Yes, I’ve done the usual: completed coursework, taught and defended my dissertation (just a few weeks ago). But, with the White House as a backdrop to The George Washington University’s campus, I couldn’t help but wonder how psychological research is used to inform policy. So, a little off the beaten path for a doctoral student, I decided to complement my time in the research lab with a variety of policy-related opportunities. I started this foray in the executive branch — at the National Science Foundation one summer, and the National Institutes of Health the next — but this wasn’t enough. In addition to implementing the law, I wanted to help shape it, which brought me to APA.

For the past seven months, I’ve been a graduate student public policy intern with APA’s Public Interest Directorate. Now instead of the White House being a coin toss away, I’m working not far from the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, I’m able to use my graduate training to keep policymakers abreast of what psychological research has to say about key legislative issues. For example, one of my main portfolios at APA is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. I’ve advocated for LGBT populations by helping APA craft a letter to Speaker Boehner regarding the importance of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in improving the lives of LGBT Americans nationwide. My colleagues and I also sent out grassroots advocacy alerts via APA’s Federal Action Network to inform psychologists about specific actions they can take to impact the trajectory of this bill. More recently, I’ve written a post for PI’s blog Psychology Benefits Society highlighting the direct role LGBT-relevant policy plays in shaping LGBT individuals’ well-being (on that note: did you know that research indicates LGB people living in places where their rights are protected are likely to live an astounding 12 years longer than their counterparts living in places where their rights aren’t protected?) Across these efforts, I’ve done what I can to increase awareness of the mental health implications of LGBT legislation — ultimately to shape law.

Beyond my LGBT portfolio, I’ve also had the chance to witness the policymaking process across a wide range of issues. This past October, for example, I attended a hearing in the U.S. Senate on “stand-your-ground” gun laws. Here, I was able to listen to the poignant testimony of Sabrina Fulton and Lucia McBath, whose teenage African-American sons, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, were killed in disputes in which the defendants invoked these laws. I’ve also attended other hearings ranging from those focused on human trafficking — a phenomenon that has devastating consequences for far too many (up to 800,000 people/year) — to those concerning HIV/AIDS among older Americans. And I’ve seen Congresswomen, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., CEOs, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently president and CEO of the New America Foundation, and journalists, such as Maria Shriver, work together to bring traction to women’s issues. Throughout, I’ve paid close attention to the ways mental health messages permeate these events.

During my time at APA, I’ve also had the opportunity to encourage other psychologists to use their expertise to shape legislation. For the past few weeks, I, along with another public policy intern, have been charged with coordinating constituent meetings for psychologists participating in APA’s Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology. We’ve worked with myriad staffers to schedule Hill visits, wherein each participant will meet with her members of Congress to advocate for Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act (MOMS Act) appropriations and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. Both policies aim to improve the lives of countless women and their families.

Thanks to my time at APA, I’ve had a firsthand glimpse into how psychology’s perspective carries over to the policy arena; APA’s PI Directorate and Public Interest Government Relations Office play a key role: We stay informed and connected. We write letters. We encourage — and enable — our colleagues to share their viewpoint with lawmakers. As a result, psychology has a strong voice that resonates throughout the halls of Congress, and I’m proud to say I’m a part of that.

A Response from the Government Relations Office

Fitz’s experience illustrates how important it is that APA provides all its members, students and more senior professionals opportunities to become engaged in policy. She took time away from traditional graduate school activities to learn and then engage in policy experiences. This was a commitment of her time and energy — and the APA Public Interest Government Relations Office (PI-GRO) is the better for it.  

Psychology must be engaged in policymaking. The psychological perspective on social issues provides policymakers with information essential to understanding and resolving social problems. But even more importantly, these activities bring personal and professional fulfillment and provide those at all levels of career development a sense of personal agency. Besides the public policy internship program, there are other APA activities that provide opportunities for engagement. PI-GRO urges students and members to join our Federal Action Network, which provides its members with information on important federal legislation and ways to communicate with members of Congress. We also have a reference guide to federal advocacy (PDF, 2.1MB) on our website that includes background information on how the federal government works and information on how to advocate for issues of importance. Recently, APA added a Web-based continuing education course on advocacy for those who want to learn more about policy. Periodically, APA GRO staff provides advocacy trainings to APA members in being effective at interacting with policymakers — these are invaluable opportunities that include meeting with members of Congress. Also, the Public Interest Directorate program offices list activities and policy areas for member engagement on their websites. Members can also contribute to public policy through their other activities: conducting research that can affect policy, teaching policy issues at all levels, writing op-eds, blogs and tweets, and finally, becoming involved in APA governance to contribute to our efforts. Acting together, we can make a difference; I urge you to learn more — no matter what your primary area of expertise — to become active in applying psychology to public policy.