The Graduate Student Advocacy Tool Kit

By Azurii Collier

As a member of the Science Student Council (SSC), I had the opportunity to attend the 5th Annual APA Science Leadership Conference (SciLC) in November, which provided an avenue for psychologists to learn about new directions in federally sponsored prevention and treatment research, and aimed to advocate for increased federal funding for basic and translational psychological research.


As graduate students focused on the multifaceted demands of earning a PhD, we often become oblivious to the pulse of national science policy.  However, it is critically important that we gain the skills needed to think about how our research can have a broader impact on pressing societal challenges. Getting involved in advocacy can affect researchers in numerous ways such as influencing federal funding priorities, protecting scientific processes and communicating research findings to a broader audience. Want to learn how? Review the five tools below to start building your advocacy skills set.

Learn the Language

Director of Government Affairs, Legislative Assistant, Science Policy Analyst, FY11… Reading a science policy newsletter without a general knowledge about what these terms refer to could be more confusing than reading Freud’s Die Traumdeutung.  As in everything, when you attempt to learn a new skill, be sure to learn the language. Refresh yourself on how bills turn into law, how long Senators and Representatives stay in office, and the legislative calendar to name a few.

Communicate the connection between your research and the “big picture”

As graduate students, we are trained to think precisely about one small topic and focus more and more narrowly to investigate the topic. A key part of the advocacy skills set is to do just the opposite - connect your small expertise to the really big picture.  At SciLC, the “big picture” was “enhancing the nation’s health care through psychological science.”  I prepared a 1-page brief describing my research, the agency that funds my research, and the broader importance of my research. I learned to communicate how my basic research on how the brain supports the cognitive processes underlying decision making can help provide the foundation for methods to modify the behaviors (e.g.., smoking, sedentary lifestyle) that are among the leading causes of chronic health problems and mortality in the U.S.

Psychological science, such as my research, is uniquely positioned to inform knowledge on how individuals can change their minds (and their behavior) on whether or not to smoke or to maintain a fitness plan, for example.  The impact of such behavioral changes would tremendously benefit health care reform and cut costs.

Seems like a stretch? To our advisors, it may be.  But to policy makers, it is exactly what they need. The more effective you become at this step, the greater the impact you will have as an advocate.

Moreover, begin to practice translating your research into findings easily accessible by laypeople in popular press outlets (i.e., newspapers and magazines).  The SSC is sponsoring an event, “Disseminating Research Findings: How and Why?” at the 2010 APA Convention to help you reach this goal.

Participate in science policy action alerts

Email is easy. We use it multiple times everyday. One easy way to stay connected to the pulse of science policy is to sign up for a listserv that distributes “action alerts.” These action alerts are critical in that they mobilize the masses of interested psychologists in order to influence timely political issues.  The APA Science Policy Insider News (SPIN) is an excellent place to start.

Contact your Senators and Representatives

You (perhaps) voted your U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives into office and they represent you! Congressional offices from your state or district have a special interest in your opinion and your expertise because you are their constituent.  For example, if you live in 6th district of Tennessee, you should be aware that your Representative happens to be the Chair of the U.S. House Science & Technology Committee, which means his staff would be particularly interested in learning about your research experiences and how your career in psychological science can contribute to the local economy and the future science workforce. Identify your Representatives and your Senators.

Visit Capitol Hill

As a representative on the SSC, I was invited to attend SciLC and the APA coordinated our Capitol Hill visits.  If you are interested in attending future SciLC’s, be sure to apply to become a member of the SSC.  Other professional associations, such as the Society for Neuroscience and the Coalition for Life Sciences, sponsor Capitol Hill days as well. If you participate in a Capitol Hill visit be sure to practice your talking points and review the voting background of your member.  As most Congressional visits are under 20 minutes, you should maximize your time and communicate as persuasively as possible. Likely topics can range from protecting the peer-review process, increasing federal research funding, and supporting specific science-related legislation.
Now that you have familiarized yourself with a few key tools necessary for public advocacy, the most important key is for you to take action today!


Azurii K. Collier, the Cognitive Representative on the APASSC, is a graduate student at Northwestern University.  Her research interests are focused on the cognitive neuroscience of problem solving and intuitive decision making.