Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Federal Transportation Official

By Gabe Rousseau


PhD (1998) - Cognitive/Experimental Psychology
University of Georgia

Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager
Federal Highway Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Washington, DC

I’d like to recount a tidy story of how I knew when I started graduate school that I would end up working on transportation issues related to walking and bicycling—but that would be fiction.  Frankly, back then I had no idea this was even an option, but I have enjoyed the path I’ve been on. At the Federal Highway Administration, I’m the U.S. Department of Transportation program manager for walking and bicycling. The job has many duties and some of the key activities involve: overseeing research related to encouraging more people to walk and bicycle; working on policy and guidance that states will use to improve facilities for walking and bicycling; serving on national and international panels to improve increased rates of walking and bicycling; and working on issues related to universal design so disabilities do not limit transportation options.

Before I started graduate school in cognitive/experimental psychology, I thought that the only viable option was to follow the academic path and become a professor somewhere.  My interests in graduate school and the reason I enrolled revolved around cognitive aging. I always gravitated towards applied issues in psychology and wanted to work on ways to improve quality of life.

I was fortunate to join Wendy Rogers’ human factors lab when she was at the University of Georgia.  Wendy was (and still is) very active in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Through my work with Wendy I was able to attend HFES annual meetings, which exposed me to human factors practitioners who weren’t academics. At the time though, the main career options for non-academics that stood out to me were in aviation, military affairs, and usability testing. I appreciated the importance of human factors work in those areas but I never felt a strong connection to any of them.

I completed my dissertation on skill acquisition and aging in 1998 and got a National Institutes of Aging-sponsored fellowship at Georgia Tech. I continued to work on applied cognitive aging research along the lines of what I had studied in graduate school. And I confess that I still felt pangs concerning what career path I should take. Despite attempts to fight it, I still felt like I’d be a traitor if I left academics. I applied for several academic positions but in retrospect, I probably did so half-heartedly because I knew it wasn’t what I was looking for. 

Life interceded though. My wife Samantha took a job in the Washington, DC, area in 1999. Because of our differing graduate school schedules (she’s a clinical psychologist), we had already lived apart for two years. Since being together was why we got married in the first place, we decided to move there together. I soon found a great opportunity to try out the nonacademic world by working with Tom and Mary Malone at Carlow International, a small human factors consulting group based just outside of DC.  I got to work on a variety of projects -- including ones with the Federal Aviation Administration, Navy, Coast Guard, and NIA -- and I enjoyed the hands-on nature of the work. I did what I really liked -- I wrote research proposals, conducted literature reviews, analyzed data, and gave presentations. Basically I realized that I was doing exactly the types of things I was trained to do in graduate school but instead of doing these things with undergraduate students, I was talking and working with clients.

About two years after starting with Carlow, Tom and Mary decided to scale back their operation after Tom encountered some health problems. Like any other regular person I had to look for a new job and ended up getting a position as a consultant at Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. Turner-Fairbank is the research facility for the Federal Highway Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.  I probably didn’t even know such an agency existed a year or two before I applied for this job.

At Turner-Fairbank, I worked on applied safety research, including studies of walking and bicycling safety.  I was even able to work on roadway safety topics related to older adults. One of the first projects I was involved in examined older adults’ comprehension of different designs for pedestrian countdown signals. Here’s a classic case of poor human factors—almost nobody understands what the flashing orange hand means when they see it on a crosswalk signal. We were examining different ways of making it easier for people to know if it was safe to cross, and this type of work helped develop standards that will be used by the whole country. I got hooked on this stuff! These were topics that mattered to me. I’ve always preferred nonmotorized means of transportation—Samantha and I both bicycle to work. Who knew that I could have a PhD in psychology and actually work on these issues?

Since that initial job, I’ve been able to work my way up the government ladder. I no longer focus solely on safety but now also examine how to encourage more people to make trips using human power. In this age in which climate change is a huge challenge and there is an obesity epidemic, I feel that I’m working on research and policies that can have a substantial impact on the quality of life and health on this planet.  That’s the core reason I was interested in psychology in the first place!

It has been about 10 years since I completed my PhD in cognitive/experimental psychology. I had no idea I would end up doing what I’m doing now and enjoying it so much. I think that relates to the main message I learned—don’t pigeonhole yourself. Follow what interests you and don’t feel like your fate is sealed with your first job.  The baby boom generation that seemed to occupy every good job in the 1990s is now retiring and there are incredible opportunities for people who have backgrounds in human behavior-related fields.  There are significant social and environmental issues that we face and we need people to help address these issues. The research training that we get as psychologists—whether it’s in industrial/organizational, social, clinical, or experimental psychology—leads to a very valuable set of skills and employers recognize this. 

Another big lesson is to network. I was shy when I started graduate school. I’m still shy. But I got my foot in the door with Carlow because Wendy Rogers knew Tom and Mary Malone through HFES. I got my first job at Turner-Fairbank  because some of their staff worked for the Malones in the past. Similar connections have carried me to what I’m doing today. You will be amazed at how building good connections will help. On a related note, be sure to work on people skills. I think this applies in academia as well as in government and the business world. Technical skills are important but getting along with people is probably even more important. It’s just another way to use your knowledge of human behavior!