An interesting career in psychological science: Scientist at a federally funded research and development center
By Jill Egeth
PhD (2001) – Health/Social Psychology
Associate Department Head – Social, Behavioral, and Linguistic Sciences
Am I a psychologist because of nature or nature? Tough question. Psychology has been part of my life from the very beginning (and I mean the VERY beginning). My father, cognitive psychologist Howard Egeth ( Johns Hopkins University), was teaching a statistics course shortly before I was born - he developed a statistical exercise based on baby-name preferences for his class during the spring semester of 1974, which revealed that the name “Jill,” when compared to a set of other names, evoked more positive emotions among JHU undergrads. I grew up playing with so-called “puzzles” made up of red and white cubes – imagine my chagrin when I realized, many years later, that I was “playing” with the block design portion of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children! Over the years, I spent summer afternoons hanging around the psychology department, organizing my father’s journals, visiting the rat lab, and serving as a guinea pig for the latest perception test under development by the graduate students. Is it any wonder that during my sophomore year at Binghamton University, to my parent’s great joy, I declared a double major in psychology and history? (And is it any surprise that my younger brother, Marc, subjected to the same influences, would also go on to earn a PhD in psychology?)
Although my childhood exposure to the social and behavioral sciences focused on cognitive psychology, my own interests tended toward health and social issues, and I ultimately decided on a health psychology concentration through the social psychology doctoral program at Rutgers University. I knew within a year that while I loved health psychology, I did not want a traditional career in academe. This realization put me in what I perceived to be a difficult position; I chose not to share with my professors my desire to leave the ivory tower, for fear that once they knew they were not grooming a future academic researcher, their interest in my training would wane. Luckily, several of my fellow students were in the same boat, so we offered each other the social support that we feared we would not receive from our advisors. I share this with you to help professors understand the challenges faced by students who do not plan to follow in their advisor’s footsteps, and to let those students out there who find themselves facing a similar dilemma know that they are not alone.
During my last semester at Rutgers, while simultaneously writing my dissertation and conducting a job search, I realized that I was not actually interested in many of the health-oriented, non-academic research positions I was finding online. In fact, I was most inspired by those positions with the word “policy” embedded in the job description – specifically, national-level policy that impacts the health and well-being of American citizens. I was lucky to obtain a position with the organization now called the Federation of Associations for Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), where the executive board in charge of hiring was, happily, more interested in my psychology credentials and my ability to represent the field to non-scientists than in my experience (or complete lack thereof!) with science policy and advocacy.
The Federation, based in Washington, DC, is a coalition of social and behavioral science organizations, university affiliates, and corporate affiliates, representing the interests of social, behavioral, and brain science researchers via communication, education, and advocacy efforts. As the Federation’s Science Policy Analyst, I worked to understand how federal policies, such as those governing the use of human subjects, could impact psychological science. Conversely, we also worked to educate policy makers on ways in which scientific finding should inform their policy decisions. The Federation’s small, three-person team worked to organize events intended to educate policy makers in ways that would shift their decision-making away from emotional reactions to issues and towards research-supported policy solutions, arranged one-on-one visits with congressional staff, wrote letters formally documenting our position on various issues, and issued a weekly newsletter to keep our members up-to-date on our activities and the issues that could impact their work. We worked very closely with the American Psychological Association’s science policy team, coordinating our efforts so that our positions were in synch. My five years at the Federation were an amazing and unique experience – I learned valuable professional and interpersonal skills that weren’t part of my graduate education and gained some perspective on the bidirectional interactions between science and policy.
All of my science policy work occurred in a post-September 11 world. One of my most compelling assignments involved educating policy makers on the contributions that social psychology could make towards understanding terrorism. After spending several months working with a team of social psychologists to help them demonstrate the relevance of their work to senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, I realized that I missed being more directly involved with the science of psychology. It was time to move on. Academe was still not the place for me, and while I enjoyed working at the national-level, I no longer wanted to concentrate solely on science policy and funding issues. Where could I go?
I spoke with Dr. Susan Brandon, whom I had met while she served as a Visiting Scientist within APA’s Science Directorate. Since her time as Visiting Scientist, Susan had worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institutes of Health. I knew that Susan had a new job that sounded interesting. I also spoke with Dr. Barbara Wanchisen, then the Executive Director of the Federation (yep…I spoke with my boss about my interest in exploring new opportunities!) to see if she had any insights to offer. The Washington, DC psychology community is a small world, and I knew that networking with like-minded colleagues would be the best place to start my job search. Turns out that I was right.
I ended up at the MITRE Corporation, which I learned about through Susan Brandon, who had moved to MITRE after several government jobs. MITRE is a non-profit organization chartered to work in the public interest, which operates four Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). An FFRDC is a unique organization that assists the United States government with scientific research and analysis, development and acquisition, and/or systems engineering and integration. FFRDCs address long-term problems of considerable complexity, analyze technical questions with a high degree of objectivity, and provide creative and cost-effective solutions to government problems. MITRE is not an organization that has traditionally had a strong base in the social and behavioral sciences (SBS), but in the years since 9/11, they have been steadily building their SBS bench strength and capabilities.
I am now the Associate Department Head of the Social, Behavioral, and Linguistic Sciences department, located in the Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence FFRDC, where we support an array of government sponsors from across the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. I serve as a behavioral science subject-matter expert on a host of project teams supporting government-sponsored projects, addressing topics such as radicalization, group behavior, collaboration techniques, persuasion, communication, and learning. Through MITRE’s internally-funded research and development program, I’ve even had an opportunity to go back to my health psychology roots – in 2008, before the H1N1 outbreak, I initiated a research project focusing on citizens’ cognitions about pandemic influenza and the ways in which those cognitions could influence the nation’s preparedness response. I feel like I’ve found what I was looking for when I left the Federation - working for an FFRDC allows me to apply my scientific background in social and health psychology to pressing real-world problems of national importance. The majority of my colleagues have graduate degrees in fields such as sociology, psychology, linguistics, public health, modeling and simulation, computer science, biomedical engineering, and systems engineering. Other colleagues have decades of military or intelligence domain expertise. We work together to devise solutions to our nation’s most demanding problems. Because MITRE works hand-in-hand with key elements of our government, our work is high-impact.
During my time with the Federation and with MITRE, one thing has remained constant – since 2002, I’ve been affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced Academic Programs, where I teach two or three classes each year to Masters degree students in Communication in Contemporary Society and Government programs. Initially, I began teaching because I wanted to keep one foot in the academic world as a back-up plan just in case I changed my mind about academe. As time went by, I realized that I genuinely love teaching and helping students make exciting connections between psychological science and their day-to-day professional activities. MITRE encourages and supports this sort of continued involvement with the academic community, and so I get to have my professional cake and eat it, too.
During a particularly bleak period in graduate school, when I was about to embark on my qualifying exams, I went on a vacation to Yosemite National Park. I came home from the trip and told my mother, half-seriously, that rather than finish my degree, I would be happier moving to Yosemite and becoming a forest ranger. My mother somehow managed to maintain her composure after this teary-eyed statement and told me that once I had my PhD in hand, I could do anything. At the time, I didn’t quite believe her (just what did she mean by “anything,” and, as my mother, wasn’t she required by law to offer overblown words of encouragement?), but I stayed in school and stayed away from Yosemite. I see now that my mother was right – with a PhD in psychology in hand, I could do (almost) anything.
What advice do I have to offer those of you who are interested in pursuing a so-called “non-traditional” career? Two words – do it! After nearly a decade of time outside of academe, I have seen, time and again, in both myself and my colleagues, that graduate training in psychology leaves you with a skill set that is broadly generalizable to a variety of domains. The ability to think analytically, write clearly and logically, and apply scientific rigor to your work, whether that work is research-oriented or applied, are skills that will serve you well wherever you go. Organizations like MITRE are actively looking for people with scientific backgrounds who are capable of and interested in addressing challenging problems in an applied setting.
You can do anything.