From The Science Student Council

Changing course: What to do when you realize that your career goals have changed

Career opportunities for doctoral-level psychological scientists are not limited to academia.

By Hallie Bregman

When I entered graduate school, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a career in academia.  After all, that’s what I was supposed to do, right?  Nearly every message that I received, implicit or explicit, expressed that in order to be a psychological scientist, I had to pursue an academic career.  The idea of wasting your rigorous degree on something other than academia was unmentionable. 

Yet, despite my initial confidence in an academic future, over time, I found myself wondering if academia was the best fit for me.  A reassessment of my career goals was first prompted by my involvement in a grant application.  Although I was capable of writing the grant, I quickly realized that I did not enjoy the process.  And furthermore, I did not want my career to rest upon my success as a grant-writer, nor did I want the anxiety that can be provoked by the never-ending evaluative process in academia.  I was also disinterested in the pressure to balance multiple obligations (teaching, administrative work, for example).  Using deductive reasoning, I knew that a tenure-track faculty position was not for me.

Cue panic!  If I don’t go into academia, then what do I do?  I was so well-taught and well-prepared for an academic career, yet I was clueless about what other options even existed.  After many conversations with my (wonderfully supportive) advisor, I learned that there were many other choices about what to do with a PhD in psychology, and that I didn’t have to drop out of graduate school and change fields altogether.  Nor did I have to lose sight of the importance of psychological science and research.  In fact, the choices are endless, and often non-traditional.  I learned that I just have to be flexible in what I might consider as a future career. 

I’ve always had a passion for quantitative methods, and thus naturally, one of the first ideas generated was a career as a statistical consultant, data analyst, educational statistician (the titles vary).  I had never considered this option, but appreciated that it would allow me to stay connected to the research community without working in an academic setting.  For instance, I recently met a psychologist employed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a Research Scientist.  I realized that even athletic (and many other) organizations require psychological science!

Alternatively, I learned that positions in advocacy and public policy were available.  After participating in a day of lobbying Capitol Hill with the APA Science Student Council, I gained awareness of the importance of advocacy and public policy to advance psychological science, and thus the value of careers in these fields.  If advocates didn’t constantly remind the government that psychological scientists need funding to execute critical research, then psychological science might suffer from insufficient funding.

Furthermore, the government offers positions in numerous agencies that require psychologists.  For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is currently hiring a research statistician, the Department of Veteran Affairs has a call out for a research psychologist, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is looking for an Education Program Manager.  Each of these positions would value the scientific skills that I have learned as a psychologist, but would apply them in ways I had not expected. 

I also learned that many companies exist that look to hire people from all areas of psychology.  The American Institutes for Research, for example, employs psychologists in a number of capacities, such as researchers, program managers, and statisticians, and in a number of research domains, including education, public policy, health, and the workplace.

Had you asked me before, I wouldn’t have known that NASA or the NCAA hired psychologists.  Yet after a little searching on the internet and discussions with colleagues and mentors, I’m happy to report that many opportunities exist for psychologists.  I also found great resources to help guide my job search, such as the American Psychological Association’s Interesting Careers in Psychological Science series.  I still don’t know exactly which opportunity is perfect for me, but I am comforted by the knowledge that the possibilities are great. 

Hallie Bregman, the chair and clinical science representative on the APA Science Student Council, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Miami. Her current research interests include family functioning in families with lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth, marital conflict, and divorce. She is also interested in the use of advanced quantitative methods.