An Experimental Psychologist in a Behavioral Science Research Firm

Sunny Becker, PhD
Human Resources Research Organization

I always squirm when I meet new people in casual social settings and they broach the inevitable question: “So what do you do?” I don’t have a tidy answer. My husband is a professor. My brother is a restaurant manager. My father is a retired Marine. I am… well… My answer varies:

  • I am an experimental psychologist.

  • I am a quantitative psychologist.

  • I am an educational researcher.

  • I am an evaluator.

  • I do military research.

  • I work for a nonprofit research firm outside of Washington D.C.
    What do you need me to do?

First, let me explain how I got here. I completed an A.S. in Computer Science as a teenager and thought I would write computer software until I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. Fifteen years, a B.S. in Information Systems, three jobs and several promotions later, I found myself managing a large team of software analysts for a major computer firm. To make a long story slightly shorter, let’s just say I had a midlife crisis and decided to become a professor of Psychology.

I entered graduate school to study under Warren Torgerson — a brilliant, practical thinker — at the Johns Hopkins University. I intended to investigate quantitative modeling of memory, but first Torg asked me to help with a U.S. Army study of the relative efficacy of three types of night vision goggles (NVGs). I spent the next few years traipsing around the woods at night. We conducted a series of experiments in which soldiers were fitted with one of three NVGs (monocular, biocular or binocular), traversed an unfamiliar path as quickly and accurately as possible, then repeated the process with two more goggles and different paths. We tallied their errors (e.g., wrong turns, tripping) and timed them. My role was to assist in the experimental design and setup (including cutting paths through the underbrush), help with experiment administration and analyze the results. This was not what I envisioned when I applied to graduate school, but great fun, nonetheless.

In between NVG experiments, I developed a dissertation on the effects of hyperstereopsis on perceptual depth compression, which included developing multi-dimensional scaling software in C++. I learned lots of quantitative techniques, but never got around to studying memory.

Meanwhile, I saw that most of my graduate school colleagues headed to post-doctoral positions, and I became disillusioned with the long road required of an academic. I also recognized that my professorial friends were highly specialized in narrow disciplines, while my interests are wide-ranging.

PhD in hand, I abandoned academia to be a statistical specialist in the Research, Evaluation and Accountability Office of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). Now, here’s the thing: I didn't know anything about educational research or evaluation. But much to my delight I discovered that the skills I had honed in grad school — organization, critical thinking, statistical analysis, good research design, technical writing — were the very ones I needed to succeed in this new field. This was quite an eye-opener.

In August 1998, I joined the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), a non-profit behavioral science research firm headquartered in Alexandria, Va. I expected to conduct educational research at HumRRO, but such is the nature of a contract research firm that there were no education projects for me to work on at the time. And so I became a military researcher. In my first week, I visited the Pentagon and also started work on a research team supporting a congressional commission—pretty heady stuff. Again, the same skill set came into play. In short order I participated in my first survey development, content analysis and focus group administration, in addition to the statistical analyses that I considered my bread and butter.

Eventually our educational research contracts built up so that now most of my work is in that area. But the beauty of an environment like HumRRO’s is the variety of work. Our matrixed organizational structure forms a specialized team for each project. After five+ years, my projects have included:

  • a longitudinal study of characteristics and attitudes that predict first-term attrition in the Army;

  • a congressional study on military training and gender-related issues;

  • a longitudinal evaluation of the new California High School Exit Examination;

  • an investigation of how well Department of Defense schools prepare K-12 students for transfer to civilian schools and college;

  • an evaluation of the impact of several organizational development initiatives in the Immigration and Naturalization Service;

  • development of performance-based assessments to ensure that college education majors are technologically adept;

  • evaluations of various public school magnet programs; and quality assurance of all aspects of the development, administration and reporting of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

I can honestly say that I have learned something on every project, and I am never bored.

So, what do I do? I guess my answer takes about 800 words. Don’t ask me at a party.

(Originally published in the July 2004 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)