Research Career at HumRRO

Peter Ramsberger
Human Resources Research Organization

In the essay I wrote to accompany my applications to graduate school, I said I wanted to get a PhD in social psychology so I could teach and do basic research in a university setting. I’m not sure when my view of this began to change, but it may well have been after I spent one of my office hours as a teaching assistant reviewing a recent exam, item by item, with a student who was unhappy with his grade. Several times I pointed out that the information covered was in the book or had been addressed in class. The student apparently felt no compunction about informing me that he had not read the book and only attended a few class sessions. After going through every question on the test, he turned to me and explained, “Look. I’m pre-law, and I can’t afford to get a D on a &$*%* social psychology test.” Well, afford it or not, he got his D, and I think it was then that I started to consider the idea of working in other settings.

I came to the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) during my third year of graduate school. Although I realized that working full time might slow down the pace of my academic progress (and it did), I felt the need to start applying what I was learning and that simply wasn’t happening in my job as a clerk in a Government Printing Office bookstore. HumRRO is a nonprofit research and development firm headquartered in Alexandria, Va. My first assignment involved reading articles on leadership training and writing abstracts of them. This, in turn, allowed the senior HumRRO staff member I was working for to write an assessment of the state of the art in this field. It turned out to be a good way to start one’s career, in that I don’t think I’ve performed as mind numbing a task in the 22 years since.

It wasn’t long before I got my first major assignment. I had been helping out a more senior colleague as he conducted a Congressionally-mandated evaluation of the Federal Voting Assistance Program by surveying Americans living around the world. About a month into the project, he decided to take a job elsewhere and I suddenly found myself with the title of project director — heady stuff for such a junior member of the staff. I was lucky that the rest of the effort went well, and it was satisfying to find out that several improvements to the program were initiated in response to the results of the study.

At that point, my career took quite a detour as I became involved in a project aimed at evaluating an early interactive video system as a tool for basic skills education. It was around this time that the Department of Defense renormed its military entrance test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Unfortunately, in the rush to get through this process, a mistake was made. As a result, thousands of below-average aptitude youth were inadvertently admitted into the military. It wasn’t until commanders in the field began to report problems they were having with these men that the mistake was found and corrected. But the challenge of training those already admitted remained.

Interactive video seemed like a natural for this purpose because of the lack of need for reading skills, the potential power to involve trainees, and the ability to provide immediate feedback and remediation. I suddenly found myself writing training design documents and scripts for video productions, a far cry from attribution theory and research on interpersonal attraction. As it turned out, this type of activity would dominate my time for the next several years. I was part of a team that developed programs for physicians and nurses on treating trauma victims. These were video-based simulations that were derived from actual emergency room cases. The user had over 300 options available at all times to diagnose, treat and monitor the patient, whose condition would change based on the specific combination of actions taken. By the end of the project it was not uncommon to walk down the halls and hear staff members discussing the advisability of inserting chest tubes or intubating patients given the nature of their injuries and current condition. And it was fun to see segments of the programs when they were featured on an episode of the television program St. Elsewhere.

And then it was on to the rails. This was another interactive video effort aimed at helping train dispatchers understand and correctly apply the railroad’s operating rules. I had honestly never given train dispatching much thought until my involvement in this project, but found it to be a fascinating business. We rode freight trains around the Midwest to learn more about how railroads work, and by the end of the project I could look over dispatchers’ shoulders and figure out exactly what they were doing and why.

Eventually, I returned to the more familiar world of research, but the variety continued. Several colleagues and I performed a study in which we located lower aptitude soldiers admitted during Project 100,000 and the previously mentioned ASVAB misnorming. Project 100,000 was initiated during the Vietnam era, at which time the aptitude standards were purposefully lowered with the idea that giving disadvantaged youth — who were more likely to score low on the military entrance test — training and experience that would provide them a leg up when they returned to the civilian world. (Although there were those who suspected more utilitarian motives — namely getting the manpower needed for the war without cutting draft deferral programs.) Once located, these veterans participated in a survey in which they provided information about their subsequent life experiences. We then compared them to a group of lower-aptitude men of the same age who never served in the military. Turns out, based on our evidence, being a soldier didn’t help these veterans much at all. This was not a popular finding among those who feel that the military should be tasked with performing a job corps function.

Over the years, I’ve been able to take part in a wide array of other research and development efforts, including an assessment of the impact of conducting military basic training in a gender-integrated environment, validating the training provided to U.S. Customs Canine Enforcement Officers, writing an interactive video-based program on living with HIV, and developing orientation training for the Department of Labor’s new occupational information system, O*NET.

Contract research has its drawbacks, chief among them being the need to keep your focus not just on what you are doing at the moment, but what is available to do down the road. But this is offset by the fact that you generally get to do a lot of interesting work, learn new skills and experience a big piece of the way psychology is applied in the “real world.”

(Originally published in the March/April 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda,
the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)