Policy Scientist for a Federal Agency

David M. Stoner, PhD
National Science Foundation

Someone once noted that it's a good thing we aren't required to commit to a career in the first grade or we'd be up to our hips in cowboys and ballerinas. Two decades beyond my own cowboy days, I felt committed to a career of researching and teaching psychology. My fondest hope was to land a tenure track position at a good university.

"So, how does it feel not to be a psychologist anymore?" a psychologist friend of mine inquired when he heard that I'd taken a job on the staff of a member of Congress.

Although my own professional identity as a psychologist remained strong, from my friend's perspective this was an entirely reasonable question. I'd already resigned a hard-to-come-by tenure track position, relocated to Washington, D.C., and taken a research administration position at the Office of Naval Research. Then, out of curiosity and a desire to learn more about science policy, I applied for and was awarded an APA/AAAS Congressional Science Fellowship. This program places research PhDs in the offices of members of Congress to provide them the benefit of a scientific perspective. Although there are actually very few science policy votes in any given Congress, a scientific background can improve the quality of the debate on many issues.

In addition to serving as the resident scientist, my fellowship year provided a chance to do almost every job in the office. I analyzed legislation, researched policy issues and became an instant expert on topics ranging from cruise missiles to the federal budget. I drafted bill language and wrote floor statements, speeches, testimonials, inserts for the Congressional record and hundreds of constituent letters.

At the conclusion of my fellow year, I decided to stay on in a congressional staff position. In the eyes of my psychologist friend, the transition to non-psychologist was complete—I had veered off the path to become one of the 20 percent of psychology doctoral degree holders who describe their work as only somewhat related or not at all related to their degree.

Over time, I was promoted to legislative director (LD), the senior policy position in a congressional office. As LD, I oversaw the range of legislative activities, serving as the office legislative memory, advising my boss on votes and managing an ever-changing staff.

During my 8 years on the hill, a number of people indicated in one way or another their surprise at a PhD psychologist working in a congressional office. Not only was I abandoning psychology, but also it was implied that I was doing something I was totally unequipped to do. Wasn't this a waste of my education?

From my perspective, it was incongruous that the more education you have the more limited your employment options should be. I always thought that my graduate training made me an ideal candidate for any job that called for good analytical skills and an ability to get to the heart of a problem. Although I was trained for what my mentors considered the highest calling — an academic life — along the way, I gained expertise that I felt would serve me well in almost any work setting.

When my boss failed in her bid for a Senate seat, I was hired at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to write speeches for the director. Because of my congressional experience, I gravitated to the legislative half of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs and eventually was put in charge of the Congressional Affairs Section at NSF. My current work relies heavily on my experiences in a congressional office. I track legislation, respond to congressional inquiries, prepare testimony, brief members and staff, and work with other research agencies and professional societies. My job has taken me to the South Pole on three occasions and allowed me to meet some of the most talented scientists in the world.

At NSF, there has been a long-running discussion about the future of science and engineering graduate education. Is the best model narrowly focused disciplinary training? Is it wise to train traditional PhDs in numbers far in excess of available academic jobs? Conversely, is it possible to overdevelop the nation's intellectual capacity? Should we give any sufficiently bright, interested and motivated college student the benefit of earning a PhD, even if he or she might never actually "practice" in their area of expertise?

These are not easy questions to answer, but at NSF, I work with several hundred bright, dedicated PhDs from every discipline working outside of their specialty areas while maintaining their professional identities. To the best of my knowledge, only one still wants to be a cowboy.

 
(Originally published in the September/October 1999 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)