Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Transportation and Safety Research Psychologist

By Emanuel Robinson

Return of Interesting Careers in Psychology

The APA Science Directorate is pleased to revive the popular series Interesting Careers in Psychology. These articles are written by psychological scientists who have pursued scientific careers that depart from the traditional academic path. The authors describe how they came to the positions they now occupy and the lessons they learned along the way for building a successful and satisfying career. Future articles will highlight psychologists working in business, government, and non-profit settings and will include those who have moved between academic and non-academic positions.


PhD (2006) - Experimental Psychology
Georgia Institute of Technology

Senior Research Scientist (Transportation and Safety Research)
Westat, Inc.
Rockville, Maryland

“What is the practical application of your research?”  That was the usual question posed at colloquia, defenses, and job talks by Dan Fisk, a faculty member in my graduate program.  It usually unnerved most graduate students, many job candidates, and even a few established researchers.  Ironically, I would start to regularly think the same question about the practical application of some research while sitting through presentations based on obscure task manipulations.  Hence, the seeds of questioning my own career path were planted.

I am a relatively new Ph.D. (2006) in Experimental Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, who studied with Chris Hertzog as part of the Cognitive Aging program with a minor in quantitative methods.  Throughout graduate school, I enjoyed working in a variety of areas, several with an aging or individual differences component:  meta-memory (understanding one's own strategies for memory retrieval), problem-solving, deductive reasoning (the topic of my master’s thesis), and eventually decision-making (the topic of my doctoral dissertation).  I continued my dissertation work as a Visiting Scientist at Brown University before making a career move.  Regardless of the domain, I wanted to understand how people thought in complex situations and what strategies were utilized.

Research has always been a passion of mine and it seemed like academia was the only outlet.  Like many students in a research-focused, experimental psychology program, getting a tenure-track position at a major university was the main goal.  Regardless, there were several things that kept other career options a solid possibility.  First, I had experiences in applied settings:  doing test development and validation with the local Civil Service Commission as an undergraduate intern, and statistical consulting for a survey/linguistics firm through connections of my post-doctoral advisor (Steven Sloman).  Second, I did not agree with the publish-or-perish metric, teaching was not a primary enjoyment, and I disliked the slower pace of academia.  And, unfortunately, there was the abysmal funding situation in my field.  There had to be other markets for my skills with more favorable risk/reward ratios.

So, how did I make the switch?  I methodically searched through everything I could find about potential types of jobs and places to work (research conference directories, search engines, etc.).  Also, I read through APA's Nonacademic Careers for Scientific Psychologists, which was a treasure trove of useful information.  Also, I reached out to contacts, which included applied professors in my graduate program and dissertation committee members (specifically Dan Fisk and Wendy Rogers), department alumni, and referrals from initial contacts.  Interestingly, there were several opportunities for an experimental psychologist with a quantitative, aging, and decision-making background.  One industry contact mentioned several firms that might be a good fit, including Westat, a research corporation in Rockville, Maryland.  As luck would have it, Wendy knew someone who worked at Westat, and offered to initiate contact.  This led to a preliminary meeting with Neil Lerner, who is the manager of the Human Factors division within the Transportation and Safety Research group.  I was initially apprehensive about what commonality there could be between my interests and the work they were doing.  A few minutes into the conversation and we were discussing railroad crossing accidents and how people take unnecessary risks to beat the train.  Aha!  That was similar to risky behavior in economics, a topic related to some of my decision-making work.  We continued with a formal interview, and the rest is history. 

Currently, I am a Senior Research Scientist in the Transportation and Safety Research group (Human Factors) at Westat, and have opportunities to explore a wide range of areas—some familiar (quantitative analysis, decision-making and economics, aging with a transportation focus), some unfamiliar (e.g., environmental, educational, and transportation interventions).  Examples include investigating the effectiveness of  various interventions implemented across multiple states for reducing car crashes involving teenagers, and developing an experimental evaluation of the design and safety outcomes of crash warning interfaces for vehicles.  I am also exploring new areas outside of those traditionally found in our group, including a recent proposal in behavioral economics and congestion pricing which has potential impacts on drivers’ route choice and safety.  In all of these projects, there is satisfaction in doing work that can directly save and improve lives.

After joining Westat, I discovered several similarities with academia (though this may not be true for every company).  These include publishing scientific articles, presenting at conferences, and receiving funding from government agencies.  We also compete and collaborate with researchers at many major universities.  Finally, there is a nice amount of freedom and independence, allowing us to move into different research areas based on new opportunities and interests. 

It was immediately obvious this was a better fit.  I can focus on existing real-world problems that need novel solutions—solving problems rather than creating them—and see the direct impact of my work.  Also, the amount of resources to do real-world, quality research is mind-boggling. In addition, work in industry is much more collaborative and interdisciplinary, often involving teams of researchers across companies and universities with diverse backgrounds.  For example, our group has a range of disciplines, from traffic engineers and civil engineers to sociologists to psychologists with training in vision, behaviorism, aging, decision-making, etc.  This diversity of skills is highly valued, which is very important to me given my broad interests.  Finally, everything moves at a much faster pace, which really challenges one to operate efficiently.

There are several general suggestions I hope will be helpful to a student or beginning researcher contemplating an industry career path: 

  • Acquire project and/or lab management experience to become more competitive in both industry and academia (several years of managing my advisor's lab helped immensely).

  • Collaborate and get to know professors (e.g., committee members, class instructors, colloquium speakers).  Expand your professional networks—you never know what information will turn out to be interesting or helpful.

  • Think broadly about your skills, how they can be applied, and realistically assess their value to companies (and work to overcome weaknesses).

  • Take quantitative and methodology courses (e.g., statistics, research design, psychometrics).  Those skills are desirable in both the academic and industry job markets, providing added flexibility (it gave me quite a few options).

  • Don't succumb to the sunk cost fallacy (or “throwing good money after bad”). Often, people feel too much is invested to change.  If things do not feel right in what you are doing, then look for the type of work that fits better with your interests and skills.

  • Plan ahead and seek out opportunities that allow you to thrive.  Find the niche that makes you happy, feels “right,” and allows full development.

After initially questioning what other options exist, I am aware of another world of research that has opened up many more possibilities.  Now the main career question I find myself asking is why this path was not pursued sooner.  The biggest confirmation of being in the right place for my interests is that I often smile when arriving to work.  Hopefully, anyone contemplating their career options will find this information helpful and have a similar opportunity.