Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Adolescent Development Researcher at a Non-profit Organization

By Jill Denner


PhD (1995) – Developmental Psychology
Teacher’s College, Columbia University

Senior Research Associate
Education, Training, Research (ETR) Associates
Scotts Valley, California

I received my Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1995.  As a graduate student, I obtained a strong foundation of knowledge in human development, and received research training by community and policy-oriented psychologists outside my department. For 4 years, I worked as a research assistant on a large federal grant, and used that data to carve out a small study for my dissertation, which focused on the relationship between parenting style and social perspective taking in adolescence. I was never interested in pursuing a faculty position because I enjoy research much more than teaching, and always wanted to do research that had real-world implications for youth. However, at the completion of my Ph.D., I had limited knowledge of career paths outside the University. 

After receiving my Ph.D., I contacted a former undergraduate mentor, Catherine Cooper, Professor of Psychology and Education, who offered me a postdoctoral research position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This position, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, allowed me to build connections with youth and the people who work with them.  In partnership with two community-based agencies, I collected data and provided technical assistance to build the capacity of the agencies to conduct their own evaluations. This work involved designing summer classes for an academic outreach program, running a “girls group,” and developing data collection tools that were used as activities in an after-school club. The opportunity to work collectively with a faculty member, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as agency staff, helped me to learn how to conduct theoretically grounded, yet truly applied, relevant research regarding adolescents’ experiences.

Although I gained important training as a postdoc, I received little guidance to help me locate a nonacademic research position. Through a personal contact, I met a fellow developmental psychology Ph.D. who had successfully made the transition from academia to a research and evaluation job with a school district. This person helped me to imagine a different career path. Toward the end of my postdoc, I started applying for jobs, and conducted informational interviews at nearby agencies listing research positions. I located these agencies through personal contacts, internet searches for adolescent research, and by investigating recipients of public and private funding for research on youth in community programs.

After making a cold call to a local non-profit organization (Education, Training, Research Associates) where I had no contacts, I was directed to speak with the agency’s research director. As a result of this conversation, I received an interview for an evaluation job for which I was not yet qualified. Fortunately, the researchers at this organization valued my knowledge of theory and research design and method, and I was hired on a temporary basis to complete a literature review. After two months of literature work, I was offered a part-time position to lead the qualitative data collection for a study of the role of communities in teen pregnancy prevention. This work led to a peer-reviewed publication and a full-time job.

Most of the research at this organization was based in public health, although several other staff persons were also trained in psychology. As I learned the language of the public health field, I was brought into other projects, which included a randomized control study of a teen pregnancy prevention curriculum and an evaluation of a community-based collaborative that focused on HIV prevention. I wrote my first federal grant proposal in collaboration with the then director of the Program Development department, and we received a 4-year grant from the US Department of Education to develop and study an after-school leader program for girls.

I have now been a Senior Research Associate at ETR Associates for over ten years, and my work is funded by my own federal grants. By starting out working on other peoples’ projects, I developed the skills I needed to write proposals and receive funding from the US Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to pursue my own research interests. I have been the Principal Investigator on five large federal grants, and regularly publish in peer-reviewed journals and present at national conferences. Although I am based in a research department, I work with program development staff at ETR to develop and study after-school programs designed to increase the number of girls and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). I also conduct research designed to inform other STEM interventions, and have developed a national network of colleagues whose research and programs aim to get more women and girls on the path to information technology careers.

Based on this experience, as well as conversations with others in nonacademic settings, I offer the following advice:

Network.  To find out about nonacademic positions in your area, talk to as many people as possible. Contact graduates of your program who have pursued nonacademic careers and ask them what they do, and how it relates to their training. Contact peers working in the public and private sector, and arrange to meet with the staff of programs, foundations, or agencies that interest you. Go to community psychology and practitioner conferences and present applied work when possible. Attend community meetings and listen for ways that your skills could be useful. Tell people that you are looking for a job, be prepared to describe your skills, and ask them about how research is used at their organization. If you find an organization, person, or group of people that share your interests, set up a meeting with them. It is a mistake to wait until a job is posted on their website; Ph.D.-level work is rarely advertised in the want ads.

Get Out In The World.  Try to gain real world experience in a setting in which you’d like to work.  Some graduate programs might arrange for this work to fulfill the requirements of a university practicum, internship, or paid assistantship. In addition to building your resume and contacts, such work provides an opportunity to apply classroom-based learning, enables a sustained contribution to a community, and opens doors for fellow students. Reaching out beyond the university can also put you in contact with doctoral-level researchers who can mentor or support your search. Although real world experience takes a lot of time and may not be rewarded with pay or class credit, it is more likely to prepare you for a nonacademic job than being a teaching assistant, or taking another course, or writing another class paper.

Assess Your Skills.  Build the skills that are valuable outside of academia. In particular, experience in collecting data and managing databases, doing statistical and qualitative analysis, grant writing, program evaluation, and project management that involves supervising other people will prepare you for research and other positions outside a university setting. Talking with researchers outside the university will help you determine how to describe these skills on your CV in a way that speaks to the needs and interests of nonacademic settings.