Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Executive for a Workplace Health Services Company

By D. Adam Long

D. Adam LongD. ADAM LONG

PhD (2005) — Social Psychology
Vanderbilt University

Vice President, Research & Informatics
Gordian Health Solutions
Franklin, Tennessee

Like other psychologists in non-academic careers, my path to becoming Vice President of Research & Informatics for Gordian Health Solutions was nonlinear and often serendipitous. I'm convinced, however, that I have found my calling.

Growing up in a small Iowa town, I was not academically exposed to psychology until college. At Graceland University, psychology most piqued my intellectual curiosity. Although unclear about what specialty I might pursue, I gathered that a clinical degree would afford me the greatest career flexibility. I pursued that route vigorously, completing a master's degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in adult clinical psychology and then practicing for a year. I quickly learned that, although more than competent as a clinician, my passion was really in research. Moreover, reflecting upon the types of research that excited me most in college and graduate school, I pursued a doctorate in social psychology at Vanderbilt University.

Academic life at Vanderbilt was very stimulating, being surrounded by the best and brightest minds. Research took precedence and everyone knew it. I am forever grateful for the training and mentorship received there.

My research interests at Graceland and SIUE were disparate though all focused on topics with social and health implications - how we perceive painful stimuli, how attire affects helping behaviors, the relationship between intimacy needs and bodyweight concerns/pathologies. My research interests at Vanderbilt were also broad — the social comparison of ability, sense of community, social capital, social identity, place identity, and psychological well-being. I received several awards along the way, including SIUE's clinical psychology graduate student of the year, the Urban Affairs Association's best paper award with co-author Doug Perkins, and the APA's best dissertation award on a topic relevant to community psychology.

Near the end of my time at Vanderbilt, I realized that, like clinical work, teaching was a skill of mine but not a passion. Appreciating this fact, I began exploring career options as a researcher. It wasn't until I began brainstorming career options outside academia that I realized just how insulated students are from opportunities in "the real world." At institutions like Vanderbilt there is an understanding that one is being trained to become an academician like one's mentors, and expressions of desire to move away from academia are met with much resistance and sometimes even scorn — "If you leave, you can never come back!" It thus takes maturity, thick skin, and conviction to resolve to do otherwise.

From my career explorations I concluded that government and university research posts presented less career flexibility or advancement potential than corporate positions. Serendipitously, a former Vanderbilt doctoral graduate — also from psychology — returned to offer a seminar hosted by the career center focusing on exactly my situation: Opportunities for Ph.D.'s in corporate America. Thad Perry thus introduced me to the healthcare industry and how my methodological skills could be parlayed into a meaningful and rewarding career. I began, while still in school, as a contract statistician for Thad's startup company identifying medical billing errors. He later introduced me to my current mentor, Roger Reed of Gordian Health Solutions.

Roger hired me as Director of Health Management Research while I was still a Ph.D. candidate. Gordian provides health and productivity improvement services to large employers. By assessing health statuses (risks and conditions) and engaging employees and their spouses in healthier lifestyle behaviors, employers can engender a workforce and community that is healthier and more productive and thereby less costly. Doing so also helps to build positive workplace cultures, which lead to greater job satisfaction and lower turnover.

With unprecedented access to incredible data sources, opportunities for research abounded — to enhance Gordian's business model, evaluate wellness intervention outcomes, and publish in peer-reviewed journals. In just five years with Gordian, I have published five articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals (with two more in press) and eight articles in trade journals, spoken fifteen times at national conferences as an industry "thought leader," served as reviewer for peer-reviewed journals, lectured at prominent universities, received additional training in epidemiology at Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and chaired an APA dissertation awards committee. Other opportunities and activities have been no less satisfying, including promotion to Vice President of Research & Informatics, managing data warehousing and business intelligence product development for client and outcomes reporting, establishing best-practices analytic methodologies for evaluating Gordian interventions for clients, serving as the "resident expert" for public relations purposes (e.g., interviews with Forbes, Health Leaders, Wall Street Journal), participating in strategic decision-making regarding company direction and goals, hiring and mentoring other eager and talented professionals, and much more.

Curiously enough, my research counterparts at Gordian's competitors are nearly all psychologists, including many social psychologists. Why? Health and productivity interventions are social psychological — choosing healthy behaviors is a function of both individual motivation and social cues. And, from a research standpoint, program evaluations are a form of social science. They are typically quasi-experimental, requiring methodologically adaptable researchers to conduct them. The research and methods training in psychology are often extremely conducive to such work.

My current recruiting effort for Ph.D. candidates or new Ph.D.'s who might be where I was just a few years ago begins something like this: "Love research but want to work outside a university setting? Interested in using your hard-earned skills in a work environment that rewards such things?" As a social psychologist I was essentially trained as a social science generalist — a methodologist able to adapt to any number of research environments. I believe this has served me extremely well and will continue to do so. With my academically relevant credentials as well as demonstrable success in corporate America, I believe my future is very promising and holds uncounted opportunities.