Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Education Researcher at Non-profit Organizations

By Ellen Mandinach

Ellen Mandinach ELLEN MANDINACH 

PhD (1984) - Educational Psychology
Stanford University

Senior Research Scientist, WestEd
Washington, D.C. 

I was an undergraduate psychology major at Smith College where I received outstanding mentoring from my professors. After taking an undergraduate course in psychological and educational measurement at Amherst College, I realized that this was a topic of great interest and the Smith faculty encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree in the area. At the time, measurement was a field that bordered departments, sometimes in psychology departments and sometimes in schools of education. I was accepted to work with Lee Cronbach, the foremost expert in the field, and immediately decided that the Stanford University School of Education was the right place to study. I was privileged to be mentored by a fabulous quartet of scholars: Lee Cronbach, Richard Snow, Lyn Corno, and Lee Shulman, all of whom have held offices in the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). It was there that I formed enduring interests in measurement, individual differences, educational technology, and data analysis that are the foundation of my work.

Upon completing my degree in educational psychology, I knew I did not want to pursue a university teaching career, preferring to work in non-profit research organizations. Educational Testing Service (ETS), in Princeton, New Jersey, offered me a position as an associate research scientist and it was “the right job at the right time in the wrong place.” People wanted to know how I could leave Palo Alto for the east coast and the snow. Nonetheless, ETS provided an outstanding venue for conducting research that would have an impact on the field of education. One could pursue topics of importance and do interesting applied research. I directed an 8-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Education that examined the impact of technology and a perspective known as systems thinking on teaching and learning activities. My first book resulted from this project. I went on to work on a number of projects that focused on aspects of educational technology, including one that developed a framework for information and communications technology literacy. Toward the end of my years at ETS, I worked on testing and various issues around providing accommodations to learners and test takers with disabilities, a highly politicized topic. I spent seventeen years at ETS, eventually becoming a Senior Research Scientist and heading the Teaching, Learning, and Instruction group. But when the organization decided to become more product than research oriented, I realized that I wanted to be in a pure research organization rather than a widget producer and sought other opportunities.

I found a willing home for pursuing my interests at the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) which is the New York City division of the Education Development Center. At CCT, I was the Associate Director for Research and the Director for Research for the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory, supervising the laboratory’s randomized controlled field trials (basically using experimental designs in educational settings). It was at CCT that I broadened my perspectives on educational technology, learning a great deal from colleagues whose philosophy was to produce research to help children. Some of the staff at CCT had really interesting and deep knowledge of educational technology and helped to see new possibilities afforded by emerging technologies, an area that I had moved away from during my last few years at ETS. The interactions with smart and creative colleagues rejuvenated my interest in the field.

My experience at CCT also grounded my work in the area of data-driven decision making, merging all of my research training and interests. The objective of this work is to help educators grapple with the proliferation of data in effective ways in classrooms, schools, districts and states. Given the No Child Left Behind legislation’s mandate for accountability, data-driven decision making has become one of the hottest topics in educational research. It will continue to have a broad impact on educational practice, especially now that we have a Secretary of Education who is a strong proponent. Thus, I have continued to work in this area, maintaining the balance between basic and applied research so that impact on practice can be seen in educational settings.

After five years, I moved to CNA in Alexandria, Virginia, which is a very different research organization from ETS and CCT. Both ETS and CCT are primarily focused on education and have long histories of education research and development. CNA, in contrast, is a much broader organization, with research activities in such areas as national security, health, and technology. Education is a fairly new and small part of CNA’s research portfolio. The education group is comprised of social scientists from many fields. This diversity provides for a fruitful learning experience while the small size allows for each person to help define the research agenda and priorities. This is in contrast to established organizations where there may be little room for such input. At CNA, I am a senior project director and the deputy director of the Regional Education Laboratory Appalachia, where I had also been the Interim Director. REL Appalachia is one of the ten regional education laboratories funded by the U.S. Department of Education to conduct research in specified regions of the country that help to address needs of particular stakeholders. So for example, if the commissioner of education identifies a certain topic of interest or concern for his or her school districts, the REL might work with the state department of education to conduct a research study from which evidence can be obtained about the issue.

All organizations have their assets and problems, their challenges and opportunities or CHOPS, as I like to call them. One has to hope that in your career, you encounter more OPS than CHS. The major challenge in all these organizations is to maintain a personal research agenda and keep it funded, especially when funding sources are increasingly tight. University-based researchers often have an easier time with such an issue. Funding in a typical non-profit research organization can come from a variety of funding sources, such as the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, private foundations, and even corporate foundations. The funding issue is about building expertise in an area and maintaining a consistent research agenda to build your reputation in a specific field. University-based researchers often have an easier time carving out and sustaining that agenda, whereas non-profit based researchers need to keep themselves funded and may have to stray beyond their area of expertise, based on research agendas of funding agencies, to write proposals that may not be in their comfort zone. University based people always have teaching as their primary job and funding source of income. Non-profit researchers have to keep themselves funded or they may be out of a job.

Another challenge but also an opportunity at a non-profit organization is that research is the sole focus of one’s activities, without responsibilities for teaching, committees, or graduate students. Because one is on what is known as “soft” money, you have to carve out time on your own to write articles and books and do other scholarly activities that are a normal part of a professor’s life. Because in a non-profit research organization work is project-based, there sometimes is no time and money written into a grant for such activities. The responsibility for anything above the contracted reporting often falls upon the researcher to do on his or her own. That said, someone based at a research organization often has more opportunities to attend professional meetings than the typical professor who has a very limited travel budget (unless you are have grants that enable such travel). Friends who are professors often comment at how lucky I am, and vice versa. It depends on how you define your priorities and what you want to make of your career.

I have tried to bridge some of the gaps. I serve on several editorial boards, am a frequent reviewer for the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Science Foundation, and have been a program chair for AERA and for APA’s Division 15 (Educational Psychology). I was elected president of Division 15 for the 2008-2009 year and will soon become a fellow of both Division 15 and AERA. All of these activities help to round out my career.