Interesting Careers

An interesting career in psychological science: Science advocate and policy advisor

By Barbara A. Wanchisen

Barbara A. WanchisenBarbara A. Wanchisen

PhD (1986) - Experimental Psychology
Temple University

Senior Board Director, National Research Council

Former Executive Director, Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences
Washington, D.C.

How could you give up tenure? That was the question I heard most often when I decided to leave academia about a decade ago. 

At that point, I had sixteen years under my belt as a faculty member in the Psychology Department at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, and the trajectory for my life was to stay there and mature in the role even further. After all, graduate training was focused on producing academicians – to do anything else would be a disappointment to one’s advisor. And once a graduate is able to obtain a faculty post, it is viewed as a life-long commitment. 

Unfortunately, I became itchy in my faculty post after about ten years. Yet I didn’t know where to turn next, or if turning was even a possibility! It seemed the only option outside of teaching and research was administration – so I tried on the “future dean” hat for size, wondering if it was right for me. I built up my experiences to make myself more desirable as a candidate for an administrative post and watched the job ads carefully. But I guess I never really had the passion to go in that direction. I talked to other faculty members only to find many of them also had a kind of wanderlust too, but they felt resigned to staying in a professorship. The choice seemed clear: teaching or administration. And I was stuck.

My second sabbatical was coming around and I thought I would do something completely different – try to stretch beyond what was expected of me in academic circles. This was not easy but I eventually settled on trying to find something where I might do some “good” by applying scientific knowledge. I looked into various fellowships in Washington, D.C. (like at the AAAS) and considered the Peace Corps and United Nations’ programs as well. No one wanted me it seemed – seeking posts felt like a part-time job. It was not easy for a person with a basic science background to find something in an applied area. So I talked to anyone who would listen to me about this dilemma and a colleague suggested I might call my member of Congress. I was so non-political at that point that I wasn’t even sure who that was!  But it was Dennis Kucinich (who was basically unknown back then – it all changed when he started running for President) and he so very graciously offered me a volunteer slot on his team. 

I had always told my students that they should take chances and try new things in life.  But after sixteen years in the same job, in the same town, taking off to Washington, D.C. with ill-defined goals was scary. I was put on the “Department of Peace” initiative.  Not exactly close to anything related to rat and pigeon laboratory research!  My first day in the congressional office revealed that the staff there, most about the age of my students, knew far more than I did. It was so disorienting! 

But physically being in D.C. was a huge plus in making contacts and seeing what opportunities there might be beyond volunteering in a congressional office.  I did go back to my professorship but my life was focused on returning to D.C.  I had contracted “Potomac Fever” and I knew I had to return. 

Before very long, I did find a post which lasted for seven years.  I served as the Executive Director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences (now known as the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences).  Advocacy positions in the nation’s capital are interesting – science advocacy is more about making a good case for your interests on Capitol Hill rather than influencing events through financial means.  I worked with advocates and lobbyists who had similar goals – to promote science, if not just the behavioral ones – and became familiar with the behavioral scientists working in such agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and various components of the Department of Defense.  It’s good to have a thick skin in this sort of job – policy makers don’t always open their doors to you but persistence does tend to pay off, as does collaboration.  We hosted briefings on Capitol Hill and shared expertise one-on-one with members of Congress, agency leaders, and key staff people on issues of the day.  It was a very exciting and often fast-paced environment. 

I am now with the National Academies, working in its operating arm, the National Research Council, serving as Board Director for both the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences and the Board on Human-Systems Integration. These boards help to articulate future directions for these sciences through workshops and reports. They also oversee projects that respond to requests, primarily from federal government agencies, bringing scientific evidence to bear on policy questions. For example, we recently released a report on The Effects of Commuting on Pilot Fatigue which was mandated by Congress and funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.  My boards helped to select experts from the behavioral sciences, aviation, and other fields to delve deeply into such topics as the science of sleep and its implications for performance in aircraft. The goal was to produce useful recommendations for policies and procedures for the FAA to consider. The position I hold is interesting because I learn about a wide variety of issues facing the government and frequently meet new scientists and government officials.  It’s fun to watch the behavioral sciences being applied in sometimes novel ways to address real-world issues.

The members of the behavioral science community in this city know one another and opportunities are here for those people outside the Beltway who are willing to take a chance and stretch themselves a bit.  Once you get here, our community can help you become acclimated.  And, trust me, it can be very exciting to bring your knowledge to the nation’s capital and work to make a difference.

My advice to those seeking a new career path is to basically just Do It. Take any kind of relevant post to get to the city where you want to live, be available to interview and go to meetings, and get to know your community there.  Very high level jobs may pay for travel to interviews, but in that case, your résumé has to stand out and it can be a slow process to relocate. Sometimes you have to just start in the place you want to be.  As someone once said: “Location, location, location.” 

Academicians are luckier than most people because of the sabbatical option – you can try on new hats and not leave your safe position in one fell swoop. In D.C., there are a number of fellowships to consider, but there is also the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program option at federal agencies.  Basically, you can be assigned temporarily to work within a federal agency (NSF, NIH or even DOD) and get your feet wet in the kind of work they do while making a contribution at the national level.  Again, this kind of appointment gives you access to the community and can open additional doors – and sometimes those on IPA assignments figure out a way to get on permanent staff right where they are. 

Finally, I found it actually liberating to not have tenure anymore.  It had become a kind of albatross to me.  I greatly enjoy my current position, but I feel the freedom to consider alternate possibilities as they might arise.  Leaving academia, while a bit scary at first, was one of the best moves I ever made!