A Research Career in the Public Sector

Carolyn Copper, PhD, National Security and International Affairs Division, U.S. General Accounting Office

Carolyn Copper, PhD
Carolyn Copper, PhD
As a senior social science analyst with the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), I contribute to GAO's mission of service to Congress. GAO provides policymakers with information, analyses, and recommendations on how to use public resources to promote the security and well-being of the American people. GAO's audits and evaluations result in published reports and congressional testimony.

Since joining the organization more than 4 years ago, I have been conducting research on federal programs and activities related to national defense. My most recent assignments include a re-view of the Operation Desert Storm air campaign and a historic overview of multiple financial indicators for the U.S. defense industry. The results of the Operation Desert Storm work were formally released in July 1996, after a 3-year investigation. Since then, the work has been the subject of more than 40 independent articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.

There are several differences between research conducted in an academic environment and that done in a nonacademic environment where the customers are policymakers. The critical aspect of working in a public-policy environment is that many people can be directly affected by decisions over a very long period of time. Therefore, the research questions and hypotheses are often more complex, sensitive, and require much broader data collection efforts and greater coordination with staff from federal branch agencies and the private sector.

I've found that the fundamental skills acquired in both my undergraduate and graduate psychology training are similar to the skills necessary to conduct credible research that serves the needs of customers with policy-making responsibilities. In my work, I design research, collect data, conduct interviews and statistical analyses, review and synthesize literature, interpret data, prepare reports of study procedures and findings, and plan future work. In many cases, I brief other GAO staff and congressional staff on my work.

Whether one is in an academic or nonacademic setting, strong analytic skills, which can be acquired as a psychology graduate student, are an asset to conducting research. It's now fascinating to remember that, when I was a college sophomore at Ohio University, I knew that I wanted to conduct applied research in a policy environment (even though I was never quite sure how to accomplish this, nor were there any guidebooks on how to do it!). However, after choosing psychology as a major, I began to work as a research assistant for Svenn Lindskold, a social psychology professor at Ohio University (now retired), who was doing laboratory research using an electronic adaptation of the Prisoner's Dilemma game. Svenn's research program was based on Charles Osgood's GRIT (Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-reduction) approach to understanding international relations in a nuclear age, which assumed that societal problems are primarily matters of human nature and relationships. After Ohio University, I went on to Syracuse University, attracted by its political psychology program, and earned both a Master's and PhD in social psychology. Aside from the basic psychology requirements, I took courses in political science, sociology, advanced research methods, and statistics. I also was involved in the publications process and gained other valuable experience by attending conferences and writing research papers.

The multidisciplinary nature of nonacademic research and the fact that successful applied research requires skills in addition to those obtained in the laboratory (or are often associated with the experimental approach) are reasons to diversify your training program if you want to expand your career options. Many of my GAO colleagues have social science backgrounds, and several possess advanced degrees in psychology. I believe that the training in research methods required by most graduate psychology programs is key to the fact that psychologists can compete for research positions in nonacademic settings. My own experiences have shown that the combination of the formal psychology requirements for statistics and research methods courses, along with the optional more advanced courses in research methods and other areas I elected to take, were important factors in the career opportunities available to me.

I have fond memories of academe. Teaching was rewarding and enjoyable, even as a graduate assistant, and academic research can be engaging and illuminating. However, there is a unique satisfaction and challenge associated with public sector research, and particularly, with serving the public.

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