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Aarti Iyer

Reflections from the 2021-22 James Marshall Policy Fellow: Policy careers for social psychologists in the United States

Aarti Iyer, 2021- 2022 James Marshall Policy Fellow

During my fellowship year, I worked in the office of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (Democrat-Ohio) as part of the health policy team. It quickly became clear that social psychologists – and social scientists more generally – can offer insights to inform every step of the policy process: articulating the scope of a problem; identifying policy levers to create behavioral and social change; designing and implementing effective and cost-efficient policy; and evaluating policy to assess its impact and outcomes. Every policy staffer I met on Capitol Hill understood the importance of having valid and reliable evidence to underpin their work.

Unfortunately, few Congressional offices have the resources to hire social scientists on a permanent basis to provide subject matter expertise. Rather, policy staff rely on other organizations and agencies to provide summaries and critical analyses of research to inform the policy process. Thus, there are various opportunities in the United States beyond Capitol Hill for social psychologists to work on policy-relevant research, both inside and outside the government.

First, there are specific offices within the federal government that offer insights based on research to inform the policy process: the Congressional Research Service in the legislative branch, and the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Evaluation Services in the General Services Administration in the executive branch. Non-partisan staff – including social scientists – work in these offices to provide narrative reviews of research on a range of topics, and sometimes conduct original empirical research to help answer specific policy questions.

Second, various federal agencies have built research and evaluation teams to assess the impact and outcomes of their policies, programs, and initiatives (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health & Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of Transportation). These teams conduct field research and write reports and articles to inform the development and implementation of future policies. The U.S. federal government has committed to the development of evidence-based policy, and thus agencies are likely to be expanding these research and evaluation teams over the next few years.

Third, social scientists work in policy organizations and think tanks that conduct research on a range of topics (funded by grants and philanthropic donations), and whose reports are used to inform the policy process in both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government. Examples include the RAND Corporation, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Brookings Institution.

Fourth, non-profit advocacy groups can employ social scientists to summarize theory and research to build evidence to support their mission-based agendas. Such groups represent occupational sectors (e.g., the American Psychological Association); specific groups of patients or consumers (e.g., Eating Disorders Coalition; Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance), or social justice issues (e.g., Sierra Club).

Across these four contexts, social psychologists have opportunities to influence policy in a range of topic areas. Many of these organizations and agencies have offices around the country, and so do not require employees to move to the Washington, DC area. Some also have summer internships for graduate students, so that they can develop their knowledge, skills, and contacts before applying for full-time jobs.

Social psychologists who are interested in doing applied or policy research should identify organizations and/or agencies that work on their topics of interest, keeping the search as broad as possible to fit the themes that map onto policy areas. To build a competitive application for such jobs, develop expertise across a range of research methods and data analytic techniques (quantitative and/or qualitative), especially in applied research and program evaluation. Build expertise in transferable skills (e.g., project management, literature reviews, oral and written communication to non-academic audiences) and learn how to showcase your experience in these areas on a two-page resume. Use LinkedIn to identify people who work in your area of interest, and contact them for brief informational interviews. You will have to be creative and persistent to identify the opportunities and jobs that match your expertise and interests, but there is lots of scope for social psychologists to do meaningful and stimulating research that shapes federal policy.

Aarti Iyer has worked as an academic for 17 years, most recently as a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom). After completing the 2021-22 James Marshall Public Policy Fellowship, Aarti decided to leave academia and take a job at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she will work as a social scientist on the program evaluation team. Aarti can be contacted via LinkedIn and Twitter (@Aarti_Iyer_9).


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