I have been asked this simple, two-word question more times than any other question in the past year. Back in September, I began working as a graduate-level policy scholar for the Public Interest Government Relations office at the American Psychological Association. As this opportunity coincided with my fifth year of doctoral studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, I have often had to explain my hectic schedule upon meeting new individuals. Research and academia, most will understand, as those things fit seamlessly into the doctoral studies mold. But then comes the follow-up question: Why policy?
I honestly never saw myself in the policy arena, let alone with any visible amount of interest in politics or law. I made a feeble attempt at understanding the world around me when I joined the Junior Statesmen of America in the 10th grade. After a few half-hearted attempts at engaging in some rousing political debate (of which I truly had no opinion), I decided to hang up my hat and go back to the arts. Fast-forward a couple of years and one B.S in psychology later, I found myself entering the Health Psychology program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had always had an interest in public health applications of psychology, specifically aimed at women of color. In this environment, I was able to foster those interests. I was surrounded by scholars prevalent in their field, brilliant researchers in the form of professors and colleagues alike, with all the resources at their, and by proxy, my disposal.
As I continued in the exciting and novel journey that is graduate school, I felt a nagging in the back of my mind. Paper after paper, grant after grant, would wrap up. The goal was to publish, and once that goal was reached, it was onto the next project. I would get a twinge of excitement to hear that e-mail ding notifying me that someone had cited my work. But still, the nagging remained. I would attend conferences and classes in which buzz phrases such as “interdisciplinary effort,” “sustainability,” and “translatability” would be thrown out.
But this was not enough.
Research is meant to be utilized and brought back to the audience it was intended for. I have had the same conversation with so many of my colleagues that it does not benefit anyone to work so hard on a research project and have it sit on someone’s shelf (or in the abyss of electronic databases) forevermore. I realize that publishing in high-impact journals will allow researchers, clinicians, and medical audiences to read my work. I realize that there is great value in having a paper that provides sound scientific evidence. But is it enough to hope that that work falls into the hands of someone who can translate it into visible change?
I’m not going to beat around the bush and pretend that policy-making is easy. Similar to the academic publishing process, law-passing involves several revisions, a panel of dissenters, and may take months or years to be approved. But there is a vital difference between these two processes, and that is the audience to which your research is being exposed. I have seen presentations from psychologists so jargon-heavy, it was if the audience was listening to a completely foreign language. But when the message is communicated effectively, research from our field can have a powerful impact on legislation. Testimony from psychologists has been used to inform Supreme Court decisions on areas such as racial segregation (Jackson, 1998) and international court decisions on violence against women (Anderson, 1999). Examples such as these speak to why psychological research needs to go beyond the realm of academia.
So again, why policy? Our research has the power to improve lives. It has the power to speak for marginalized groups that cannot speak for themselves. We don’t go into psychology for the money: any national poll of the 10 most lucrative occupations in the U.S. will tell you that. Most psychologists go into this line of work in order to help improve the human condition. We then get bogged down in grants, publications, teaching, and other obligations. This inevitable fall results in forgetting the very reason we started this process. And that is something that, throughout my career, I vow to never forget.
Editor’s Note: Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Health Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on developing culturally-appropriate mental health interventions for women of color. She is the 2016 recipient of the APAGS Carol Williams-Nickelson Award for Women’s Leadership and Scholarship in Women’s Issues. She is also wrapping up a year spent as a Policy Scholar with the APA Public Interest – Government Relations Office.
Anderson, A. (1999). Feminist psychology and global issues: An action agenda. Women and Therapy, 22, 7-21.
Jackson, J. P. (1998). Psychologists, the Supreme Court, and school desegregation, 1952-1955. Journal of Social Issues, 54, 143-77.