What I need more of is helping people.
January 14, 2010 9:51 AM   Subscribe

How can I step out of the lab and into a position where I can influence people's lives for the better?

I've been working in research psychology for the past several years in a lab that looks at social behavior in a very "basic science" sort of way. My current position is wonderful in most respects but I find myself wishing that the work I'm doing would have a more direct impact on other people. However, I'm reluctant to switch fields into something more directly care-giving (social work, medicine/nursing) as I imagine I would miss doing research and the theory-friendly atmosphere of my lab.

What are ways to help people directly while also contributing to society's collective knowledge? I realize this is kind of a vague question, so please feel free to ask me to clarify.
posted by shaun uh to Work & Money (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tooting the horn of my own profession here, but you might want to look into academic advising. Students can really benefit from the chance to talk in depth with someone who not only knows about the field they're planning to go into, but who also can help them understand and acculturate to the world of academia, and provide support and mentoring as they learn how to be productive scholars (managing big projects, dealing with procrastination, etc.). Faculty vary (ahem) in their ability and willingness to do this, but I just think it's great fun to have the chance to work with bright, energetic young people who are in the process of figuring out all the great things they can do with their lives..

Colleges and universities are often looking for people who have some solid academic background--who aren't just human-services/counseling generalists--so you'd have a possible edge there.
posted by Kat Allison at 10:15 AM on January 14, 2010

Plenty of clinicians do this. For instance, with an MD you could see patients, conduct research (basic sciences or clinical or both), and teach or consult as well. Lots of options - it's really up to you how you structure your career.
posted by mossicle at 10:21 AM on January 14, 2010

I don't know where you are in your career, although one of your past questions indicates that you're 25, which puts you in the late grad student/postdoc range. If so, you have a perfectly acceptable mechanism for doing this - get your own faculty position. Then you can do whatever you want.

I did this. I went from a very basic science PhD and postdoc to a research faculty position where I've almost quit basic science completely. This was on purpose: we're making things that (I hope) will help people, and having fun doing it. I've gotten a little flack from some of my more traditionally minded colleagues, but it's actually easier to get funding if you're doing something applied, and in general research administrators (read - your provost or dean) like it when their faculty do things that are easily to publicize, and applied science makes more sense to the public than some of the intrinsically more esoteric (but still important!) advances in basic science.
posted by overhauser at 11:13 AM on January 14, 2010

Response by poster: I've been working as an RA/lab manager since I finished undergrad, and was planning on applying to grad school this year, but I got cold feet when I realized that I wasn't sure if I could go the academic route if it wasn't going to be focused on helping people. Grad school (or, even more so, an MD) are big commitments to make, only to find out that I'm still not doing what I want to be doing.

I'm very up in the air about where I'm going next, so suggestions of "this is a great 10-year plan", while appreciated, are not quite as useful as suggestions like, "this might be a good field/organization/lab to try and work/intern/volunteer" with.
posted by shaun uh at 11:39 AM on January 14, 2010

Have you thought about continuing the "academic/science-y" route for a career, but doing something as a volunteer on the side?

It's more time invested over the course of your life, but you could tailor each of your needs more specifically. For me, I like both technology and victim advocacy, and while it might be possible to land a job that allows me to do both at the same time, I've landed on the happy medium of a tech career combined with volunteering on the side as an advoate.
posted by Gorgik at 12:22 PM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: There are ways to work in a research lab in a way that more directly benefits people. I started out as a lab manager in a psych lab where we were researching stuff like the Stroop effect - little to no impact on anyone's life. I now help to coordinate a research lab doing autism research. Pretty much every day I help someone get a diagnosis, or hook them up with a way to get better services, or reassure someone their baby is developing apparently normally, or just sit and talk for half an hour with a guy with autism who has trouble finding people to listen to him, or a mother who's moving to my city and doesn't know where to even begin finding a support system here. And, hey, when I'm not doing this stuff I'm helping figure out how autism starts and how the brain works in people with and without autism, and I hope with all my heart some of what I'm doing now is going to become a great intervention someday.

I still get to do all that fun research/theory stuff, crunching data or helping to figure out why an MRI scan might look the way it does, but in a very tangible and meaningful way that beats the hell out of watching bored undergrads read lists of color names.

I'm not saving people from burning buildings or anything, and I feel buried under paperwork and frustration sometimes, but it's deeply satisfying in a way that my earlier psychology research wasn't. By all means step out of academia if you want, but if you go looking for it, there can be ways to make a difference and help people within academic research. It's all about the specific field and the specific job. Research is a big place; there's probably a place in it that you'd love.
posted by Stacey at 2:56 PM on January 14, 2010

Might want to look into health and science policy, which is the field I'm currently working in. Similarities to research: surrounded by a lot of scientists and science-minded folk, doing data analysis if you get into program evaluation, and the potential to make large/widespread impact. But, it is definitely more people-oriented than traditional lab research.
posted by NikitaNikita at 7:49 PM on January 14, 2010

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