An interesting career in psychological science: Research scientist at an education research organization
Katherine McMillan Culp
Teachers College, Columbia University
Center for Children and Technology
Education Development Center
When I finished college in the late 1980s, I had one mission — to live in New York City. But I also had three rules: I had to support myself, figure out some kind of socially meaningful role to play in the world and continue my education.
Some good advice from generous job interviewers prompted me to look for a good workplace rather than a good job — to find someplace where I could learn about possible careers, regardless of what I’d personally be doing there. So within a year of my college graduation, I was a receptionist at the Center for Children and Technology — answering the phones for the same group where I’m now leading research projects, 23 years later.
As I sat at the front desk, I tried to understand how the work being done around me might connect with my own very vague interests in education reform. Then, as now, CCT was a research and development group, conducting innovative, applied research, often grounded in developmental psychology, to understand how new and emerging technologies could support rich, engaged learning and teaching. I found that the part of the work that was most interesting to me was the developmental piece — how did curricular materials or instructional practices have to be shaped in order to meet children at their particular developmental moment? I began talking about these interests with generous, brilliant women at CCT, who were willing to mentor their receptionist. They invited me into their work and helped me begin to forge a path through graduate school.
I spent nine years getting a PhD in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I moved through my coursework relatively slowly, working full-time at CCT the whole time. My advisor, John Broughton, was an inspiration and a guide, but unlike many graduate students, I never built a real identity at my university, and had few strong relationships with faculty there. Instead, I had one close-knit reading group, friends who met for years to read our way through psychoanalysis, critical theory and phenomenology, and I had my mentors and colleagues at work.
This approach to graduate school involved tradeoffs. I often did my reading quickly, during commutes on city buses, rather than during long afternoons of careful study in the library. I wrote my papers early in the morning on weekdays, and didn’t go through as many drafts as I should have. There’s no question my graduate education would have been richer if I had been a full-time student. But during those nine years I was building other skills — I was contributing to proposal writing, learning how to construct budgets, building relationships with teachers, collecting data from students. I was learning the practical dimensions of being a researcher.
Now I am a principal research scientist at Education Development Center, Inc., which became the institutional home of CCT in 1993. I oversee a range of projects, focused mainly on middle-school students and science learning. I draw on research in the learning sciences and cognitive developmental psychology to guide my work, as well as lessons learned from many years of working closely with teachers in schools all over the country and with kids in many different educational settings. In many ways this work is about translating theoretical frameworks into practical materials, and about deriving new theoretical questions from careful observation and analysis of on-the-ground educational practices.
Although technology has changed dramatically over the past two decades, in many ways our work remains the same. I have been part of the same small research group for more than 20 years. I work with other developmental psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, designers, media producers, teachers and curriculum developers. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is fundamental to what we do, so I have almost never developed a proposal, written an article or carried out research entirely on my own. All of our work is funded by grants and contracts — we have no endowment, no tenure and no long-term employment contracts. But the need to keep ourselves going financially means that the work never becomes boring: Our work is inevitably eclectic and responsive, because we engage with funders’ priorities, always looking to make connections between our persistent, enduring areas of interest and the problems and opportunities that emerge as funders try to help make new technologies more useful for students and teachers.
My work is very different from academia. I don’t teach; I don’t write nearly enough for publication; I have done research in many more domains than most academics would do. I don’t have a “body of work” that is my own. But my academic training is central to much of what I do. As an applied researcher, I am constantly working across professional communities. I help game designers, teachers, and policymakers better understand how kids learn, and why understanding that process matters to their work. I train researchers who may never earn PhDs, helping them build a basic understanding of what can count as evidence, how to structure a good research question and how to draw on existing research to guide one’s own work. I construct budgets that reflect good research practices, making sure we’re supporting the teachers we’re working with and allowing for careful and meaningful data analysis. And I write proposals that, I hope, reflect an ongoing investigation into how to thread new technologies and their powerful affordances into the lives of students and teachers in ways that make learning a more transparent, richer and more inviting experience.
We need more well-trained researchers to join the world of non-profit research and development. Working outside of academia has given me the freedom to pursue new ideas on a regular basis, to build deep collaborations with colleagues without regard to credit or authorship and to engage with issues that are of immediate relevance to what’s happening in K–12 classrooms right now. This work is about building bridges — conceptually, interpersonally and institutionally. If you are just starting out and want to do work like this, my advice is to get the best training you can, and then get out in the field. Work with teachers, and challenge your academic knowledge with the practical problems of schooling. Find an institution that is doing work you care about, and start contributing. I answered the phone, and reorganized the filing system. I know CCT from the roots up, and I think we’re doing something that matters.