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Alternative Careers in School Psychology: My Experience in the Field of Education Research

By Allison Nebbergall

The recent economic crisis sent many public school systems into financial crisis. At the time, I was a new school psychologist working in a large urban/suburban school district. The school system I worked for struggled with wide-ranging staff layoffs, furlough days, reductions in contract length, and elimination of selected school services to cover an increasingly large budget shortfall. Staff layoffs were based on seniority, and by April, I received notice that my position would no longer be funded the following year. All other school districts in the area were also struggling with similar budget crises, and many were implementing a hiring freeze. Under these circumstances, I became anxious that I would not be able to find employment. After all, I was a school psychologist—highly educated, but also highly specialized. It was under this set of conditions that I began exploring alternative settings where I could apply my training, skills, and experience.

As my investigation deepened, I was heartened to find that my skills could easily transfer to a number of desirable and engaging positions. In addition to education research jobs, I explored school-based consultation work, clinical positions, postdoctoral and assistant professor positions, and roles within state and national leadership. Personally, though, I felt that the research sector most aligned with my own interests and focus of training, and I ultimately accepted a position within this sphere.

What Does an Education Researcher Do?

The world of education research is quite large. In addition to research conducted by universities, a great amount of evaluation work is conducted by nonprofit and for-profit research firms throughout the country. I currently work as a research associate with a large, for-profit consulting firm. The firm has offices in the United States and internationally, and makes significant contributions in a wide variety of areas. I found my niche in their education division, which is charged with working with clients to design and conduct research in the field of education that leads to higher quality programs and services for children, families, schools, and communities. Our clients include local, state, and federal education agencies, as well as private and nonprofit organizations. However, most work is generated from requests made by state and federal education agencies.

Our work can mostly be divided into two broad categories: evaluation and technical assistance. Each of these includes many tasks that were familiar to me as a school psychologist. Evaluation work entails program evaluation, including needs assessments, surveys, benchmarking, functional cost analysis, assessment of the quality of research and its evidence, assessment of curricula and its implementation and training, and development of program performance standards and program monitoring protocols. Technical assistance work encompasses information dissemination and training, conducting needs assessments, and creating and administering networks designed to facilitate communication and collaboration among users. My individual responsibilities include data management and data analysis, risk behavior survey reviews, report writing, and administration of agency help desks. So, while I am no longer working one-on-one with children, I feel that these projects provide critical support to students and educators, just in an alternative way and on a larger scale.

But I Am Trained as a School Psychologist!

Of course, it is essential for those who wish to be education researchers to have some research experience themselves. School Psychology: A Blueprint for Training and Practice III (2006) lists data-based decision making and accountability and the application of science and the scientific method among the core competencies for training and practice in school psychology. As such, most students will find that specialist and doctoral-level program requirements provide excellent opportunities to build a foundation of research knowledge and skills. For instance, as part of my program, I took required coursework that included introductory statistics, applied multiple regression analysis, and experimental and quasiexperimental research design. Stemming from an interest in the area of research, I also took elective courses in multivariate data analysis and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM). The skills I acquired through these classes prepared me to serve as a valuable member of my professional team when brainstorming evaluation plans, conducting data analyses, and reviewing reports. My school psychology program also required that I complete a thesis and dissertation. My thesis evaluated the psychometric properties of a social competency and problem behavior rating scale. I have used this knowledge to assist in creating and analyzing surveys as part of school program evaluation, needs assessments, and customer satisfaction assessments. My dissertation focused on parentand teacher-report outcomes as part of a large-scale evaluation of a social competency program. Through this project, I gained first-hand experience with school-based research, including working with school staff; evaluating program implementation; and engaging in large-scale data collection, management, and analysis. Completion of a thesis and dissertation not only assured that I had exposure and expertise in research methodology, but also that I was able to speak and write on these topics with clarity and accuracy.

Furthermore, applicants with school-based experiences are regarded as assets to an education research organization. Having practiced in a school setting indicates to employers a strong interest and knowledge about policies, practices, and outcomes in the education field. An employee with school-based experience and knowledge of research not only understands study findings, but can also keep the research and dissemination grounded in a context that is understandable and useful for those working in schools. Being able to serve as a cultural liaison of sorts is helpful in communicating with clients, evaluators, and consumers. Ultimately, both researchers and school-based professionals have the same goal—to advance the quality and effectiveness of education. Nevertheless, the work of researchers and the work of school-based professionals often seem to be conducted within nonoverlapping spheres. By bringing professionals with school-based experience into the research arena, the field comes one step closer to bridging the sometimes seemingly expansive divide between research and practice.

What Does the Future Hold?

The transition from school-based practice to the research field has also helped me to grow professionally. I now have the added knowledge of the type of maintenance and evaluation associated with many school programs and widely available resources. Since funding and services are contingent on the client, evaluation and technical assistance work rely heavily on frequent client contact and feedback. This has helped me to understand what educational agencies and other vested parties find most important and useful to meet their needs. It has also given me a front-row seat to the political and economic factors significantly intertwined with the types of programs researched, reports prepared, and programs implemented.

Overall, I am fortunate that my school psychology training has proved versatile and meaningful in a somewhat nontraditional setting. The job hunt and acclimation to a new position proved surprisingly encouraging as I learned of the various prospective opportunities I could pursue. No matter what my professional future holds, I not only feel confident that I will be engaged and challenged by the different tasks and responsibilities that will be presented to me, but I also feel confident that I will be well-prepared and well-trained to take them on.

Allison Nebbergall, PhD, NCSP, is a research associate in the Youth and Adult Education division of ICF International.