Becoming a psychological grad-vocate

How to start advocating for psychological science as a graduate student.

By Justin Strickland

Grad school typically conjures up thoughts of completing coursework, writing qualifying exams and collecting data for that dissertation project. But an equally important — and all too often overlooked — aspect of graduate training is learning how to advocate for the psychological sciences. Advocacy is an opportunity to turn your science into action as well as to secure the future of scientific progress. With just a few simple steps, you too can be on your way to becoming a psychological grad-vocate.

Any discussion of advocacy poses an important question: What is advocacy exactly? Simply put, advocacy is any form of communication between you and an elected official, with the ultimate goal of conveying to this representative the issues of significance for their constituents and the greater community. Advocacy can take many forms, including writing letters and emails or having face-to-face meetings. For example, you may want to send a letter to your senator urging them to vote for an upcoming bill supporting opioid research. Alternatively, you might set up a meeting at your congressional representative’s local office to express the importance of additional funds supporting mental health initiatives in the community.

In this way, advocating for psychological science tells elected officials the crucial role that psychology plays in resolving public health concerns and improving human welfare. Advocacy also bolsters psychology’s role as a health profession and promotes its visibility in representing the behavioral sciences as a part of the STEM disciplines. Highlighting this role for psychology in advancing human health provides an opportunity to garner support for budget allocations to federally-funded agencies crucial for the basic and applied sciences that are conducted by psychologists (e.g., National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health). Such advocacy describing the broader impact of psychology is becoming increasingly important given the recent targeting of psychological research as budgetary wasteful spending (PDF, 21MB) or “federal fumbles" (PDF, 6.90MB).

How might you get involved? The Government Relations Office at APA is devoted to advocating for psychological science on Capitol Hill and has a number of resources to help get you started. The easiest way to get involved is to sign up to receive alerts from the APA Federal Action Network. These notifications inform you of the hot topic issues and provide the opportunity to pledge support by emailing your congressional representative. The Science Directorate Office has additional resources, primarily housed in their science advocacy toolkit, for those interested in learning more. These materials include legislative updates, testimonies, briefing sheets and other how-to guides describing the ins and outs of advocating for psychological science.

Once getting involved, you may even find that you love the process and want to make a career out of it. For those interested in a more in-depth exposure to public policy as a full-time position, the APA offers several opportunities for yearlong fellowships. No matter if it is full-time or part-time, advocacy can and should be an exciting and rewarding part of your career in psychology.