Independent research institutions

Learn about alternatives to traditional tenure-track academic positions from the members of the section’s Student Advisory Board.
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By Jonathan Reader and Elizabeth Demeusy

For students seeking an alternative to the traditional tenure-track academic position, employment at an independent, nonprofit research institute — such as Mathematica, RTI International or Child Trends — may be of interest. The missions of these institutes vary, but collectively revolve around improving public health by using high-quality research to impact practice and policy. These institutions provide a range of services to government agencies, foundations, universities, professional associations and businesses. Broadly, services include data collection and analysis, as well as program design, implementation and evaluation. Typically, a number of focus areas exist within each institution. For instance, Mathematica lists early childhood, education, family support, health and nutrition as but a few of their areas of interest. 

Larger institutions tend to exist in multiple locations, allowing for some flexibility when determining where to live. For example, RTI International has locations in eleven states in the United States as well as locations in Canada, China, India, Spain, Sweden and several other countries. Institutions are likely to have employment opportunities available for individuals with varying levels of education from bachelor’s to doctorate. In addition, summer fellowships or internships may be available. For those looking for posteducation employment, job categories span a variety of domains including administrative support, communications, research and project management. 

Independent research institutions have been important in demonstrating policy-level impact across their many focus areas. For example, Mathematica has recently been involved with an evaluation of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Health experts from this institution assisted in creating the newly released CHIP Scorecard, which aims to increase public transparency about how the program is administered and related outcomes. Similarly, a recent RTI International study found improved coverage for behavioral health conditions since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.

In addition to independent research institutes, government research opportunities (e.g., Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation [OPRE] of the Administration for Children and Families) also provide research and program evaluation opportunity. Numerous divisions often exist in these administrations. For example, the OPRE houses four divisions which focus on economic independence, child and family development, family strengthening, and data.

Interested in learning more about such positions? Gaining internship experience and talking to those in the field is a great way to gather more information. For instance, some universities, APA, and organizations such as the Society for Research in Child Development offer policy workshops as well as pre- and postdoctoral fellowships.