Volume 49 Number 1
Winter 2016

Public Policy

Edited by Jean Hill

Getting Started in Policy Work: Strategies for Community Psychologists

Written by Julia Dancis, Portland State University, and Surbhi Godsay, Jennifer Hosler, and Kenneth Maton, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Individuals are situated within a complex network of interrelated systems, including their families, communities, and broader society (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kloos et al., 2012). Woven into this ecological system is public policy, which affects these networks and all individuals dwelling within their limits. As community psychologists, we value using social science as a means for social change; it follows then, that we should work to change policy so that communities are more equipped to exist and thrive autonomously (Wolff, 2013; Kloos et al., 2012). Furthermore, community psychologists offer a unique contribution to shaping social policy, with a distinctive blend of social justice values, empirical grounding and interdisciplinary orientation (Maton, Humphreys, Jason, & Shinn, in press). Yet, many community psychologists—who strive for macro-level change—likely will not engage with policy work during their careers (Maton, Strompolis, & Wisniewski, 2013).

Why aren’t more community psychologists involved in policy work? Research suggests that many real and perceived barriers exist for psychologists considering work in the policy arena, such as lack of exposure, limited training in research translation, and others (DeLeon & Kadzin, 2010). These barriers may seem daunting. Yet opportunities exist to attenuate the roadblocks and bolster the possibility of policy work. There are a number of community psychologists who have greatly affected policy through their expertise and skills (Maton, et al., in press). Learning about their entry points into policy may guide others to avenues of access.

Purpose of the Study

The current study is a part of a larger research project examining community, social, and developmental psychologists’ involvement in public policy (Maton, forthcoming). For this study, we focused on participants’ specific entrée points into policy-related work. Though not all of the interviewees are community psychologists, there is much to learn from these examples.


Participants were recruited through four different sources [See Footnote 1]. From this initial list, snowball sampling identified additional participants. In total, 79 interviews were conducted. Participants influenced policy using a range of mechanisms (e.g., policy advisory groups, policy insider positions, external advocacy) and from a variety of vantage points (universities, intermediary organizations, policy insiders).

To explore participants’ pathways into policy-related work, they were asked to discuss: 1) When they first decided to enter policy-related work; 2) What led to the decision to get involved; and 3) What prior experiences may have predisposed them to a policy-related career. Three research team members, using an iterative process, coded and analyzed transcribed interviews using qualitative software.


For many interviewees, policy-related work was not on their radar upon entering graduate studies. Numerous participants reported shifting their thinking—from micro to macro levels—through coursework, research, and practice experiences. As a possible career trajectory, policy work was introduced through theories, psychological research and practice, and interdisciplinary work, as exemplified below.

  • Exposure to systems theory. As one participant explained, being introduced to ecological theory led to considering how systems impact the individual:
    ”The first time I was introduced to Bronfenbrenner, I did cartwheels because that is what made sense to me. It explained the world.”
  • Exposure to policy implications through practice. Direct service work—through clinical practice, prevention, or community-based programs—helped other participants recognize how policy can have an impact on a larger scale. As one explained:
    ”I had spent years developing and testing interventions. It was the desire to get those implemented in wider public service systems that prompted the interest in how policy related to decisions to implement evidence-based practice…”
  • Building policy skill sets. In addition to theory and practice exposure, learning specific skills (such as how to translate research) facilitated participants’ understanding of how research can impact policy. Recognizing the policy implications of their research, as well as gaining research translation skills, enabled some participants to get involved. For some psychologists, these skills were gained through interdisciplinary coursework, and for others through psychology coursework in graduate school:
    ”We had to engage in [policy] brief writing. It was at that point that I really understood, that as a…psychologist in training, our research could be translated and have application out in the real world.”
  • Influence of academic mentors. Research experience under mentors or advisors was an important aspect of participants’ initial involvement in policy work. Some interviewees actively sought advisors who did policy-related work. More often, however, it was the general influence, over time, of mentors or advisors that prompted participants’ thinking about policy-related research questions:
    ”The research projects I was working on, having to do with three-generation families of adolescent mothers living together after the passage of welfare reform,…helped me think through the way the policy was impacting those real people’s lives and [the] pros and cons of different aspects of the policy in ways I hadn’t thought about before.”
  • Graduate student applied opportunities. Finally for many participants, exposure to policy-related work occurred during graduate school or early in their careers. Participants also described getting started in policy work via APA, SCRD, SPSSI and other fellowships, applying knowledge from their theses or dissertations to policy issues, or by working at interdisciplinary research centers focused on social issues.


The results suggest there are multiple pathways to enter policy work as a graduate student or a professional. As described in Maton (forthcoming), those interested in getting involved in policy may do so through different pathways. In the university setting, students and professionals can be purposeful about asking policy-relevant research questions and gaining policy-relevant skills (such as research translation), by exposing themselves to policy-relevant coursework or theory. Students may also consider seeking out interdisciplinary policy centers on their campus, which actively conduct research on social issues. Through community settings, students and professionals may engage with policy-oriented organizations, including non-profit or advocacy organizations. Additionally, students and professionals may find policy-relevant opportunities by joining the policy committee of a professional association (e.g., SCRA Policy Committee), or seeking out a policy-relevant fellowship (such as APA, SPSSI, or SRCD).

To facilitate greater involvement of community psychologists in policy, we believe that a systemic shift must occur, embedding policy work in psychology training. Despite SCRA’s guiding concept that community psychology will engage in the “formation and institutionalization of economic and social policy” (Who We Are, 2015), it appears our graduate programs are overwhelmingly not prioritizing this goal. Among 20 U.S. universities offering graduate degrees in community psychology, only three [See Footnote 2] universities require policy courses in their curriculum (SCRA Academic Programs,2015). This does not bode well for future community psychologists getting involved in policy work.

Uniformly putting policy work in psychology curricula will give psychologists a baseline knowledge and a lexicon essential to working with policymakers. Additionally, exposing students to interdisciplinary systems approaches for understanding behavior will give students a foundational framework. Paired with policy coursework, encouraging students to do research projects with policy implications can open doors to future engagement. Strengthening relationships with existing policy centers and opening new centers on college campuses will increase student opportunities for involvement in policy, as early as their undergraduate years (Chandler, 2006). Policy work in community psychology should be incentivized. Currently, researchers often feel they must choose between policy engagement—a worthwhile endeavor that in most cases does not hold currency in academia—and publishing (Chandler, 2006).

As noted above, every corner of society is affected by policy decisions. By actively engaging in policy work, we propel the discipline of community psychology toward its intended ideal (Jason, 2012; Jason & Maton, 2014; Shinn, 2007).


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by design and nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chandler, S. M. (2006). University involvement in public policy deliberations: An example. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(2), 154-157. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.37.2.154

DeLeon, P. H., & Kadzin, A. E. (2010). Public policy: Extending psychology’s contributions to national priorities. Rehabilitation Psychology, 55(3), 311-319. doi:

Heinowitz, A. E., Brown, K. R., Langsam, L. C., Arcidiacono, S. J., Baker, P. L., Badaan, N. H., . . . Cash, R. E. (2012). Identifying perceived personal barriers to public policy advocacy within psychology. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43, 372-378.

Jason, L. (2012). Principles of social change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jason, L., & Maton, K. I. (2014, September 19). SCRA webinar #2: Social change through social policy. Retrieved from

Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Elias, M. J., & Dalton, J. H. (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Maton, K. I. (forthcoming). Influencing social policy: Applied psychology serving the public interest. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Maton, K. I., Humphreys, K., Jason, L. A., Shinn, B. (in press). Community psychology in the policy arena. In M. A. Bond, C. Keys, & I. Serrano-Garcia (Eds.), Handbook of Community Psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

 Maton, K., Strompolis, M., & Wisniewski, L. (2013). Building advocacy and policy committee: A survey of SCRA members. The Community Psychologist, 46, 13-16.

Shinn, M. (2007). Waltzing with a monster: Bringing research to bear on public policy. Journal of Social Issues, 63, 215-231.

Society for Community Research and Action. (2015). Academic Programs. Retrieved from

Society for Community Research and Action. (2015). Who we are. Retrieved from

Wolff, T. (2013). A Community Psychologist’s involvement in policy change at the community level: Three stories from a practitioner. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 4(2). Retrieved from


Footnote 1. Recruitment sources include: 1) nominations by leaders of the Society of Research on Child Development (SRCD), the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), and the Society for Community Research & Action (SCRA); 2) winners of SRCD, SPSSI, SCRA, and APA policy awards; 3) review of policy-related scholarship in developmental, community, and social psychology, and 4) recommendation from the William T. Grant Foundation, who funded the research.

Footnote 2. Data calculated by reviewing curricula of MA/MS and Ph.D. community psychology degrees. Degree programs were found through the SCRA website:  

You must be logged in to leave a reply. Login »

You must be logged in to the website in order to leave a comment.