research outside the academy part III: jobs and such

Katherine asked me also to say a little about what the skills, training, etc. we use on the job at DMV R&D. Also, she asked me to write something about the application process (since, as it happens, we have an opening at the moment).

In terms of the skills we use for most of our work, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a strong quantitative background.  Being able to create, and interpret the results of, various kinds of statistical modeling (particularly, but not only, regression modeling) is a rare and valuable thing.  In addition to using this basic understanding of statistics, we routinely design and implement original research studies.  This requires practical knowledge of basically all aspects of methodology from start to finish: preparing an analysis plan, understanding sampling procedures, thinking critically about effect sizes and statistical power considerations, developing data collection instruments, recruiting subjects, creating databases from raw inputs, preparing (and revising) statistical analyses, writing up results and preparing a publication.  Of secondary importance – at least in our unit – are qualitative methods.  We do sometimes engage in studies using interviews or focus groups; however, these are only rarely a part of what we do here at DMV R&D.  Finally, I should emphasize that we regularly present our research findings to both technical audiences (i.e., professional conferences) and to non-technical groups (e.g., DMV management and staff).  Being able to translate research findings for different types of audiences is not so easy to do – but we are called upon to do precisely that as part of our work.

Now, in terms of what we look for in strong candidates who are looking to work in government research, I would say that as with an academic posting, we certainly appreciate a publication record of some sort.  We do not necessarily expect that applicants will have published in traffic safety journals.  However, where applicable, peer-reviewed publications serve to demonstrate a candidate’s familiarity with social science research methods and quantitative statistical techniques.  We also look for job experience that involves direct planning, implementation, and/or analysis and write-up of social science research projects.  While it is helpful for candidates to have specific experience with certain statistical packages (e.g., SAS, SPSS), we have also found that candidates with experience using other statistical packages (e.g., STATA) may be prepared to transfer that knowledge without too much trouble.

But what about the nitty-gritty of actually finding openings and applying?  California has a very straightforward civil service process.  All job openings are posted on a central website (  In addition to this, many agencies post their job openings in supplementary fora, such as at professional conference (for example, the Transportation Research Board).  We do not use headhunters.  I should state here that the hiring process varies somewhat from agency to agency; different departments may be looking for slightly different skill sets.  Our hiring process involves several steps.  First, we review all applications to ensure that they meet certain minimum qualifications.  These minimum qualifications differ by job title, but are a matter of public record at the California State Personnel Board’s website (  Please note: this website also posts salary scales, which are surely also useful information).  Depending on the results of this review, we may then bring in a candidate for a formal interview (if the candidate is physically located out of state, this may occur by phone).  This interview includes a discussion of the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in relation to standard statistical techniques and social science research methods.  Depending on the results of this interview, we may then bring in a candidate to give a presentation to all of the staff members of our branch.  This provides the candidate an opportunity to discuss a recent research project of their own; it also provides them the opportunity to meet the staff and find out more about the work that we do here.  If we make an offer to a candidate, it would typically be for a full-time permanent civil service position.  Our branch is currently accepting applications at the Research Program Specialist I and II level.  If you’re interested in finding out more, please e-mail me directly ( with any questions about the application process.

That’s it for my series of posts.  Oh, one more thing: if anyone is interested in hearing about the ethical considerations associated with using administratively-collected data for research purposes, please look for a panel on that subject at next year’s (2014) ASA meetings in San Francisco.

Written by baylisscamp

December 6, 2013 at 5:01 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. This is a good series. As an academic advisor who knows about educational institutions but not “the rest of the world,” I am wondering what steps a student who might want a non-academic career should take to prepare for such a career. In particular I guess I am wondering about networking and information-gathering. Is the sociological practice group within ASA particularly helpful or active? Are these markets and networks primarily local or industry-specific? Are there associations or forums a person could connect with to learn more? If I’m talking to a student who isn’t sure they want to be a professor, what steps should I tell them to take?

    Are there dissertation topics that are more or less helpful for getting non-academic jobs?

    And another question: are reference letters as important in this sphere as in the academic sphere? And, if so, are there issues about the letters written to non-academic jobs? (As a different example, I know that letters to liberal arts colleges should be different from those to R1 universities.)



    December 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm

  2. @olderwoman: Networking is an interesting conundrum from our perspective. We’ve actually had to do some creative thinking (such as, ahem, this current series of posts) about how to reach beyond the universe of people who happen already to be in state government.

    Historically our recruiting tended to be somewhat local (based in part upon a strong quantitative experimental psych program at the local state university). More recently we’ve tried to access professional networks within the ASA, as well as regional (PSA) and local (Sacramento Statistical Society) professional associations. We’ve also worked with a national cross-disciplinary association (the Transportation Research Board) that includes academia, industry, and government agency members. Now, how that answers your question is a little bit tricky: we’ve actually had the least luck recruiting from the professional associations. I think that’s in part because of some issues related to translating between traffic safety and sociology (meaning, explaining to sociologists that we actually do research that might be kind of interesting). Also, more pragmatically, it can be difficult to get a state agency to plump for the fee associated with the ASA job recruiting service.

    One piece of advice that I would give to a student considering leaving academia is the following: academia is in many ways a national (or, to be generous to our Canadian colleagues, international) market. This is not so true of government service. I had already decided to move to California when I started looking for jobs in state service. In fact, I went so far as to pro-actively change my cell phone number and acquire a local address so that my resume didn’t look out-of-town. This was perhaps over-zealous, but I was conscious of the fact that government agencies simply can’t pay to fly people in for interviews. If people are thinking about leaving academia, they can probably afford to think about where they want to live in a way that sometimes academics can’t really. Once people have decided where they want to live, they can then think about what it takes to get a job in that particular (local) market.

    Which leads to the second piece of advice I’d give: the standard one about leveraging the strength of weak ties. Alumni association happy hours, partisan political clubs, even (yes, I’m going to go there) bowling leagues — I’ve known people to get jobs through all three.

    I don’t think that dissertation topics necessarily matter. Disciplinary boundaries make a difference, but probably somewhat less than specific past research topics. So, for instance, a social science research outfit really does take a look at pretty much any social science degree (sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.). However, because there are so few people that have dissertations on traffic safety-related questions (there isn’t even really a degree in such a thing), we are happy to look at applicants with publications (or project experience) on topics that have nothing to do with driving. We look for quantitative skills and a background of having run a research project independently; but the topic is (from our perspective) very much of secondary importance.

    Finally: reference letters. This is an easy one; it’s a quite different system. Reference checks come late in the process, and there is a pre-defined set of questions we ask, usually in the course of a phone conversation.



    December 10, 2013 at 6:58 am

  3. Just wanted to add for our readers: Some universities’ career centers host regular activities or graduate students who are exploring careers outside of academia. For example, at Harvard and MIT, students can participate in job search groups and meet with panels of alums who are now working in gov’t, nonprofit organizations, and industry.
    Here are samples of activities at Harvard:
    Here is a resource page:
    Sometimes students form their own groups to help prepare for interviews, learn how to transfer skills to different industries, etc.
    Organizations such as the Rand think tank have summer associate programs:



    December 10, 2013 at 9:27 pm

  4. […] on skills and training, as well as how to find out about positions […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: