Posted on 11/30/2018
Tom Trail, Ph.D., is a Behavioral Scientist with RAND Corporation in Arlington, VA. His research focuses on interpersonal relationships, including relationships between spouses, friends, and other group members. His particular focus is on how stress affects relationship processes and health outcomes. Some of his recent projects include: investigating the impact of deployment on military families; assessing the needs of Army soldiers and their families; an evaluation of online peer-support communities for the caregivers of ill or wounded veterans; and an evaluation of the Department of Defense programs that provide counseling services to service members and their families. Prior to joining RAND, Tom was a postdoctoral scholar with Dr. Benjamin Karney at UCLA where he studied the factors associated with relationship behaviors and marital distress among low-income couples. He received his PhD in social psychology from Princeton University and his MS in applied/experimental psychology from Virginia Tech.
What led you to choose a career in social and personality psychology?
I’ve always been interested in the interplay between the individual and outside social and environmental forces. I was an architecture major during my freshman year of college (and only my freshman year!), and I was fascinated by how a building’s design could influence where people walk, what they see, and even how they feel. I guess I had always assumed that we moved around and behaved the way we did because that’s what we wanted to do, and the idea that there were other forces affecting our behaviors never really occurred to me. A sociology course on the individual and society and my first social psychology courses really changed my way of thinking about the world. After graduation, I wanted to pursue psychology, but I also wanted to save the world. So I got a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis thinking I could do both, but soon realized it wasn’t a good fit. I worked for a while as a research assistant in a psychology department and in a public policy research center, and when I finally decided that it was time to go back and get my PhD, I knew that I wanted to pursue social and personality psychology, which has been a perfect fit for my interests.
What led to your interest in studying military and low-income families?
During my final year of grad school, I attended the SPSP Annual Convention and was thinking about where I wanted my research to go next. I had studied group processes—focusing on ingroup norms and intergroup relations—and wasn’t sure whether I should take my research down a more theoretical path with group norms, studying intergroup processes, or focus more broadly on relationships. I decided to attend any session at the convention that piqued my interest, regardless of whether it was relevant to my research area or something completely different. I attended a session by Ben Karney on military couples and how combat deployments place stress on families. But the data presented did not reveal a relationship between deployments and divorce, and it was unclear why not. I thought this was a fascinating mystery that had real-life consequences, and became intrigued. The following month, I learned of a postdoc opportunity with Ben to study how low-income Latin couples cope with stress. This combined my interest in intergroup processes, relationships, and my then latent interest in saving the world. I was hooked! I have since had the opportunity to explore more fully how deployment affects military families through my work at RAND.
Can you tell us more about your role at RAND?
RAND is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy research institute. We do work on health, the environment, labor, justice, education, and national security, among other issues. RAND’s mission is to “help policymakers make decisions that are based on the best available information.” I am a behavioral scientist, which is what most psychologists at RAND are called, and I work on research projects made up of interdisciplinary teams—economists, sociologists, physicians, clinical psychologists, and even engineers, sometimes. I generally work on research teams studying family-related issues, but I have also worked on projects concerning racial and ethnic discrimination, gender equity issues, caregivers for ill or wounded veterans, and teen suicide. It is quite a diverse job! The work can range from literature reviews to determine the evidence-base for different policy options, surveys and qualitative work exploring the needs of vulnerable communities, to evaluating the effectiveness of existing policies and programs. In all of these projects, I might lead one specific task as part of a larger team or I might serve as the project lead.
Briefly summarize your current research, and any future research interests you plan to pursue.
I have a growing interest in caregivers—people who provide unpaid care to ill or wounded friends, neighbors, or family members. I am particularly interested in programs or interventions that help reduce social isolation and loneliness among caregivers, as caregiving can be an isolating experience. I have been exploring how technology might (or might not) help reduce feelings of loneliness among caregivers. I also have an active research program focused on military families—especially how the experience of military deployment affects marital quality—and I am working to expand that research to focus on the needs and experiences of children in military families.
What advice do you have for students or recent grads interested in a nonacademic career path?
For grad students, think about doing a research project that is within your lane of expertise, but broadens your knowledge or experiences beyond what is normally studied in your lab (or your field in general). For example, if you usually do experiments, think about how you would do a survey on similar issues. There are also large survey datasets that are freely available and may contain variables that relate to something you study (or want to study). Think about incorporating a study using one of those datasets into your program of research. Finally, go to relevant colloquia or brown-bag talks in the sociology or economics department to see how those scholars approach the same issues you study. If possible, try to meet and collaborate with grad students who have similar interests, but who bring different perspectives to the issues that interest you. All of these things will demonstrate that you have an interest in exploring topics from different perspectives and using different types of data, which will be important for a nonacademic career path.
For recent grads and current students, if you are interested in a career in public policy research, think about how your research area is relevant for public policy, how current policies might impact your area of interest, and how policies or programs could be developed based on your research. Keep in mind that “policy” doesn’t necessarily mean legislation. It can also be the rules, regulations, programs, or policies of a public or private organization that, in turn, affect peoples’ lives (think Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler, etc.). For example, how could a manipulation you have used in an experiment be transformed into an intervention to improve peoples’ lives? How might current policies, processes, or rules in the healthcare, legal, or education system differentially affect people with a personality characteristic you have studied? Social and personality psychologists will often write about the broader implications of their research in the first couple of paragraphs of an introduction, and maybe revisit these implications in the discussion, but think more deeply about what those implications might actually look like in the world of public policy and then be prepared to discuss them when you talk to prospective employers.
Interested in learning more about nonacademic careers? Tom will be taking part in the SPSP 2019 symposium Psychology Careers Serving the Public Interest on Saturday, February 9th, from 3:45 PM - 5:00 PM. Students, recent graduates, and faculty members are encouraged to attend!