Kelly Sheppard, Ph.D. is a graduate of our Developmental Psychology program in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. She is now a Social Science Researcher for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the United States Department of Transportation.
As a Social Science Researcher, Kelly is a Contracting Officer’s Representative and her job is to manage research contracts for the NHTSA and ensure that the projects are conducted appropriately, tax-payer dollars are spent appropriately, and that they receive the information needed to meet NHTSA”s mission of saving lives and preventing injuries on national roadways. Kelly focuses on child passenger safety, which mainly includes car seat safety and heatstroke. She works with the Program Office and Office of Communications to ensure that the messages and advice are based on relevant and current research and that programs used by States to improve child passenger safety are based on evidence of effectiveness. Kelly shares, “Sixty percent of NHTSA funds go out to States, and they have to account for how they use these funds each year. The programs they implement must follow research evidence, much of which we spear-head in some way to ensure we are making appropriate recommendations.” She also works closely with the Vehicle Safety Research Division and Office of Rule-Making to understand how people will use technology being developed (e.g., heat sensors in vehicles to prevent children being left in cars, car seats and automated vehicles) so safety issues are addressed early and that safety is properly promoted in emerging technology.
Kelly graduated with her Ph.D. in 2016 from the Developmental Psychology Program and she believes her training at Carolina, particularly in methods and statistics, prepared her well for her current position. She says, “My boss even chose to interview me because of some papers I wrote during graduate school. He said they showed excellent methodological and quantitative understanding. There are very few people trained in traffic safety at the undergraduate or graduate level. Most training is in human factors, and most training focuses on engineering. There are few if any behaviorally focused traffic safety or human factors courses of study.” As a result, the NHTSA tries to hire people from a variety of disciplines who show the methodological understanding necessary to manage diverse research projects. As part of her job at the NHTSA, Kelly has overseen naturalistic observational studies, nationally representative surveys, and structured lab experiments. “The diversity of research needs means the topic a person focused on in graduate school is less important than their understanding of how to answer questions — or at least add to our understanding and work towards ‘answers,'” Kelly explains.
Following graduate school, Kelly completed a postdoctoral position at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio while her husband completed his Ph.D. in Economics and got a job in a think-tank in Washington, DC. “I really enjoyed my research and work at the hospital and in graduate school,” says Kelly. “However, in applying for jobs in DC, I found few positions that would allow me to continue my work in nutrition and cognitive development. I had to branch out, and of course, a major employer in DC is the federal government. I looked over USAJOBS.gov for positions that were at least applicable to a background in psychology. Most positions were clinical and required a license, but surprisingly, the Department of Transportation had an opening for a Social Science Researcher. I had no idea what this position would be like, and I did not think I would get an interview. When I did, they asked me their questions and then asked me if I had any questions for them. My first question was simply, “why are you interviewing me?”. I could not figure out why they thought I was qualified. My boss said they look for people with solid methodological training and understanding of how to conduct quality research. They had looked at some of my papers referenced on my CV and thought I’d be a good fit. They don’t find almost anyone with traffic safety experience. My colleagues are mostly psychologists with varied research interests who found the position under similar circumstances to me. My boss’ degree is actually in politics. I have one colleague with a degree in human factors who actually did work on older drivers before coming to her current position where she conducts research on older drivers. Everyone else did very different work before joining NHTSA.”
Kelly says that she is “one-step removed from conducting research” in her current position, but learning the ins and outs of government contracting has been enjoyable. She’s gained considerable experience with accounting, contract law, federal rule-making, government mandates, budgeting, and of course, traffic safety. She has also learned more about child passenger safety than she realized existed, and these elements of her job have been fun – she has even received certification as a child passenger safety technician. Kelly shares, “I have gained many new skills and still get to use many of my old skills. Having something new to master is always fun, and even though I often miss the nutrition and cognitive development world, this position has showed me lots of new ways to use the skills I developed getting a PhD. It has turned into a good fit despite my skepticism in the beginning.” Kelly also enjoys the applied nature of her work, such as the research projects she designs for her contractors and grantees. These projects don’t always make it into peer-reviewed literature, but they will frequently inform policy and programs at the State and federal levels. Kelly shares, “It is rewarding to see your work have a swift impact and help people make good choices either in their day-to-day life or as a policy-maker somewhere.”
In addition to learning new skills, Kelly shares that her colleagues are wonderful and that she has a great boss and group to work with day-to-day. Her advice for looking for a job that is the perfect fit is to prioritize your colleagues. She says, “These folks will be your world 40+ hours per week. You want to get along with them and enjoy working with them if they are going to be so much of your time.” Kelly also advises applicants to be open to trying something new. She explains, “Much of our training while getting a PhD is immensely useful to a large number of professions. Being creative and open-minded could help you find or create the perfect job for you. Traditional paths of employment have changed a lot from when I started my PhD to now – just look at how covid-19 has changed academia! Our skillset is highly marketable, and the world offers many more options than we usually consider. I am still developing new skills in my position despite the stereotype that non-academic positions are somehow “easier”. These new skills will help me if I choose to move to another position as I now have a wealth of experience I could not have gained anywhere else. I have also had the opportunity to work in an academic setting, a hospital setting, and with the federal government. I now know a lot about what I like in a job and what I don’t like in a job so I can more effectively choose my career path and advocate for myself as my career progresses. Being open to at least trying different types of positions has been very valuable to me as I establish my career.”
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