I am still searching for a good elevator speech to use when people ask the inevitable question – “What do you do?” I usually reply: “I am a community psychologist.” What follows my answer is the inevitable quizzical look as the inquirer struggles to put my answer into their predetermined notion of what psychologists do --- therapy.
I used to do therapy. I specialized in adolescent addiction and although I loved working with teens, working with parents who refused to address their own addictions was not so much fun. Watching kids get discharged when their insurance ran out was a lot less fun. I guess you could say I have come full circle because I worked in community programs early in my career. My Community Psychology graduate program at Georgia State University emphasized both program development and program evaluation and that training informs how I view my evaluation practice. I see evaluation providing essential information in a (hopefully) constant feedback loop to programs (think Kurt Lewin). Today I work as the lead evaluator in a consulting practice that I started nine years ago. We work with all sorts of organizations, from small to large nonprofits and state and federal agencies. We workin many different areas including: drop-out prevention, youth development, early child care, mental health, community coalitions and substance abuse prevention and public health.
So you think you might want to be a community practitioner? Here is my list of characteristics you should possess inspired by Jeff Foxworthy. You might be a community practioner if…………..
- You speak many different languages. And I don’t mean French or Spanish. I mean you can communicate with real people from their perspective.
- You can work with great and not-so-great Executive Directors and CEOs.
- You are OK with never being famous.
- You can live with never doing an RCT. You’re lucky if you ever have a comparison group.
- You enjoy never doing the same thing twice. Consulting is not for the faint of heart.
- You don’t mind exotic locales. For example, Harlem, GA.
- You like your research messy and chaotic.
- You don’t mind data that is less than pristine.
- You can create business processes with no training in business.
- You don’t mind not knowing where your next pay check is coming from.
I advise people considering community practice to concentrate on their hard skills, especially quantitative data analysis. A strong qualitative skill set is desirable too. Communicating effectively, both written and oral is also important. My clinical background helps in this area and my clients tell me I have a knack for helping them understand statistics and evaluation findings. Then there are soft skills that can’t be taught, at least I am not sure they can be. These include the values and skills we aspire to as community psychologists (valuing diversity, an environmental/systems perspective, using participatory approaches). In addition, you need an inordinate supply of patience because, just like I learned in my clinical days, people are apt to make choices that are not always in their best interest. You need toaccept clients where they are (e.g. individual perspective, lack of technology, fear of evaluation) and truly value the client-consultant relationship. Long-term relationshipsare what we are trying to achieve. At the same time we want to build clients’ evaluation capacity. Our goal is to help them see evaluation as another task of daily business.
There are many positive things about working as a consultant. I get to work on a variety of social issues. I enjoy setting my own schedule and choosing my clients. I use many different kinds of approaches and data analysis strategies so I never get bored. One drawback of working as a consultant either independently or in a small practice, is that you can get lonely. It is important to identify a group of colleagues that you can count on for advice and support. Besides SCRA, the American Evaluation Association is a great professional home where you will find professional development opportunities and colleagues to support your work.