Finding Answers for Society's Ills

Fresh out of high school, Monique Clinton-Sherrod (pictured left) had visions of herself as a television reporter. She credits an introductory psychology course in her freshman year at the University of North Carolina with turning her on to the social sciences instead. Now, instead of reporting on scenes of violence, she’s become an expert on their root causes. Her specialty is one of the most common forms of violence in Western society: domestic violence.

Like other social psychologists, Clinton-Sherrod is an expert in human social behavior and on how culture affects behavior in social systems. The goal of her work is to better understand family violence, substance abuse, and the links between them. “Most of my research focuses on violence against women, substance abuse, and child maltreatment,” she says. “So learning what works effectively and getting the information out to as many people as possible, particularly practitioners and those who may potentially be victims, is very important. Women and children are assaulted every day in this country. It is clearly a pressing issue in our society.” Clinton-Sherrod has found fulfillment addressing this problem but, she notes, for those with adequate preparation, social psychology provides a wide range of career opportunities. In addition to her research, she trains counselors on strategies for dealing with families affected by domestic violence and substance abuse.

She has taken on a huge problem. The financial costs of domestic violence and substance abuse are staggering. According to the American Institute on Domestic Violence, the health-related costs of physical assault, homicide, stalking, and rape by intimate partners cost in excess of $5.8 billion every year. 1 And in 2002, the estimated use of resources to address the consequences of health, crime, and workforce losses due to illegal drug use was $180.9 billion. 2 But the societal costs to the nation are just as sobering. More than 5 million women are abused each year, and almost one-half of child neglect and abuse cases nationally are associated with parental drug or alcohol abuse. 1, 3

From Spark to Flame

Clinton-Sherrod very nearly chose a completely different career. “I originally went to college thinking I wanted to go into broadcast journalism, but that quickly changed when I took an introductory psychology course my freshman year,” she explains. “I was very impressed with the professor, and the course sparked my interest.”

After changing her major to psychology, she took several courses--developmental psychology, experimental psychology, and statistics for psychology (the foundation of a quantitative-psychology career track)--before settling on social psychology. Social psychology, she says, covered many of her early interests, from human attitudes about self and relationship dynamics to how people interact with and are shaped by their environment.

Also fueling Clinton-Sherrod’s excitement about social psychology was her participation in a research project that focused on how social support--safe houses, counseling, intervention programs, and so on--helps people dealing with difficult social issues. After seeing these programs help people bounce back from adversity, Clinton-Sherrod knew what kind of career she wanted.

RTI International

After receiving her B.S. in psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1994, she completed her M.S. (1997) and Ph.D. (2001) in social psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Passing over the usual postdoc, she sought--and got--a position with RTI International, a worldwide institute that provides research and development information to commercial, industrial, academic, and government agencies. RTI employs research scientists--including social psychologists--economists, statisticians, and other specialists. The firm encourages interdisciplinary research and is often successful in applying for research grants.

“RTI has an online [job] application process, so I wasn’t sure how quickly my résumé would be funneled to the appropriate person,” she recalls. So she didn't just send in a résumé and sit waiting by the phone. “I took extra steps and found out which unit fit well with my interests and contacted that program director.” It worked: She was hired as a research scientist. Clinton-Sherrod says that RTI offers abundant opportunities for professional development. “It’s a place [where] I can continue to develop in terms of becoming a more advanced researcher with having opportunities to pursue [National Institutes of Health] grants, develop manuscripts, and work on state and federal contracts.”

Purposeful Research

Clinton-Sherrod doesn’t have direct contact with families dealing with domestic violence and drug abuse, but she does interact with the people who implement programs that address these issues. Her goal in these interactions is to help them learn to evaluate the impacts their programs have. During phone calls and site visits, she analyzes data, evaluates program impact, and assesses existing impact-surveillance systems for community violence-prevention programs and departments of health in several states. Most important, she helps specialists and care providers acquire skills that enhance their ability to help their clients. “We try to help them build their evaluation skills so they are empowered to conduct their own evaluation, because you often see that practitioners are very focused on delivering services and aren’t able to adequately assess the effectiveness of their programming,” she explains.

The data she has collected from practitioners and research from other scientists suggest a link between intimate-partner violence and substance use, but she and other experts continue to investigate what causes what. Clinton-Sherrod would like to expand her research to involve direct contact with those affected by violence and illegal drugs so that she can study the link in detail and design and implement her own intervention programs. Through her evaluation work, she has gained insight into strategies that may offer the most promise for effectiveness.

The Road to a Fulfilling Career

Clinton-Sherrod advises students seeking research careers in psychology to get a B.S. rather than a B.A. degree, because the more scientifically rigorous degree will give them a strong background in social and natural sciences, math, and statistics--good preparation for graduate school. Students, she says, should talk to professors who specialize in different areas of psychology; such conversations will help students refine their interests and (eventually) choose a professional direction. She also encourages undergraduates to get involved in a research project or two. “Search out a professor who is doing something that you are interested in,” she says, “and volunteer to do whatever they may need you for. These professors can write recommendations for you for grad school.”

Although Clinton-Sherrod chose a research career and finds research fulfilling, people with training in social psychology, she says, have a wide variety of career options: conflict resolution, group facilitation, teaching--even advertising, sales, and motivational speaking. She encourages minority undergraduates to consider careers in social psychology precisely because the field has so many niches. “Pursuing a degree in social psychology offers countless opportunities for interesting and innovative career paths,” she says.

Her Driving Force

Clinton-Sherrod cites her parents as her most important influences. They were married while still teenagers and yet balanced raising two children with pursuing their professions: Her father is a pharmacist and her mother an executive vice president at a large corporation.“My parents have had numerous life experiences that could have easily given them excuses for not pursuing their personal and professional goals; but they have never settled for excuses, and they expected nothing less from me.”


1. American Institute on Domestic Violence

2. The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States: 1992-2002, published 2004, Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Washington, D.C., 20503

3. Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Statistics, 1997, Child Welfare League of America: Alcohol and Other Drug Survey of State Child Welfare Agencies. Washington, D.C.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet.

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