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Research Opportunities Outside of
Academia: A Summer at Rand

March 5, 2004

While finishing his PhD in sociology at Cal, Christopher Davidson spent a summer as a paid intern with Rand's Graduate Student Summer Associate Program.

The Rand Corporation is one of the nation's oldest and most widely known policy-oriented nonprofit think tanks. Last year Rand hired over 50 PhDs from a broad range of disciplines in the social sciences, sciences, and engineering. Each summer they offer paid summer internships to roughly 25 graduate students engaged in PhD programs across the country.

Career Center (CC): How did you learn about RAND's Graduate Student Summer Associate Program?

Christopher Davidson (CD): When Rand came to recruit at Berkeley, I went to their information session and was impressed with their unique combination of casual collegiality and intellectual curiosity. I was also attracted to the emphasis on teamwork and real-world policy issues.

CC: How did you go about getting the internship?

CD: Given that Rand's emphasis is on large-scale quantitative research projects, I didn't think that I would be a strong candidate. My training is in qualitative sociology; in grad school most of my research experience had been with interviewing and participant observation. Also, the topic of my thesis did not have a clear policy implication since it was about religion in middle class families rather than drug and alcohol use, or welfare-to-work programs, or something like that.

Since I was very interested in working there, I got on the phone and called Rand researchers who were working on projects that interested me. I located a researcher who had graduated from my department at Berkeley, and talked to him about his experience there. He then put me in touch with a couple of his colleagues who he thought might need interns over the summer.

The one relevant work experience I'd had was a two and a half year stint as a part-time ethnographer on an evaluation study of a return-to-work program for formerly homeless, single adults in San Francisco. Because my supervisor on that study was an old friend and colleague of a high-up person at Rand, this experience ended up being very useful in getting me hired.

In the end, after talking to people, and going through the application process, I was offered two different internships and chose the one with the expert on homelessness, because my impression was that he would be willing to work closely with me and act as a mentor.

CC: What happened once you got to Santa Monica?

CD: As it turned out, I hardly saw the homelessness expert over the summer because he was a very senior person at Rand and had lots of commitments. He passed me on to two colleagues of his: another senior researcher in the Health division who didn't have his administrative responsibilities, and a junior person, another sociologist, who had just been hired the previous year.

These two people ended up being my primary colleagues, and even then I didn't see them on a frequent basis, perhaps once or twice a week. They were available -- I could often just wander down the hallway and find them. But most days were not all that different from grad school in the sense that much of the work was solitary. At Rand, most of the work takes place in an office or at home unless you're out in the field gathering data.

Another unexpected development was a delay in getting the project started. I had been hired to work on a survey of organizations in Houston that provided services to homeless substance-abusing adults. My understanding was that the survey would be designed, administered, and returned while I was at Rand. As it turned out, we didn't even begin to work on the survey until a month after I got there.

I spent a lot of time the first few weeks reviewing the literature, and making an effort to meet people all over the organization to get a sense of how Rand worked and what types of research people were doing. I was sharing an office space with the other interns -- there were twelve of us -- so we hung out together a little bit, got drinks at the Santa Monica Pier, went out to lunch and so on. But the interns' experiences were all different, depending on who they were working with and how closely.

By the end of the summer, I had helped design and administer the survey, but we didn't have any results yet. The last week was devoted to putting together a seminar, which is a requirement of any Rand intern.

CC: How would you rate your experience?

CD: Overall, I am glad I had the experience, but I was not madly in love with the organization by the time I completed the summer internship. The teamwork was not as intense as I had expected, and the research they were doing tended more to the technical than the political -- there wasn't a real culture of critique at Rand, as there is in many academic departments.

However, it is a huge organization with a lot going on, and if your research interest matches up with the type of project that Rand often does, it could be a wonderful place to work. It has a lot of the flexibility of a university, but the pay is a lot better and you have more of an opportunity to write and publish than you would in a university setting where you also have to teach.

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This page last updated 3/5/2004 (ag/ag)