#beyondAcademia: What skills can experimental psychologists offer?

The experience that experimental psychologists acquire during their academic careers proves to be extremely useful outside of academia. When we asked our respondents, whom we introduced at the beginning of the week, what knowledge and skills from academia they use most often in their new careers, Katie Rotella summed up the group’s views: “pretty much all of them!”

To get more specific, however, five categories of valuable skills emerged from their responses: content knowledge, approach, methods, communication, and soft skills.

Content knowledge

People matter, and psychologists understand people. That’s why respondents from across a range of new disciplines regularly draw on their psychology knowledge in their work. For example, Maria D’Angelo, who works in the research arm of a sports and entertainment company, observed that, “my research is much more applied, but my background in cognitive psychology is still applicable in terms of understanding human behavior.”

“[Psychologists] have a very advanced understanding of human cognition and behavior,” Mike Winograd agreed. When applied to his own field of market research, “this lends itself well to being able to explain consumer behavior and preferences.”

Katherine Livins expanded on this theme: “A lot of companies rely on human data – what a client buys, how she interacts with a website or device, what feedback she gives, etc. Their data sources are often messy, large, and collected online. A psychologist has the background necessary for understanding what the patterns in the data mean (what caused them, whether they can be expected to persist, and often how to change them in the future). This is incredibly useful and can help with everything from analytics to product development.”

In the field of data science, Brock Ferguson noted, “most of the data people care about comes from people,” which means that psychologists, who know how to analyze and interpret data that comes from people, are at an advantage.

Nick Gaylord (who recently wrote a blog post on a related topic), paraphrased Art Markman to point out that “every single thing that happens in business is the result of people thinking and taking actions, and that is exactly what you’re an expert in.” Psychologists also understand decision making, which is often important for strategy and management. As Rotella noted, “many employers think that they want someone with an MBA when really they want a psychologist—they just don’t really understand what a research psychologist is. In recent years this has started to change and more and more companies are specifically seeking psychologists out, just not with the job title of ‘psychologist’.”

Ryan Dewey, who runs his own consultancy practice and collaborates often with experts in other fields, noted that a knowledge of psychology and cognitive science makes these collaborations possible. “A lot of my work focuses on geography and supply chains, so I’m able to get audience with geographers and logisticians (when I have zero training in either of those fields) simply because I’m able to use what I know about spatial cognition and design cognition to talk about how my work is relevant to the questions those industries are exploring.”

Approach

Even if the specific content niche psychologists have built up in academia doesn’t apply to their new work, the general research approach will likely translate. Rotella explained: “I don’t use my content knowledge on very narrow areas (my dissertation hasn’t come up much), but my way of thinking that I learned in grad school I use every single day.”

Experimental psychologists are skilled at developing and answering research questions and problem solving. Winograd noted that “experimental research helped me develop a set of skills that are highly relevant in market research [to] design projects to answer clients’ business problems.” Stefania Mereu, who works in user experience, agrees that problem solving is key: “The most transferable of the skills I’ve learned in academia is the process of diverging (exploring possible solutions) and converging (narrowing to a handful of options) onto a specific goal.”

The importance of critical thinking also came up again and again. “Critical thinking, being obsessive about using evidence to support claims and about how the evidence is collected and interpreted,” are big strengths noted by Eric Taylor. Winograd added “the process of conducting experimental research makes us very adept at looking at a question from different angles/perspectives which helps to identify potential gaps in knowledge or questionable assumptions.”

Finally, there’s the desire to do the best work possible, or, as Mereu put it a, “relentless strive for perfection.” Winograd agreed: “We’re perfectionists – after all, a poor research design could lead to losing months, if not years, of work – so we’re good at making sure the work we do is proper and accurate.”

Methods

Experimental research and statistics were the methods most in use in respondents’ new careers.  As Livins explained, “designing, building, and running controlled experiments is central to my role, as well as the statistics necessary for analyzing the results. I actually started looking at larger scale data towards the end of my degree (e.g., MTurk generated data and eye-tracking data) and those experiences were especially useful.”

Others agreed that experience analyzing data, both big and small, has translated well to their new work. For Winograd, “the ability to work with large data sets and interpret statistical analyses is directly relevant on large quantitative projects.” Ferguson noted that psychologists have a “better understanding of statistics than lots of other fields (particularly when data are small and messy, which is the case more often that one would expect given all the talk about “big data”)”.

Communication

Writing and communication skills, acquired through years of toiling over manuscripts, presentations, and teaching, are important in most respondents’ new careers. These skills make frequent technical and report writing easier. In particular, “the ability to summarize information and data from disparate sources (clinical trials, client insights, prior research),” is valuable, said Winograd.

Writing can also lead to lucky breaks. You can “write your way into opportunities,” Ryan Dewey advised. He explained: “Having experiences in grant writing, drafting proposals, submitting IRB applications, obtaining research permits all proved useful. A lot of the ways I get opportunities is by crafting proposals that respond to what organizations are looking for. I’m able to apply for opportunities and funding that are difficult for some people who aren’t used to writing so much. If there is one thing academia prepares you for, it is writing.”

The skills gained from presenting information to students or to colleagues in academia is readily transferable to interactions with clients or customers outside of academia. Livins stressed, “the communication skills that conference talks, job talks, paper writing, and teaching allowed me to develop can’t be understated. Professional research isn’t about getting the most surprising finding and then telling your lab about it – it’s about presenting findings to non-technical and technical business partners alike.”

Soft skills

Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the “soft skills” psychologists picked up in academia. Nick Gaylord suggests that these skills, including “autonomy, collaboration, clear communication, attention to detail, getting up to speed on things quickly, diligence, reliability, high standards, etc. are table stakes for making it through grad school but are oh so rare (especially in concert) more generally.” Others agreed.

Trained experimental psychologists have a desire to see projects through to completion and typically have a vision for how to make this happen. They use their experience with managing projects and supervising staff to keep work on track. Finally, they have the “perseverance and the ability to delay gratification to complete long-term projects,” according to Anita Bowles.

Finally, ”the ability to learn quickly and independently,” as noted by D’Angelo, comes in handy for picking up new skills.

So, what are the skills that psychologists acquire in their new careers? Returning to the categories above, they generally fall under learning new methods, strengthening communication skills, and further developing soft skills.

New Methods

Most respondents needed to pick up new programming skills or to drop some bad programming habits acquired during graduate school. Livins explains: “I coded a fair bit during grad school (experiments, data processing, web-scrapers, etc.) but it mostly was what I would call “academic coding” (it worked, but it wasn’t efficient, well documented, or particularly reusable). I had to learn to make my code more efficient, along with the tools necessary for sharing that code with others (e.g., Git).” To successfully collaborate with others on projects and to keep track of progress, new habits had to replace the old ones. For example, Gaylord noted, “I was familiar with version control from grad school but had never really used Git. Project management resources like JIRA were a big revelation for me.”

Statistics knowledge and skills also had to be bolstered. This was particularly important for respondents now working with large data sets, which many hadn’t done in academia. Livins explains: “I now typically work with data that sits in a remote database somewhere. I needed to learn appropriate query languages (e.g., SQL), and how to use them efficiently enough that I don’t over-tax a shared resource.”

Finally, respondents reported having to learn new research techniques that they may not have had much chance to use in their academic careers, such as qualitative research techniques and survey design.

New Communication Techniques

Communication with naïve audiences improved with practice in a new field. For Gaylord, “the biggest skill was probably learning to be comfortable with audiences that didn’t share expertise with me. Distilling complex information down for novice audiences is something I had done a lot while teaching during grad school, but in a business context it’s a whole new level of that.” For Winograd, a big learning opportunity was “visual and graphic design in PowerPoint. Client presentations (proposals and reports) are always done in PowerPoint decks. I had to learn to design aesthetically pleasing visuals and present information in more of a visual way versus the matter-of-fact and stripped-down style of academic presentations.”

New Soft Skills

Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents noted a need for a more practical bent outside of academia. Taylor summarized needing to learn “business savvy, extreme pragmatism, and how to balance idealism/perfectionism.” Self-marketing, both to get new opportunities and retain existing ones, was also important. As discussed today, psychologists have many valuable skills. But these skills have to be presented effectively to make their value clear to the intended audience, whether that’s a potential supervisor, customer, or client.

 

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