What I Wish I Knew Then

Table of Contents

Introductory note: I asked Sherif, now a Research Scientist with Amazon and who I worked with during his undergraduate and graduate years at UWloo to share some advice on what he wished he knew back then. I hope this may help be of help to others considering psychology for undergraduate or graduate study. – Britt Anderson

1. Professional development advice for my past self

1.1. Background

I wanted to write about advice I would give my past self while completing my psychology degrees, but before that, I want to begin with a caveat: each person's journey is different, and the more you can bring yourself to not feel the pressure to follow any person's particular advice or prescribed steps, the easier it might be to find your path to what comes next. That was hard for me at first, but you get better at it the more you try.

With that in mind, my story is that I completed my undergraduate studies in psychology and my MA in cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo. During my MA I worked as a lab manager, a position I enjoyed and continued after graduation. I worked for a few months as a freelance data scientist before taking a position as a Research Scientist at Amazon in Seattle, which is what I'm doing right now. It wasn't nearly as smooth as it sounds – much of the time I did not know what I was doing, and I had to make guesses and take chances on what would be useful or worthwhile uses of my time. I would apply to positions and not hear back, and have no feedback as to what I could do differently to be more competitive. I would have many ideas for things to learn or projects to do and not know which would give me the best return on the invested time and effort. Your best guesses will probably be different than mine when it comes to decisions like this, and I'll be the last person to try and convince you that my way is the best.

In hindsight, my trajectory makes perfect sense. During my undergrad I thought I really enjoyed research because I enjoyed reading and discussing papers in seminars and research methods courses. But once I started my MA I quickly realized that, while I found those experiments and articles enjoyable to discuss, I didn't find them enjoyable to make. I deeply enjoyed the parts that involved writing code and improving a data analysis protocol, and procrastinated on everything else. All the blogs I read and podcasts I listened to were about computers, programming, tech, and statistics. None were about psychology. For me, that was a sign.

But this is not a post aimed exclusively at those who are considering a move from academia to a position outside of it. My goal is to discuss a few things I wish I had known, and think others should know, when thinking about professional development.

1.2. Knowing the other side

It's hard to exaggerate the large range of positions you can go for with a graduate psychology degree. Your skills are much more than just knowing how to analyze data. You have a lot of experience in experimental design and methodology, and great intuition about how to research human behavior. There are few companies who don't need people who are good at that. Especially when your experience designing, running, and analyzing experiments is nicely complemented by your experience communicating those results in papers, posters, and reports.

The range of the different ways people find those positions is equally wide. I started my work in Amazon after completing my MA; others started after completing their PhDs or mid post-docs. Some, like me, rely on gaining experience through portfolio and project work (more on this below), others join intensive bootcamp programs that prepare them with a mix of training and interview prep.

One way you could learn about what's on the other side is by pursuing an internship with a company or team you find interesting. This is a low-risk option because you likely don't have to suspend your academic work to try it, and it has the added benefit of counting as work experience if you decide to pursue that path later. Many companies, especially tech companies, offer summer internships to PhD students nearing the end of their graduate studies.

In addition to exploring internships:

  • Go to career workshops in your university's career center (Centre for Career Action at UW). Those workshops are useful and underutilized.
  • Find meetups that match your interests, and go meet people who do what you might be interested in doing, or are trying to learn more about doing it like you are.
  • Talk to people who have landed themselves positions like ones you're pursuing, or made transitions like the one you are considering making. This is one of the best ways to learn about your options. Chances are they got help from someone else and are happy to pass that on and share advice.

1.3. Expanding technical and statistical knowledge

It's a good idea to expand your skills and experience regardless of whether your interest lies in academia or industry. Unfortunately, the technical and statistical tools one learns throughout a psychology degree can be very limited.1 This makes some sense because the primary goal of the training is to teach you to do psychological research, and the tools are a means to that end. Looking back, I think the default tools taught in courses are too limited and I think it's very beneficial to explore other options.

The technical tools of the trade when I did my program were E-Prime for designing experiments and SPSS for data analysis. The R statistical computing environment is starting to penetrate the undergraduate and graduate courses as an alternative to SPSS, but this depends on where you are. I highly recommend you replace SPSS with R in your work as soon as possible. R is a better tool in every way2 and is quickly becoming – or already is – the preferred tool for statistical analysis and learning in and out of academia. It also has the benefit of easing you into getting some coding experience that will be useful to you no matter what you choose to do in the future.

R might seem intimidating if you're not familiar with writing code or working in a terminal, but there are so many tutorials and introductory courses that will work for people at all skill levels. DataCamp's Introduction to R and R Programming by Johns Hopkins University on Coursera are two great starter courses.

Technical tools aside, you may find as I did that you would not be taught a lot more than Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and simple regression methods in your required statistics courses. Those are powerful tools that I use in my work right now, but there is a much larger world of statistics that psychology degrees might not expose you to. A good way to expose yourself to those methods is to take as many elective statistics courses as you can. When you can spare the time, read some statistics/data analysis blogs, like Variance Explained or newsletters like R-weekly that link to recent blog posts on data analysis. I also recommend podcasts like Linear Digressions and Data Skeptic that introduce a good mix of statistical and machine learning topics to beginner audiences.

1.4. What to do to prepare for non-academic positions

There is so much advice on this that it can be, no it is overwhelming. This is where I want to remind the reader of my initial caveat. Most people will not do everything that everyone who has moved from academia to industry advises they do. Usually doing a couple of those things, but doing them well, is enough.

Credentials and degrees matter less today than they ever did in the past. With the exception of professional careers that require certification or licensing, people care little for the title of the degree you hold. I work as a Research Scientist at Amazon with a BA an MA in psychology. My manager completed their undergraduate degree in music, and their manager's manager – our product's lead – completed theirs in philosophy. I rest my case.

So what matters? What matters is what you can do for them. People want to be convinced that you will be able to do the things they hope you will do in the position you're interested in. The most common way an interviewer would judge that is by looking at your job experience. 'Oh, this person has written R for 3 years in their previous job, it's reasonable to expect they will be able to write it for me too.'

When you're just starting and you don't have experience, you must find a proxy for experience; an operationalization if you will. My proxy was to build a public portfolio of my technical and data analysis work and skills. I created a personal website where I wrote about technical topics, and hosted several projects that I put a lot of effort into on Github. I have enough evidence to know that this work was critical in getting me where I wanted to go, but that was my way. Your way will likely be different than mine, but your goal is the same: accumulate evidence of being good at what you want to be good at.

1.5. In closing

This post included a lot of dry thoughts and recommendations, so let me end on a different note: the best thing you can do for yourself, no matter your goals or interests, is to realize that you can learn anything and get really good at whatever you set your mind to. It's never too late, and the lack of formal training is no deal breaker, and might in fact make things easier. The hardest part is to start, and once you do, the second hardest thing is to keep a schedule of learning and practice.

The second best thing is to recognize the skills you gain from your training in psychology. I already mentioned your knowledge in designing and running experiments, but that's the lowest hanging fruit. You're good at communicating your approach and findings, you're good at collaborating with other researchers on projects and papers, and you have experience working independently and taking a project from a design through implementation and delivery.

Finally, while I think "follow your passion" is a bit too simplistic and unhelpfully vague, there is tremendous value in recognizing what you have fun doing and what you find yourself returning to whenever you get some free time. When thinking about your path forward, look for things that will pay you and let you have fun; fun is important!

If you have any questions about academia or industry, or questions about studying at the University of Waterloo in particular, don't hesitate to get in touch, I'm happy to chat!



Your mileage, as well as the curricula of programs from different universities, may vary.


R is free and cross-platform (works well on Linux, macOS/OSX, and Windows), and has a big, growing community and a massive repository of packages that provide almost any functionality your heart may desire.

Date: 2017-08-22 Tue 00:00

Author: Sherif Soliman

Created: 2024-05-18 Sat 11:05