What do I want to be when I grow up? A question that gets asked throughout childhood still can feel relevant for individuals going through graduate school. There is no single, best career path when pursuing a social and personality psychology graduate degree (check out these past job market reports on academic jobs and jobs outside of academia created by previous SPSP Student Committees). Discerning a potential career path can be difficult and plans can change as students go through their graduate work. The SPSPotlight co-editors interviewed two SPSP graduate student members about their discernment journeys for a post-grad career: Zaviera Panlilio, a rising fifth-year PhD student at University at Buffalo who will be pursuing a career in academia, and Rachel Cultice, a rising fifth-year PhD student at Rutgers University who will be pursuing a career in industry.
When you came into graduate school, what were your expected career goals?
Zaviera: [When I started graduate school], I wanted to have my own lab and teach at the university level.
Rachel: When I first came into graduate school, my career goals were very clear: I wanted to land a tenure track position and run my own lab. I was really excited by the prospect of mentoring graduate students, developing my research program, and teaching.
Have these goals changed throughout graduate school? If so, how have these changes made you feel?
Zaviera: Not at all. If anything, the lack of diversity has helped solidify the importance of mentorship. I love learning and sharing information—whether it is with my family and friends or through teaching events. A job in academia would pay me to do what I love which involves mentoring, translating research, teaching, and thinking every day.
Rachel: These goals were stable through my first two years of graduate school. During my third year of graduate school, however, I realized that I had skills that were underused and passions that were unfulfilled. For example, I really enjoy working with folks who aren't researchers, and I also enjoy using my creative side to tell stories about my research.
Around this time, I also became the Vice President of Personnel at the Pride Center of NJ, a local non-profit organization. My involvement had nothing to do with research, and I really enjoyed my role as a leader and community organizer. Additionally, a fellow graduate student in my program interned as a user experience (UX) researcher at a major tech company and, upon her return, presented to our department about her experience. I realized that I wanted to give it a try myself. This past summer, I was a UX research intern at Facebook, specifically working for Messenger.
I was initially very guilty about wanting to transition out of academia. I felt bad—almost like a complete failure. But I realized that this is absolutely not the case, nor do my colleagues think this is the case. I have felt so fulfilled and happy as a UX Researcher this summer and I'm excited for what the future holds.
What have been the most influential factors and/or helpful resources as you've navigated this decision?
Zaviera: Despite feeling like an outsider at times as a mixed ethnicity woman of color, it has been these hardships and obstacles that makes me want to stay even more. It solidifies the need to have someone who looks like me, who values unique experiences, who won't go easy on topics that involve race, and who is comfortable being uncomfortable in an academic space.
I have benefitted so much from incredible mentors in my career and I find myself wanting to include the parts of mentorship I liked and add my own experiences to facilitate the careers of other researchers.
Speaking to people who have careers in what I want to do (have established labs at various universities) and also having conversations with people who took private sector jobs [have been the most helpful]. Also, reflecting on what motivates me has been helpful. I have the "research bug." I remember in my first [research] position, I was sealing envelopes to send out to mothers and their children to recruit them for our physiological study. This made me feel like a contributor to science, even this very simple, basic step. I've also cleaned data for hours and felt an incredible sense of accomplishment because I am helping to answer important questions.
Rachel: Other grad students and former academics who have transitioned to UX Research [have helped me the most]. Additional resources include a Facebook group called "PhD to UXR - from academia to UX research," connecting with others on LinkedIn, and just cold-emailing other UX researchers. I've found the community to be really helpful, selfless with their time, and passionate about mentorship.
Do you have any advice for other graduate students who are still trying to figure out what they want to do?
Zaviera: Take some time alone and write down the things you like to do then speak to people in these positions. I initially wanted to be a social worker, but I found out the burnout rate is incredibly high.
For undergraduate students, I recommend not diving into a Ph.D. program until you know you need this degree for the career that you are interested in. Many colleagues of mine in my master’s program did not finished their thesis work, but were still able to get jobs. Also, I recommend thinking about graduate school as a marathon (not a sprint). It may be unnecessary for what you are looking to do.
If you're already a graduate student, I still recommend doing this exercise to better understand what areas you'll want to devote time to with your remaining years in the program. An academic job can differ whether it's at a research or teaching focused school. It can also differ in its demands depending on where in the world it is (Europe, Asian, the States). One thing I think people really forget is that publications are helpful for a private sector or job within academia so making it a priority to create substantive research and following it through from hypothesis to article submission should be a goal, regardless of your career.
Rachel: My advice would be to expose yourself to things outside of your department. Take a course in another discipline, volunteer for an organization outside of your university, apply for internships, etc. We have so much to offer to our communities and these experiences helped me find a path that works for me.
A huge thank you to Zaviera Panlilio and Rachel Cultice for their insights. Responses have been condensed, edited for grammar and clarity, and printed with consent.