Science friction burns my fingers.
November 22, 2010 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Where can my career take me except graduate school?

I have a bachelor's degree in cognitive science and three years of job experience as an assistant at a non-medical human research center. I handle all of the more mundane aspects of research: subject recruitment, data collection, analysis, working with project managers, and so on. I really like the variety of tasks, the challenges, the fact that the job matches my education background, and especially the very extensive opportunities for formal and informal education. The pay is OK, and since I work for the state, I will never get a raise.

In many respects, the job is considered to be a stepping stone to grad school. I'm uncertain about applying. Maybe I'm being too tough on myself, but I don't think I have the qualities it takes to take full advantage of a doctorate program at the moment. First and foremost, I have no specific research interests of my own. I'd also hate to go to grad school out of obligation, because "everyone else does it."

Moreover, while I've been with my employer, I've seen few other assistants head in that direction. We are affiliated with the federal government. So, like pretty much every organization in the DC area, we work on government contracts and are entered into the federal clearance process.

As a natural consequence, assistants who receive their clearances quickly move on to work for other organizations where they are paid much more handsomely.

For a variety of reasons, I suspect I may not receive a clearance. This means that I can't look forward to an easy transition to a more lucrative job in the private sector. It also means that it's hard for me to network with former coworkers, who all seemingly work in these positions.

So, the question is, are there other organizations where I can apply my research skills, or is it grad school for me by hook or by crook?

In a nutshell, I have some research admin experience, some experience actually carrying out human performance research, some experience with brain imaging tools and software, some programming experience (mostly analyzing data in Matlab), some practical knowledge of modern stats, and some skills in science writing.

I appreciate suggestions for directions to investigate. Specific suggestions are particularly welcome.
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you like the kind of thing you're doing, there are sometimes similar positions that I see come across listservs for major universities. One benefit to that might be the ability to take classes for free while working, and possibly better pay (although that's perhaps doubtful). Have you considered looking into research-based companies, like the RAND corporation?
posted by bizzyb at 6:27 PM on November 22, 2010

Sounds like you could work in market research. I used to work with people who did customer experience studies for web usability and they also would likely be interested in a background like yours.
posted by phoenixy at 6:36 PM on November 22, 2010

Any reason you can't apply for the clearance and then decide whether to go to grad school if it doesn't go through?
posted by Jahaza at 6:46 PM on November 22, 2010

You would probably be very attractive to several grad programs if it weren't for the part about how you have no research interests of your own. You sound like you have the ideal skill set for grad school, but that doesn't mean you should go, it just means you could if you wanted to. (IAAPhDstudent in psychology). Everyone I've heard of who was not 100% into it in the start has dropped out, fwiw.

What's keeping you from that clearance? If it's some sort of criminal record or whatever, is there something you can do to get it sealed, expunged, etc.? Maybe the mere passage of time would work in your favor?
posted by slow graffiti at 6:48 PM on November 22, 2010

A lot of good software companies hire cognitive psych. people to work on HCI stuff. You will be well-compensated and the work is interesting.
posted by jchaw at 7:05 PM on November 22, 2010

There's definitely people with a similar skillset working in marketing/advertising/public relations. In the last 3 years I've met several people with a scientific and statistical background working at agencies. There is a big demand for people who really know their way around data. Now that the web, and more specifically social media sites, are reaching the general population, there is lots of data floating around the industry, and not many people with the academic background to make sense of it in a usable way. The fact that you have experience in the recruitment/collection end of the process, and understand working with project managers, will make it easy for you to fit into the agency world.

Despite the bad rep the industry gets, it's a really amazing place to be working in right now. If you have any interest in studying the way people interact with machines, the way the filter of social media effects the way humans interact with each other, and the way people people are interacting with emerging media, it might be something enjoyable for you. The pay is generous, and the job usually comes with a lot of perks (travel to places you actually want to visit, free clothes/video games/tickets).

No one will care if you have a graduate degree or a security clearance. It's a whole different world than where you are now, but worth investigating if you thing a career change would work for you.

Good luck.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:11 PM on November 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: bizzyb: This is what my situation is right now. What I am getting paid is actually well in the upper range of salaries for this kind of thing. I'd like to learn more about "research-based companies," but am not sure how to proceed.

phoenixy: Based on what I know, market research, usability studies, and interface design are pretty different things. Two of them take design experience, of which I have none. We do have a division for human-computer interaction where I work, and those people overwhelmingly come from computer science backgrounds.

Jahaza: I did apply for the clearance, it's a condition of my employment. I'd rather have a definite plan rather than waiting and hoping.

slow graffiti: I hope you enjoyed Psychonomics this past weekend, if you went. That's my exact idea of my grad school prospects: I will likely excel in my classwork and then hit a wall when the time comes to produce original research. Based on the DOD's clearance adjudication logs, it's unlikely the passage of time will help in my case. There is no record, I just have panic attacks on lie detector tests.

jchaw: I only have a bachelor's and no specifically HCI background. Will that be a detriment?

EvilPRGuy: How do I start?
posted by Nomyte at 7:15 PM on November 22, 2010

Nomyte: No. That will not be a detriment.
posted by jchaw at 8:35 PM on November 22, 2010

I actually graduated with a degree in psychology with a focus in cognitive psychology a few years ago like yourself. I went to work for the Health department in policy formulation kind of work (involved health literature reviews, preparing policy briefs, etc). It was all right, but of course, it is government and the pay (initially) is not there.

If you're interested in cognitive science, though, a lot of my fellow graduates went on to work in human factors. Road , aviation, rail, and defence agencies all need human factors people. A lot of large corporates apparently hire cognitive psychologists as well (you may need a masters degree to get hired as a human factors psychologist, though).

Have you considered maybe doing a masters degree instead of a PhD? You can do it in psychology or even another entirely different field. I personally decided to go back to school to do engineering (it's random, I know, but it's what I'm actually interested in).

Another idea that I actually considered was getting a job at a pharmaceutical company. My dad, who works in big pharma, actually showed me an ad for an entry level data analysis position at Pfizer that looked like I would be perfect for (and would assume you would as well). Another entry level position is in pharmaceutical sales - you don't have actually have to have a medical/biological science degree to get a job representing, e.g. Pfizer. I understand that's a good way to get in and then you can move up into a more managerial role from there.
posted by strekker at 7:53 AM on November 23, 2010

The usability studies I'm talking about were specifically collecting data on how people interact with web sites--for example, how long did it take them to complete a specific task, what UI paths did they go down to try to accomplish it, where were the points in the design where people got confused and started to click down the wrong path, etc. The people who worked on that part didn't have any design background that I know of, they just recruited participants and collected and analyzed statistics on their behavior, which they then presented to the actual design people.
posted by phoenixy at 8:50 AM on November 23, 2010

(Oh, also correlation between that data and survey data, plus just survey data overall--for example, how did satisfaction ratings with the site differ among people who had different reasons for going to the site, what information did people report looking for but not being able to find, what were the most common reasons to visit the site, that kind of thing.)
posted by phoenixy at 8:57 AM on November 23, 2010

(Okay, last comment: as far as I could tell there was no common background among the analysts other than "knows how to use the web" but a background in stats/data analysis was a plus, as was experience in giving presentations of quantitative data, along with SQL and Access skills and some basic HTML. Only one guy had been a CS major.)
posted by phoenixy at 9:12 AM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think there are three legit ways you could get started towards working in an agency:

1. You could take on some small scale data analysis, with stats already available publicly, and write up a white paper. Once it's written, pass it around to blogs, media and people in the industry. It will give you a chance to show how your skills are useful, without a massive time commitment.

3. Attend some conferences/meetups. Many of the people at these events are friendly, so strike up a conversation, explain your skills, and let them know you're interested in trying out the industry. It wouldn't be unrealistic to think you'd get a couple of preliminary interviews out of it. People with real analytic backgrounds are in demand at agencies right now.

3. Send your resume. Start combing the job listings in Mashable, Media Bistro etc., and I think you'll see some spots where your skills would fit right in.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 8:06 PM on November 23, 2010

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