This is the first article in a new series, Careers in Behavioral Health, where we’ll be interviewing professionals in the field about their educational and job experiences.
Our first professional is Jeff Doering, a behavioral scientist and part-time Ph.D. student from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Here are the questions we asked Jeff.
How did you decide on your career path?
In short, lots of trial and error!
The career I have is very nontraditional; I work as a behavioral scientist for a large retailer. It has even led me back to school in a more applied and technology-focused program.
When I first began grad school, I intended to complete my MA and PhD together and then pursue a career in academia. However, after completing my MA, I realized that the academic life was not for me.
I have always enjoyed psychology, especially beyond its clinical applications, but figuring out exactly where to apply myself took some work. I had always had an interest in business, organizations, and consumer psychology, and I had always leaned towards a more applied focus in research. I did a lot of research regarding careers in psychology in business and had to figure out how to best marry my interests with my skills that others would find most useful.
What made you choose the graduate program you attended?
I was working as a research assistant and completing my undergraduate degree when my research advisor asked if I would be interested in pursuing graduate training with him as well.
Throughout the next year, I considered a lot of different programs, but I only ended up applying to one – with the same advisor. We had started along a line of research that I was enjoying and that I wanted to continue. The university I attended had a strong reputation for psychological research, especially in cognitive science (my area), so that was a supporting factor as well, though it was really the personal relationship that drove my decision.
What surprised you the most when you started your graduate program?
The task list.
Upon beginning my MA, I knew the core requirements of the degree program well. However, I quickly realized that many – if not most – grad students spend a lot of their time on items that are not part of their core degree requirements.
Aside from my thesis and coursework, I worked as a research assistant, a teaching assistant, served on several student committees, sat on various departmental committees, attended conferences and talks, prepared extra research for publications, and volunteered at university events. I think this is typical for a lot of grad students. This breadth is an important aspect of your training, though it should never trump your core research.
How did you decide on your specialty?
This is a tough question, though I think I landed in my field partly as a function of my own interests and partly as a function of where others led me. Like many students, a good professor (or two) piqued my interest in my area.
That being said, it likely was not too difficult to pique my interest in cognitive science. I have always been fascinated by people and behaviour, and I have always been a technically-oriented person as well, so cognitive science was a good fit for me.
If you’re wondering which direction to take, be sure to play on your own strengths, but never underestimate the impact of a strong mentor.
What do you like most about your chosen field / job?
The tools I have available to work with.
The company I work for has state-of-the-art computers built for processing large amounts of data simultaneously – and a lot of data to work with. When research questions are posited to my group, we usually have more than enough data and tools at our disposal to answer those questions.
What do you like least about your chosen field / job?
There is definitely a knowledge gap in terms of a general understanding of the field of psychology. I think this applies regardless of whether you’re a clinical psychologist, social psychologist, cognitive psychologist, or in any other psych-related specialty. I often have to work hard to correct misperceptions as to what I do.
What was it like finding a postgraduate position / job?
This was a very stressful process. I applied for many jobs, and I even turned down a couple of positions before finding one that was a good fit. When searching for a position, I learned that it was very important to find a good manager and team, because those people will have a dramatic impact on your day.
Consider taking a job that isn’t otherwise perfect if your prospective manager and team are great, and turn down roles that look perfect – but come with a manager with whom your personality will clash.
Describe a typical day at work for you.
30% meetings. 10% learning and development. 60% project-based work. After work each day, a few hours of coursework and thesis-based work. Generally speaking, I use large amounts of data to try to identify patterns in consumer behaviour.
How many hours do you work per week?
I have a regular 9-5, Monday-Friday position. However, I’m also completing a PhD part-time. My total work/school commitment is roughly 50-60 hours per week.
Is there anything you wish you had known before you decided on a career in your chosen field?
It would have been beneficial to have had more training and focus on applied skills and business concepts. Learning skills like basic project management, how to write effective proposals for a business-focused audience (very different than an academic audience), and a broader range of knowledge around different statistical techniques would have been helpful prior to entering the workforce.
What do you feel is the biggest problem in your field today?
It is unfortunate to see that we do not have more social scientists in the private sector.
More modern and progressive businesses are beginning to see the benefit, as are many technology-focused companies, but there are many who do not understand the power of social science to inform and shape experiences in positive ways.
How do you see your field changing in the next 10 years?
Technology is having a sizeable impact on social science-researchers; it is providing new methods of analysis and new sources of data. I imagine that in the next few years, more of that new research capacity will be utilized by a larger number of researchers.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Travelling, camping, skiing, and motorcycles!
What advice would you give students pursuing a career in your field?
My field is relatively small, and there isn’t a predefined school program for it, so I definitely recommend speaking with someone working in the field before entering. It’s difficult to get a good feel for the day-to-day work otherwise. Make sure it is for you!