Twists and turns from Wales to Canada

Tracey Herlihey on the importance of persistence and networking in finding that ‘dream job'.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s such a simple question, one that you have likely been asked or asked others countless times.

If you had asked 11-year-old Tracey this question, she would have told you she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up. 14-year-old Tracey wanted to be a lawyer. 16-year-old Tracey wanted to be a forensic scientist. But 16-year-old Tracey didn’t select the appropriate options at A-level, so 18-year-old Tracey wanted to be a forensic psychologist. You might have noticed a theme in what I aspired to be, so you might be surprised to hear that 31-year-old Tracey from Cheshire is a Human Factors Specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada.

So how did I get here? What got me interested in psychology? And, did I ever grow up?

I first considered psychology when I was selecting my A-level courses at college. I remember going to the open evening and picking up a purple leaflet with one of those black clip-art stick figures that were so popular back in the late 1990s. The stick man was scratching his head and the text next to him read – ‘Why do people think they’re teapots?’ I didn’t know, but it was enough to make me want to find out. As it turned out, I still don’t know why people think they’re teapots, but I know a lot more about other stuff that I find to be just as interesting.

When selecting universities I was set on studying forensic psychology, but based on very good advice from my college tutor I decided to pursue a more general degree and specialise later on. I was excited to be accepted at Cardiff University for their Applied Psychology ‘sandwich’ degree (now renamed to ‘degree with professional placement’). My plan was to spend the additional year working overseas in a forensic psychology placement. Forensic placements were coveted (and still are!). I reached out to potential supervisors overseas without any luck. While I was excited to be offered a forensic placement not far from Cardiff, I had to make the decision between my passion for forensics and my desire to spend time overseas. Overseas won.

I applied to a number of different types of placements and was offered an occupational psychology placement in Australia and a research assistant position at York University in Toronto, Canada. The position in Canada offered a monthly stipend, so I opted for the research position so I could afford to come home for Christmas. Little did I know that this seemingly flippant decision would go on to have the biggest impact on my career.

I finished my ‘sandwich’ year at the Centre for Vision Research in Toronto. I enjoyed the research and so upon returning to Cardiff for the final year of my undergrad I opted to pursue a PhD. I had hoped to pursue my PhD in Canada (to return to my boyfriend, now husband), but unfortunately that wasn’t meant to be (since my international applications were unsuccessful). Instead, I stayed in Cardiff and spent three fun years investigating the visual guidance of walking. After finishing my PhD I emigrated to Canada. I had spent the last year of my PhD frantically writing, collecting data and applying for postdoctoral fellowships that would enable me to return to Toronto. I hadn’t really considered other career options at this point. A postdoctoral fellowship seemed like the next logical thing to do. I landed myself a fellowship in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto. This was quite the switch from my visual guidance of walking work, but it allowed me to continue with some patient research I had been trying to do on the side during my PhD.  

As the end of my two-year fellowship approached I found myself asking the same question – what did I want to be? At this point, I knew three things:
(1) I wanted my PhD to be recognised; (2) I did not want to go back to school, and (3) I wanted to stay in Toronto.

I considered a number of different career options and spent many months conducting informational interviews, attending networking events and skills workshops, joining ‘Meetup’ groups and sending out applications. I considered careers in academia (why not? It’s the next logical step), teaching (I had always enjoyed teaching during my PhD and then as a sessional instructor during my postdoc), management consulting (make lots of money), marketing or market research (what do you do with a PhD in psychology?), and project management (ditto).

I interviewed at worldwide management consulting firms and multinational technology corporations. Most interviews (and there weren’t very many) were unsuccessful, some were, but there was often a roadblock (e.g. funding cuts) at the last hurdle, or timing issues (I was unwilling to move at the time I was offered a position). I was frustrated by the lack of recognition of the skillset I had developed over the course of my PhD and postdoctoral training. Many positions requested work experience but did not recognise the additional years spent in academia as such.

While attending a project management workshop I met a fellow Psych PhD and we got talking/ranting about the move from academia to industry. This is how I learned about the world of user experience (UX) research and a grant designed to help academics make the transition to industry. This impromptu conversation was a real turning point for me. I started to look into UX roles and applied for the grant (offered by Mitacs, an agency funded by the Canadian government). I landed myself a six-month fellowship that contributed to my salary at a small start-up UX firm. During my fellowship I took on a second sessional instructor role teaching psychology and design. The goal was to build on my skills learned in my new UX design role as well as continuing to expand my skillset as a teacher. Once my six months were up I was ready to move on. I had enjoyed my first step into industry, but realised that UX was not for me.

At this point I had learned that I loved applying psychology. The part of my UX role I enjoyed the most was collecting and analysing research data and, based on what we know about people, making recommendations on how to improve the usability of products. The part I did not enjoy was the lack of impact: projects included improving a website that tracked parcels and restructuring a professional services firm’s intranet to make things easier to find (yawn!). And so I found myself pondering again… what did I want to be?

I had been attending seminars hosted by the Human Factors Interest Group at the University of Toronto for some time and had recently attended a ‘careers’ luncheon. This is where I learned about my current company. I e-mailed one of the managers directly and asked for an informational interview. I wanted to learn whether my skillset would be appropriate and what I could do to improve my chances of moving into the field of human factors (I had previously been told I would have to complete a master’s degree in human factors if I wanted to move into that field). The phone call went well, but the company had recently hired a number of summer students and a full-time employee so wouldn’t be looking for new employees in the near future. This was in April 2013. In May I received a message through LinkedIn asking if I would be interested in interviewing. I started my role as a Human Factors Specialist in July.

Why the long story? I hope it highlighted that there are many twists and turns in figuring out ‘what you want to be when you grow up’. There are often many failed applications hiding in the shadows of successful ones, but these are often not talked about. I hope it provides some inspiration and shows that there is light at the end of the career search tunnel. Each time I hit a roadblock, time spent reaching the block was not time wasted. Failed interviews were great practice. Poor career choices helped me figure out exactly what I did not want to do and what I enjoyed doing. Informational interviews helped me make some great contacts and perfect my résumé. I certainly hope that outlining the road to my current career provides some motivation to keep trying and adapting, because eventually you will find something that fits.

If I were to offer some advice it would be to network, network and network some more. I didn’t get my current job because I applied to a posting on the company’s website. The same goes for my previous job and my postdoc before that. If networking in person isn’t your thing, I get it, it isn’t mine either. I did this a few times and it didn’t work for me, so I did one-on-one informational interviews instead. These worked much better. People were helpful; I found if they couldn’t help me themselves, they would point me in the direction of someone they knew who they thought could.  

Don’t expect to find your dream job immediately. As you gain experience you will learn more about yourself, your interests, and your talents. From there your idea of your ‘dream job’ will evolve with you. And, when you finally do find a role that fits you, be prepared to give back and help others as I’m sure many will help you along your way.

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