Human Factors Expert

Liz Gehr, PhD

Maybe I was different from my graduate school colleagues, but I never saw an academic career as the holy grail of graduate training in psychology. I’m sure this had to do with my not-so-traditional preparation for psychology graduate school in the first place. I never took a psychology course until my junior year of college. I was a double major in physics and electrical engineering — the ideal combination for a lucrative career nowhere near academia. After I took some psychology courses the idea of graduate training in psychology started to appeal to me, so I applied and was accepted into an aging experimental psychology program. I knew that getting a PhD in psychology was geared toward preparing students for an academic career, and I had in the back of my mind that this might not be what I wanted, but I kept my thoughts to myself, and threw myself into grad school. As I approached the end of my training, I started looking for a job — a non-academic job. I turned down a post-doc offer and put myself on the non-academic job market.

Out of three interesting, but very different, offers, I finally accepted one. I chose to work for Sprint, at its headquarters in Overland Park, KS. My highly descriptive job title was member of technical staff III, a holdover from the AT&T telecom monopoly days. My job duties were to be quite varied but within an interesting group that I was eager to meet. The members of the group lived up to my expectations. My group consisted of highly educated, intelligent people with very diverse backgrounds — more diverse than I had found in an academic department at a university. There were a number of PhDs, in fields like ceramics, electrical engineering, and chemistry. The group’s mission was to take a very long-term view of the network and try to figure out where it would be in 3 to 5 years.

I was the only group member with any background in psychology. I was to be the human factors subject matter expert, which was an area sorely in need of help. Often, this consisted of simply providing a different perspective on the problem, as most of my colleagues were engineers. However, after I began, my duties quickly expanded to include other areas. I started helping to coordinate our sponsored university research, going to the universities to understand the research they were doing, and trying to figure out what parts were relevant to our business. I would then present the information I had gathered to my colleagues, who could follow through with specific researchers at the university. I enjoyed always being aware of the results of cutting edge research, without actually having to do all of the work!

While I was at Sprint I also took on some responsibilities when I saw a need that was not being filled, and I thought I had the right background to fill it. For example, like any large corporation, employees had to fill out many different surveys and questionnaires on everything from employee satisfaction to customer focus. While my training was not in survey design, from my knowledge of general research design and analysis I knew that because of the badly written survey questions, the data that the survey makers would get would not be meaningful. So I took it upon myself to learn all I could about survey design. I ordered and read some books, and took a seminar at a conference I attended. After some preparation, I was able to market myself within the corporation as a knowledgeable source to help in survey design and analysis. I also took it upon myself to look for other people at Sprint doing similar work. I found two small groups of people, both on the PCS (wireless) side and was able to work with them on some small projects.

That was the positive part of my non-academic career in Psychology. The bad side was the economy. I joined Sprint in June 2001, and the economy only went downhill after that. We started having rounds of layoffs, which made going to work very stressful. I survived three rounds, during which the size of our group continued to dwindle, and many good people had to leave. The focus of the group kept changing, and finally they decided they couldn’t have any “extras” like human factors, and I got tapped to leave in the fourth round. By then the tone and focus of the group was completely different from when I had first joined, and I had to agree I was not a good fit anymore. It was difficult to lose a job and leave the good friends I had made there.

However, my next endeavor will be working for Boeing as a contractor at an air force research lab in Mesa, Ariz. I continue to be surprised by the number and variety of possibilities that exist for a person with training in experimental psychology.

(Originally published in the October 2003 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)