An interesting career in psychological science: Strategic consultant at NASA
By Kathryn Keeton
Kathryn E. Keeton
PhD (2008)—Industrial/Organizational Psychology
University of Houston
Innovation & Strategy Coordinator
My career in psychology began when I was an undergraduate. I always knew that I wanted to major in psychology, but wasn’t really sure what I wanted to end up doing. I was interested in criminal psychology but didn’t know if the job demands would be a good fit for me. Then I fortuitously landed a research assistantship with Robert Helmreich, a renowned social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Helmreich pursued research on group behavior in challenging environments and was a leader in defining concepts of teamwork, leadership and group dynamics. Being a part of his lab provided a chance to see how psychological concepts were applied in real world settings in ways that had measurable, positive impacts. Helmreich and his lab worked with airline, medical and aerospace industries and their work was ground-breaking; it was inspiring to be working with such an impressive group of people. From this experience, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology as it would provide a career path that I felt would really make a positive difference in others’ lives.
After my undergraduate years, I went on to complete my doctorate at the University of Houston in I/O psychology. Here too I feel that my experiences were invaluable as my program helped students build a strong foundation in the content of psychological concepts with an equal focus on research and applied aspects of psychology. I know that this strong foundational base serves me today as I still utilize much of what I learned from my program. During graduate school, I also had the opportunity to consult with numerous companies and gain highly relevant, applied experience — thanks to the efforts of my tireless graduate advisor, Christiane Spitzmueller. Because both a master’s thesis and a dissertation were requirements of my program, I also spent a significant amount of time fine-tuning my skills to critically evaluate information, write research proposals, carry out research studies and write full research papers.
With my PhD in hand, I focused on finding work that would have significant and positive impacts within organizations. After a short time in my first position at a hospital in Houston that helped me continue to develop my organizational development skills, I was asked to apply for a position as a contractor with Enterprise Advisory Services Incorporated (EASI) working for the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). At first I was hesitant as the job requirements were heavily focused on research — but after my interviews, I knew that this job would be a great fit for my interests. For four years I managed research on teams (e.g., team selection, composition, training, team performance) for NASA in preparation for long duration spaceflight. NASA’s Human Research Program is developed around mission risk and my job was to identify what kind of research on teams was needed in order to mitigate risks associated with long duration spaceflight. Ultimately, I managed the research that was conducted through grants by expert researchers throughout the United States. These researchers were working to produce deliverables that would help alleviate these risks (e.g., identify selection requirements for a spaceflight team that would work and live together for three years) in order to ensure successful missions to Mars and other distant places. I loved this job not only because it involved research that was having real impact on how long duration missions would be designed, but also because it was a great hybrid of both the operational environment (e.g., actual space missions working with ground controllers, flight surgeons and astronauts) and research (designing future missions based on the results of studies we were carrying out). I also got to work with some amazing people, both expert team researchers as well as those experts that were managing ongoing missions for NASA.
In the past year, I accepted a new position with Wyle to support the establishment of a Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) at NASA. NASA continues to identify new and creative ways to solve problems and has been recognized by the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy for its efforts to pilot many new open innovation platforms for solutions. In this position, I now manage the implementation of an internal virtual platform for the NASA community to crowdsource ideas and solve problems. This virtual platform allows anybody who works for NASA to post problems they are working with and seek answers from other NASA employees across the agency. This type of platform is in support of open innovation and strives to reduce silos within our agency. In addition to managing this internal platform and supporting efforts on behalf of the CoECI, I am also working on a project to help create cultural change within our agency so that individuals are more aware, more accepting and more willing to utilize these open innovation strategies in their jobs on a daily basis. This position has been a great learning experience for me as I get to work with colleagues from diverse professional backgrounds; our hybrid team includes information technology professionals, marketing and communication strategists, human factors folks and those from education and business management.
Although working in a governmental agency can have its drawbacks (e.g., dealing with bureaucracy, the slow pace of change, the top-heavy organizational structure), I feel that the pros far outweigh the cons for this type of position. Not only have I had the opportunity to always have challenging, meaningful work, but I have been able to see the positive impacts of this work. I have had opportunity to hone both my research and applied I/O skills, to enjoy a position that still allows me to maintain my work-life balance and to work with some wonderful and immensely interesting and talented people.
As I look back on my experiences, I can offer the following advice:
Follow your interests — my graduate advisor recommended that I pick something I was very interested in when I was selecting my dissertation topic, as it would be something I would have to work on day in and day out for a long time. I think this advice translates to your career as well: follow what you are interested in and what moves you so you will be happy to get up every day and go to work. It makes a big difference to enjoy the work you put such a significant amount of time into on a daily basis.
Be open to unplanned possibilities — I thought that I always wanted to work in an applied aspect for my career, but my first job at NASA exposed me to a hybrid position including both research and applied work, which I enjoyed immensely. Had I never been open to something outside of what I thought my desires were, I would have never accepted this opportunity. Be open to what you don’t know as it may turn out to be just the thing you wanted!
Take your education seriously — every single day as I work with colleagues and am engrossed in my daily tasks, I am more aware of how critical a strong educational foundation is in order to be successful. It’s not worth taking shortcuts in classes or on research papers, in learning how to conduct studies or in learning how to properly analyze data. It’s worth every painstaking minute you invest into building a strong educational base and expanding your expertise and knowledge in as many areas as possible.
Previous Interesting Careers columns
PSA is the monthly e-newsletter of the APA Science Directorate. It is read by psychologists, students, academic administrators, journalists, and policymakers in Congress and federal science agencies. Subscribe here.