I grew up in an engineer’s household in the Silicon Valley, always knowing my career would take me into tech. Along the way, I poked around hardware engineering, coding, graphic arts, and a few other related disciplines before finding my home in the psychology of human computer interaction.
I’ve done stints at advanced R&D labs, helped launch products worth billions of dollars in monthly revenue, and along the way conducted hundreds of interviews with students and professionals like, I presume, you.
So here’s some advice to help you start out your career.
You’re not married to a title, funding source, career path, or work domain.
High performing students often ask whether they should go into academia, or whether their research is relevant to high tech. The former is a very personal question — get multiple opinions and don’t be deterred if you happen to have an opinionated mentor — but the latter is an exercise in branding and your ability to make connections between your knowledge and the needs of those around you.
Rebrand yourself as a user researcher, figure out why your work is important, and focus on ways to add value immediately at several times your salary per year.
Come to the Valley and intern here.
Silicon Valley internships are often better paid, perk’ed, and perceived than those elsewhere. This is especially true of household name companies, and remains true even if your current professor doesn’t think so.
Bear in mind that you may be expected to do simple usability studies at first and have to prove the value of your other methodologies. This is the challenge of bringing a new field into an industry.
Also, ask whether the company will pay relocation for internships.
Have a research portfolio.
Produce a portfolio of work and make it available online. Link to it in your resume. Your interviewer may not always read it ahead of time, but pointing to a URL during a phone interview and making your explanations multi-modal can make all the difference.
No, really though, have a research portfolio. In the tech industry, we’d want to not only see actual projects you’ve worked on, but also short, compelling samples of reports. Charts, diagrams, etc. are very good. If you’re low on examples, show us how you would go about understanding or improving some products based on data you have collected, or would collect. You may have to give a job talk, anyhow, so be prepared.
If that didn’t convince you, here’s a secret: A list of publications with links to some conference articles doesn’t tell me as much as you think it does. It’s hard to tell what your co-authors contributed — should I be hiring you, or your professor?
Conference publications are also horrible, terrible pieces of communication design, and the skills needed to take an interesting piece of work and murder it into APA style are exactly the opposite of the skills needed to stop a bad product launch, or change the world.
Make resumes skimmable and relevant.
Start your resume with a skills section that includes methodologies you’re good at, including any stats background. One page resumes are best, but don’t be afraid to go into 2 pages, provided you’re telling me something important. CV’s are fine, as long as they’re not more than a few pages. This is usually not a problem for students.
If you’re applying for very different types of companies, you’d be silly to send them all identical resumes. So don’t do that.
And if you were making a product, you’d either be an expert in that vertical, or you’d test it with people who are. So test that resume before submitting it, please. Carry it around conferences, and hand people red pens to mark it up.
Have a track record.
Consider submitting to professional conferences, contests, or other work that shows you’ve been active as a student.
One of the things I look for in new grads is a connection to faculty. So consider doing activities that make it easy for us to tell that the faculty would endorse you.
Shared authorship, for example, gets big points so long as I also get a sense for your contribution.
Take the hint.
I’m happy to give advice about typical internship processes to high performing human factors graduate students. Ping me @lrprada on Twitter.
This is how to think about salary.
Congratulations, you got offers. But which is best, and how much negotiation room do you have?
Here’s a handy equation to help you track job offers.
Total compensation = Quality of co-workers and corp culture + quality of work domain + social impact + quality of work resources (red tape, facilities, conferences, etc.) + work/life balance + mentorship opportunities + location + spouse opportunities + base salary + stock options + restricted stock units + stock purchasing plans + performance bonuses + company bonuses + company growth projections + taxes/cost of living + retirement matching (and loan availability) + company stability + major benefits (insurances, etc) + perks (onsite amenities, educational programs, etc)
My point: There’s a lot more to compensation than a single number. Some of the most successful new grads have traded off immediate paychecks for intangible payments, like experience. If you do make a trade-off, have a plan for when to reconsider it.
Say thank you.
Following up after an interview helps. I’ve met hiring managers who use this as a test of courtesy. And I’ve personally reversed a hiring rejection after a candidate followed up with a better answer to a botched interview.
For the record, I only included this piece of feedback because it might help you with other folks. Personally, think it’s excessive to expect thank you notes. (But I’m human, so it probably does affect me on some level.)
I do three interviews every single week, provide my feedback, and move on. So please don’t feel obligated follow-up with me personally, or be offended if I’m too crushed with e-mail to respond quickly. If time allowed, I’d have a drink with you. It’s part of being a psychologist.
Learn to accept rejection and don’t burn bridges.
I’m not being a downer. You will get a great job. But great people get rejected for jobs all the time. Someone else might have simply been a better fit. A position might have been lost to a corporate reshuffle. I got rejected a ton, too. And I reject a ton of people, some of whom may become my bosses someday. It’s not personal; it’s situational and it’s transient.
Be polite and move on, or maybe wait a year and try again. In any case, apply to multiple places. Also remember that HCI/HF/UX/UR communities are small, people talk, and nobody likes a jerk. Being smart is important, but being professional is crucial.
If you do bomb an interview, find someone to talk to about it. Even a stranger on Linkedin might agree to 15 min to give advice. Then learn a lesson from it, forgive yourself, and do it all again. This process is called experience, learning, and empiricism.
Regardless of outcome of our chat or interview, I am always truly grateful that people would share their thoughts and aspirations with me, and am astonished when they want to hear mine.
Most importantly: Be useful.
Our beautiful world is broken and desperate for skilled, smart people. Be thoughtful about the projects you take on. Set limits for how long you’ll work on stupid ones. If you’re an applied researcher, really be applied. Learn about technology transfer and business models. Meet your users. Accept that you’ll make mistakes, apologize to those affected, and tell them what you’ll do differently next time.
Figure out how to have impact. Once you have a job, save enough to buy your independence. Go home at a reasonable hour and become a complete person, because having a purpose will channel your creativity and ambition better than having a puzzle or another trinket. Most importantly, be useful.