October 2021 Alumni Career Story: Dr. Katherine Wainwright at Google: Once A Researcher Always A Researcher

October 7, 2021
Graduate and Postdoctoral Success

Dr. Katherine Wainwright

Dr. Katherine Wainwright

You’ve got a minute or 350 words to give us your elevator pitch. Who are you? What are you all about?

Hi! I’m Katie. I’m a User Experience Researcher (UXR) at Google. I help make Google products better for people with disabilities. For 2.5 years I worked on Chrome OS to improve existing accessibility features and build new features, but now I work on a horizontal team and partner with all Google products to improve accessibility. I also manage a small but growing team. It’s a lot of fun! I love talking to people and learning about their needs and then helping steer products in the right direction to make them easier and more intuitive for all people. It’s exciting to see the changes I suggest show up in a product.

I’m a mixed-methods researcher which means I use both qualitative (e.g., interviews, usability testing) and quantitative methods (e.g., surveys). I have a BA in Math and Psychology and a PhD in Psychology. All of my research in undergrad and graduate school revolved around behavioral decision making to understand why people make the choices they do, both the good and less-good choices. Being a mixed-methods UXR is the best of all the things I love; using data to understand behavior and decision making and then weaving in qualitative methods to tell a cohesive story about user’s needs. Every day at work is different, every project I do is solving a different question, and I’m surrounded by really smart people; all of which keeps me engaged and interested.

Outside of work, I am a proud dog mom to a Very Good Boy named Fletcher, a creme retriever. I live with my partner in Colorado and we’re often out hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, and trying to find wildlife.

Did you ever think about quitting graduate school? What kept you going? Or why did you decide to leave?

I did quit grad school! I was in a Clinical Psychology PhD program before coming to UTSA where I worked with people with dementia and their family caregivers doing behavioral problem solving to keep them in their homes longer. I’ve always loved research and at the time, I thought the only way to do behavioral research in “the real world” (read: not academics) was through clinical work. I loved some aspects of the program, like working with people with dementia, but ultimately I wasn’t getting to do research, the classes were so abstract and theoretical that I felt like I wasn’t learning anything practical, and I dreaded the thought of seeing therapy clients and even worse, doing the required clinical internship where I’d do therapy all day everyday for a full year. It just wasn’t a good fit for me overall. So after 3 years of feeling unhappy, I took an optional route to write a MA thesis then left. It was scary. My parents seemed disappointed, because I don’t think they realized how unhappy I was. The person I was dating at the time was worried. My advisor, who I had a poor relationship with, was upset and tried to force me to stay. That all left me feeling like I was jumping off a cliff without support and without knowing where I’d land, which was terrifying. I’d known since before high school that I wanted a PhD, but I was suddenly not sure if that goal was the right goal anymore. Most people in grad school are goal oriented, and it can be hard to recognize, accept, and act when a goal is no longer right for you. It took a lot of bravery to admit that the path I was on wasn’t for me, even though I didn’t know what to do next.

I took a year off to work at an animal shelter, hike the PCT, and travel - I felt wayward the entire time and occasionally a sense of shame because my sense of worth had been tied to my productivity and achievements for so long, but it was my first real break from 7 straight years of intense academics (4 years BA, 3 years MA) and I started to feel happy again. I applied to some data analysis jobs and was ready to accept a position that sounded interesting enough, when my undergraduate advisor sent me a blurb about a new PhD program at UTSA where I could focus 100% on research. The experience I had at UTSA was remarkably different from my first PhD program; I was constantly doing research, taking interesting classes, and getting to teach undergraduate courses. I learned a lot about research methods, communication, and project management that were all important transferable skills to my current role as a User Experience Researcher. Quitting grad school was a great choice for me, and I’m glad I found a better program for my needs!

How did you transition from academic training into the workforce? What were the most important things you needed to learn that you didn’t get in your graduate school training?

I wasn’t sure for a long time if I wanted to stay in academics or go into industry. For academics, I loved teaching, the intellectual freedom of controlling my own line of research, and the flexible academic schedule. I hated the thought of “soft money” (relying on grants for part of my income) and I think the journal publication model is intensely broken. It felt like I spent a lot of time alone in my office writing papers only for it to be published with the hopes of a couple other people reading my super niche topic; it wasn’t the speed or the impact I wanted from research. Industry seemed the complete opposite from academics in both the pros and cons; I loved the fast paced nature, the thought of seeing my research inform decisions, and the pay. I was worried about being told what projects to do and that I’d have to show up 9am-5pm without any flexibility. I ultimately went the route of industry, which I do not regret at all. I get all the perks of industry that I was looking forward to and none of the concerns I was worried about. I find ways to teach within my company, I have a flexible schedule, and while I occasionally have to do assigned projects, I also have a lot of freedom to identify projects that I think are important as long as they help the business.

To make the leap to industry, I applied to a ton of entry level jobs and internships in everything related to behavioral research (e.g., user research, consumer research, marketing). I spent a lot of time reading job postings to learn the language of industry so that I could write my resume to highlight my transferable skills. In my PhD, I conducted research, presented at poster sessions, applied for grants, and taught undergraduate classes. Said in a different way, I took projects from research questions to findings and recommendations, communicated with people outside of my field, convinced others of the value of my research, juggled multiple projects at once, and met the needs of my “stakeholders” (e.g., my advisor). Learning how to frame my work in a way that someone from industry would relate to was half the battle. When you’re surrounded by other people in your graduate program for multiple years, it can be easy to forget that you know a lot, because everyone around you knows the same things. When you go to industry, those transferable skills are rare and highly valued - you just need to learn how to talk about them. I also spent some time reading about research methods that I didn’t learn in school (e.g., usability testing) so that I could confidently talk my way through an interview even though I had never used those methods in real life.

I ended up getting two offers: a 3 month research internship at Google and an entry level fulltime research job at a men’s clothing company. I went with Google and it was a great experience. I learned a lot about how to communicate research with cross-functional partners like designers, software engineers, and product managers - which is very different than academic research presentations. I learned that there’s much more to research than just writing up your findings in a paper; if you don’t have buy-in from anyone on your team then your research doesn’t have impact and you might as well not have done the project at all. Unlike academics, projects for the sake of knowledge alone, without recommendations for action, aren’t necessarily useful. A lot more time is spent showing your work to others and convincing them why they should care about your findings and use your recommendations to change product decisions. I also learned a lot about how to advertise and brand myself. In graduate school, everyone around me was an expert in behavioral research. In industry, I had to learn how to tell people that I was an expert so that they would trust me and come to me with their research needs.

After my internship, I applied for full time positions, leveraging the internship experience along with my graduate degree and found several good fits, ultimately winding up back at Google where I’ve been for almost 3 years.