Cognitive Neuroscience PhD to Design Researcher at Microsoft | Interview with Alaina Talboy, PhD

From Cognitive Neuroscience to Design Research:

This is a partial transcription of the full conversation in the video above.

Chris: Let’s Start with you in academia. Because that’s kind of where we all start. Right?

Alaina: And that was, oh, nine years ago at this point that I started my graduate journey. So, I am actually one of the few people that went for a master’s degree first and then transferred somewhere else for a PhD, which is not the most common route to take.

But in psychology, there are so many different fields that you can go into. There is you know, IO psychology, cognitive psychology (where I ended up), there’s counseling. . .

There’s all these other places, so I wanted to make sure I was picking the path I actually wanted to go down. So, I did my master’s. I finished it up in two years from the University of West Florida. And then I got accepted to the University of South Florida in the Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology Track. So, I spent five years or six years there.

I did my PhD and then and, it was literally a week after I had defended my dissertation. I got an offer to come to Microsoft. Here I am.

I think the best piece of advice I ever had going into academia was from my first adviser who said, “Hey, treat this like your job. At the end of this Masters degree, you should have two publications, one for every year you’re in grad school. And if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be looking at tenure track positions.”

And I took that advice to heart. And I actually graduated with nine publications.

Chris: That’s amazing. And you didn’t even have the down-time that a lot of us do have in between, you know? And it’s interesting that your supervisor was so pivotal in that, because so many supervisors don’t have these conversations, even about academic roles, and definitely not about non-academic roles.

So, were you thinking industry right from the beginning, or were you kind of interested in the academic road?

It’s funny, I actually went back and forth myself many, many times. And in the end, I had actually decided on academia and I had interviewed a bunch of different universities for tenure-track positions.

And it was really the interview at Rutgers that was like, “Oh, I could have my own lab. I could be doing research all day. I would only teach one class a semester.” But in the end, the offer that I got did not match that aspirational tenure-track dream. And so I ended up having to turn it down and switch gears.

At the time, it was heartbreaking. And it broke my heart because when you leave academia, you know, you can’t go back. I think that that’s the hardest part that academics have to really fight through is, you know, shutting that door and accepting that that’s not your future path that you train for for eight years.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. It’s such a loss of identity. And I think it’s interesting, too. I’ve talked to people who have left at different stages and the degree. I never had a tenure-track job offer. I didn’t have an on-campus interview, I didn’t play the game for that long. I left pretty quick. But I did try. I did send out a bunch of applications and I talked to people in my shoes who kind of did that, just never even got a sniff of an academic job. And they feel like failures because they weren’t even good enough to get that sniff, you know, like that interest.

Alaina: And it’s just so heartbreaking. Like, I just want to hug them and be like, “No, it’s a flooded market with a broken system.”

Chris: I know. I know. And then right up to people who have turned down tenure-track jobs and even people have left tenure-track jobs and said, “We got the dream job.” Everybody around them was saying, like, you should be happy. This is exactly what everyone wants and realize, realizing that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

So how did Microsoft into the equation like was it something you had been looking at for a long time or was it sort of out of the blue?

Alaina: It’s interesting, so that the tenure offer I got was in Alabama and I was actually on the second site visit, you know, deciding how to lay out the lab, how it would look, what equipment it would have. I was doing that whole meeting and actually getting into conversations about how much money I would need for startup funds to do that.

And I woke up in the middle of the night and on the last day of that trip and was just like, “I can’t I can’t see myself living here. I can’t see myself in this group. I can’t like visualizing that in the future it would have for my family, living there was not congruent with what I thought.”

So actually, it was like 3:00 in the morning I hopped on LinkedIn and started applying. And I think I applied to like 20 jobs or something like that before my partner woke up and was like, “Come back to bed now.” And I had sent off that resumé that I had posted in the thread on the Roostervane community that you set up.

And it was two days later that I got the job offer…

Partial Transcription...

This is a partial transcript of the full interview. To see the rest, including some fantastic advice for those trying to adapt their skills to the non-academic marketplace, watch the video above! To read more of Alaina’s advice for leaving academia, check out the article she wrote for the Microsoft blog here.

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