Finding Your Internal Compass With Asha Dektor, PhD
My students often feel the pressure of having to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It’s a feeling most people can relate to. You’re about to graduate high school, college, graduate school. What now? Society puts a lot of pressure on people to know their path and stick to one path, but not everyone follows one path. I know I didn’t. But how do we know the path that is right for us? Asha Dektor found her way to getting a PhD at Stanford University and the work she loves by being open-minded and open to new opportunities. In this week’s interview, she’ll tell you how being open-minded helped her find her passion for work and how it can help you.
Hi Asha, you’ve lived in some pretty diverse places. Can you tell us about the different places where you grew up?
My father was in the Air Force, so we did a reasonable amount of traveling. I was born in Columbus, Ohio and lived in Aviano, Italy, Oscoda, Michigan, and Warner Robins, Georgia before heading to Macon, Georgia to attend Wesleyan College. I moved to California in 2003 to attend graduate school at Stanford University. I still live in Palo Alto, near the university.
Do you think living in all of those places led you to be open to new experiences, new people, new opportunities? Or if not, then what do you think made you so open-minded to try new things?
When you move to a new place, either inside or outside of the U.S., you have to learn to adapt to a new culture and figure out where you fit in. The transition can be difficult if you are too stuck in your ways. Being creative and figuring out how to nurture your interests in a novel setting can be a really valuable tool.
How has being open-minded and saying yes to opportunities helped you find your calling in work and life? Tell us about some examples in your life and how you got to each one.
As I came closer to graduating from my Ph.D. program, I had the revelation that I did not want to follow the path into academia that I had been training for for so many years. I was surprised to find out how many options there were for psychologists outside of the college campus. My background lent itself to opportunities in areas ranging from marketing research to aircraft cockpit display design.
Having focused on my narrow dissertation topic for so long, the main challenge was determining which of these new areas would be a good fit for me. This exploration required taking a step back and identifying what I enjoyed most about my discipline and what I wanted to continue to pursue despite the shift from academia. My first step was meeting with research psychologists who had taken non-academic career paths. Much like moving to a new place, I approached each meeting with the goal of identifying the similarities between my background and the new area, rather than focusing on the, often more obvious, differences.
After many phone interviews and coffee chats, it was time to decide where to send my resume. To help with this decision, I asked myself why I wanted to pursue a career in psychology in the first place. I revisited my introduction into cognitive psychology and realized that I grew to love the field because of the exciting puzzle of figuring out why people behave the way they behave, even against their best intentions. With this broad description, I realized that there were few jobs that did not have the potential to be a good fit!
Over the past 6 years, I found opportunities (internships, contract positions, and full-time positions) in marketing research, design research for aerospace and astronautics, design research for mobile applications pertaining to health and wearable devices, and human factors consulting regarding product safety. Entering each new role was novel and often intimidating. However, as time would pass, I would become more comfortable and learn to love a new application of psychology that I’d never experienced. For example, I ran my first user study at NASA Ames Research Center and have been running them in every job that followed. The important thing for me was to always take time to reflect. What is my favorite thing about this position? If there is a need to move on to the next new things, what did I learn during this position to I want to make sure I take with me?
In line with openness to new experiences, I am currently working in human factors consulting. As a fun happy ending, I now make my living applying my background to a diversity of issues and questions posed by clients.
Do you think being open to new experiences and new ideas is a quality that anyone can gain? Is it nature or nurture?
That is a tough question. I have met people who find their passion early on and don’t have a need for exploration. Would they fair well in a new context? Who knows, but if they are happy where they are, there is no real need to figure that out.
For those of us who do need to step out of our comfort zones, in the least, I believe we are equipped with the ability to try something new. Many factors can play into whether or not the experience generates drive and excitement once we enter into a new environment.
What have you learned about yourself along your journey with all of the different things you’ve done?
I have learned that I can provide value in different contexts and that I perform the best when I work hard without being too hard on myself.
What advice would you give to other people who are trying to find their next position in work, or a position to have for life? These could be students who are graduating and aren’t sure what to do, people who have been working but are looking for a change, or people who have never found their passion and want to know where to look.
Relax. Sometimes when a very specific path that we’ve laid out for ourselves doesn’t play out as expected, it is easy to panic. Taking a step back and keeping an open mind can help us see that there are often many paths to pursuing our broad interests. I have been able to explore various work contexts and research questions without having to abandon my genuine love for understanding human behavior.