Who are some SFU Cognitive Science graduates?

Rahul Bader started at SFU in 2002 and graduated in 2008. He achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music

"Here was a program that offered a platform for varying thinkers to be faced with the same questions about the mind and learning, and tackle them from their unique perspective."

Q. What attracted you to the COGS Program?

A. Being that SFU's Cognitive Science Program offered courses in Psychology, Philosophy, Linguistics and Computing Science, I knew that I would be given the chance to explore my fascination with the mind from a variety of lenses. The program seemed inclusive enough to open doors to disciplines that, for a long time, only allowed for one type of thinker. Here was a program that offered a platform for varying thinkers to be faced with the same questions about the mind and learning, and tackle them from their unique perspective. I was attracted as to how the result of that interaction would lead to a more holistic and well-rounded view of the mind.

Q. Where is the intersection between music and cognitive science?

A. Appreciation of music, I would consider to be one of the defining features of humans the world over. It is as though our brains are wired to reap the benefits of listening and interacting with music in all its diverse forms -- whether that means listening on the couch, composing on staff paper, or dancing in a club. Thus, in examining the nature of the mind, one must ask why music has evolved alongside it, and continues to do so in almost every culture throughout the world. The obvious connections are in the way of language, and how music and language both share commonalities like prosody, phrasing, rhythm and timing. Lyrics give literal meaning to a musical phrase, prosody gives emotional content to a sequence of words. Without this constant interplay between musical and language based elements, the world of expression would be fairly dry and monotone. My particular interest is in how the brain coordinates and interprets multiple rhythmic cues, and the classification of musical rhythms according to culture.

Ken MacAllister worked as a consultant involved in designing and managing in-house company training projects for 10 years prior to starting his BA in Cognitive Science at SFU. He later pursued an MA in Educational Technology & Learning Design at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT)

My #1 piece of career advice is follow your bliss... look at what it is you love to do, and find someone to pay you for it.’

Q. Hi Ken, what made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. I wanted to get into Educational Psychology, specifically an Educational Technology MA program.  There weren’t any undergrad courses offering this, so I had to get my bachelor’s degree first.  My interests are so broad.  I thought about getting a BSc, but it seemed too focused.  I met with Dr. Phil Winne. He suggested a BA in Cognitive Science because there is so much flexibility in what courses you take.  I already loved the topics, so this was best format for me. Linguistics on its own, or Psychology on its own, wouldn’t have been enough.

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. Yes.  I was in some cases pleasantly surprised how much my thinking changed taking certain courses, specifically Cognitive Science and Psychology. Unlike most students I wasn’t coming straight from high school.  I had been self-employed for fifteen years; I had somewhat more of a cynical view of a Bachelors degree.  I felt that based on my work experience I should have been able to jump straight into a Masters program.  I thought it [a bachelors degree] was going to be a waiting period before starting my MA.  That is why I was pleasantly surprised by the courses I took, the people I met, and the challenges I overcame.  In retrospect it was definitely worth doing. 

Q. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. Yes.  I wanted do a MA in Educational Technology for the purpose of becoming better at what I was already doing.  Not only that, as a Consultant/Contractor, they [potential clients/employers] look at more than your resume.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked for a lot of big companies, they pay attention to all your credentials.  When you respond you don’t have a degree, they can look at that unfavourably.  In some instances I was beaten out by other candidates, or didn’t get the job because of this.  I knew if I could get a Masters degree, it would give my clients the confidence to know I was well-educated in that field.  So many times I had gotten jobs through word-of-mouth, and networking - not high qualifications.

Q. Overall, how has your Cognitive Science BA fit into your career?

A. Incredibly well, better than I ever could have imagined.  I realized how much of an impact Artificial Intelligence (AI) has on what I do, especially with learning simulators. The best simulators always use AI.  If you are training Air Traffic Controllers, for example, you want to give them the most realistic training scenario possible, where they aren’t risking people’s lives.  AI provides that “real-life” unpredictability student must learn to react to.  AI is also used in Decision Support Systems (DSS). For example, when certain conditions are met in a medical case, a program is run which accurately reports the diagnosis.  This type of analysis would require looking at thousands of cases, and drawing inferences from patterns in the data.  Artificial Intelligence works very quickly and effectively in this instance. 

Q. Tell us about your job search process as a Cognitive Science graduate

A. In terms of the job search that led me to my next job, I had a lot of work experience previously. However, I found that in searching for jobs in my area of interest, there were fourteen advertised positions.  All my searching was done online at Workopolis.com, Monster.com, and the Canadian Job Bank.  I applied to all fourteen, and eight responded that they were interested.  I ended up doing five interviews.  I received five offers, and picked the one most interesting to me.  The whole process was three to four weeks.

Q. How have employers responded to your Cognitive Science degree?

A. I would say for the most part, they had no idea what it was. Only two brought it up – Bycast, and Kodak.  In both cases they wanted to know what Cognitive Science is, why I had a degree in it, and how it applies to education. I explained to them it was Psychology, Computer Science, Philosophy, and Linguistics, and described how it was relevant to my work.

Q. You’ve just started a new job at Bycast… tell us about what you do there. (*note, this interview was done soon after Ken graduated.)

A. In my new job I am in charge of all of the training and education for the company internally and externally.  Bycast produces software which manages mass storage solutions. Their number one customers are IBM and HP, who resell the software in the Medical Imaging industry.  For example, an MRI scan of someone’s body generates a file approximately 10GB in size. This might be happening once an hour in hospitals across the province.  That information must be kept absolutely secure and impervious to natural disaster.  Our software accomplishes this using striping, redundancy, and other advanced techniques.  I train Service Technicians at client companies, and internally I train Software developers, Technical Support, and Sales People.  I love it, it has a creative aspect, a social aspect, and an intellectual aspect.  Also at our company there’s unlimited beverages, and flexi-hours, where employees can tailor their work schedule depending how they like. 

Q. Ken, I’m sure you’ve been able to use your Cognitive Science skills directly in a work situation, do you have any good stories around that?

A. Prior to designing training for a client, I do what is called a Learning Needs Analysis.  The types of questions I ask during this phase have a large effect on how I design my training.  It’s common for people in the industry to look at prerequisite knowledge as a gauge for determining how to design their training. Because of my background in Cognitive Science, I ask more sophisticated questions in my LNA, rather than just relying on prior knowledge. Research by McClosky shows that it is important to look at a learner’s internal schemas, and measure those to uncover misconceptions they have about a subject.  Getting students to unlearn existing assumptions can be as important as teaching new information.  Another method I use is the Cognitive Dissonance Model, pioneered by Leon Festinger.  This basically says that if there is a conflict between two thoughts, it will make a person feel uncomfortable.  This explains why the act of realizing you’re wrong is an act of cognitive dissonance.  It’s the same process as denial, people adopt new beliefs to support their misguided opinion and outweigh the conflicting evidence.  In the classroom I get people to back their misguided ideas, to invest in their own viewpoints.  When people publicly pick a side it makes it much easier for them to quickly discard incorrect ideas when they realize they are wrong.  I design learning activities that take advantage of the cognitive dissonance model.  Also, at my job we have a knowledge base of every instance someone has called in for technical support with the outcome of the call.  An Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm calculates probabilities for which error is most likely the cause of the problem.  Another example is when I am training people in different languages; I know that Linguistic shapes cognition, and vice versa.  The image of a raised hand means stop in our culture, but means inner light in Buddhist culture.  Using these symbols the wrong way could mean problems.  So many times I find myself reflecting on things I learned in Cognitive Science, and being able to apply them right away; it happens all the time. 

Q. How have you noticed your Cognitive Science skills translated into transferable job skills?

A. Its applicability to design – the design of objects, instructional, user interface design, interior design.  Anything which humans will interact with can benefit from application of Cognitive Science. 

Q. You worked in a lab while at University.  Tell us about your responsibilities, and why you would recommend the experience.

A. Working in The Learning Kit lab at SFU, I developed and maintained all their web-based materials, posters, diagrams, and other materials.  I also did research, and quite a few literature reviews; those are great because you’re learning while you’re your doing them.  I was also assisting in experiments, doing data collection, designing experiments, and performing data analysis.  Another one of my overall responsibilities was contributing to user interface design.  In my position I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to conferences, sometimes presenting research.  This created great networking opportunities to meet people within the field. 

Q. That’s awesome. Can you tell us more about the conferences?

A. I had an annual travel budget which allowed me to travel to one conference a year.  Actually a lot of labs allocate part of their budget for student participation in conferences.  One year I accompanied Phil Winne, Learning Kit Director, to Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED) 2005 in Amsterdam, Holland. Another was the IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning (ICALT) 2006, also in the Netherlands.  I presented results from our gStudy research at all the conferences I attended, except the first one. Other conferences include APA 2005 in Washington, DC, ones hosted by SFU, which were world-renowned in Education and Psychology.  After a robotics conference in Vancouver I had the amazing opportunity to sit next to Rodney Brooks at dinner.  He’s one of the world’s leading ‘Robotocists’, and is the CEO of iRobot.  I asked him what job opportunities there will be in the industry in the future.  He said when cell phones came out, nobody predicted there would be a ringtone industry.  Now it is a $1 billion industry which didn’t exist ten years ago.

Q. Tell us about the professional organizations you belong to.

A. When you attend a conference, you more or less automatically get a one year membership in their organization. I have been a member of the American Psychology Association (APA) I’ve also looked at joining the Society for Technical Communicators (STC). A lot of time employers post jobs through these organizations, so in terms of networking, being a member is very valuable. 

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where Cognitive Science graduates are being hired?

A. Certainly Technical Communication Roles, Educational Technology, and Learning Design, Software Development, User Experience Analyst, User Interface Design, HCI (human computer interaction).  Microsoft and Google spend millions on these things.  You can do a Computer Science degree, but if you do a Cognitive Science degree coupled with Computer Science, you can get into really interesting projects which require thinking “outside the box”.  For example, programming Autonomous Robots, researching  Organizational Psychology, or forming policy on Bio-Ethics.  With Bio-Ethics, you need an understanding of technological, psychological, and philosophical issues to form good policy on what ethical considerations there are with regard to stem cell research, human computer interaction, cloning.

Q. Looking back… what advice do you have for current students? 

A. My #1 piece of career advice is follow your bliss…look at what it is you love to do, and find someone to pay you for it. There are more possible careers out there that you can imagine.  Even if you think that a certain course you’re taking won’t apply to your career, you’d be surprised to discover it really does.  There are whole career areas that are growing so rapidly that a job isn’t available now, but it will be in five years.  For example, in the future we will probably teach robots instead of programming them.  Teaching robots doesn’t exist yet as an industry, but it will in the future.  Entire industries will pop up that don’t yet exist.

Kimberly is a graduate of the Cognitive Science Honours degree program at SFU.  While an undergrad, she created the Cognitive Science Newsletter, the Students Association, and several other initiatives.  She continued on to complete her PhD in Computer Science at SFU, and is currently a faculty member at the Centre for Digital Media. At the time of the interview, she was a Lecturer at UBC.


‘Know your degree.  You must know what advantages you offer as a Cognitive Science student, and succinctly present those as a solution to whoever you’re talking to.

Q. What made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. I graduated high school intending to do art school at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design.  I ended up going to SFU instead, but I couldn’t decide on a major. I started in Computer Science, then switched to Chemistry, then switched back to Computer Science with a joint major in Philosophy.  I came across Cognitive Science when I took COGS 200 in 1997 with Phil Hanson.  I liked its diversity, and thought “this is awesome; this is totally what I’m doing.”  I liked that could learn a variety of things and apply them to a variety of problems.

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. I didn’t have any expectations when I joined, I was just so into learning the material.  It [Cognitive Science community at SFU] was small and close-knit when I joined.  I started the Cognitive Science newsletter about a year later, and got the first student union started with some of the upper-level Cogs students.  Then in 2000 I took COGS 300 (the Chomsky course).  I announced to the class that I was reinvigorating the union, and asked the whole class to come out to the pub to discuss ideas and initiatives.  Everyone came.  From regular meetings, and working with Rita, Veronica Dahl, Nancy Hedberg, Fred Popowich, and other professors, we increased the number of declared Cognitive Science Majors from 12 to 40, had t-shirts made, and started the Cognitive Science Undergraduate Journal.  At one point we received an email from a quite famous professor in the United States, Zenon Pylyshyn, congratulating us on our accomplishments.  It was very gratifying to get feedback like that.

Q. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. I always knew I’d get a PhD, but wasn’t 100% sure in what field.  I knew I wanted to do research in Cognitive Science.  I also knew I liked teaching, and the two complement each-other well.  Cognitive Science contributes to the field of pedagogy through research in knowledge representation, learning, memory, and many other areas. 

Q. Overall, how has your Cognitive Science BA fit into your career?

A. How hasn’t it?  It has totally affected how I approach problem solving, because I see things from multiple perspectives.  It changed my viewpoint on pedagogy in the classroom, because I can explain concepts to students in different ways.  Having a cross-disciplined degree helps you face problems, it’s like having more tools in your tool belt.  I went straight into my PhD [in Medical Informatics], so my BA, along with other extra-curricular activities, was a direct entrance to the PhD.  Some students may have to do an extra qualifying year in their chosen discipline, but I already had a solid Computer Science background.  Even then, I enjoy learning new things, so I wouldn’t have minded another year.

Q. Tell us about the job search process as a Cognitive Science graduate.

A. Because I knew I was going to graduate school from the beginning, this affected how I planned my career path.  I completed my PhD in four years, and because I fast-tracked, I was just too busy at the end to look for a job before I finished.  During that time I had done enough teaching as a TA and Sessional Instructor to know I was going to be a Professor.  I was able to continue doing Sessional contracts until a few months later a full-time faculty position as a Lecturer opened up at UBC.  At the interview I gave a demo, and did the usual interview type stuff.  I had a lot of experience doing research and getting published as an undergrad and grad student.  I was hired for that position, then a short while later I was head-hunted by recruiters at the University of Lethbridge.  They had noticed me at a CCWestt (Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology) conference I presented at.  They flew me in for interviews, but unfortunately the position never materialized.

Q. How have employers responded to your Cognitive Science degree? 

A. Extremely positively, especially as a Professor.  I am very good at teaching computer science to non-computer science people. Also, my ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives makes me an asset.

Q. Have you noticed your Cognitive Science skills translated into transferable job skills?

A. As a Lecturer, I use my Cognitive Science skills so frequently its hard to separate them from one part of my life.  I apply Psychology when compiling lesson plans to come up with creative ways to encourage and educate each student.  I use Linguistics and Computer Science in my research, for example working with Maite Taboada on extracting sentiment from text.

Q. Tell us about the conferences you’ve been to, why you went, and what you were looking to get out of it.

A. I’ve been to SCAR – the largest radiology conference in Austen, Texas. Also Canadian AI, Australian AI, the NLUCS Workshop, and Vancouver Studies in Cognitive Science several times.  Attending and speaking at conferences has allowed me to travel quite a bit!

Q. Tell us about the professional organizations you belong to, why you joined, what you were looking to get out of it.

A. I’m a member of AAAI, and am going to join SIGCSE.  Being part of these organizations helps me stay current with new research.  They also publish lists of “who’s who” in a certain field, so not only can I broaden my connections, but also make my own name more visible.

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where cognitive science graduates are being hired, in what industries, who is interested in these skills, and what positions are suitable?

A. NASA has always advertised positions looking for Cognitive Science graduates.  I think this wouldn’t be for Rocket Science, but probably developing excellent onboard and other User Interfaces for space travel.  Also Electronic Arts hires Cognitive Science grads for User Interface Design.  Another company is Google, which, like a lot of technology companies, likes Computer Science grads who also have a Psychology background.  A good keyword phrase to look for is jobs requiring Human Computer Interfaceskills.  Cognitive Science graduates are natural contenders for this type of work because of their understanding of psycho-social issues in technology.

Q. Looking back… what advice do you have for current students?  What do you recommend for current students to do to apply their knowledge to a career? 

A. Don’t be afraid to knock on doors, be a go-getter.  Understand the system. For example, do a directed reading with a professor; you get to focus on a topic you’re interested in which isn't offered in the course calendar.   You have to take initiative at every step.  Ask Professors if you can RA [be a Research Assistant] with them.  A lot of the time, Professors don’t know what you are capable of, especially in Cognitive Science.  Because we’re not a department you need to explain how you can contribute to their research. Know the Cognitive Science-friendly profs.  They’re out there, and they can help you integrate ideas from different disciplines.  Think ahead; if you plan on going to Graduate school, you definitely want to be getting experience in labs.  Ultimately you need to know your degreeThere is no pre-fabricated pitch you can memorize.  You must know what advantages you offer as a Cognitive Science student, and succinctly present those as a solution to whoever you’re talking to. 

Q. You were a Cognitive Science Student Association President at SFU.  Why should people get involved while in university?

A. It helps solidify your degree and put it in context.  When you get involved, you know where you fit in and where Cognitive Science fits in to the bigger picture.  Meeting and talking to other students builds community.  Doing research and publishing papers as an undergrad sometimes allows you to travel.  For example, my boyfriend, Chris, took some Philosophy and Cognitive Science courses while at SFU.  One year, as an RA for Kathleen Akins, he went to a conference at Carleton University in Ottawa, and ended up going out for drinks with renowned philosophers Daniel Dennett, and Patricia Churchland.  How cool is that?

Lindsay Burrell was a Technical Writer for several years before completing her Cognitive Science BA at SFU.  She remains employed in Technical Writing, and is currently enrolled in an MA Philosophy program also at SFU.


‘Technical Writing employers were really receptive to this degree.  Sometimes I had to explain the skills I learned, but once they knew, they thought it was excellent.’

Q. What made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. I had been a musician, with a conservatory designation. I loved that, but it’s tough to get work as a musician. So I’d had more than enough of the “starving artist” syndrome. I retrained with a Computer Programming Diploma—that got me working at a computer help desk pretty quickly, and that’s where I first started updating manuals when the phone wasn’t ringing.When my first son was born, we decided that I would stay home with him and I thought, “this is my chance to get a new degree.” At my Mom’s advice, I completed a package of vocational testing, and it was really great for helping me see where my talents lie. Because this time I really wanted access to good work, I bit the bullet and registered in a double major in Mathematics and Computing Science. When I first applied to SFU, they didn’t have the Cognitive Science Program, but by the time I started courses they did. I immediately switched my program and became one of the first CogSci students. It was a perfect fit—I loved having this great smorgasbord of courses to take.

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. Yes, totally. It was exactly as I hoped it would be. I will say, though that I’ve experienced problems at the graduate level just because of the core requirements of the program. They’re all about breadth, and not much about depth. That means I’m a “jack of all trades, master of none” as far as graduate work is concern. So, for example, in a room of Computing Science majors, I know the least computing and the most neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy. In my Philosophy Masters program, that’s meant serious weakness in history, metaphysics, and ethics. It seems to me one needs about a year of remediation in the target discipline to transition into a non-Cog Sci graduate degree.I think this is unavoidable in an inter-disciplinary degree, but it’s still been difficult.

Q. Overall, how has your cognitive science BA fit into your career?

A. I began technical writing for the high-tech computing industry before I entered my program, and wrote part-time all through the program. When I entered the Cognitive Science program, I had no thought that it would be relevant to my work as a technical writer, but it has been super-relevant. 

What I do is write and manage large documentation sets for high-tech equipment, especially networking equipment for the telecomm industry. I decide what books need to be written, create the book design, and build the template for the book in FrameMaker. Then I research and write the books, and keep them updated as the product changes. So for example, right now, one of the document sets I manage is about 5,000 pages plus. I wrote most of those pages over the last 4 years, and we have a release of the product every 8 to 12 weeks.The work is very technical because I specialize in networking: TCP/IP, routing, IP services, Voice over IP—lots of protocol work. I have to use every technical "bone" in my body.

I can see that Cog Sci has really contributed to what I'm doing. I have much more technical background than most writers, and the philosophical logic, symbolic computing, and Computational Linguistics have made me a sort of “expert” in my field for command-line interfaces. Often I’m actually asked to help design the commands because of it. The work in cognitive psychology has provided insight into the way computer users learn, think, and remember, and that’s made me useful to the engineers for questions about user interfaces. That, together with the work I did myself on user interface design in the Computing part of my degree, gives me a background in “Human Factors”, which is highly sought after in my industry. And in general, in terms of structuring information and general information design, a background in Philosophy can’t be beat. You almost couldn’t ask for a more useful degree for what I’m doing, overall.

Q. Tell us about the job search process as a cognitive science graduate…

A. I really didn’t know what to do at first. I was doing a lot of smaller jobs which could fit around the family schedule, and I’d been working pretty steadily as Philosophy TA for a long time (my degree took 14 years, because I was on “the mommy track.” I seriously considered something in Artificial Intelligence—maybe computational linguistics or logic programming. But my husband, who was also in the high-tech industry, thought I’d be a good fit for technical writing full-time. I took his advice, and it was the best thing I’ve done. So, while I did have to search for a job as a full-time employee (as opposed to a part-time contractor) I never really had to search as a “Cognitive Science graduate.”

Q. How have employers responded to your Cognitive Science BA?

A. Well, one thing for sure, they prefer it to a Bachelor of Music! I do find that nobody really knows what Cognitive Science is, so I have to “unpack” it on my resume, and list the disciplines. I always make sure I emphasize the Computing element (for example, the Computational Linguistics), that always catches their attention. Technical Writing employers were really receptive to this degree.  Sometimes I had to explain the skills I learned, but once they knew, they thought it was excellent. As I said, the engineers are always thrilled to have a writer with a technical background (the more technology I know, the less they have to teach me), and Product Management is always equally pleased to have someone with Human Factors to help them improve the usability of the product. I think they also appreciate the structure in my writing, which I owe greatly to the background in Logic and reasoning.

Q. I’m sure you’ve been able to use your Cognitive Science skills directly in a work situation; do you have any good stories around that?

A. I use my degree every second of the day trying to keep up with the technology of the engineering team. It’s quite hard, and the Computing has been an enormous advantage. Probably the analytic and design skills are next: for example, our 5,000-page document set is actually composed of thousands of re-usable “chunks” of content in a content repository. We write and maintain the “chunks” and then build the books out of sets of chunks. Our system is very efficient and very powerful: it allows just two writers to maintain a huge document set. It’s one of the only systems of its kind locally, and I think that’s because it requires such strong design and analysis skills, which fewer writers have. It’s actually very like programming, and I don’t think I could have designed and implemented system without my background in programming.

Q. Have you noticed your Cognitive Science skills translated into transferable job skills?

A. I am astounded how much of my degree has translated into directly applicable job skills. I thought I was taking those courses just for fun.

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where Cognitive Science graduates are being hired?

A. Not really. I’m the only Cog Sci graduate I know in technical writing (technical writers all seem to come from eclectic backgrounds: history, philosophy, hardware engineering, literature).Some writers (perhaps one in 10) will have a certificate or diploma in technical writing, but most just worked their way in and “paid their dues” along the way.

Q. Tell us about the conferences you’ve been to, why you went, and what you were looking to get out of it.

A. Recently, I went to a conference on structured writing (that’s this stuff where you write in “chunks”), which is related to what I’m doing at work. I followed that up with a 10-week online XML course. That one was offered in partnership with Carleton University. I’m trying to improve my XML skills so I can work with the XML-based content management systems. Sometimes I’ll attend Technical Writing conferences.

Q. Tell us about the professional organizations you belong to, why you joined, and what you were looking to get out of it.

A. I belong to the Society for Technical Communicators, which is the main organization for technical writers. I also belong to theEditors Association of Canada, which I must say is a very effective organization. They provide editor certification tests, have lots of support materials, and have a great job “hotline.” It’s a terrific bunch. I’m not as active in the STC. These organizations provide a good way to keep your skills current, communicate with professionals with the same interests as you (like my interest in content management, for example), and keep up with news in the industry.

Q. Looking back... what advice do you have for current students?

A. If I were to do it over again, I would take academic advice earlier. I ended up with tons of credits and I thought I was done. In fact, I had enough credits, but not enough upper level credits. Because I was on the “mommy track” and was only taking a course or (at most) two at a time, this cost me two years: ouch. The other thing is that before going on to graduate school in one of the target disciplines (say Philosophy or Computing Science) I think it’s really mandatory to take a year or so to remediate your background in that discipline. Otherwise, you’re still trying to acquire the basics while everyone else has moved on to a different conversation.

Ronda completed a joint major in Philosophy / Linguistics / Psychology at SFU, then achieved her Masters at the UBC School of Audiology and Speech.  She now works as a Certified Speech Language Pathologist in Lloydminster, Alberta.


‘Do research on what careers your disciplines could lead into - do job shadowing, see what people do day-to-day, go with them and “be in their shoes”.’

QYou did the PLP Program (joint major in Philosophy/Linguistics/Psychology before it became the Cognitive Science Program).  What made you get into it?

A. I wanted to take something that you don’t get a chance to do in high school.  All disciplines were very interesting.  I really liked them, but after first year I questioned where my career was going. I went to vocational counselling, and did tests at the career centre at SFU. Speech pathology came up, and the graduate requirements were all the PLP courses.  It was a perfect fit.

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. Absolutely!  I found a career that I loved doing.  It was an amazing discovery.

Q. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. Yes and no. I hadn’t decided for sure on speech pathology, but was comfortable in the knowledge of a career at the end.  In my 3rd year, UBC offered a job viewing program where students could talk to professionals to learn more. Some Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists brought video and came to show what the day-to-day work was like.  This is what helped me decide I wanted to be a Speech Pathologist.

Q. Overall, how has your PLP BA fit into your career?

A. I use my knowledge of linguistics everyday working with children who have difficulty with speech sounds and language. About sixty-five percent of my work is with articulation & speech sounds, and the other thirty-five percent language-delayed children, some of whom have special needs as well.  In Speech Pathology, you analyse language rule systems of children who are having trouble and look for patterns inconsistent with “the norm”.  Sometimes they have a simplified system, such as delaying grammar, or they have a very low vocabulary or word knowledge. Children with special needs will be taught an alternative method of communications, such as computers with pictures or symbols, or American Sign Language (ASL).   There are definitely opportunities developing computer communications systems for people who have a much higher difficulty speaking, such as cerebral palsy or Angelman’s syndrome. It [the computer system] is a small device which allows them to point or type in words and the system says it for them, like a symbol-to-speech system.

Q. Tell us about the job search process as a PLP graduate

A. When I graduated from my Masters in Speech Pathology, I had my choice of job offers.  In fact entering Grad school put me in high demand.  After graduation I applied to three or four places, and got offers from two. I chose my dream job, which was working with multiply-handicapped pre-school children.  It was at a child development center in a small town in the interior of BC.  Right now there are a lot of opportunities in health-care positions and education, though it depends on the province. Private practices, of about 5-6 people, sometimes hire. The specialized equipment required is not expensive, and you could start out using modified children’s toys. 

Q. How have employers responded to your PLP degree? 

A. [laughs] …it’s been a while.  It said joint major in Psychology, Linguistics, and Philosophy on my resume.  Some employers questioned it, but being certified and accredited with national and provincial associations was much more important.  The fact that it [PLP Joint Major] led to the Masters so well was most important.

Q. I’m sure you’ve been able to use your PLP skills directly in a work situation, do you have any good stories around that?

A. I use Logic and Phonetics almost every day.  For example, I work with an 8-yr old boy who has Down syndrome and possibly Autism. His speech is hard to understand and he has some behaviour problems, for example, he was taking his sock off his foot, putting it on his hand and then rubbing it on desk, chair, floor, etc. When analysing his problem, I followed a logical procedure. Based on his behavioural problems, which were well documented, I reasoned that if he was only Down syndrome, then he would be acting stubborn and trying to push people’s buttons.  However if you assume the premise that he’s possibly autistic, then he has issues with his sensory system, and that might explain his behaviour.  This led to a new solution.  For example, in similar situations I’ve suggested using a puppet.  It’s more sanitary and socially-appropriate, and the child gets needed sensory stimulation.  An accurate diagnosis changes the way the child is perceived by the authority.  If the child is seen as being obstinate, it can escalate anger in the situation. Whereas if you know that the child is acting based on the structure of their brain, it offers a different viewpoint.  If you assume one premise, and follow it to its conclusion it’s going to be different than had you assumed another premise. 

Q. Tell us about the conferences you’ve been to, why you went, and what you were looking to get out of each one. 

A. I’ve attended conferences by the Canadian Association of Speech language pathologists and Audiologists, and several world-renowned Autism workshops in Saskatchewan. As an undergrad I also attended a philosophy conference downtown Vancouver, which was a really worthwhile experience.

Q. Tell us about the professional organizations you belong to, why you joined, and what you were looking to get out of each one.

A. Some Canadian and provincial associations, and a lot of people are members of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Q. Looking back… what advice do you have for current students?  

A. Do research on what careers your disciplines could lead into - do job shadowing, see what people do day-to-day, go with them and “be in their shoes”. Perhaps volunteer with a special education and technology BC organization. Look at using computer technology to help students with special needs, like the visually-impaired, movement-impaired, and speech-impaired.

Just before Harry White applied for Fall graduation, we asked him to tell us a bit about the work he was already doing.  While completing the last course requirements, he was already working.


"Get involved with your fellow Cognitive Scientists!  I can’t stress this enough.  It enriches your university experience, teaches you valuable skills to put on your resume, helps you meet like-minded people, and is overall really fun."

Q. To start with, where are you working now?

A. I work for Odyssey Learning Systems,  a Vancouver-based eLearning company in business since 1998.

Q. What is your job?

A. My job title is Inside Sales & Marketing.

Q. How did you get this job?

A. I got this job by networking.  I met the owner of the company at my wife’s church downtown.  We started chatting and I told her my goals to get into sales at a technology related company.  Her elearning company, Odyssey Learning, happened to need someone at the time for a part-time Inside Sales position. I interviewed with her and the team and really impressed them, and got the job.

I like working for Odyssey because eLearning relates to education and technology, two of my passions.  Plus I can work from home while continuing my BA in Cognitive Science.  Our team is spread out across Canada: Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, etc, so we communicate via phone, email, and a virtual meeting room.

Q. What are some of the kinds of projects and tasks that make up your working day?

A. I am responsible for Generating Leads, Qualifying Leads, Generating Invoices, Assisting the Sales Team, Customer Care, Email Marketing, Internet Marketing, Search Engine Optimization, and Tradeshows.  I love the diversity of tasks, learning new skills, and talking with people. 

Q. How is what you are doing on the job enhanced or enabled by what you learned/are learning as a cogntive science student?

A. I was the student responsible for interviewing many of the other SFU Cognitive Science graduates on the site.  A common message I heard was “every day there was something different I had learned in Cognitive Science (at SFU) which helped me do my job better.”  I completely agree with this statement.  The inter-disciplinary nature of the degree means that graduates are better prepared for the diverse projects employers will need them to work on. Specifically, deductive logic, cognitive psychology, morphology and syntax all helped me articulate my value to prospective employers and clients.  Cognitive Science is applicable to education, technology, user experience, social networking, academic research, and much more.  You can use it for anything you want.

Q. After you graduate, would you like to continue in this field and in this kind of work? In what ways do you find you and your background are well suited to this position?

A. E-learning, or online education, is an exciting industry that has measurable positive effects on people’s lives.   For example, at Odyssey we work at lot with Moodle, an open source Learning Management System which has opened up the whole market.  Previously, offering learning content online was an expensive project for a school or company to undertake;  Moodle is free, so it has given millions of students access to take courses and enrich their learning at low cost.  Odyssey Learning works with BC Elementary and High Schools to provide them with the platform, content, and support they need to deliver courses online. 

I like that what I do everyday  helps me develop my career and also contribute back to society in a beneficial way.   The elearning field fits very well with my passion and skills because I have experience teaching in Africa, and several years project managementexperience in the software industry. 

 I will definitely continue in this field in a sales and marketing related capacity, and hopefully run my own internet business one day.

Q. What was your background before you became an undergraduate in Cognitive Science?

A. I already had over five years experience as a software developer and freelancer.  I had a 2-year computer science diploma from college, but I wanted my BA  to open doors and grow in my field.  

Q. Are there any recommendations you would make to incoming students wanting to get the most out of their experience with the program and at SFU?

A. Get involved with your fellow Cognitive Scientists!  I can’t stress this enough.  It enriches your university experience, teaches you valuable skills to put on your resume, helps you meet like-minded people, and is overall really fun. 

I volunteer at the Cognitive Science Lab, am a member of the Cognitive Science Students Society, and a member of the editorial team for the Canadian Undergraduate journal of Cognitive Science.  This year we published our first print version of the journal and mailed it to Undergraduate Cognitive Science departments at universities around the world.

Q. I see from our Inside Report that you went to NOWCAM this year.  How did that come about?

A. That is through being a volunteer at the lab.   This year six of us got to go to Victoria for 3 days and stay in UVic’s student residences  while we attended NOWCAM 2009.  Many times when you are part of university research you will have the opportunity to travel to conferences to present research findings, attend workshops, and network with professors and fellow students.  See, I told you there were benefits to getting involved!

Brett earned his Cognitive Science BA in 2003.  He has worked as a CNC Programmer/Machinist in the lower mainland for over 5 years and, is always looking for new ways to apply Cognitive Science at his job.


Don’t try to find the “ultimate” Cognitive Science job right away.  Look for places to apply skills you know so that you can build experience.’

Q. What made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. Well I was interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the courses I was taking seemed to fit in with the Cognitive Science program. After starting out in Psychology, and doing some Computer Science courses in 3rd year, I finally declared Cognitive Science as my major in my 4th year with a minor in Computer Science, and Psychology.

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. When I took it [the program], it could have used more focus.  You didn’t pick three of the four streams like you do now.  Also there wasn’t enough information about how to apply the degree in the workforce.  I didn’t do co-op, but there were jobs posted which required Cognitive Science in management, technology, automation, computer vision, and anything in intelligent systems. 

Q. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. No, but my biggest interest was in AI.

Q. What helped you find your way?

A. I was looking for a way to apply it to my career, and I’m still in the process of figuring it out. There are more jobs in Ontario, but I don’t want to move. 

Q. Overall, how has your Cognitive Science BA fit into your career?

A. It fit in quite well. In my job, I have used Cog Sci to help me learn and understand CAM-Computer Aided Machining software and how it can be improved using resolution theorem proving, statistics and various algorithms.  Also, it has helped me to learn new things, adapt to new software, new situations, and new programming languages. I’m also in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and use my computer and computer vision skills to process astronomical images.

Q. Tell us about the job search process as a Cognitive Science graduate

A. I had two or three interviews, and looked for about a month. I’d been previously employed as a CNC Machinist for many years, so experience was more important in my case than the degree.

Q. How did employers respond to your Cognitive Science degree?

A. Only one asked about the Cognitive Science BA, and overall employers seemed to be in a rush. They were interested in a robot project I worked on. It was a centipede-type robot I built after finishing at SFU.

Q. How have your Cognitive Science skills translated into transferable job skills?

A. Adaptability to new technology/new software.  Organizational skills, writing skills.  Public speaking, presentations. 

Q. You have a new job.  How is it going?

A. I am a CNC Programmer Team Lead at a plastic vacuform company in Langley called Form-IT Plastics.  I got the job through more than 5 years experience at another company. I do drawing, design, setup, and other work using software like AutoCAD and MasterCAM.  I am also working on a project to automate the CAD process. 

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where Cognitive Science graduates are being hired, in what industries, or who is interested in Psychology and Computer Science skills?

A. Management Jobs, User Interface Design, HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), Human Resources. Any job with the keywordIntelligent Systems.

Q. Looking back… what advice do you have for current students? 

A. If you know your focus, go talk to people in your field, network yourself.  Theoretical skills need to be coupled with practical skills, so get experience in your field.  Don’t try to find the “ultimate” Cognitive Science job right away.  Look for places to apply skills you know so that you can build experience. A degree is not going to prepare you to get a job, University degrees allow you to learn new things, get deeper into a subject, and learn adaptability.

Jedediah Allen studied Cognitive Science at SFU, and graduated in 2003.  He achieved his MA in Psychology at Lehigh University under Laura Gonnerman studying psycho linguistics and connectionism.  He is currently pursuing his PhD at Lehigh with Mark Bickhard, in Foundational Issues in the study of the Mind.


‘Be proactive in making sure you get done what needs to be done.  Ultimately it's your life, and you need to be the one making things happen.'

Q. Jed, what made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. I started out in Engineering, and realized I didn't want to continue. I was already taking some Psychology, Philosophy and Computer Science courses, and those interested me a lot. A friend of mine asked “have you heard of Cognitive Science?”  and it just fit.  I declared my major, and my courses focused towards Cognitive Science requirements, so I was taking Philosophy of Mind instead of Ethics. I didn't really have any expectations other than that it was the inter-disciplinary study of the mind.  I like that Cognitive Science looks at all its philosophical assumptions before moving toward a solution.

Q. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. Not at all... well... I guess I always had the implicit assumption I would continue on to graduate school to pursue academic studies of some sort.  The more I got into it [Cognitive Science], the more I discovered which areas I was most interested in.  For example, out of all my courses, I found Artificial Intelligence (CMPT419) with Bob Hadley to be an amazing Cognitive Science course.  Also,Memory & Mind (PSYC325) with Bruce Whittlesea was another one of my favourites.

Q. Tell us about the graduate school process as a Cognitive Science alumnus

A. I took a year off and did research during my free time into which schools would be a good fit.  I only found five in North America with a dedicated Cognitive Science grad program:  University of California, San Diego (UCSD), which has a neuroscience focus;John Hopkins UniversityBrown University, which are both focused towards  Computational / Linguistic research; Rutgers University;  University of Western Ontario.  Lehigh University only offers a certificate in Cognitive Science from within the Psychology Department so I was faced with the decision to pursue grad school at one of these schools; or work with someone who cares, as I do, about foundational issues. As a Cognitive Scientist you often look at foundational questions each field asks.  Dr. Mark Bickhard, of Lehigh University, is a Theoretician, or Theoretical Psychologist. He wrote Foundational Issues in Cognitive Science (1995), which I read and admired, because he approached many of the foundational questions I wanted to explore.  This perspective appealed to me because it mirrored my experience as an under-graduate.  I ended up picking Lehigh because I wanted to work with Dr. Bickhard.  I visited the school, and did an interview.  They said that I would need to do an empirical MA thesis first, before pursuing my PhD. I was accepted, and began working with Dr. Laura Gonnerman in Connectionist modeling of Language. 

Q. How have professors at the graduate level responded to your Cognitive Science degree? 

A. For the ones that knew, they were interested in Cognitive Science, and liked that I had that experience.  Overall it wasn't a big topic of interest.  Sometimes I would ask an inter-disciplinary question, because of some course I had taken at SFU.  This would kind of stun people. With my diversified background I had more to bring to the table. 

Q. Have you noticed your Cognitive Science skills needed upgrading for your MA?

A. I personally didn't, but I could see how it could happen.  Fortunately I had taken a minor in Psychology during my Cognitive Science major, so I had a lot more Psychology courses under my belt than a typical Cognitive Science graduate. 

Q. Tell us about your Research/Lab experiences at Lehigh

A. I don't work in one right now, but when I started my MA, I worked in the  Psycholinguistics lab run by Dr. Laura Gonnerman. I studied infant morphology.  Our basic methodology was to put babies in a 10x8 “theatre” we built ourselves.  We habituated the kids to a certain image, then we would selectively change the image to discover which images the children recognized.  In one particular experiment we simultaneously showed them one still picture of a person doing an action, (intermodal preferential looking paradigm) and one picture illustrating a quality (shiny, etc).  Then a word was said which morphologically represented the action or quality but didn't match it (shiny = gorpy). We studied which image the kids looked at, and correlated it with the word said. Thus finding out how morphology played a role in the child's comprehension level.

Q. I'm sure you've been able to use your Cognitive Science skills directly in a research situation, do you have any good stories around that?

A. Absolutely. Anything that came up related to programming I understood and could integrate much easier than other students. Also, for understanding how it fit in to the bigger picture, having Cognitive Science under my belt helped a lot.

Q. Tell us about some of the conferences you've been to.

A. I have presented and postered at two conferences, Jean Piaget Society (JPS) 2004 and 2007, and also gave a talk at the Interactive Summer Institute 2007 and attended others, such as Psychonomics.  Conferences allow you to interact with like-minded people.  They enable you to create connections with other people who are pursuing similar goals. 

Q. Tell us about the professional organizations you belong to, why you joined, what you were looking to get out of it.

A. I belong to the Cognitive Science Society , and the Jean Piaget Society.  If you're going to present, you have to be a member, so that's one reason.  Also you get the journal, so that's a plus.  With the Cognitive Science Society, I was asked to referee entries, which was a great experience.  If you're going to pursue academia, you need to integrate into your chosen field.

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where Cognitive Science graduates are being hired?

A. Any Computer Science-related field.  And for anyone not going into research, you can do the same with your degree as people with a Philosophy or Psychology degree, but probably better because you have multiple perspectives. 

Q. Looking back...what advice do you have for current students?  

ASee the Academic Advisor. Be proactive in making sure you get done what needs to be done.  Ultimately it's your life, and you need to be the one making things happen, and that is especially true in graduate school.  Also stay organized.

Caroline was also the Cognitive Science Students Association President when she studied at SFU.  Her course-work focused on Psychology, Computing, and Linguistics.  She recently joined Sophos (1100 - 1500 people worldwide) where she works as a Software Developer.


‘Take lots of third and fourth year courses, because those are more beneficial.  Work with professors, volunteer in labs, do co-op, contribute to papers which get published.’

Q. What made you get into Cognitive Science?

A. I was doing my breadth courses and I took linguistics.  I thought it was so cool so I took another, and ended up taking a whole bunch.  I also took some psychology courses as part of the breadth requirement, and I enjoyed them a lot too.  I went to a program fair in the Convo Mall, and the Linguistics Advisor, Rita, introduced me to the projects that were going on, and which fields Cognitive Science contributed to.  At the time the tech industry was looking for people with an edge over just computing – combining creative skills and technical.  Cognitive Science was perfect.  I ended up choosing Linguistics, Psychology, and Computing, and got a minor in Computing Science also. 

Q. Were your expectations met?

A. Absolutely. Starting in Cognitive Science I used to dream of building robots for the CIA. There are so many things you can do with a Cognitive Science degree.  

Q. Other than building robots for the CIA, did you know where you wanted to go with it when you started?

A. It was pretty open-ended, but I really got into language processing (computational linguistics) a lot.  The turning point though was when I took COGS300 with Maite Taboada. It was a special topic in Discourse and Dialogue Processing, analysing conversations between two people, such as in movies, everyday speech, and newspaper articles. Also that was the same term I was taking Anoop’s Computational Linguistics course.  Seeing things from multiple perspectives significantly increased my interest in these areas.

Q. Overall, how has your cognitive science BA fit into your career?

A. I am officially a Software Developer, which is a bit of a broad term.  Our company does anti-virus and anti-malware for large organizations.  My role is multi-disciplinary as well.  I write and debug code and quality assurance tests.  We use Perl, C++, and possibly C#, so I need to know several programming languages. In terms of other disciplines, I use Psychology skills in User Interface design.

Q. Tell us about the job search process as a Cognitive Science graduate

A. I knew about some potential employers from hiring fairs, But after getting back from travelling for the summer, my main resource was a website called www.bctechnology.com.  Companies like Electronic Arts, MDA, Telus, and a lot of recruiters are on there. I mainly went after specific positions such as Junior Programmer, QA Specialist, and ones in Psychology/health related industries.  It took about two months to get my job.  The interview process [at Sophos] was quite lengthy.  I had about three different interviews with various people in the company.  One of the interviews was about four hours long.  At the end there was a technical test.  It’s funny, you know how when it rains, it pours; I had put my resume onto BCTechnology.comWorkopolis.com and Monster.com, and was in the interview process with two or three companies.  After I accepted the job at Sophos, the other companies also offered me jobs within days of each-other.  But I had already taken the job with Sophos, so it was an easy decision for me. 

Q. How have employers responded to your Cognitive Science degree? 

A. I had a great conversation with the VP of Engineering, who I had actually interviewed with.  He was very knowledgeable and sincere.  He was curious about the Cognitive Science degree, wanted to know what kind of assets I could bring to the company that no one else had.  I told him I brought a more wholistic view.  I was coming at things from different perspectives, seeing new ways to solve problems, not just from a computer science background.  As for other companies, the bigger telecommunications companies didn’t ask any questions about it.  I emphasized my computer science education on my resume, so that may have affected employers’ perception.

Q. What are some of the more interesting parts of your job?

A. In my company we implement a system called “Paired Programming”.  Every piece of the project has two people working on it together.  The benefits are higher quality code, fewer bugs, and redundancy so that the intellectual capital is not lost if an employee leaves or gets sick. The result is a better workplace, and better products.

Q. How have you noticed your CogSci skills translated into transferable job skills?

A. Being able to communicate in the correct vocabulary for three different disciplines, knowing different computer languages, being able to talk to a variety of people.

Q. Any word on the street in your field about where Cognitive Science graduates are being hired?

A. I don’t know that I have a better perspective… yet at least.  I know that Cognitive Science students should avoid positions which are very focused on doing just one thing.  If you are doing Cognitive Science, you’ve already decided to do multiple things at once.  You have four years experience doing things in multiple ways, so to go into a job that requires you to specialize in one task, with nothing new, you will probably be bored.

Q. Looking back… what advice do you have for current students?   

A. Take lots of third and fourth year courses, because those are more beneficial.  Work with professors, volunteer in labs, do co-op, contribute to papers which get published.

Q. I understand you presented at a conference while you were a Cognitive Science undergrad.  Can you tell us more about that experience?

A. It was part of a term project for a Computing Science course I was taking - CMPT310.  The project could be anything innovative/creative in the field of Artificial Intelligence.   My team and I came up with a project that fit with our Cognitive Science/UI, Music, and Computing Science interests.  We originally wanted to make a music generator which could generate lyrics based on a beat you gave it. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but we were able to re-engineer it so that you could give it a beat and it would find which song matched in a list of 30 songs.  A course taken with Anoop on Computational Linguistics (CMPT413) helped match input strings in an efficient way.  This time the project worked so well that Diana, our professor, encouraged us to submit it as a paper to the AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) conference that fall.  We refined and expanded its song base over the summer.  Well everyone at the conference loved it.  I was really glad because I didn’t know what to expect.  The conference was the biggest I’ve ever been to. I’d been to smaller conferences such as the one SFU puts on, New Directions in Cognitive Science.  At this one there were thousands of people, and we had a booth setup.  It was awesome to be around so many brilliant minds and learn so much.

Q. You were the Cognitive Science student association president at SFU.  Why do you think people should people get involved while at University?

A. You get to interact with a lot more professors, and people worldwide.  Also it helps you get your money’s worth out of University.  Employers care less about the piece of paper you get (your degree), and more about your confidence and experience.  It’s your other achievements that they look at. Volunteering in labs and doing research is free experience that translates readily into job skills.