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.