A bell, a dog and a dataviz geek – How psychology paved the way for my career in data

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It’s been quite a while since I finished high school. 12 1/2 years actually.

I had concrete plans to do a bit of travelling around New Zealand and to then start studying Hospitality Management in Germany. I wanted to end up in management, travel the world, work in an interesting industry. How all of that would come about, I didn’t know, but I was sure it would just fall into place.

Of course (and thankfully), life ain’t a straight line.

The planned 3 months in New Zealand turned into 12 and when I returned to Germany, it was with my now husband, Paul. I still wanted to study Hospitality Management, but also felt compelled to uphold family traditions and applied for medical school. I didn’t really want to become a doctor, but the degree seemed interesting enough.

I got an offer for med school and also one for the private uni for hospitality management, even with a 50% scholarship. But for a number of personal reasons we couldn’t stay in Germany and did a 180, returning to New Zealand after only five months in Europe.

Back in Aotearoa

It was time for a new plan. In New Zealand, you just don’t study Hotel management, especially when you had an offer for med school on the table (i.e. you’re reasonably clever). According to my husband anyway.

Once all my visa matters were sorted I had to enroll for university quickly because the semester start wasn’t far away and I really wanted to go to university. I had no idea what I wanted to study. Something with business, but I also wanted a science degree.

There were actually too many options out there, but I ended up enrolling for a Bachelor in Commerce & Administration majoring in Human Resources & Industrial Relations and International Business. For my science degree I picked Psychology, because I figured it would be the subject with the least amount of physics and maths involved.

I was still scarred from high school, from teachers who taught us ‘housewife physics’ (about washing machines) and from needing a lot of private tuition to move from a fail grade to a pretty decent A-.

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to get through most of the science-y topics, but I didn’t have the courage. It didn’t feel like a natural area for me to move into, so I stuck with things that were more familiar.

Studying in New Zealand

I won’t lie, the 3 statistics papers I had to take for my psychology degree were not easy. They were the subjects I invested most of my time in, attending every lecture, every tutorial and every extra optional class just to make sure I really got it. Because if you missed the boat, you were pretty much screwed.

The hard work paid off, thankfully, and I got an A+ in each of those papers. It was painful but absolutely worth it.

Changing my mind

A year into my degree I decided that international business wasn’t quite as exciting as I hoped and changed to Accounting & Commercial Law. This was purely because with the financial crisis kicking off it seemed like a sensible thing to do.

I hated it. I hated accounting, but told myself every day that I loved it. That got me through (‘fake it ’till you make it’). Commercial Law was interesting but I still wasn’t good at it. I managed to complete it with a B+ overall. Not satisfactory, but I got through.

Psychology? Mind blown!

Back to psychology though. Initially I picked it because it seemed the ‘least science-y’ out of the different options. But from day 1 I fell in love with it. It was the perfect combination of biology, chemistry, history, social science and medicine. Learning about mental illnesses was fascinating and gave me a great opportunity to chat with dad, a psychiatrist, about his experience working in psychiatric hospitals for 30 years. Hearing about the nervous system, the chemical and biological processes that define and cause human (and animal) behaviours, took me back to my high school days where I was lucky to have a teacher who ignited a passion in me for those topics.

I’m not lying when I say that during every single lecture I had at least one moment where I had my mind blown by something absolutely fascinating about the human body and mind.

Learning why we do the things we do, how we do them, how it impacts others, and what kind of weird and wonderful phenomena are out there was something I enjoyed so much more than I ever expected.

Taking Psychology into every day life

I picked a science degree because I thought it would look cool on my CV. It ended up being the best part of my 4 years at university.

And how does it impact my day-to-day work now? Actually, it matters every single day.

I would claim that I’ve always been a reasonably empathetic person, but learning so much more about my fellow humans, their potential struggles, how experiences, chemical and biological processes can change them and how their environment can support or crush them, made me more aware, more conscious and most likely more willing to help and be mindful.

Most relevant for my data and Tableau work today were the many hours spent on visual perception, which included concepts from Gestalt theory, colour perception, eye tracking experiments, reaction times, comprehension of information and how our physical environment, our emotional state and our personal history impact our comprehension and interpretation of information.

Colour matters

Colours have fascinated me for a long time. I remember being a young kid, walking around in our garden and wondering whether anyone else can hear colours. At university I learned that Synesthesia was a real thing.

Of course, we learned about colour blindness, but also about using colour to convey information and emotion. At the time I didn’t know this would come in handy one day…

Research methods and statistics were obviously extremely valuable subjects as well. I won’t claim that all my analyses follow a perfectly thought-out plan and scientific structure before I reach my result. In fact, I often go around seemingly in circles, because Tableau allows me to iterate quickly and easily while I look for insights and an interesting story in my data.

Time and culture

Writing a research paper about the perception of time in different cultures was another highlight during my degree, because it gave me a chance to do something more self-directed but it also explained a lot of things I had noticed but couldn’t quite figure out.

I actually fulfill most of the German stereotypes when it comes to being on time, expecting others to be on time, getting things done efficiently and planning out schedules, lists, etc.

Learning how differently other cultures approach and value time in their own contexts was eye-opening to say the least.

I still get frustrated when people are late. But I have been able to change my expectations and find ways to use the ‘waiting time’. Working for a German company that operates globally means I am frequently interacting with people across various countries and time zones. A bit of understanding for the others goes a long way :-).

Our HQ meetings start on time, with people arriving in the room at least 2min early. Meetings overseas work differently, but that’s okay and I can be flexible enough in my behaviour and thinking, because at least I know why…

And all the other stuff…

What else did I learn in psychology? I learned so much about illegal and legal drugs that it forever put me off – my brain is my biggest asset, so I try to keep it in good shape. I learned about children’s ability to understand irony, to perceive depth and how conditioning and rewards impact and change their behaviours.

Interestingly, I also learned that not all research pursuits start from a hypothesis. Sometimes the hypothesis comes after the results are in. Can be easier that way…

Thank you, Psychology

To sum up, out of the 4 majors I completed between 2006 and 2010, Psychology was the most interesting, the most useful in daily life and surprisingly the most applicable to my data day-job.

Psychology in combination with my HR degree led me to apply for a job in Human Capital consulting with Deloitte. They put me into their IT consulting practice, working on Information Management projects. That was a blessing in disguise. From being out of my depth to finding a career I love in a field that fascinates me and lets me work with really cool people.

Yes, my commerce subjects were useful, but I can very confidently say that my Psychology has made the most impact on me in the last 10 years and if I had to go back and start over again, I would just pick Psychology and Statistics, be brave, be bold and go all-in.

Who would have thought…

3 comments

  1. Love this post Eva – there seems to be such a variety of routes into the data visualisation community. Each new example acts as an inspiration for those wanting to follow.

    I’d never heard of Gestalt theory until a couple of weeks ago and planned to write a bit about it for my next blog post soon. And now I’ve seen you mention it above from your psychology background! Hope you don’t mind if I mention this post and/or link to it?

    Neil

    Like

    1. Hi Neil,

      glad you found my post useful. Gestalt theory is a fascinating topic. My dad, a psychiatrist, actually did a 3 year training in Gestalt therapy, so it goes far beyond the visual perception aspects.
      I’m happy for you to refer to my blog, of course. Looking forward to your article!

      Eva

      Like

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