Posted on May 22, 2019
Erin Baker received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She first had a successful career in the tech industry, both working with and then leading user experience teams at Hewlett Packard, Facebook, Microsoft. She left tech to pursue a second career as a transformational leadership coach and consultant. She works in both corporate and private settings with top performers and leaders to design and achieve their next level of professional and personal success. She also works with high-level leaders to drive more impact for themselves and their organizations. Her clients include leaders at Fortune 500 companies and small-to-medium size startups, as well as successful solo entrepreneurs.
What led to your initial interest in personality and social psychology?
I like to say that psychology was either in my blood or at the very least, really well-primed. My parents are two prominent scholars in the communication field who study(ied) psychological concepts - deception and persuasion. I grew up with an appreciation for social science and fell even more in love with it during my freshman year of college at the University of Michigan. I took two small seminars, one on the psychology of violence and another on the psychology of creativity that got me hooked on wanting to know everything I could about how people think, feel, and behave. Being surrounded by an incredible psychology department where I could get involved in research as early as my sophomore year only strengthened my interest, and helped me narrow down into social and cognitive psychology as my main areas of focus.
What from your social and personality psychology experience has helped you arrive at the place you are today?
It is hard to narrow down the many aspects of my experience that has helped me arrive at the place of running my own business, but if I had to choose just two, one is the training I received at the University of Texas at Austin in always thinking about the “so what?” of my research, and the other is the soft skills and mindsets I developed as a researcher.
Every graduate student has to present their work once a year to the Social & Personality faculty at UT. And inevitably the one question asked at every presentation is “so what?”. Students are always pressed, even when doing the most basic research, to articulate why their research is important and others should care about it. Being asked that question myself led me to focus on how I can have a greater impact on the world through the lens of social psychology. In the tech world, that impact was through building meaningful digital experiences. As a transformational leadership coach, it means applying psychology to help extraordinary leaders have more impact in the world.
The skillsets and mindsets I developed as a researcher are things I apply to my everyday life.
For example, I approach nearly everything I do in life as research, and I often design experiments to test hypotheses about myself, my business, and others. These tests can be as small as changing the first line of an email when reaching out to busy people I’d like to connect with, or as large as taking notes on hundreds of client calls to start sussing out patterns of what I am doing well, what I need to improve on, and what kinds of results my clients are getting.
What advice do you have for someone considering a career path in the tech world?
First and foremost, keep an eye on the practical application and impact of the research you do. Although there are some opportunities to do foundational research on humans in the tech world, more often research guides specific development of products and services. It’s imperative for a researcher to ask research questions that lead to specific decisions that product managers, designers, and engineers can make. Anytime you do research, think to yourself “what should change as a result of my findings?”
Second, start looking through the apps and services you use from the lens of a researcher. What aspects of the app do you love? Which do you hate? How would you go about researching whether the things you love and hate are common?
Third, get in touch with psychologists who have made the transition to industry to understand what different roles exist and what you might need to do prepare. A career in user experience research might be different than a career in marketing insights, and even within those careers, roles might differ a ton across companies.
Finally, be open to expanding your methods toolkit. If you are an expert in behavioral experimental methods, learn more about surveys and nonexperimental quantitative methods. If you are a purely quantitative researcher, learn qualitative methodologies. You may not have to execute these methods in industry, but knowing and appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of various methods will help you communicate with other researchers from different backgrounds and allow you to make recommendations to non-researchers about appropriate ways to study their questions.
What specific skillsets or experiences from your PhD studies and time spent in academia did you find valuable or helpful in your roles at Facebook and Microsoft? How about as a coach/entrepreneur?
In tech, my initial role at Facebook as a Quantitative UX Research drew directly on my statistics and survey skillsets. During the time I was on the team focused on the sharing/posting experience on Facebook, I also tapped into classic psychology knowledge daily. Both as an individual researcher and a manager in tech, I drew on my teaching and mentoring experience in coaching the people who reported to me, and in communicating technical findings with non-expert colleagues.
As a coach/entrepreneur, I not only tap into my psychology knowledge regularly when working with clients and creating new programs, but I also tap into my experimental/researcher mindset every day. Though it’s not always possible as a solo entrepreneur to design clean, high-powered experiments, I approach everything I do in my business as something I can test. It can be as simple as testing which question to open all coaching sessions with, or which headline for a blog article lands with people. Or it can be as large as doing a 6-month group program as a “pilot”, or spending several weeks doing market research to (in)validate an idea I have. Beyond the experimental/research mindset, during my PhD, I learned that failure is the norm (and to just keep going), that rejection can feel like a personal attack (and to remember it’s not), and that structure and boundaries both keep me going and keep me from going too much (into burnout).
Why did you join SPSP and how has being a member helped you professionally?
I first attended SPSP in 2006, but did not join as a (student) member until I was in graduate school in 2010. The biggest benefit for me has been keeping connected to the academic world since leaving in 2014. Some of that has been through attending conferences, some of it has been from being able to read some of the discussions happening in the field, and some of it has been keeping access to a few of the major journals so I am aware of findings that are relevant to my work. I hope for SPSP to continue to be a resource and a way for me to build a bridge between social science and the coaching world, which could use more science and rigor injected into it.
Do you have any memorable SPSP convention experiences?
In 2015, I was a presenter in a preconference on non-academic careers. Not only did I get to connect with some other folks who have gone onto interesting careers, but I got to connect with some incredible graduate students who are now thriving in their non-academic careers. That pre-conference gave those students permission to explore ideas and possibilities that they felt they could not explore within the constraints of their departments. It was one of the first times non-academic careers were explicitly acknowledged at SPSP, and since then, it has been heartening to watch the non-academic career presence grow and become a more “talked-about” career path for talented social and personality psychologists.
As an entrepreneur, how do you find work/life balance?
When I started my business, I made a declaration that I was “building a life that I never want to retire from.” For me, that meant two big things: 1) creating a business that energizes me daily and 2) creating a holistic life that keeps the business feeling like an energizer, rather than drain. It’s a common misperception that entrepreneurs have to hustle all the time in order to be successful. In fact, working less and bringing my whole energy to what I am working on (especially when I’m working with clients) will make my business sustainable for the long-term. On a very simplistic level, I have structures and boundaries in place. I do not work on weekends, I rarely coach or do work outside of 9am-6pm, and I have days and weeks that are client-free so that I can focus on other things. On a more complex level, it means checking in regularly with the balance of other things in life and making tradeoffs between those things and my business pursuits. How are my personal relationships? Have I made time for my health or for my hobbies? Where is my tank low and how can I set aside time to fill it? If there is no time outside of my work-day for these things, what can I deprioritize in my work? Though I am far from having a perfect system in place, I have much better work/life balance as an entrepreneur than I ever did in tech or in my PhD program.
To learn more about Erin's work as a leadership coach, visit her website erinmbaker.com. For insights into how social psychology prepared her for this career path, see All I need to know about being an entrepreneur, I learned in my PhD program (via medium.com)