Psychology at Robinhood (feat. Evan Dawson)
Alumni Aloud Episode 64
Evan Dawson received her PhD in Psychology with a concentration in Experimental Psychology and Law from the Graduate Center. She is now a Senior UX Researcher at Robinhood.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Evan talks to us about how she pivoted into the fields of tech and finance, the collaborative research she gets to do at Robinhood, and the importance of finding a career that aligns with your values.
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
SARAH HILDEBRAND, HOST: I’m Sarah Hildebrand. I’m a PhD Candidate in English at The Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interviewed Evan Dawson, who graduated from our PhD program in Psychology with a concentration in Experimental Psychology and Law, and is now a Senior UX Researcher at Robinhood. She’s going to be talking about how she pivoted into the fields of tech and finance, the collaborative research she gets to do at Robinhood, and the importance of finding a career that aligns with your values. So to get us started, Evan, would you mind giving us an overview of Robinhood’s mission and what your role is there.
EVAN DAWSON, GUEST: Sure! Robinhood is a mobile-first brokerage and they pioneered commission-free trading of stocks, options, ETF’s and cryptocurrency. Our founders, Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, whose mission is and our mission is to democratize finance for all. So we do that by making investing more approachable with digestible news and education as well as just more accessible, in terms of an easy-to-use platform, no commissions and products like fractional shares for example.
HILDEBRAND: And what exactly do you do at Robinhood?
DAWSON: I am a UX researcher. So I’m on two teams really. I’m on the research team where I am responsible for technical program management of our end product contextual surveys. I’m also a mentor on the team and also a talent steward, which means I do a lot of hiring and interviewing of candidates. And those are some of my core roles on the research team. I’m also on a product team, because UX research is product research. And there I collaborate with product managers, UX designers, content strategists, data scientists, engineers, product operations, market operations, lawyers, compliance, finance and business teams. Very cross-functional. We all work together to build products, build investing products. I work on our core investing product so I was on the team that built fractional shares for example.
And UX research is about foundational research where it’s not necessarily tied to a product yet but it’s broader research on people’s financial lives, their goals, their investing mindsets and psychology. And that kind of research helps inform what products we should build on our roadmaps. I also do iterative and design research where I’ll be testing prototypes with customers, doing design concepts, usability or more exploratory design research as well. Sort of co-creation sessions with customers. And then there’s also evaluative research. So once we’ve actually shipped this product, is it easy to use, it is meeting the customer’s needs, solving the problems we hope to solve for them. So kind of more following up and seeing where we can improve the product.
HILDEBRAND: Wow, sounds like you’re doing a little bit of everything there and probably using a lot of different skills on a daily basis.
DAWSON: Yes, yes for sure. We still have sort of a start-up mentality in that we’re a relatively young company so there’s a lot of white space.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah but that can be exciting because you can shape things a little more than at a more established corporation.
DAWSON: Absolutely, it’s one of the best parts of my job.
HILDEBRAND: Wow, well that’s good. What is your favorite part of your job?
DAWSON: So that, the white space, the value of even like foundational research, which are sort of bigger meatier questions. But also the creative and technical sides of it when you’re doing design research for example or working with data scientists on experiments. My favorite part of the job is probably besides just the work itself, is that when my product team meets with leadership, like the CEO and other executives at the company and we update them on what we’re doing and how we got there. The first question that’s usually asked is “What are our customers saying about this?” And that’s usually coming from the CEO and that’s a question that I take as the voice of the customer. And that’s my favorite part of the job because it just sort of reflects the value and visibility of research at Robinhood. There’s nothing that we release that isn’t thoroughly researched with our customers. And I really appreciate and value that our company lets our customers be the epicenter always. Their input and their feedback is the most important when we’re building products.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah that seems really important to building really great products for consumers and for keeping good relations amongst your stakeholders as well.
DAWSON: Yeah absolutely. Everybody’s participating in the process, in the research process.
HILDEBRAND: So doing all of the things you do, what does a typical day look like? How much time are you spending in meetings versus doing the research?
DAWSON: That’s a great question. I think I’m going to say more like a typical week because Mondays and Fridays are typically more about meetings. Where I’m meeting with my research teams and sub-teams and we’re just updating each other on projects and kind of sharing work in progress, talking about what we’re thinking about, questions we have and getting advice and feedback from each other. And then meetings with all my product stakeholders. So that could be just sort of stand-ups or retrospectives. Where we’re just sharing our goals, timelines, what our teammates can expect from each other. And then that’s kind of Mondays and Fridays. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays…one thing I appreciate about Robinhood is that we have no meetings Wednesdays so that’s my head-down time work-wise.
But I always have meaningful walks typically on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And that’s where I’m spending a lot of time in design reviews, working with UX designers and content strategists as well as product managers and data scientists most often. Just going through the concepts we’re thinking about, the rationale behind them and start to work towards building prototypes. And figuring out the research planning around design as well as any legal constraints we might have. And then otherwise just research whatever phase I’m in. If it’s planning, I’m meeting with all the stakeholders to make sure the research is going to meet their goals and answer their questions. It might be fielding or data collection so launch a survey or I’m running interviews or something like that. Or I could be in analyses, synthesizing qualitative data or survey feedback or something using stats. Or I could be in the reporting phase where I’m putting together a presentation for people so that I can share my research widely.
HILDEBRAND: Great, so you mentioned you have meetings where you’re really updating each other on your progress. When you’re doing the hands-on research, is that mostly independently or is that also a collaborative process.
DAWSON: That’s also a very collaborative process, which is unique. I don’t know if it’s unique necessarily to tech but it was a first for me when I came into tech. Everybody’s involved so obviously the role of a user researcher is to bring the voice of the customer to the table front and center. And making sure that everybody knows the customer’s perspective and then they adapt that to their relative functions. So it’s really important that everyone participates in the planning process. So I’ll be sharing plans, scripts, surveys, whatever I’m drafting or working on and then I share it with everybody and get their feedback and we have meetings about that. And then they also join user research sessions. So typically when I’m interviewing a customer, the designers, content strategists, product managers are always in the room. And typically data scientists and engineers and leadership are also in the room.
HILDEBRAND: That’s really great to know and that sounds exciting because I think that one thing a lot of graduate students struggle with is that the research process is very isolating. So it’s nice to know that if you do really enjoy research, there are other ways of doing it if you find the right place.
DAWSON: Absolutely. It’s really beneficial too because when you’re isolated and siloed, you’re not getting a lot of feedback and new perspectives on your research. In academia it’s often, perspectives of people that are very embedded in your world already as well. So it’s great to engage with people in all sorts of different roles with all sorts of different perspectives and needs during the planning and actual research process. And they also help with even synthesizing and making sense of the data too. There really isn’t much of the process that…while I’m driving it, I’m not doing it alone.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah I totally agree with that method too. Because I think you’re right that academia can often be an echo chamber. So it is always great to have those outside perspectives come in and have them all mesh together.
DAWSON: Yeah and it’s also how you get buy-in. If you want your research to be valued by people it’s really helpful to have them engage and feel like they’re a part of that process and a part of that outcome. It’s shared.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, for sure. How did you come to be interested in the field? Because I think not many people make the connection between Psych and Law, and finance?
DAWSON: *laughs* What I sort of at first was more technology and UX. So I actually started out in tech at a creative agency working for a Google Cloud product. And my users were IT decision makers. Very, very different. But what drew me to it was really the stakeholders and the product development process I thought was super interesting. Because you have people in all sorts of different functions like the ones I mentioned before that really span the creative and technical ends. And you’re working on products that are potentially used by millions of people so the impact feels very real and very big. I also like how fast-paced it seemed. But to me fundamentally, it was about a really interesting way to apply psychology to design. So that was kind of the interest that started to draw me into tech and then I just was learning so much, I got really into it and stayed. And eventually found an even better-suited field for me which is finance and Robinhood, which felt like a kindred spirit to me.
Because I was not interested in finance before at all. I knew about Wall Street and I graduated in 2008 into a financial disaster so yeah joining Wall Street was certainly not an interest of mine until I started to realize how important as a thirty-something year old woman, how important it is to be where you feel like you should be in your financial life. And so when I found Robinhood and this company that was trying to democratize access to finance and make it easier for people, including women and historically underrepresented groups, that felt like it really aligned with my values and my interests and it all kind of came together.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah seems almost like there’s a little bit of a social justice lean.
DAWSON: Absolutely. It was founded after 2008 and inspired I guess by Occupy Wall Street in 2008 and all of those events. When our founders realized that huge firms were making tons of money off commissions and paying very little to execute the trades and so just tried to make that more accessible for people. Because if you’re spending $8 each trade you place, that’s prohibitively expensive for probably the majority of Americans.
HILDEBRAND: That’s really cool, I didn’t know that that’s where Robinhood came from.
HILDEBRAND: What do you think it was about graduate school that helped set you up for success in making this kind of career transition?
DAWSON: It was the skills and expertise I developed. My training was extremely valuable because I was trained in the scientific method, I was trained in psychology and developed an expertise in subjects like memory and communication and understanding of bias, which are all so important in research and life. My expertise was in interviewing and interrogation which became very relevant when I became an interviewer and qualitative researcher myself with mixed methods. So the methods I developed, learning statistics, learning how to think like a scientist, how to identify research questions that are important, how to operationalize them, how to write, all of those things were really important and valuable skills.
HILDEBRAND: What was your dissertation on, out of curiosity?
DAWSON: My dissertation was on implicit influence in intelligence interviews. It was funded the High-Value Detainee Interrogation group. It’s an inter-agency organization that is housed at the FBI. And it is a group of researchers and practitioners, so like interrogators and actual intelligence interviews and law enforcement, and scientists from all around the world that study interviewing, persuasion, negotiation, communication, all sorts of related topics. And we worked together to help improve our scientific understanding of interviewing and interrogation and develop actual like trainings and influence policy to make sure that the interviewing interrogation techniques that are used by law enforcement and the intelligence community are scientifically supported.
HILDEBRAND: Do you feel like you still get to draw on that particular type of research experience in your current work or in other positions you’ve held?
DAWSON Yeah, I do. It took awhile to figure that out. So my actual dissertation was on the room design. So how does an interview room design itself influence somebody’s willingness or forthcomingness in an investigation. And it was grounded in a theoretical framework of conceptual metaphors. And basically that metaphors are not just a literary device, but they are really central to our cognitive architecture and the way that we understand and ground more abstract concepts. So taking an abstract concept like openness, openness with information for example, it’s more literal form could be operationalized as things like a bigger space or symbols of openness in your physical environment – a window for example.
And so working with that theory and seeing a lot of scientific support that the physical setting can actually influence this more abstract concept, I put people in some shady situations and had them interviewed in different types of rooms. One was a sort of typical police interrogation room, small, closed, 2-way mirror, that sort of deal. And the other was a larger actual room with a bigger table and windows and some pictures of open spaces on the walls. And all of those symbols of openness actually influenced people’s disclosure. They actually were more forthcoming with details about that shady situation I put them in then people who were interviewed in a more closed space who were actually more closed-up and withholding.
HILDEBRAND: That’s super interesting. There’s a relationship between environment and narrative basically, that comes about in these situations.
DAWSON: Yeah and it makes sense right. Like we talk about people in terms of actual physical experience, like “you’re a warm person” or “I got the chills from them.” When people are providing information we talk about them being open so yeah it was a really interesting theory, I saw a practical application. And it eventually became relevant in the sense that I learned a lot of about implicit influence that I think is just applicable every day and everywhere in life. So I’m always mindful of the context my participants are coming into, how I’m setting them up, what I might be inadvertently influencing. So I do think about those things a lot more.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah that research does seem really relevant to what you’re doing now. So your research in graduate school was helpful and then also learning about the research process was helpful. You’re using a lot of skills over and over again.
HILDEBRAND: So I think you’ll have a good answer to this question because you mentioned earlier that you’ve been on hiring committees or you’ve been in charge of that process. So if other graduate students are looking to come into similar roles or even work at Robinhood, what would you tell them to start doing now to make their resumes stand out? What are you looking for in a candidate?
DAWSON: So I’ll just speak to UX research specifically. What we’re looking for are candidates who are rigorous in their study design and research process, throughout the research process. And rigor really refers to or comes from scientific training. So I think that psychology and a lot of social sciences are very relevant. And showing that you’ve been trained in that research process, in the scientific method, you can understand potential threats to the validity of your study and your conclusions. You know how to anticipate and mitigate bias, those sorts of things are signals of rigor in your methodology. And that’s, in terms of like a skillset, it’s not just about “can this person interview, can this person design surveys” or whatever it might be, but are they rigorous in their process? And so that I think comes most from training. So I would advise I guess… I’m totally biased towards psych majors, but I would advise majoring or at least minoring depending on where you are in your journey in a social science.
You don’t need to get a PhD, if you’re interested in going to grad school, I think a Master’s in Psychology, Human-Computer Interaction and those kinds of fields are also very valuable in terms of rigorous training. The other things that we’re looking for are story-telling ability. I didn’t realize how important that is. And it takes a long to really develop… it’s very hard to become good at story-telling. But that is really important so that you can make sense of your findings for non-technical audiences. So you can share at a high level what the goals are clearly and that the research is clear because the story is clear. And then for the research audiences, the more technical audiences it’s more where that rigor and training comes in. So I think those are the two most important areas. Obviously we are also interviewing for communication and collaboration skills, are you self-aware, do you learn from mistakes, are you coachable, do you seem like a good teammate, those kinds of things. Do you understand everybody’s role on the team? Those are all also very important aspects. And to some extent, and this one’s more learnable, but a product sense. Kind of understanding business and products.
HILDEBRAND: Great, that’s a really strong articulation, I think, of what you’re looking for and of a bunch of skills that our graduate students probably have but they might not realize it because they’re so used to thinking “I research, I write, and I teach.” But they can also do a lot of other things.
HILDEBRAND: Thinking about your own career journey, how did you move from graduate school into your current position.
DAWSON: I wasn’t as proactive as I think I should have been because I was not really sure what I wanted to do to be honest, when I graduated. I was just pretty sure it wasn’t academia, but I didn’t know what was out there. So I kind of just took what came my way more easily. Which was, I was networking and just getting to know other researchers through the group I was working with. One of them went to graduate school with someone who is a trial consultant. And she introduced me to him and so I thought that trial consulting would be a pretty natural fit for a Psychology and Law person. And there were some people from my program that ended up as trial consultants. So that’s just where I started, I was just like “ok let’s get started.” And it didn’t really align with my values, didn’t feel like a great fit for me. It wasn’t really quite so much about psychology, it was like doing market research for litigation.
And the part that I was a little concerned about was that I felt like I was using psychology to influence jurors for the benefit of corporate defendants who were on trial typically for neglecting to warn or protect their employees from asbestos dangers or failing to warn or protect the public from the dangers of certain pharmaceuticals or employers that are discriminating against employees for various reasons. So I didn’t feel really well aligned with the side I was typically working for. *laughs* So I left the field and then continued my academic work and was sort of very seriously considering going back into academia. Which always seemed like very meaningful work to me. But I ended discovering user research and tech along the way. And so I tried that first and it was a great fit.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, you bring up something really important that graduate students or job candidates in general don’t always think about. Which is the idea of values and do they align with the mission of this organization. Very important in addition to thinking about what the job is and what you need to do. Also, how are you going to feel while you’re doing it?
DAWSON: Exactly. It’s one of the things that I wish I had reflected on more. Everything from the values of the company or group, people you’re working with and for, the company culture and the types of people you’re spending your time around. I loved spending time around researchers. I didn’t love spending time around really stressed-out lawyers. *laughs* You have to ask yourself like “what kind of people do I want to surround myself with fifty hours a week?” And you have to appreciate the sort of stressors that they face because it does sort of vibe off. And it’s part of your working relationship. And that was really challenging, yeah.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We’re almost already coming to the end of our time. So the last question that we usually like to ask our alumni is if you had any advice for current students. Whether they’re in the Psych and Law program or in graduate school at large. Is there anything you’d tell them to do now or that you wish you’d known while you were in grad school?
DAWSON: Yeah definitely, thanks for asking this. A lot of feedback that I tend to give and mentoring that I do… Well one thing, I just want to make a shout-out to UX Coffee Hours. For any students that are interested in UX research, UX design, content strategy. It’s a small mentorship group, it’s growing. I think we have like a hundred mentors now. But check that out online. There are a lot of people in the field that are giving their time to help people with everything from resume review to mock interviews or just career guidance and advice. Or if you’re already working in the field, what you might want to do to level-up… I think some of the things I would say, one – some basics. Your resume structure. Put your experience and skills at the top. Make them noticeable because people don’t spend more than a half minute reading your resume. I wish they did but it’s a sort of practical reality.
Another thing about resumes that I often see and took me a long time see as well and figure out for myself. Be very careful about the words you use to describe your experience. And I would advise using words that are not just the sort of tactical contributions but the strategic potential and contributions of your work. So where you see words like “I assisted with” or “I executed this.” Think about using words like “I created this, I drove this, I led this, I informed this.” Those kinds of words can make a really powerful difference in the framing of your experience. Another is interviewing is its own skill and takes a lot of practice. Don’t get discouraged! I got rejected by so many companies, it was hard and even when I made it to on-sites and got through technical screenings I still wasn’t doing well until I’d done it many times. So find somebody to do some mock interviews with, practice before you go in.
Also don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Like I reached out to some pretty random people, like siblings of friends and people I didn’t know well at all. But everyone’s been there, everyone’s been on the job market, in the hunt, and everybody’s willing to help. Another thing is know your value. And if you don’t necessarily know or you’re starting in a new field, ask people. I have never had anybody tell me that they were uncomfortable sharing their salary and compensation details with me. And I think it’s so important, especially for women, to make sure they’re asking those questions of others. So I mean it’s important for everybody, but definitely don’t be shy. You know, if somebody says no, fine. Ask somebody else. People are willing to help each other out in that way so don’t be shy about that. Referrals are really important to getting your application surfaced in companies that have a high volume of applications. So another thing, don’t be afraid to reach out and find that second or third connection on LinkedIn or whoever might be able to do an informational interview with you and submit your resume internally.
And I guess one other thing that I’ve seen that’s been very interesting and clever is students volunteering with university organizations. So I’m sure at CUNY there are programs and institute and different organizations that are like building websites or need help with that. That’s an opportunity to do user research and get a portfolio or a case study. So I would look around CUNY and anything you might see with website improvements or you’re kind of in the know that some kind of institute is building an app or anything like that. There are always universities doing things like that. I think they’re very open to having volunteer researchers help them with that process. So that’s usually a good way to get a little bit of experience in UX.
HILDEBRAND: I think that’s really great advice. Pay attention to your job documents and academic CV is very different from a resume. Be sure you’re highlighting your experiences in the right way. Make sure that you’ve practiced your interviewing skills. Not getting discouraged if you are not getting the job every time after an interview. I think networking, always great to plug networking because that is how a lot of people find jobs, by making those connections. And I think that is all great advice for our students to keep in mind. So I do want to thank you for coming in today and for sharing all of your experience with us, it was really exciting to hear about your work. And I hope we get to talk again soon!
DAWSON: I do too, thanks so much Sarah for having me! I think what you’re doing is awesome and I’m always here to help. Feel free to share my email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find me on LinkedIn. Definitely any students that want to reach out, I’m happy to help them with their own journeys.
HILDEBRAND: Thank you so much, we really appreciate that!
HILDEBRAND, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Evan for coming in to talk to us about how she’s put her PhD to work. The Office of Career Planning & Professional Development can help you decide what career path is right for you. Find a list of our upcoming events or make an appointment to speak with one of our career advisors at cuny.is/careerplan. You can also follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening!