As a reminder of the ‘big picture’, one of my mentors shared this quote when I graduated with my PhD in December 2018. Soon I realized my classification had changed from ‘graduate student’ to ‘young professional’. This was exciting as I was relatively new in a full-time job, but my graduate school memories were still ripe and fresh. My industry friends wanted to know how a ‘real’ job was treating me, where my friends in graduate school wondered what it was like to be ‘out there’? For me the unexpected learning curve during this transitional journey was not just regarding personal and professional growth, but also about how I approached my research interest. I hadn’t really pondered over my personal experience with this change until I was asked about it on multiple occasions. I also wondered if anyone would even be interested in my journey. Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but I have come to realize that it doesn’t hurt to share yours in case someone finds it helpful. If not, it might at least be a fun read (hopefully!).
The human brain always fascinated me and so did neurobehavioral methods leveraged to capture human reactions. As a result, I naturally gravitated to the topic of food/beverage-evoked emotions for my PhD. Food/beverage-evoked emotion can be defined as “a brief but intense physiological and/or mental reaction to a food or beverage item”1,2. However, I quickly realized that actually measuring those emotional responses was a different challenge altogether. Drawing inspiration from other fields such as Psychology and Neuroscience, a plethora of methods are now available to us namely self-reported ratings, facial expressions, physiological changes observed in electro-dermal activity (EDA) of the skin measured as skin conductance response (SCR), cardiovascular activity measured as heart rate (HR), and skin temperature (ST), and many more3. My PhD research focused on overcoming the knowledge gap regarding which method(s) worked best to predict consumer liking and preference toward beverages. Under the guidance of a great advisor and assistance from helpful fellow graduate students, we were able to show that a combination of explicit methods such as self-reported emotions and implicit methods such as facial expressions yielded a better predictive model of consumers’ overall liking and choices as compared to the individual methods. These results held true in a basic taste model and were validated with a more complex beverage system such as vegetable juices4.
Post-graduation, just like any other recent graduates, I was eager to apply my knowledge and learnings in the ‘real world’. While I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to work on emotions in my new role, thankfully an opportunity presented itself. It took me some time to actively train my brain to not fall prey to the known thought process of past work, but to honor the uniqueness of current research problems. The team was interested in adding value to our research offering by introducing an element of emotional responses. It was natural for my brain to exclaim ‘This is what I did in grad school!’. While I was extremely thankful that my graduate school experience had prepared me well for this exact scenario, I also constantly reminded myself that this time the focus was on application of emotional responses to better understand in-context effect and thereby improve a product portfolio. The timeline and resources at hand also had to be taken into consideration. With an intricate design targeted to capture clear objectives, the team was able to show that consumers who plan for sweet indulgences during their day are more satisfied post consumption than those who did not plan for sweet indulgences, as they often experience feelings of guilt. Consistent with findings from other researchers regarding the association of environmental context and emotions5, this study further highlighted the importance of gaining insights in-context to be able to describe consumer emotions and its implications on overall satisfaction with the product6.
Even though this is just one example, the key takeaway is to be able to accept and conquer the sometimes-underestimated transition period of a student to a professional. When I started writing this article, I jotted down some points based on personal experiences and guidance from mentors. In my humble opinion, each one of us has either already gone through this experience, going through one or will be at some point in their career.
Diversify your learning. Make most of your graduate school experience. I am thankful for mentors who pushed me to pursue courses outside of Food Science for a well-rounded learning. Courses in statistics, cognitive psychology and advanced neurobehavioral techniques helped me better understand sensory and emotion research at its basics and better apply those learnings when designing projects and communicating research. Diversity in learning also came from participation in conferences, scientific groups, and networking with other researchers in the field. Another great way to gain a different outlook toward research is to be involved in projects other than your core thesis. I was rightly advised to leverage any opportunity to enhance my knowledge and keep myself abreast with the latest developments. Graduate school (even undergrad!) has so much to offer, it’s up to the student to capitalize on it!
Keep asking yourself ‘so what?’ During my defense I was asked to explain how my research would be applied to a ‘real-life’ industry problem to which I had a response ready. In retrospect though I feel my own understanding of this application was a little different from the actual scenario. The reason was I hadn’t asked myself enough ‘so what’s’! Critical thinking to identify a solution to a problem is something graduate school ingrained in me. Applying the solution to its full potential came with end-to-end team project experience. It’s beneficial to repeatedly ask ourselves ‘so what’ to every solution till we reach a stage where the fundamentals of our research questions are answered.
There is no island, it’s all teamwork. Also, don’t forget quick timelines and limited resources. This was probably the biggest one in terms of unlearning and relearning. I keep referring to ‘my’ graduate project because that’s how it was positioned. In my role as a sensory scientist, it dawned that the project was not just ‘mine’ anymore. It’s the team’s project and everyone’s contributions mattered greatly. While someone else on the team is depending on you doing your job right and in a timely manner, you are also dependent on someone else. As vital asit is for you to know your technical basics, you also need to cultivate the emotional intelligence to navigate through nuances of team dynamics. It’s a delicate balance of persevering but being flexible along the way.
As they say – know your audience. Communication is key. I remember after my first internship presentation, my mentor politely pointed out that while everything I was saying and presenting was 100% accurate, it’s not something that would appeal to my audience. Despite my love to talk about neurobehavioral responses, the broader team was mostly interested to gather how it would help them better determine their product portfolio and understand consumer behavior. It took efforts to switch the narrative but with practice and experience it became easier! The key is to ask questions and be open to constructive criticism.
It’s okay if it’s confusing. It’s okay to make mistakes. All journeys are different. Another important one I learned and realized it’s not discussed enough. It’s totally alright if you feel overwhelmed, confused, or just surprised as your brain adapts to the new learning environment. I might even say don’t be afraid to make mistakes for that’s how we learn! What helped me was chatting with peers and colleagues only to realize my emotions were perfectly normal, and even expected. Some folks have a seamless transition while some might endure a bumpy ride. But you know what, it all works out eventually (I know someone who faced a team elimination within mere three weeks of starting their first job fresh out of school, but today, three years later, are happy where they are at )
So folks, those were my two cents! There is no magic key to unlock all the answers, sadly. The only mantra that really works is to keep the hunger to learn alive within you, make mistakes and grow with them #studentforlife
P.S. Special thanks to all my mentors, colleagues and friends at University of Arkansas, Kellogg Company and Curion!
1. Kenney, E., & Adhikari, K. (2016). Recent developments in identifying and quantifying emotions during food consumption. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 96, 3627-3630
2. King, S. C., & Meiselman, H. L. (2010). Development of a method to measure consumer emotions associated with foods. Food Quality and Preference, 21, 168-177.
3. Kaneko, D., Toet, A., Brouwer, A. M., Kallen, V., & Van Erp, J. B. (2018). Methods for evaluating emotions evoked by food experiences: A literature review. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 911.
4. Samant, S. S. (2018). Development of a Methodology for Predicting Consumer Acceptance and Preference Toward Beverages. University of Arkansas.
5. Seo, H. S. (2020). Sensory nudges: The influences of environmental contexts on consumers’ sensory perception, emotional responses, and behaviors toward foods and beverages. Foods, 9(4), 509.