A Passionate Pursuit: How This College Graduate Found Her Niche in Human Factors

Working as a piano teacher throughout high school, Rachel Sutton became interested in, of all things, psychology.  

“I was able to work with not only the kids but the kids’ parents as well, and teaching really got me interested in learning about the way that people think and behave,” she says. 

As an undergraduate at Hampton University — from which she graduated in May — Sutton studied psychology and got a taste for hands-on research. It was during one industrial organizational psychology course that she learned about the field of human factors. Often referred to as human factors engineering, it is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the development and design of products, processes and systems. 

“[Human factors] helps to broaden the base of knowledge in reference to human capabilities and human limitations,” says Sutton. “After I took that course my junior year, I ended up submitting an application for a research internship focused on human factors and industrial and organizational psychology at Rice University. That was really where I was able to learn a lot, and that peaked my interest.”

Rachel Sutton

Eager to learn even more about this complex field, Sutton made the decision to go to graduate school. In the fall, she’ll begin the Human Factors PhD Program at Wichita State University to work in the Challenge, Metacognition and Perception (ChaMP) Lab under Dr. Lisa Vangsness. While her interest in psychology has been solidified for some time, Sutton says she has benefited from the guidance she has received and the connections she has made along the way. 

The Competitive Advantage alum recently spoke with us about career interests and how the program helped validate her decision as to what direction to take. 

What about human factors specifically peaked your interest and led to your decision to pursue it at the graduate level?

One of the main things that peaked my interest in human factors is the fact that it’s hands-on research that can be conducted within an applied setting.  Its real-world application and the diverse contexts in which human factors topics can be studied led to my decision to pursue it at the graduate level.

It looks like a lot of your past research has focused on race. What sparked your interest in this topic, and is it an area you’re considering exploring further in human factors?

The most recent project that I worked on under race was entitled “Does the race of one’s mother influence the perception of phenotypic, prototypicality in biracial individuals?” I became very interested in that research project because I really wanted to see if the race of an individual’s mom, as well as the way that they look, would influence the way that they perceive themselves. 

In terms of connecting that to my human factors work, I don’t necessarily think that is something I would explore further in human factors because I feel like it would be hard for me to overlap the two. But I will say that, within my research in human factors, I think that because I’ve done a lot of previous research on race, I would consider it as an important variable within my research, if it applies.

What do you ultimately hope to do in the field?

Ultimately, I hope to either work in industry or as a professor. I am interested in researching people’s judgments of difficulty; however, I am not sure of the context I would like to apply that research to yet, as I am still narrowing down my interests.

You participated in Competitive Advantage in fall 2019. What was it that attracted you to the program? Coming from a psychology background, what were you hoping to get out of it?

I really liked the fact that … so many companies were there that students could meet with, and I liked that people were able to interview at the conference because I feel like that’s something that you don’t see very often. I also liked the fact that [we were encouraged] to engage with each other. 

I was hoping that I could connect with not only other people in my major, but also learn more about the opportunities within industry because I feel like the connections that I make now, will be able to help me in the future. 

What did you enjoy most about your experience at Competitive Advantage? What did you walk away with?

I actually wasn’t able to get to the conference until the second to last day at like 6 p.m., but I was able to connect with a few people from the various companies, like Deloitte, and learn a lot about the different areas and roles they have in terms of internships and full-time employment. I was also able to connect and meet with representatives from the University of Virginia and other graduate schools. 

For me, I was happy that I was able to bring that back to my institution, and I was also happy that I was able to make those corporate contacts now for when I might submit an application later.

How did your experience at Competitive Advantage help you on your career path? Did it help provide any clarity or direction?

When I went to Competitive Advantage, I was able to hear from a lot of companies. It really helped cement my decision to pursue human factors because I was able to see that it could be applied to so many different areas and contexts. 

Was it empowering being around so many other diverse students who are at similar junctures on their educational and professional journeys? 

Yes, it was! I ended up meeting a girl named Cherish Dean who was interested in human factors and industrial organizational psychology, which was amazing because, within psychology, I hadn’t really met that many people who were interested in or had heard of human factors. It was really awesome to meet someone who was interested in that and be able to talk about it. Even now, we’ll call and chat, and it’s been really great because I can give her advice on internships and the application process for a PhD program. That was one of the greatest connections that I made.

Grad School Seminar
Sutton and Cherish Dean (center) attend the Graduate School Seminar during the 2019 Competitive Advantage.

Would you recommend Competitive Advantage to other college students?

I would definitely recommend the Competitive Advantage conference. It was a great opportunity to not only bond with like-minded and hardworking individuals, but it was also a great opportunity to meet people who work at these companies face to face, to be able to have lunch with them and ask them all of the questions that you might have. 

What sparked your decision to go to graduate school now as opposed to pursuing a full-time position?

My curiosity regarding human factors sparked my decision to go to graduate school.  I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, specifically at Wichita State University, because it would allow me to gain in-depth knowledge of my chosen research topic in an applied context, as well as excellent mentorship, and would prepare me well for any position in the future — whether that be in industry or academia. 

What have you learned throughout the graduate school application process, and what advice do you have?

I would advise students to, one, work on your applications as early as possible, and two, take the GRE as early as you can. That way, if you need to change something on your application or retake the GRE, you can — without stressing. I would also advise people to just be yourself in your application because the schools really just want to get to know you.

I feel like submitting to graduate school can be a very daunting process because it can be a much longer journey, so you really have to know why you want to pursue your degree of interest. For me, one of the challenges that I faced was really narrowing down what I was interested in and making sure that I was conveying myself, as well as my accomplishments, in the application. I feel like when you write these essays, it can be easy to just list your résumé, but I learned that it is also very important to be able to talk about who you are as a person and what other things have led you to this point.

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