2022 Recipient of the CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award, Zak Witkower is a UBC graduate student alumni, and current postdoc at the University of Toronto.
What are your main responsibilities or activities in your current position?
My job is to produce impactful, interesting, and important research papers that can hold up to the rigorous standards of the scientific community. To do this, I spend my time managing cross-functional research teams, employing mixed-method research designs, writing scientific papers, and leveraging machine learning alongside statistics to understand, predict, and explain human behavior.
How does your current work relate to your graduate degree?
My postdoctoral work is a continuation of my graduate research. Although the methods and scope of my research have changed over time, I continue building upon my graduate work by investigating how and why nonverbal behavior is used to communicate social rank, emotion, and personality, around the world and across the lifespan.
What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?
I love the process of transforming thoughts and ideas into facts and knowledge. I specifically enjoy leveraging data in innovative ways to build convincing arguments that answer novel questions. That said, to pursue academic jobs I need to be open to relocation. On the one hand, this has introduced stress and challenges into my personal life, but on the other hand, it presents an opportunity for exploring new and exciting parts of the world.
Is your current career path as you originally intended?
Fortunately, yes. After graduate school I was offered a postdoctoral research position, and I recently accepted an offer to be an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. I will start there in September. Each step was certainly not a seamless transition, but, I eventually got there.
What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?
My advisor, Jessica Tracy. She’s a genius who conducts ground-breaking research, and I’ve admired her and her work long before I knew her personally. The moment she accepted me into graduate school I knew that I’d be moving from New York to Vancouver. If it wasn’t for Jess, I wouldn’t have been at UBC (and good thing she accepted me, because I really enjoyed my time working with her and everybody else, and living in Vancouver).
What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?
From a work perspective, I enjoyed answering the questions that made me most curious. From a work-life balance perspective, I enjoyed a flexible schedule. I was able to take off nearly any day of the week (in most cases). Being able to go visit a new city or do a new activity during the week, and reallocating work to the weekends, would mean I could sidestep the busy weekend rush and experience cool new places and activities with less hassle. I could also take the morning off and work late nights or wake up early and take the afternoon off. I worked when I wanted to, and as long as I was productive, nobody seemed to mind. On a more personal note, I also loved night Skiing. I didn’t know how to ski before arriving in Vancouver, but after my partner taught me how to ski it became our weekly ritual. Cypress mountain is a quick 35-minute drive from metro Vancouver, and we’d often jump in the car to go night skiing to end our day. In general, it’s pretty wild how accessible the mountains and nature are for a metropolitan city.
How did the graduate degree at UBC help you achieve your career and/or personal development goals?
Well, I like research, and I (generally) like humans, and fortunately UBC trained me how to research humans. Without that training, it would have been a lot harder to research humans.
What key things did you do, or what attitudes or approaches did you have, that contributed to your success?
You don’t ALWAYS need a research plan – sometimes it’s okay to just explore new ideas. In fact, some of my most successful research projects emerged from falling down rabbit holes that had no clearly defined roadmap. In addition to helping uncover novel insights, rabbit holes can be incredibly functional; studying what you “want” to do rather than what you think you “should” do is a great way to rebuild intrinsic motivation when you’re starting to burn out. It’s important to strike the right balance of doing exploratory “fun” work and confirmatory hypothesis testing (which can also be fun, but, let’s admit it – sometimes it’s not).
What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?
First, it’s important to acquire discipline-specific skills, but equally important to acquire skills that make you desirable to a wide variety of possible careers. For me, this was statistics and data science. I attained a quantitative methods minor alongside my PhD. For others pursuing a similar path, this could mean writing, journalism, science communication, project management, or interdisciplinary and mixed-method research skills. All these skills will still help you with discipline-specific research, and are not a waste of time, but they also position you for success if you decide to take an alternative career path. After all, an MA+PhD is 6 years, and even if you start graduate school with the intention of being a postdoc or becoming a professor, who’s to say you’re still going to want that in 6 years? People change, and that’s totally normal -- it’s important to be mindful of that potential change, and prepare for the possibility of forking paths down the road. Don’t pigeonhole yourself if you don’t have to. Second, when you’re doing a new task try to get it right the first time (even if it takes longer) – especially when you’re early in your graduate career. There are chunks of code and writing I’ve repurposed dozens of times, so if you get it “right” the first time, it streamlines your future work. Admittedly, there were lots of times I got it “done” instead of getting it “right”, and I suffered as a result.