Joe Stafura interview

What do you currently do?

I'm the Chief Cognitive Scientist at The Affective Computing Company ( ). We are a small software firm in Pittsburgh, PA. Being the "Chief" scientist means that I provide oversight and support in maintaining and updating the scientific principles or methods the company was founded upon. This most often means working with software development staff to contribute conceptually to the code base. It also means working with clients to make sure we are making things people care about or need.

The "Cognitive" in my title means that the areas of science I deal with involve people's thoughts and thought processes, such as memory and comprehension. Because my company is small (n ~ 12), I also get pulled into all kinds of meetings and tasks that aren't directly related to Cognitive Psychology, but that do draw on the many skills that I developed completing my Phd.

What skills did you gain from completing an Education or Psychology PhD that helped in your career after graduation?

At the highest level, completing my Psychology PhD taught me how to think with clarity and with a critical lens. This includes learning the ability to approach problems from several perspectives. Also, I learned to reduce problems into more manageable and understandable elements. And, perhaps most important personally, I learned to combine my thinking with others from a wide range of backgrounds and experience levels.

So, although I can still tell you something about mental models, and lexical priming of all sorts, and quite a bit about the electrical potentials dancing across our scalps as we think, I perhaps most strongly learned (and internalized) a thoughtful growth mindset toward my abilities and my adaptability.

What advice would you give to students pursuing Education or Psychology PhDs that you wish someone had told you?

Looking back, I actually think that I received all of the advice I needed from one source or another early in grad school. I think the real work I had to do, and the most difficult, was believing and internalizing that advice. So, I'll leave a few pieces of advice I picked up before or during my PhD program that continue to resonate as my life goes on...

  • It's your movie.
    It really is. All of it. You can do just about anything. You can, and should, live your life as much on your own terms as possible. Poke your head up every 5 years and make sure it all still feels okay.
  • It's all about flexibility.
    This is straight from my advisor, Dr. Charles Perfetti. Applied broadly, it's some of the most profound advice I've received. Looked at from a different angle, it means to try and become comfortable with some uncertainty.
  • Be patient with yourself.
    No one is born knowing much of anything, and certainly nothing about Education or Psychology PhD programs. Not even those on the Nobel short-list were born with a clue. Take your time. And, although there will be sprints here and there, life is a marathon.

What advice would you give students to help them with the job search?

First, take a slow, deep breath through your nose, and exhale your breath out of your mouth. It will be okay.

Next, Remember how much you have to offer, and if you forget, ask mentors and colleagues to help. You may be surprised at all of the value you find. If you're not surprised, congrats and keep up that confidence. It will serve you well.

Finally, be flexible and a little risky. Think about academic jobs, non-profit jobs, consultancies, corporations, and everything in between. Ask your advisor for a list of alums and ask them how they figured it out so far. By and large, I think you'll find us motivated to help.