Lisa Kath on Moving from Organic Chemistry to IO Psychology

Lisa Kath used to be a chemist. Now she’s an IO psychologist. What the hell happened? In this episode, I talk to Lisa about her career transition, how she found out about IO psych to begin with, and what she misses about chemistry.

Follow Lisa on Twitter. (Pssst…she’s also the ringmaster behind I-O Psych Memes on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. Tell the cool kids.)


This is an AI-translated transcript and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  00:00

Welcome, everyone to the DEP 12 podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Ben butina. I get emails and LinkedIn messages and DMS on Twitter fairly often from students who are considering IO psychology as a career. But last week, I got a question from somebody that was a little more unusual. And he was considering changing careers into IO psychology from another field, the legal field. And he had, you know, a very prestigious job, I would call it. And so he’s wants to talk to people to find out, you know, what is this IO psychology thing really like? And I connected him with a few people. But I also thought, hey, that would make a great topic for a show. One of the folks who responded to that request to talk about their sort of career transition was Dr. Lisa Kath, who joins us tonight. How are you tonight? Lisa? I’m good. Thanks. All right. So, Lisa, you you have an unusual background in that you started out in chemistry right? That’s correct. Did you I know you have your undergraduate degree in chemistry, did you embark on a career in chemistry and then switch to it? Oh, I did. I worked in chemistry for about seven years.

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  01:14

A couple of those years my first real grown up job after college was working for what was then a small company, Gilead Sciences. And I was employee number 86. There I made DNA which sounds really cool. I would be so rich if I stayed there. But I didn’t like making DNA and ended up moving across the country with my then boyfriend now husband, and working for Pfizer, which is a really big pharmaceutical company and I worked at Pfizer for four and a half years before making the switch to psychology. Okay, let me start with why chemistry to start out with so what what drew you to chemistry to begin with, you know, when I was applying to college, college applications were such a different thing. When I was applying to college. I applied to very few colleges. I knew that I like science and I alternated between chemistry and biology without really knowing a lot about either. And then I took chemistry one a at Berkeley, which is where I went to undergrad. And the guy was incredible. I remember him teaching us about the periodic table of the elements and why they were in the order that they were in. He was talking about electron configuration. And he just stopped and he turned to the 350 of us out in the audience and said, Isn’t that beautiful? And I was hooked. I was like, yep, that’s amazing. So I stuck with it.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  02:37

Cool. So I’m guessing that this isn’t a job that a lot of people transition out of, you know, you mentioned like you were one of the first employees at Gilad, which is one of those names that probably many listeners are newly familiar with just because now pharmaceutical companies are kind of all over the news because as we record This we are in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic. For those of you listening to the future, I hope this is done and you’re healthy. But right now we’re all very interested in pharmaceutical companies and research universities and chemists doing their thing because we’re looking for a vaccine. And I’m guessing and maybe I’m wrong here, but I’m guessing that not too many people transition out of that career, would that be safe?

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  03:24

You know, I went to I went to work with a lot of people who did end up transitioning out so it’s someone who ended up being medical doctors who one became a veterinarian, one who became a journalist, so I guess some people didn’t transition out. Alright, if you’re working at the bachelors level,

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  03:43

okay? So what if you’re working in Gilead and then Pfizer? What is it that makes you aware of IO psychology where you’re like, yeah, that’s the thing I want to do now.

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  03:55

That’s the question. I knew that I didn’t want to stay in camp. It just didn’t feel like the right thing for me. And I thought I’ll go back and get my MBA that was always my plan, I’ll go back and get my MBA. But I couldn’t get excited about going back and getting my MBA. So to delay the decision a little bit, I did some career counseling. And I actually took a whole bunch of standardized tests, and learned about my values, my interest, all these kinds of things. And one of the careers that lined up that, you know, that popped up, I should say that lined up for me was industrial organizational psychology. And when this came up, I told the educational psychologist that I was working with, I don’t want to be a counselor, and thank goodness, she said, That’s not what they do. And so I looked into it. career counseling is not the, you know, straightforward path to one career, but it did at least open my eyes to this as a possibility. And as I continued to explore an MBA, I realized that a lot of what I was looking for was really, you know, io psychology focused stuff. The stuff I was most interested in aligned with IO psych.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  05:03

Okay, so you got sucked into is like you just passed and you’re like, wow, okay, well, maybe these tests mean something. So what was it? Like? I don’t know, at this point, you know, you’re with your boyfriend or if you’re married at this point, what the deal is with your family or your friends or anything, but I’m curious to know, like, was anyone surprised when you said, Look, I don’t think this chemistry things for me. I want to go into this unpronounceable named psychology sub discipline. And what was their response to that?

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  05:33

I think there was a general recognition that that might be a good move for me. I was able to explain it really succinctly, which always helps. And I said, you know, one of the things I’ve realized is that I love science. That’s why I got into chemistry. That’s why I loved doing organic chemistry, learning about it. But I also love people. And so trying to align those two interests and you know, really focusing on the psychology of human beings. Your work is just a perfect match. And people I think could kind of see that.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  06:05

Awesome. So you went and you got a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and what is it that you do now that you think combines that you know, love for people and love for science?

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  06:21

My research is in occupational health psychology broadly. And I focus a lot on worker safety and worker stress. And for sure the worker safety interest stems from my experience as a chemist. So one of the things that I noticed when I was a chemist was every time you started a new lab, you take safety training that’s required before you’re allowed to work in the lab. And then you get into the lab, and the behaviors that you transfer to the job are the ones that your friends are doing or your co workers are doing. And so this has just sparked a you know, a lifelong interest. And social influences on training, transfer and safety.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  07:06

Very cool. And you’re, you know, in my little background reading that I do before the shows I, as I do with most people, I looked you up on Google Scholar and your citation list is, I didn’t really have time to read it, frankly, it’s like one of those things, I need to print out on a dot matrix and roll into a scroll and carry under my arm. Because you published a lot. So research is a big part of it. Can you tell us a little about your teaching?

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  07:31

Oh, teaching is one of my favorite things. Because I’m really interested in science communication, I think just broadly and teaching is kind of a specialized form of that. So I was so excited to learn about IO. Psychology was late, obviously in my in my life in my career, but I love the opportunity to be able to share this information with other people because I think it’s just broadly useful. So for me, obviously, it led to becoming an IO psychologist. But even for people who aren’t IO psychologists, the kind of stuff that we know is useful to anyone who works. So the teaching aspect of my job has brought me an enormous amount of joy.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  08:13

So, aside from the very real possibility that you would be, you know, very wealthy right now, if you’d stayed at Gilead with you know, a wheelbarrow full of stock options, and yeah, is there anything that you miss about being a chemist and he kind of like itch that I Oh, just doesn’t have any kind of itch that IO doesn’t scratch for you?

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  08:34

That’s a great question. And the answer is absolutely. So when I was working as an organic chemist, I worked with physical stuff. And so I could take something mix it up, purify it, and have a white powder or a yellow oil or something that I knew what it was. I had something physically present that I could say this is the thing that I made today. I don’t have that and I have psychology and I have a lot of special sheets or datasets or Word documents, but it’s just not the same. So what I found is that I substitute and I do craft projects. And so that’s the way that I get that kind of tangible hands on things. So I’ve made my succulents out of felts because I am terrible at keeping houseplants alive. And I’ve taken up crochet as, as another hobby. So just, you know, some hands on stuff to kind of substitute scratch that itch a

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  09:29

little. Alright, very cool. Now, let’s flip that around. What is it that you get from IO? Maybe that you haven’t already mentioned that you didn’t get as a chemist.

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  09:41

I love being able to just understand more about people. I think people are super fascinating. And it’s not to say that molecules aren’t. But I just there’s something about my brain that’s wired to think about people and I love that. So that’s the part that I’m really, really about is that I found an opportunity to engage in science and something that has just been interesting to me for years and years.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  10:09

Well, Lisa, thank you so much for being on the show. I think this was a great conversation. Have lots of people listen to it, especially those considering making a move from me one of the hard sciences into IO psych. So I really appreciate you spending the time with us today.

Lisa Kath, Ph.D.  10:24

Thanks so much for the invitation. It was a real pleasure.