By David Bratt

Most mornings I bike the fifteen minutes from my apartment in Albany up to campus. Earlier this semester, though, I took a much longer route to a different destination: I drove almost two hours through Bay Area rush-hour traffic to Sunnyvale. And instead of going to the library, I was headed to Walmart Labs, a division of Walmart’s e-commerce division, where I undertook a day-long externship as part of the Career Center’s PhD Externships Program. An externship is a job shadowing experience that might include activities such as a tour of the workplace, discussion of your career trajectory, meeting with colleagues, observing work practices, or an overview of the organizational culture.

My host for the day was Peggy Szymanski, a UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Ph.D. alumna who works in user experience research for the Sam’s Club e-commerce division of Walmart. After I arrived at Walmart Labs around nine in the morning, I waited for Peggy in the lobby of one of Walmart Labs’ four massive office buildings. Peggy showed me around the company campus and then took an hour out of her busy schedule to tell me about her path to working at Walmart and how she uses the skills she learned at UCSB in a non-academic setting.

Peggy’s path to her current job is an interesting one. After completing a Ph.D. in Spanish Linguistics at UCSB, she taught in an elementary school in Southern California for a few years before working as a policy researcher for the L.A. Unified School District. When she and her husband decided to relocate to the Bay Area, Peggy landed a job at Xerox working in user experience research. Peggy emphasized that her experience in graduate school was critical for landing this work — she went, in effect, from analyzing conversation transcripts with an eye to producing academic work, to analyzing conversation transcripts with an eye to making Xerox’s products more user-friendly. She continued to put her graduate-school training to use during the rest of her sixteen years at Xerox, and in the string of related jobs she had before ending up at Walmart Labs.

After our chat, Peggy left to attend a company-wide meeting, and then took me out to lunch where I had a chance to learn about some of the work she does on a day-to-day basis. Peggy showed me how she blends ethnography, statistical analysis, and e-mail surveys to build profiles of different segments of Sam’s Club’s Mexican consumer market. While a lot of her day-to-day work involves reading through survey responses, making slide decks, and other desk-based tasks, Peggy emphasized that the time she spends in the field conducting interviews with Sam’s Club customers in Mexico is the foundation of what she does. And, she added, “having the chance to travel to Mexico is one of the best parts of the job.”

Before I left, Peggy offered to put me in touch with her colleagues in Walmart’s China division (because I study Chinese at Berkeley), or any other part of the company I was interested in trying to join. This was a great demonstration of another benefit of doing an externship: the chance to build connections.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my experience during the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Albany. My main takeaways were two-fold. First, it’s really useful to move from reading about what a job in a given field is like to experiencing a day in the life of someone working in that field. And second, hearing the stories of people like Peggy is a great way for Ph.D. students of all backgrounds to prepare for their own transitions to the workforce.

If you’re interested in this sort of career exploration, apply to the Career Center’s PhD Externships Program. Or, if you’d rather do a longer-term exploration of a particular company or career, take a look at the internships posted to Handshake. (A lot of the ads are written with undergrads in mind, but many of the internships are open to and appropriate for grad students.) And make sure to sign up for the GradPro newsletter, a bi-weekly digest of job, internship, externship, and other opportunities, that comes straight to your inbox.

About the Author: David Bratt is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) in the Graduate Division.