Picture for a moment a long-term goal you have achieved successfully. Perhaps it was something like losing weight, running a half-marathon, or quitting smoking. Perhaps it was running a successful business or receiving a college degree. What matters is that you accomplished your goal, despite the time and effort it required. You stuck it out. You put in the hours. You succeeded.
Now picture another goal that did not go so well. Perhaps it was one of the same things mentioned above. Perhaps it was something else entirely. What matters is that you did not succeed. You may have tried for a while, but you did not stick it out. You did not put in the hours. You gave up.
So what was the difference? What gave you the drive to succeed at one task but not the other? Was it something intrinsic to the tasks themselves, or were other factors at play?
Amy Bucher (Organizational Psychology: MA 2003, PhD 2006) is driven to answer those questions. Throughout her time in graduate school and subsequent work in various private enterprises, two fundamental questions have preoccupied her: what motivates people to do what they do, and how can understanding those motivations help people become, in Bucher’s words, “healthier, happier versions of themselves?”
While those questions may first appear abstract and academic, Bucher’s own values and motivations have led her to explore them outside of academia, and particularly from within the product design industry. In her current role as Vice President of Behavior Change Design for the design firm Mad*Pow, Bucher draws on psychological theories of motivation to create and implement software solutions that encourage long-term user engagement. In her recent book Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change (Rosenfeld Media, 2020), she shares her insights and theories about motivation-theory-driven product design with other professionals across the industry. Working primarily on solutions for the health-care industry—such as products that help users stick with healthy diet and exercise routines—Bucher enjoys working in private industry in part because of the relatively quick research-and-development cycle and the ability to immediately apply that research to create positive changes for end-users.
Indeed, for all of the lessons and insights Bucher offers her company’s clients and the design industry as a whole, her journey to understand her own motivations and interests—and to follow those interests into the business sector—may offer just as much value, particularly to recent and future PhD recipients. For Bucher, as for many other graduate students, straying from the traditional academic career path into the terra incognita of private industry was emotionally taxing and sometimes frightening. But it was ultimately the right decision for her.
“Early on, it was really tough,” Bucher explains, “and I think I was in denial for a while too. I realized around my third year, when I was starting my dissertation research, that I may not be interested in a traditional academic career. But I didn’t really admit it. It was more like, ‘Oh, I might be open to other jobs.’ Actually, when I really committed to not going into academia was when I had an on-site job interview scheduled at a school, and I could just feel in my body that it wasn’t the right path for me, that it wasn’t something I felt good about. So I withdrew from consideration for that job and just stopped sending out applications.”
At first, Bucher’s decision to follow her own interests and blaze her own path sometimes felt more like a failure than a victory. From the beginning, her decision brought practical challenges because her faculty mentors did not have much experience with or advice about careers outside of academia. “The faculty I was working with were all very nice about it,” she recalls, “but they just don’t have the models of career paths that are different from their own. They have all worked in academia for their careers, so they were not able to offer patterns for what an alternate career might look like. I had a hard time finding the practical help I wanted in finding my first job out of grad school.”
Just as importantly, though, the decision brought emotional challenges as well. Steeped in the culture, values, and expectations of academia, Bucher says, her own self-identity and personal schemata for success had become intertwined with teaching, publication, and tenure. “At first, I felt disappointed in myself,” she reflects, “I felt I was not successful in what I set out to do. I blamed myself for making this ‘weird choice,’ and it took a number of years before I made peace with it and started to feel like I can be a success having a PhD and doing this thing that is not the usual career path.”
However, while still working through those thoughts and feelings, Bucher secured a position at HealthMedia, an Ann Arbor-based company founded by Vic Strecher of the U-M School of Public Health. At HealthMedia (later acquired by Johnson & Johnson), Bucher discovered the passion that would shape the rest of her career: using psychological theory and research to design real-world products to help people improve their physical and emotional health. Among other insights, Bucher’s work on an online health-coaching platform for HealthMedia taught her that people were more likely to stick with their goals if they were first required to reflect deeply on their own values and motivations—and if they were then reminded of those values often. In other words, the more deeply people were asked to reflect on their own individual reasons for, say, getting in shape or quitting smoking, and the more often they were reminded of those reasons throughout the course of the program, the more likely they were to put in the hours and the effort necessary to achieve their goals.
Bucher continues to draw on that insight about the importance of metacognition and self-reflection in her role at Mad*Pow and as the author of Engaged. Her current work also draws heavily on the self-determination theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, which posits that people are motivated in large part by the drive to satisfy three universal psychological needs: specifically, the needs to feel competent, autonomous, and related to others. People are inclined to continue performing tasks that help them satisfy one of more of those needs and disinclined to continue with tasks that do not. In terms of real-world software design, that may indeed mean asking users to reflect on and clarify why they want to achieve a goal for their own individual reasons, thereby satisfying the need for autonomy. It may mean breaking a large-scale, long-term task such as losing weight into smaller, achievable goals, thereby providing attainable milestones that provide users with a feeling of competence. Or it may mean adding social media elements that connect users with others who are working on similar goals, thereby providing them a sense of shared community and relatedness.
Bucher has also drawn on those theories to understand herself and the choices she has made. For example, the extremely slow pace of the academic research and publication cycle was challenging for her in part because it did not satisfy her own need to feel competent. “One thing I have since learned about myself is that I am a very milestone-driven person,” she explains, “and for me, in the academic job world, the milestones are just so far apart that it was really difficult to stay on course. It’s just not a fit for the way that I work with the world. I’ve found that the cadence of product work is more satisfying to me as a day-to-day activity.”
The needs for autonomy and relatedness also played into Bucher’s decision to work in the private sector. During the final year of her PhD, she met the man she would later marry, and she knew right from the start that the relationship would be serious. At the time, her future husband was just beginning another PhD program at U-M, and Bucher knew that entering the academic job market would mean she had little autonomy in her decisions about where in the country she would live and work. “On the academic job market, you don’t have a ton of control over where you end up,” she explains. “I really felt like, even if that particular relationship did not end up working out, I was a young single woman who was interested in finding a partner. I would like to have some control over that aspect of my personal life.”
Despite her choice to leave academia, however, Bucher is extremely grateful for her time in U-M and considers it the single most important time in her life. She counts her dissertation and lab work with her Department of Psychology research mentors as crucial to discovering and developing her own passions. But U-M has really come to permeate nearly all aspects of her life: “So many of the good things in my life, I owe to that school. I met my husband there. The job that was most formative for my career was HealthMedia, a U-M company. Some of my best friends were once part of my cohort in graduate school. So if there is one thing in my life that made me who I am, it was going to Michigan.”
Moreover, there were aspects of academia that Bucher loved: teaching, for one, and she continues to seek out opportunities to speak to groups of undergraduate and graduate students. Perhaps the most important lesson she has to offer them is simply a discussion of her own satisfying career path. “One of the things I’ve tried to do since I’ve reached a point in my career where I feel more established is to talk openly about my decisions—especially when I’m talking to grad students, or recent grads, or people who are new to their careers—because I think it’s important to establish these kinds of role models. Not that I want to call myself a role model,” Bucher laughs, “but I am an example of a career outside of academia that is rewarding and where you can be successful without following the more traditional path.”