From the Military to the Entertainment World, Alumna Defines Passion in Online Psych Program

After founding her own production company in Los Angeles, U.S. Air Force veteran Robbi Spencer developed a strong interest in applied psychology, leading her to USC’s online master’s program.

For Robbi Spencer, higher education was not exactly a linear path.

Instead, the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) alumna spent her years after high school finding her place in multiple worlds, including the Air Force and entertainment industry.

“I would say I was definitely a late bloomer. I started off at high school going into the military … I got placed into the career field, essentially project management,” Spencer explained. “But I knew my true love was always entertainment … I was even a part of Air Force Entertainment.”

Following her time in the military, Spencer made her way to Los Angeles, working as a songwriter for TV shows and picking up vocalist roles. Eventually, she decided to pursue an associate degree in sound engineering: “I was so enamored with all the buttons and dials and knobs and recording studios,” she laughed.

Once Spencer completed the program, she went into production, even forming her own company that was geared toward working with other industry women, addressing representation imbalances in the male-dominated field.

While her career was taking off, however, Spencer’s mother unfortunately suffered a stroke. Spencer became her primary caregiver, which meant walking away from her entertainment aspirations.

“When she got better, I realized I was completely displaced professionally because entertainment is kind of a field where once you leave … your contacts, your network and everything have changed,” she said. “I realized I needed to reinvent myself professionally and figure something new out.”

It was time, Spencer decided, to return to school. But when it came to what subject she wanted to study, that was a more difficult choice to make. Luckily, thanks to her veteran benefits, Spencer felt she had the freedom to ponder all sorts of opportunities without rushing her next career move.

Ultimately, Spencer was struck by the field of psychology, and she soon completed her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at UCLA. Hoping to specialize her knowledge and experience even further, she began looking into master’s programs for applied psychology.

At the time, Spencer was working as a project manager for an IT company, and she knew a master’s degree would help blend her psychology and business interests as well as advance her career goals.

Although Spencer initially enrolled at Claremont University, she quickly realized the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science online MAPP program was more her speed.

“I didn’t want to do more traditional, theory-based research. I wanted a program that would give me access to real-world experience, real-world scenarios [and] professors who were more than just researchers and were actually professionals excelling in their respective career fields. That was how I made the final decision to go ahead and move over to USC. It was probably the best thing I ever could have done for myself. It was a choice that I would say changed my life,” said Spencer, who graduated in 2020.

Focusing on both consumer and organizational psychology, the USC MAPP program is project-based and real world-focused, so students can immediately apply what they’ve learned in the online classroom to challenging workplace scenarios.

Graduates can pursue interests in a wide variety of industries and organizations, and the degree is ideal for those in areas such as project management, advertising, user experience (UX) research, human resources (HR), organizational development and training, and more.

“I learned things in my classes that I use at work all the time,” she noted.

For Spencer, the most important aspect of the online MAPP degree was its access to world-class faculty, whom she described as both “approachable and knowledgeable.” Another major draw of the program? USC’s thriving Trojan Family.

“Even when I was at Claremont and I told some professors that I was going to be moving over to USC, they said, ‘Oh, wow, they do have that network’ … My favorite thing about USC is the network and that people really do reach out. I pay it forward and make sure that I also reach back anytime I’m contacted on LinkedIn by anyone from the program or USC. Trojans legitimately help each other,” she enthused.

And while the classes have helped Spencer thrive in her current job as the project manager for Skin Health North America PMO at Johnson & Johnson – Neutrogena, one of the most enduring lessons from her time in the MAPP program wasn’t derived from a specific assignment.

Instead, she said, the program helped her adopt a new mentality.

“Oftentimes, we’re trained in life to be right, to strive to get the right answer. It’s about being right as opposed to learning,” she said. “[During the MAPP program], I learned how to feel comfortable with ambiguity, with there not being a right answer or an obvious choice … You don’t have to be right or perfect — life doesn’t work like that. So that would be my Northern star, as we call it at J & J, meaning something that’s guiding me is to try to not get caught up with the notion of being right.”

Embracing the ambiguity is advice she would give to anyone considering the online MAPP program, as well as taking advantage of the networking opportunities. In one of her courses, Spencer was even tasked with identifying professionals in her desired industry and setting up informational interviews with them.

“Obviously, the fear of rejection for such an assignment that you have to repeatedly do throughout the semester is quite high. But it ends up being useful for your career path, and that was something super powerful that came from the program. Also, just keep in mind that your professors are amazing professionals, so value the relationships. They’ll be instrumental in your journey,” she concluded.

Learn more about the online MS in Applied Psychology program today.