Transitioning from Academia to User Research

It was a real pleasure to join the User Research Atlanta Meetup group earlier this week to talk about the experiences of some folks I know who’ve made the move from academia into UX.

Below is a recording of that conversation.

My sincere thanks to Matt Wallens and Zach Pousman for giving me the opportunity to share!

We had about 80 minutes of time for our conversation. The first 30 minutes includes a short slide deck I created and I’m including my speaker notes for the slides. The first half of the presentation includes some findings from interviews conducted with UX Researchers who came from academia. The rest of the slide deck is based on the lessons I learned from my job search. I wrote about that here.

After the slide deck we opened the remainder of our time to Q&A with folks who attended.

Notes from the Presentation

I am really grateful to you all for making the time today to meet with me here.
I trust that if you’re here it’s because you are embarking on or have recently embarked upon a major life decision (changing not only your job but also your industry) and so it’s a real privilege to be a part of your journey.
Thank you for including me on your journey.

When I was setting out on my own transition into UX Research I came regularly to Matt and Zach’s meetups in the hopes of learning how the industry works, to meet with practitioners, and to learn the lingo.

When I attended their User Research Conference at Mailchimp I set a goal for myself to present at one of their meetups, one day. Thanks for having me here, Matt and Zach, and thanks for all you do to help us in the UX community.

I am a UX Researcher, so I interviewed some other UX Researchers who were in Academia before joining this industry.

On the next slide I will give you a brief overview of my careers.
Then I will share with you findings from someone I have mentored, Nia Jarrett, as she set out to learn more about becoming a UX Researcher.

After that I will share the findings I gathered from interviewing some former academics.

I asked them to:

  • Describe a day in their life,
  • List what they thought were the transferable skills of an academic
  • What were their barriers to entry into the field
  • Give networking advice
  • Share advice on re-branding for a new industry
  • Share advice for building a portfolio
  • Describe any pleasant surprises that came with their transition

There’s no one path into UX Research and Design. I’ve met several successful UXers with backgrounds in Journalism, Media Studies, the social sciences, the humanities, etc.

As a UX Researcher I enjoy a greater deal of autonomy than I anticipated.
And frankly, it’s greater than I felt while in the Academy.

I think that this increased sense of freedom arises from the fact that I can afford to live and don’t feel like I have to work 60-80 hour weeks in order to meet the demands of my students, my tenure clock, my committee needs, and so on.

This might seem cheap (I used to collaborate with a sociologist who studied cults) but as I was enthralled by that recent HBO documentary, The Vow, about the NXIM cult I began to see how it was necessary for my fellow academics to enact a sense of learned helplessness in order to maintain our positions in Academia.

We would often agree that conditions were “sub-optimal” to use polite language, but what could we do? Who wants to hire an expert on the arcane body of knowledge that we have?

But what we didn’t discuss was that our training and our work over at least a ten year span has prepared us to be, effectively, like world-class athletes.

But here’s the thing about being an academic: you are part of an elite group.
Our challenge is to get outside of that limited bubble of peers and colleagues and learn about how the other 98% of the US adult population does their work.

I’ll be blunt: I didn’t even know that UX was a field until I started networking.
I started by asking my Facebook friends if anyone could introduce me to someone they knew who had worked in academia and was now working in Tech.

A friend introduced me to a former university librarian who described what they did as a UXer and they listened to what I had been doing over the last ten years and told me I should give UX a try.

Networking is a lot like dating. You’ll get the most satisfactory results if you are honest with yourself and with others.

One of the most significant hurdles I faced as I transitioned out of academia was finding a target language.

That is, finding a way to effectively communicate to others what I am excited about, what I have done, and how those experiences can demonstrate that I can help them meet their goals.

I’m sharing a screen grab as well as some pull-quotes from Cheryl Abellanoza’s blog post about her own transition out of academia and into UX Research.

A portfolio is typically necessary for UX Designers and UX Researchers can benefit from having something similar as well.

A UX Researcher’s portfolio will likely be their personal website and they will list a series of case studies they’ve conducted.

The purpose of the portfolio is multiple: it’s a calling card, a proof of principle, and it’s potentially the anchor to a presentation you make for future clients and hiring groups

But you don’t necessarily HAVE to have one. Some companies will not require you to have a portfolio per se and instead ask you to present a case study. Usually this presentation is the second of a three- or four-step hiring process. The next step would be to then create a research plan based on a hypothetical problem or situation that the company brings to you. The purpose of these presentations and “design-” or “research-challenges” is to see how you communicate and enact your research process.

I have to admit that I thought leaving academia would mean that the skills I had built up from teaching would atrophy away and with that withering away I would also lose some of the happiness that teaching gave me.

So, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that my classroom management skills are some of the most important skills I draw upon in my day-to-day work. I have found that my cross-functional teams are very similar to working with really bright graduate students. My job is, then, to help them develop their ideas and help scope-out the work that can be done in the parameters that we have set before us.

I also regularly have to facilitate workshops with stakeholders from across the business and this is an awful-lot like what we do in a classroom as well: drawing out the best ideas from the group, focusing our discussion, and helping to prioritise how we will proceed based on what we’ve discussed that day.

It takes a lot of time
I knew I had meaningful skills (thanks, in part to The Professor Is In), I had lots of experience from my previous careers.
And I knew where I wanted to work, and how I wanted to work (thanks, in part to What Color Is My Parachute).
Those three things are crucial to setting parameters for your job search.

Each of those revisions were intentional, and often tailored for specific roles I’d seen advertised, but they were not necessarily major changes.
The major changes to my resume happened in three phases that reflected my progression through the bootcamp I attended.

Most importantly for getting an interview, I needed to demonstrate to a hiring manager that I understand how to do the work and that means I needed a portfolio that visually demonstrates I can do UX work.

So, I scanned the horizon, saw the options in my city, and registered to take General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI).
There I learned the coin of the realm, daily practiced the skills expected of a UXer, and I organized my life to support the habits needed for my new career.

You do may need to get a UX Certification to land a job in UX Research, there is a broad spectrum of outcomes from bootcamps and we can talk about that later if you’d like.

It’s a Numbers Game
Searching for a job is a full-time job. Give yourself 40 hours a week to do this work. Structure your days to best facilitate you doing this work. Your goal is to submit 10–15 applications per week. “Quick Apply” or whatever on LinkedIn doesn’t really count.

Do the work of revising your materials to meet the target language of the job to which you’re applying.
Meet with people for informational interviews.
Meet with people to practice your skills.

Get Busy
In addition to applying for positions I saw advertised, I also made it a point to scan the various social media groups relevant to my new industry and to advertise among my network that I had skills that would be relevant to their projects.

Interview Often
I learned a lot about myself from interviewing and I think it’s important to make the most of every opportunity to be interviewed.

Each medium deserves to be thoughtfully engaged—some elements of “who you are” can be better communicated when written, somethings will be better as a graphic (like a headshot), somethings spoken over the phone are better communicated in person, etc.

Become a Strong Link
I believe this was the most important thing I did to land my new job in this new industry.

In fact, my hiring manager, at the end of my final interview, told me that it was because of my networking (during which I came to know most of the members of the team) that they felt most comfortable making me an offer.

I participated in thirty networking events in seven months, about one networking event per week.

Be Kind to Yourself
There are days when nothing about the job search seems to be working.
There are days when it seems like everything is going to be perfect.

There are interviews that are awesome and then they announce a month later they’ve selected someone else.
There are truly terrible interviews where it’s perfectly obvious that neither party understand one another.

And then there is the perfect job for you: they want you, you want them, and the timing is right for this to work out.