How to transition from academia to UX research

Leaving a profession is never an easy decision. Especially if you worked in academic research and you’ve gained a specific skill set. But there is a silver lining: you can find new and exciting fields, such as UX, where you will be considered as a great candidate for a UX researcher position. You can start the transition into the world of UX with easy and affordable steps, and if you found it exciting you can invest more into your career change. Here's my journey and some recommendations to make the switch from Phd to UX research.

My story from academia to UX research

I was always interested in human behaviour, why people act in a certain way, how they think about certain situations, what are their motivations, etc. This was why I started studying psychology. During my master’s, I chose cognitive psychology as a faculty.

From that point, I’ve started to learn about research. After my master’s, I applied to a doctoral school and got a scholarship to start my research project. I worked on my Ph.D. for three and a half years before I decided to take, at last, a break, and started looking for other research-related possibilities outside of academia.

Although, I was overly excited when I started my Ph.D., during those years I realised that I would be more motivated if I could see the impact of my work on people’s everyday life. Therefore, after a year of being on passive status as a student, I decided not to finish my Ph.D. but work as a UX researcher.

How I got started with UX research

Before I actually started looking for a position, I had a lot of conversations with friends and other people. We talked about different positions, and how I could transfer my skills from academia. I remember when someone mentioned UX research for the first time and I read one description about a position. At that point, I realised that I don’t have to start my whole career path from zero. At the same time, I knew that I needed to start studying something new again.

After 20 years of studying, at that point, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was tired and kind of disappointed that after so many years, I still couldn’t stop studying. On the other hand, I was excited to find a new field that still makes me excited every day.

Phd to UX research: useful skills you already have

If you’re coming from academic research, you will realize that you already have very good basic research skills. And these are a very good foundation for a UX researcher position. Here are the research skills that matter:

Planning and executing research

In academic research, you’ve learned everything about how to plan a research project. Moreover, you also learned about the different phases of research and how to schedule them. You also know how to formulate research questions, how to find the proper methods to investigate them, how to recruit participants, and how to conduct a study. You’ve also analyzed datasets, interpreted your results, and found the proper way to present or publish them. And to be honest, you will need all the above listed skills to handle the responsibilities of a UX research position.

Good knowledge of research methods

It depends on what field you are coming from, but probably you worked with qualitative and quantitative methods as well. In UX research, it’s very important to know how to create a safe environment during an interview, how to form questions, and how to listen with attention. Likewise, experience with quantitative methods can be great as well. If you’ve created screeners or questionnaires, and you know how to analyze answers and associations, that also could be a great advantage for a UX researcher.

Data analysis

Working in research, you also gained experience analyzing different data sets. You’ve used a couple of programs to analyze these, and maybe you have some programming knowledge as well. This means that you know how to handle different datasets. Although, in UX research maybe you won’t use these skills every day, these can still be useful in certain projects.

Research interpretation and presentation

Knowing how to interpret your research results and present them to an audience is a great base for the continuous communication of your research results. Whether it’s with clients or stakeholders, how you present your results matters a lot. Moreover, these skills could help if you want to create a case studies or blog posts related to your day-to-day work.

How to start with UX research

If you feel you’re interested in the field of UX research and you would like to learn more, you can start with small steps – see below.

Read a lot about UX, especially about UX research

Maybe it sounds too simple, but you can learn a lot about UX by reading blog posts, published articles, and books about UX research. Every time I had an interview or got a challenge from a place I applied for, I started googling, and I read everything I could find about methods and UX. I made notes about key sentences, main ideas, and important details. From time to time, I also went through my notes just to remember these new pieces of information. Here, I need to add that my notes were mostly about the differences between academic and UX research. A lot of those were about new, unknown methods and how to use them. I also read a lot about how to plan research in the world of business, how to analyse and present data you collected, what to pay attention to, etc. For me, this was the most helpful, because I already knew research basics.

From Academia to UX research advice: Read UX-related books

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Listen to UX related podcasts

If you are not a reader, do not worry, because you can also find some podcasts related to the field of UX in general and about UX research. In this way you can learn about topics, challenges and solutions on your way as well. I’ve never been the ‘Let’s listen to a podcast episode at home’ kind of person. Still, during the pandemic, I got into the habit of going for a walk every evening. On my way, I had the time to listen to different episodes and learn about tricks and solutions from UX research leads working industry leading companies. Moreover, I became familiar with the language and terms we use in the field, which was a great point during my application processes.

Talk to people who work in UX

If you are interested in a new field, it is always a good decision to talk to friends or even strangers working in that field. This way, you get the opportunity to learn about their views, and their personal experiences.

You can also ask them questions you have in your mind, for example: How would you explain your work to someone? What do you do day by day? What’s the best thing about your job? What causes difficulties for you?

Just before my last interview for a UX research position, I met a girl who worked in UX at a company creating surfaces for warehousing systems. I thought most of that conversation was not useful at all. Moreover, she said that I was more prepared about the field than she was. But then I asked my questions, especially my favourite one: How would you explain your job to others?

On the next day, I had my final interview with UX studio. After the introduction part, the first question for me was: How would you explain your job to your grandmother? All of a sudden, I was nothing but grateful for the talk I had the day before the interview, and that I asked the questions I had in my mind.

After this experience, I realized that there is no useless meeting or coffee with people working in a field you’re interested in. You never know what information will be useful on an interview, or during a problem solving task to submit to the desired company. So I highly encourage you to reach out to others working in UX and talk to them.

From Academia to UX research tips: talk to UX-ers

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Apply, apply, apply

It sounds painful, I know, but you can learn a lot from the application process for different UX research positions as well. If you feel that you’re not a good candidate, or you could learn more, that’s ok! Learn more, but in the meantime, you should apply for positions. Let’s see why:

  • You’ll attend interviews
    During these interviews, you will get used to the situation, and you will be able to collect questions recruiters have asked. Accordingly, you can be more prepared for the next time by working on your answers to make them more convincing.I still have a document with the questions I was asked by different companies. What I did is read them through before interviews and think about my answers.
  • You will go through different recruitment processes
    You’ll apply to companies asking for CVs, so you will have your CV ready. At least in multiple versions. You’ll meet companies that ask you to fill out forms, so you’ll have important answers ready. But for sure, you’ll get tasks/challenges to complete.
  • You’ll get exact tasks/challenges
    If you apply for UX positions, you’ll get exact tasks to complete and submit to proceed to the next stage. On the way to change my professional path, I received two types of assignments. There were the ones where I only needed to create a research plan. And there were the ones where besides the research plan, I needed to conduct and submit a usability test and a report about the results as well. My only advice here would be not to be afraid. When companies are asking for these assignments, they are interested (hopefully) in your thinking process. They want to see how you would execute these tests with the knowledge you have at that point, and how you underlie the process you followed. In some cases, they can also see whether you are aware of the weak points and strengths in what you executed. So don’t be afraid to collect this information in your mind and share what you would do differently next time.

Useful advice I got after rejections

Every time I applied for a job and got rejected, I asked for feedback and advice. I always wanted to know what I can do to become a better candidate for UX researcher positions in the future.

From the answers I would highlight two important pieces of advice:

  • Complete/attend a course: One thing I realised during my interviews was that while research-wise I was a good candidate, I didn’t have enough knowledge about UX. So, I got the advice to participate in a UX-related course. I got recommendations about general options, such as the bootcamps and project courses at Xlabs, research-focused courses, like the one MOME has. Also, there are a lot of UX online courses as well. My master plan was to start with a basic general course and continue with a research-focused one. Luckily for me, I got my first UX researcher job, so I had the possibility to continue learning from our professional team members. Therefore, looking back, I would suggest participating in an advanced, more research-focused course, where you could have the opportunity to work on your own project, which leads us to the next piece of advice.

    From Academia to UX research: advice after take-home assignments
    Image source: Unsplash

  • Work on your own project: The other advice I got is, that every love project or pro-bono work could be beneficial in a way, that you could include the project you worked on into a portfolio. The thing is, if you can show something you worked on, recruiters and professionals can see your thinking process. With a project you can also demonstrate your hard and soft skills, which can be more powerful in this way. Moreover, it is a good opportunity to share the challenges you had during the project and how you would improve those parts in the future. Altogether, these things could end up in a nice professional conversation, which can make a bigger impression on others looking at your portfolio.

Final thoughts

As you can see, there is a lot you can do if you decide to change your career from Academia to UX research, but you can do it one-by-one day-by-day. You can start your transition with small steps, like reading about UX research, listening to podcasts on the topic, or having conversations with people working in UX. Later, if you’re still interested, you can make bigger investments, such as applying for jobs, completing a course, or working on your own project.

In addition, at this point, I would like to add that changing a career is not an easy or fast paced process. At least it wasn’t that way for me. I needed almost a year just to decide to leave academia to look for something else, and almost another year just to find a UX research position. But what I’ve learned on the way is that no matter how small a step you’re able to make for the change, it will add up in the end. And hopefully, you will be proud to do all the effort you were able to do to successfully change your career.

 

Borbála German

Researcher by heart.
Started in the academic area, transferred to UX.
Always curious about the whys.