Considering the transition to UX research from an academic role? Or, just starting out in a UX research role and still trying to find your way after a career in academia?
Prior to transitioning into UX research, I spent a decade working as a faculty member. Although I loved being a researcher, I longed for a faster-paced environment where my research insights had a higher chance of being actionable - immediately applicable to some product or service in the "real world."
To help others make the switch, I’ve spent the last three years speaking to hundreds of people with academic backgrounds—many like my own, tenured or in academic careers for years—who are finally ready to leave.
There’s lots of great advice out there when it comes to getting into UX research, including the importance of learning the lingo. It’s often valuable to hear from someone who’s making the move from the same environment.
Many academics are drawn to UX research because it seems to offer the best of both worlds: A chance to leave an unfulfilling career behind, and the opportunity to move to a new one that values the skills build inside the university.
This assumption is not entirely true: Some (but definitely not all) digital product companies understand the value you’ll bring. For the rest, you may have to guide them through it.
Your academic career provides more than just research expertise when you transition. This is essential to communicate as you negotiate your seniority level and salary in your first UX research roles.
Most academic work falls under two headings: research and teaching. (Service is another big commitment in an academic career, I know. But that’s a topic for another article.) Let’s talk about the not-so-obvious transferable skills in both of these areas.
Transitioning Academic Research Skills to User Research
When I was contemplating a career transition, my research expertise was what I counted on to get into the UX research field. I knew I could apply my research craft skills although I was a little apprehensive about how this would look in an unknown environment.
In my first role, I was hired as the founding Lead UX Researcher at the company. The only onboarding guidance I got from our manager was to start by interviewing the product managers.
Together with my research colleague, hired at the same time as me and with the same amount of previous UX experience (none!) we did so. We took a deep breath and approached this task like any other research project.
What do we want to know? What is the best way to get this information? We came up with some questions to guide the exploratory interviews. We spent a couple weeks talking to product leadership about their views of the users, their views on UX research, and how they thought our expertise could best fit with the company’s goals.
As we began, I felt confident. I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews throughout my career. I can do this! Then we moved into analyzing the interview transcripts and creating a presentation to share our insights.
In academia, this last step in the research process often meant making sure our insights related back to the theoretical framework. We didn’t have a theoretical framework for these stakeholder interviews. Or so I thought…
That’s when I realized the difference: these weren’t just research participants—people I may never see again after the interviews. These were our stakeholders. The perspectives they were expressing about UX research and their need for user insights.
These weren’t just insights on the topic of “better understanding product manager views toward research.” These were our stakeholders, and we would need to take these views into account as we moved forward in our research practice.
When we shifted our focus externally and started talking to our users, our insights would inform the product managers’ work. In essence, our key stakeholders’ view on research and the users was our theoretical framework, and it would remain our theoretical framework for all the user research we would conduct at the organization. We’d better understand their perspective and how to best communicate with them.
The lesson here? Take those top-notch research skills you have, and get ready to use them in a very different environment, one where you must craft insights that are in line with your stakeholder’s priorities.
Make sure your insights are actionable: your stakeholders should know what to do with the insights you communicate to them. As an expert academic researcher, you can do this!
You just need to shift the framework of your research to this new setting. In academia, we need approval from our expert community to get our research published. In UX, the approval, so to speak, comes from our stakeholders.
Utilizing Your Teaching Skills in UX
Ah, teaching. A lot of academics have told me this is a key reason they want to get away from university employment. I’ve also seen recruiters totally disregard my teaching experience when discussing my employment history. Is that it? You don’t want to teach, and the UX research world doesn’t care about teaching?
I have good news and bad news. First, bad news for the academics: you’re not getting away from teaching, not in the slightest! You’ll still be teaching every day, just in a much different professional setting. The good news? Teaching experience is 100 percent transferrable to UX research roles. Let’s talk about why and how.
Imagine a classroom. I’m imagining one where I’m teaching an Introduction to Research Methods class. Some of the students are eager, poised to write down everything I say.
They’re sold on the scientific method.
Others? Not so enthusiastic. They don’t see the point. They don’t understand why you can’t just ask people questions, why you have to phrase things in an unbiased way to get unbiased answers. Now imagine that these students are your stakeholders.
When you think of UX research stakeholders, it’s kind of like a classroom full of students: some enthusiastic, some skeptical, but all of them are there because they are not research experts, yet.
The class I’m imagining has moved onto the phase of conducting a research project. Some of my students want to do a project that will never fit into the time frame allowed by the class, and need me to coach them on time and project management.
Others are drawing wildly out of scope conclusions about the impact of their research findings, and I need to help them tone down their discussion section. There’s no discussion section in UX research, but you’ll see this happen all the time.
Those teaching skills that you learned will come in handy like you never imagined. You’ll be executing your skills in a dynamic environment, much more unstable than the environment in the classroom. You will be educating people every day about what research is and what it isn’t. You will be taking on a full-time teaching load.
An important difference, of course, is that as a teacher, you hold the power position in the classroom. This is most definitely not the case when dealing with peers or those in positions more senior to yours. You’ll need to adapt your teaching methods effectively to account for this difference.
Being an academic researcher by training will serve you well in your transition to UX research. Having solid research skills is an absolute must.
And whether you count on it or not, teaching skills are also valuable. Knowing how to translate your skills into an environment where stakeholder management is just as important as research craft will be an essential part of your success.
Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.