Why Do Academics Choose User Experience Research as a Career Path?

UX (user experience) is a very popular career for academics exploring careers outside of academia including other fields like Data Science and Market Research.

UX has become a popular career choice for PhDs due to their interdisciplinary skills, research expertise, problem-solving abilities, attention to detail, and strong communication skills. With a background in fields like psychology, sociology, human-computer interaction, or cognitive science, PhDs bring a deep understanding of user behavior and research methodologies to the table, making them well-suited for UX roles.

Moreover, the desire for practical application and the growing demand for user-centric design across industries provide compelling opportunities for PhDs to transition into UX design, where they can directly impact people’s lives by creating intuitive and user-friendly interfaces.

I see dozens of academics on the After Your PhD LinkedIn and After Your Twitter pages who have similar interests in user experience and user experience design.

Amidst the growing demand and interest in UX roles from academics, there have been several layoffs from big tech companies like Facebook, Meta, and Amazon that include UX and non-UX-related roles. Despite the layoffs, the interest is still strong from academics looking to pivot from academia.

About The Featured Guest: To learn more about academics who have an interest in UX, I asked Dr. Ahrom Kim about her job search experiences. Dr. Kim is currently a Mixed Method Researcher and Lecturer at Auburn University. She previously completed her PhD in Molecular Immunology at Michigan State University.

Do you find academia fulfilling? Why or Why Not?

Dr Kim:

My feelings towards academia are a blend of fulfillment and concern. My passion for education is deeply rooted in empathy for students, born from my struggles as a learner. I remember the challenges of comprehending new concepts and identifying my learning style, often preferring to wrestle with problems independently rather than seek help. It’s these experiences that propelled me towards education, with a desire to guide students who might be grappling with similar difficulties.

The satisfaction I derive from mentoring and providing direction to students is immense. However, the rapidly changing student dynamics and increasing demands can be overwhelming, often making my efforts feel undervalued. So, while academia is rewarding in many ways, it also presents its own set of challenges.

What draws you into the UX field as an academic?

Dr. Kim:

Despite my current role lacking explicit research responsibilities, my innate curiosity and drive for understanding have led me to conduct independent research on learner experiences. This research has been instrumental in refining teaching methodologies, and learning materials, and integrating technology effectively. During my exploration of industry roles, UX research particularly resonated with me due to its overlap with my skills and interests. I’m enthralled by the opportunity to use research to improve people’s lives, and the prospect of conducting research full-time—especially remotely—is very appealing.

What skills do you hope to bring with you into your career pivot?

Dr. Kim:

My diverse research background, spanning life sciences (biology) and social sciences (education), has equipped me with a broad range of data analysis skills. My experience in concurrently navigating these two distinct research fields demonstrates my adaptability and versatility, which I believe will be advantageous in any career transition.

What’s your current job search strategy? Any current roadblocks or struggles?

Dr. Kim:

Initially, my job search strategy was heavily reliant on networking and targeting specific industries. However, given the recent surge in layoffs, the advice I’ve received suggests adopting a more numbers-focused approach. Consequently, I’ve broadened my search to include any available UX researcher positions, including contract and part-time roles.

My main challenge is competing with experienced professionals who have been laid off. The job market is challenging even for those with experience, which makes it significantly tougher for a newcomer like myself. In an effort to enhance my competitiveness, I’m leading a small research case study with six other academics transitioning to UX, and seeking volunteer work to gain more relevant industry experience.

Are you discouraged at all by the job market? Any other careers that interest you?

Dr Kim:

Yes, the job market does present challenges, but I remain optimistic. The fact that I’ve progressed to phone screens and been invited to second-round interviews on five occasions provides a beacon of hope that the right opportunity is within reach. It’s true that the process can be frustrating, particularly when promising interviews have yet to yield an offer, and hiring freezes have led to the cancellation of two second-round interviews and a postponed third round. However, resilience is key in this journey. 

I am also considering roles as a Learning and Development Specialist, given that this field aligns well with my teaching and mentoring skills, thereby expanding my career options.

Is there anything you’d like to share with those reading this post? Are there any links you want to share? How should hiring managers contact you/find you?

Dr. Kim:

My transition journey started when I became a first-time mother, with a month-old son to take care of, along with a full-time job and household responsibilities. The journey has indeed been challenging, but if I can navigate it, I’m confident that you can too. Stay hopeful and persistent. Continue networking, upskilling, and working on case studies, and you’ll surely reach your desired destination. Feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ahromkim/), where my contact details are available.

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