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Why Former Academics Make Great UX Pros

Your higher education track might’ve prepared you for a UX career.

By Bet MartinezOctober 2022
Career

Indeed’s UX professionals come from all sorts of backgrounds. Across research, content design, development, visual and interaction design, and beyond you’ll find people in our ranks who made big, surprising career switches to get where they are.

A common career switch among UXers? Leaving academia.

Academics had a lot to offer me too, but I made the switch. As a former English professor, I loved helping students understand their writing potential, sharing the everyday value of literature, and witnessing how it helped them gain perspective on their personal lives. I loved mentoring and advocating for students, but what I gained in professional satisfaction, I lost in income and energy. There was little promise for upward mobility, I was responding to over 600 papers a semester, and some tenured faculty seemed to turn up their noses at the woes of adjunct work.

The upside of all that chaos was that it demanded professional excellence. I revised grading rubrics every semester with an aim at fostering equity, and designed coursework that (hopefully) gave students tools for success even outside my classroom.

Now, I have the privilege of working with other former academics who successfully jumped out of higher education and into UX. We’re all speaking from our own past experiences, and these are the views of each individual, not Indeed. But I hope you find some relatable lessons here if you’re simply hoping to find a new career.

Teaching and research can lay the foundation for a UX career

I’m not a UX professional, but I support UX designers, researchers, and content designers as an editor here at Indeed Design. Did I know anything about UX before I interviewed with my team? Not really. But they saw the value a former professor, grant writer, and technical writer could bring to their ranks. Here’s how some of the UXers I work with transformed their academic experience into hard UX skills.

Amanda Winograd, former academic librarian, and instructor. Current UX research coordinator. I loved being a positive part of a student or professor’s academic journey. My work focused on helping patrons develop their information literacy, and it was endlessly rewarding to see someone walk away from my desk equipped to tackle a research project or career goal. I learned to communicate with many different types of learners, and I’ll carry those skills with me for the rest of my career.

Amy Stephenson, former graduate student and instructor. Current UX content designer. As an instructor, I enjoyed working with students most. It was rewarding to see them write better, understand their own learning styles more, and learn to work within the academic environment. As a student, I studied composition and literature, and I enjoyed learning more about writing as a craft. Studying a variety of works and learning many theoretical perspectives to understand them was also crucial to shaping my perspective.

Chad Garrett, former director of educational technologies and professor. Current UX content designer. I had a lot of room as an academic to pursue relevant interests and projects. Our individual and collective motivations were often intrinsic and altruistic, and there was room to explore ideas and opportunities for the sake of learning. Timelines were more forgiving and less hardcore: An academic year divided by semesters feels much kinder than quarterly goals and aims.

Josh Williams, Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience. Current UX research manager. I loved the freedom to explore really interesting topic areas using innovative neuroscience techniques, like scanning brains! It was also super fun to geek out with others on such niche topics.

Hrag Pailian, former lecturer and research scientist. Current senior UX researcher. Academic work allowed me to pursue research questions I found interesting, and my role allowed me to play with cool cutting-edge technology, like neurostimulation, artificial intelligence, and more.

There are many paths to UX and many reasons to make the switch

I loved teaching. Working with students, hearing their stories, and supporting their research projects or literary interests filled my professional cup. Designing aesthetically pleasing syllabi and coursework for varied learning styles was among my favorite challenges. Soon, my curiosity about the technical side of visual design led me to product design and UX. Leaving the academic salary behind wasn’t hard (at all). What I lost in student connection, I gained in meaningful collaboration and a breadth of new career opportunities. Others found UX and felt a similar draw.

Dave Yeats, former professor of Technical Communication. Current senior director of UX research. I learned about UX when I got a job as a technical writer in 1999. It actually was called “usability” back then, and the exposure to the field led me to go back to earn a Ph.D. in human-centered design with a heavy dose of research. Eventually, I landed a tenure-track position at Auburn University. After a few years in that role, I found that I ultimately wanted to do more practical research and re-enter the tech industry.

Amanda Winograd. I took a UX course while pursuing my library sciences degree. I connected with the core tenets of UX and felt that if I had known about it from the beginning of my career, I would’ve pursued it without question. I spent the last few years as a librarian with my eye on the UX field and knew I wanted to make the switch when I felt ready. I knew enough to make an educated leap and still feel confident I can thrive here.

Holli Downs, former professor of Composition. Current UX researcher. I learned about UX in the first course of my Ph.D. program. I spent years doing journalistic interviews, and powering design with human-centered insights intrigued me. UX research felt like a natural place to do both.

Amy Stephenson. I was exposed to UX when I was a content strategist in PR and marketing for the tech industry. I did contract work for one of Indeed’s content teams and found it similar to but in many ways more intriguing than the PR and marketing content I’d been doing. I knew a little about UX writing and design but hadn’t studied it in depth.

Chad Garrett. UX is a subarea of my first academic discipline, and I incorporated the practices into my library and archives work as a matter of course. I had always been “user-focused,” whether it was teaching students to be good writers, providing technical support to faculty, or building digital systems and services for library and archives patrons. I wanted to have formal training and make that user focus a key part of my work.

Josh Williams. I honestly accidentally fell into it. I applied for a research audiologist position at Bose and happened to see “user researcher” in the search results. I read the job description and thought, “I can totally do that!”, even though I had no idea what I was really even interviewing for. But I got it, took a leap, and the rest is history. UX chose me. I knew nothing. Literally. I googled a bit about UX methods prior to my interview so I could speak about it, but I really was focused on sharing my academic research. I stuck around because I love the pace, the environment, and the projects I get to work on feel very tangible, less ethereal.

A career in UX may lead to more satisfaction

Jumping ship from my academic career felt like giving up at first, which felt like failure. In my field, it was common to hear I should expect to teach adjunct for 7 to 10 years before landing an associate or tenured spot. When I let go of my aspirations, I wondered if I’d ever find another career where I could feel as competent and practiced.

My fears about making the leap were fairly unfounded though. Sure, unfamiliar territory comes with a learning curve, but sometimes the risks we take to improve our careers and opportunities actually work out.

Amanda Winograd. In the academic library setting, I felt colleagues often handed down work with little understanding of how it impacted our patrons’ user experience. My patron-centric approach to projects was occasionally received well, but sometimes not. Pivoting to UX made sense because I knew I’d find like-minded people. I really enjoy working with people who agree about how we can strive for improvements to our products. My team has a general consensus that progress is good, and we can make it happen when we take a structured approach to our work.

Dave Yeats. I love everything about my choice to leave academia, and I am incredibly passionate about helping others who are interested in making a career shift out of academia.

Chad Garrett. Academia has some big drawbacks: Lack of recognition and appreciation, no career path or room for advancement, and comparatively low pay. Plus, it can be an extremely political environment and among the most institutionalized caste systems in the US. Many universities, particularly public ones, have become almost hostile to employees, doing less and less for them and expecting more and more in return. Switching to UX was a great choice. Not only do I have a measurable, direct influence on users’ success with technology, but I also feel appreciated by my company and my colleagues in almost every day and aspect of work.

Steven Boydston, former research associate. Current UX researcher. The most challenging aspects of my academic work changed over time. Generally speaking, the work was relatively slow-paced and, at times, could be tedious. I was also blocked in my career because I didn’t have a terminal degree like a Ph.D. Even after several years of working in UX, I still learn something new about Indeed and our products almost every day. I also appreciate having ongoing opportunities to advocate for our users and using creative strategies in my day-to-day work.

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Josh Williams. Academia is relatively solitary, where the primary determinant of success is yourself. I leveraged every collaboration opportunity possible, but it’s hard with niche topics. But UX is so interdisciplinary and collaborative that it makes the work really fun. Just solving real-life problems is super energizing and empowering. I’ve worked on headphones and wearables, cloud architecture, insulin pumps, and now job-search platforms. Through all of that, I’ve really learned a lot, which is always paramount to a former academic. I love seeing products I’ve worked on IRL, especially at large mission-driven companies where the impact on real lives is huge!

Paul Jaye, former Ph.D. candidate. Current Senior Director of UX. For me, academics wasn’t offering me challenges I was excited about. I felt a lack of passion, and I realized that bench research wasn’t solving problems in the real world. What gets me most excited these days is that in UX, I get frequent opportunities to mentor others, and I enjoy contributing to others’ development in the field.

High academic standards prepare you to do good UX

Remember those 600 essays I mentioned? After each 16-week semester, I’d start all over and do it again. For many semesters. These papers ranged from 5 to 18 pages each. I had over 100 students per semester whose names and lives I memorized and took to heart. Those papers also functioned as research data that helped me track my students’ progress and proficiency in analytical writing, close reading, and critical thinking at the university level. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t have arrived at my approach to editing others’ words with kindness, keeping track of the many moving pieces of an editorial calendar, and supporting the growth of a publication.

My fellow Indeedians agree that academics still play a special part in how they approach their work now, too.

Gigi Taylor, former professor. Current strategic UX researcher. The principles of teaching apply to socializing your research throughout an organization: keep things simple, engage the audience, tell stories.

Amy Stephenson. For several semesters I taught a professional communications class for engineering students. It was excellent practice writing for end users and distracted or disinterested readers instead of fellow academics or enthusiastic readers. Another useful experience was working with members of other disciplines to carry out TA training and develop instructional resources. Such multidisciplinary work required me to understand norms and practices different from those in my own field and find ways to meet varied needs with a single resource. And I learned a lot about disability accommodations from working with our school’s ADA compliance officer.

Chad Garrett. In a way, teaching is a constant UX lab. You see the ways the things you write, design, and present make sense or don’t—and then get to try again in a very slow iteration. The other aspect is learning to build networks and relationships, then crafting convincing arguments as a way to get work prioritized or completed.

Josh Williams. Higher education gave me a bias for action and a learning mindset. You kind of have to fend for yourself in academia. Be a scrappy self-starter, self-advocate, and self-motivator. That’s really helped me earn trust, build relationships, and be effective at growing my UX expertise and impact. Systems-level thinking is so helpful, too. Knowing about complex brain-body-environment interactions also helps you analyze and work well in complex product organizations!

Hrag Pailian. In academics, I honed my research skills through different projects, analyses, failures, successes, and presentations to broader audiences. Getting consistent and collective feedback also helped me improve. My time in academia was focused on making me a better researcher, as opposed to fulfilling a business need.

Switching to UX may come with some perks

For me, a role in UX quickly delivered new spaces and channels to learn about coworkers’ creative pursuits, and I found more balance between my home tasks with my professional obligations. Some of the folks below experienced similar benefits, too.

Gigi Taylor. It’s possible to have a job that offers a work-life balance.

Holli Downs. I’m surprised I can afford to live more comfortably after switching fields.

Paul Jaye. I was surprised by how much more I liked it!

Hrag Pailian. What was surprising about jumping into UX? How easy it was.

Josh Williams. It’s surprising how many stereotypes there are. A big one: academics are slow! Luckily, bias for action is my superpower so I was able to overcome that stereotype quickly. But I’ve also been surprised to see how many academics have big egos during hiring. I often hear, “I have a Ph.D. so I must be a senior researcher!” And that attitude couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, academic researchers leverage and pride themselves on methodological rigor and deep expertise above all else. But in our industry, working together on common problems with broader business expertise will get you further.

Amy Stephenson. I think the biggest surprise was the breadth of the gap between what academics consider good writing and what actually best serves the general population.

But academics had its benefits, too

What I miss most is supporting my students. Fortunately, some of them stay in contact through social networks.

Gigi Taylor. I miss contributing to a body of scholarly knowledge and mentoring students.

Dave Yeats. I miss teaching.

Steven Boydston. In some ways, I miss the structure and consistency of academic work. While structure and consistency can also be monotonous, it does tend to reduce some level of ambiguity that can come from working with a larger group of UX stakeholders and teams.

Chad Garrett. I miss directly helping people discover and pursue their own ideas and questions.

Amy Stephenson. I don’t miss a lot—except possibly the complete vacation break between mid-December and early January? I had a lot of good experiences, but I don’t think it was ultimately where I belonged. And I don’t have a nostalgic “if-only” view of it.

Josh Williams. I don’t miss anything! Except for the cool methods sometimes. Let’s do an EEG or fMRI study soon! 🙂

Believe in yourself, and others will, too

It’s easy to convince yourself that a recruiter or hiring manager won’t value your academic background or understand the nuance it takes to succeed in such a rigorous industry, but someone out there will. A good friend of mine happened to work at Indeed and referred me to my position. She doesn’t work in UX, but she knew that someone who did would notice me. She was right.

Be persistent, and be yourself. Acknowledge your value. Learn to tell compelling stories about your work. For many at Indeed, the effort was worth it.

Amy Stephenson. I think many people go into academia because they want to teach and make a difference in the lives of adults, but there are many ways to do that outside of academia. So you really never lose that chance even if you decide to leave higher education.

Amanda Winograd. Teaching skills are undervalued, in my opinion. Make the case for how the soft and hard aspects of teaching are transferable to UX.

Paul Jaye. Transitioning from academia to industry is a big change. Have patience with yourself, get into the habit of prioritizing speed over perfection, and learn to prioritize. Find a few mentors, and give each mentorship a core focus.

Hrag Pailian. Do it! You won’t regret it! But if you can, go to a company where UX research is appreciated and adequate resources exist.

The information on this site is provided as a courtesy. Indeed is not a career or legal advisor and does not guarantee job interviews or offers. Please note that this article does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice or act as a substitute for legal advice.

Bet Martinez headshot
Written byBet MartinezAssociate Editor at Indeed

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