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Why PhDs Are Dominating User Experience Researcher Positions In Industry

Most PhDs start to plan their transition journey with a narrow view of their possibilities.

Many of them think they can only transition into research scientist jobs, or that they can only find a fulfilling career if they go into the pharma or biotech industries.

This narrow view ends up being especially limiting for PhDs with interdisciplinary backgrounds who think that only STEM PhDs can be successful in industry.

As a consequence, they end up missing out on exciting opportunities or end up stuck in academia because they are afraid to go after an industry career.

You can have a fulfilling industry career, no matter your PhD background. Industry is not like academia. Your research niche doesn’t define you.

But to ensure that you find the right position that matches your desired lifestyle, you need to know your options.

User experience, or UX, is an exciting field where PhDs of all backgrounds are highly valuable. 

I was talking with a member who got hired into a user experience researcher position and they shared the following story about their new role.

I got a job as a User Experience Researcher, more than doubled my income, and have lived to tell the tale.

I’m one of the few humanities people here, and worse, my PhD requires explanation because it is from an interdisciplinary program. I say American Studies, but it’s closer to Cultural Anthropology + Archival History + Experimental Writing + Comparative Literature.

After I joined CSA, I focused my search on networking, going to events, conferences, and reaching out hard on LinkedIn. That’s how I was introduced to a guy who works at my current company as a type of tech consultant, and he offered to pass my resume along to the head of User Experience there.

I got a call from HR the next week, a phone interview two days afterwards, a case interview the following Monday, and a marathon onsite interview at the end of the week. Then, came the offer.

Today, I want to discuss why all PhDs should at least consider user experience as a career path when planning their transition.

What Is User Experience (UX) And Why It’s Exploding In Popularity

Everyday more companies realize that developing a good product doesn’t guarantee a loyal clientele.

Customers become loyal to companies that offer great products, but also experiences that they love.

This has caused companies to shift their focus from the products themselves to the experience that a user has when interacting with the product.

This shift led to the emergence of a new field called user experience (UX)

UX professionals focus on improving the experience that customers have with a given product.

Keep in mind that a product can be just about anything, a device, a software, a service, etc. So, the relevance of UX spans across industries.

Most companies are currently conducting user experience studies and 73% those that aren’t plan to do so in the next 12 months.

As a consequence, UX is one of the fastest growing markets right now. It is expected to grow at a compound annual of 11% by 2028, which is huge for industry standards.

A lot of UX-related positions are currently open and more will become available in the following years.

Among those positions, there is one that is of especial interest to PhDs, it is generally called user experience researcher or analyst although the exact name can change from company to company.

UX researchers are the bridge between the products designed by a company and their users.

They help the design, product development, customer service, and sales teams to understand the product through the lens of the users. Thus helping companies create products that reflect the needs of their consumers.

Outstanding UX researchers have expertise in conducting research, interpreting the data, and communicating the results of their research to a general audience.

PhDs excel at all of those things and that’s why companies prefer PhD candidates when it comes to filling UX researcher positions.

4 Reasons Why PhDs Of All Backgrounds Should Transition Into UX Researcher Positions

If the term “User Experience” is new to you, I hope that the last section of this blog was enough to make you curious about this field and the UX researcher position.

User experience researcher is among the top 10 paying PhD-level positions, the number of open positions increases every year, and many companies are specifically looking for PhD candidates.

However, you might be thinking that you don’t have what it takes to succeed in this role or that you are not sure that this will be a good fit for you.

To ease up your doubts, I want to explore 4 reasons that will convince you that you can find a fulfilling career in UX and that you are fully qualified to be an excellent UX researcher.

1. UX roles are based on qualitative and quantitative research

Most PhDs go to grad school because they want to have a positive impact in the world.

But if you are looking for an industry position, you probably already realized that you will never have that impact if you stay in academia.

You will especially not have that impact if you spend years on end as a postdoc or unemployed having to worry about how you are going to pay your bills.

But if you transition into a UX researcher position, you can use your knowledge of qualitative and quantitative research to help create a product that impacts people.

You will work closely with designers, product managers, and other professionals, serving as the voice of the customer.

You will help them determine where this product is going next and ensure that the vision for the product is aligned with what the customer actually wants or needs.

As a PhD working in UX, you will get to analyze lots of data and see how the results of your analysis have an impact in the real world and on real people. 

You will see how your work influences the users of your product in a matter of years or months. Not decades as is usually the case in academia.

As a UX researcher, your work will strongly influence how customers view a company’s products compared to its competitors’. These views often determine whether a product succeeds or fails.

Additionally, you will be valued as a researcher, a problem solver, and an expert. You will get to answer some of the most difficult questions faced by a company to ensure that the product is successful and the customers are satisfied.

In other words, as a UX researcher you will get to have a real, measurable impact. Something that academia is very unlikely to offer.

2. Any PhD with any PhD background can be trained in UX

UX is a multidisciplinary field. it doesn’t matter what your background is as a PhD, you can find a fulfilling career as a UX researcher.

It doesn’t matter if your background is STEM, non STEM. If your PhD is in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences, chemistry, physical sciences, or other.

In fact, UX researcher is currently the number 1 PhD-level position for non-STEM PhDs because of their experience with qualitative research and their ability to empathize with the needs of the customer.

Employers will hire you for your ability to understand and perform quantitative and qualitative research and your knowledge of data analysis. This is something that all PhDs excel at.

Of course, you might have an advantage if you apply to positions where you will be working with products you are already familiar with. But this is not a limiting factor because virtually all industries are currently hiring UX researchers.

This includes technology, software, banking, insurance, media, education, web

development, marketing, retail, telecommunications, advertising, entertainment, e-commerce, automotive, government, hospitality, and military.

And the types of companies that hire UX researchers continue to expand every day as more companies understand the impact of UX on profitability.

Don’t let your background become a limiting factor when it comes to finding the right industry career for you.

3. PhDs already have the transferable skills required for UX roles

Most of the skills you need to excel as a UX researcher are things that you have extensively trained during grad school.

We already mentioned the ability to perform qualitative and quantitative research and the ability to analyze data. This is the basis of any PhD program. All PhDs excel at research and analysis and you are not the exception.

Outstanding UX researchers also need communication and collaboration skills. These are also things you trained during your PhD.

As a PhD, you had to present your data and collaborate with others within and outside your research group to complete your project.

The main catch here is that as a UX researcher, you will work in a cross-functional environment.

You will have to interact with designers, engineers, and products managers, among others.

You will have to communicate the results of your research to stakeholders and help them understand why you are recommending one action over another.

This might require you to use a language that is different from what you are used to in academia. But you already have the basics covered. 

You just need to do some networking with industry professionals and other PhDs who have already transitioned into UX to adapt your communication and collaboration style to the needs of the position.
As long as you commit to executing an industry job search strategy, this shouldn’t be a problem.

4. UX professionals are highly valuable (and highly paid) in industry

The reason why UX researchers are paid so much is because they don’t just get the technical data or understand these technical concepts. They have to translate everything they do into business concepts and be able to explain it to a non-technical audience.

This position gives a great opportunity to work at the intersection of research and business.

You get to do the research and interact with the design and product development teams, but you also get to interact with stakeholders and decision makers. You get to influence the most relevant decisions pertaining to your products.

An outstanding UX researcher will save time and money for their company and as a consequence, will be one of the most valuable employees of that company.

So, this position will also open many doors for career progression.

Concluding Remarks

User Experience (UX) researcher is currently one of the top-paying and most sought after careers for PhDs. You should consider pursuing a career as a UX researcher because it will allow you to make a real impact in the world, you can excel at this position no matter your PhD background, you already have the most relevant skills necessary for the role, and because UX researchers are among the most valued employees at different companies across industries. Transitioning into UX research will ensure that you get a fulfilling career where you are valued as a PhD.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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