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Transitioning from Academia to UX (Ask Angela)

Careers Management Ask Angela




Hi Angela-

I'm finishing a Ph.D. in Applied Cognitive Psychology and I'd like to get into UX. I think I can put my research skills to use while I pick up more design. I've been interviewing like mad since earlier this year, but so far nothing's worked out.

During a recent job interview, I was told that academics are "too rigid" and the company doesn't like to hire them. I didn't know what that even meant, much less how to respond.

Will getting a Ph.D. keep me from getting a job in UX?


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First, I'm sorry you had to hear a comment about academics being "too rigid" when you were already in the stressful position of being interviewed. That had to be very difficult for you. 

I've heard variations on this question a number of times. Some folks say they've been told that companies won't hire someone with a Ph.D... during the actual job interview. Not only is that really insensitive, I've always been at a loss to figure out why the interview even took place to begin with!

The phrase "too rigid" was a poor way to describe their concerns. 

However, they do have legitimate concerns. 

Here's the deal: In academia folks are trained to conduct very rigorous research that will stand up to peer review - as it should be. The work product of an academic is their research, the quality of which is measured by high standards of intellectual rigor, research quality, and overall thoroughness. The pace at which research is completed tends to be over months and years to allow time to think through all aspects of the research project, obtain the necessary IRB approvals, conduct multiple trials as new information becomes available, etc. The activity of doing the research work is the primary focus, and the research and publishing process takes many months or years.  

I've had incredibly gifted student interns expend tremendous resources thinking through every possible scenario and complicating factor, developing research plans to investigate every aspect of the question at hand (and then some), identifying every weakness of their argument, and providing rigorous defense against it. Because they're coming from academia, they often default to writing at a higher reading level with more complicated sentence structures and vocabulary. This is the "standard" of academia and if you do not abide by it, then you're considered a subpar researcher, you won't receive job offers and grants, and your career will be less than stellar.

In graduate school, this level of rigor is normalized and graduate students are - out of necessity - indoctrinated into believing this is the singular. way. of. doing. research. The driving factors are CYA and intellectual rigor; time is fungible.  

Many folks coming from an academic environment struggle to adapt to the applied* environment. They've been so brainwashed in graduate school that when they're faced with the applied setting, they think everyone is magnificently incompetent and that it's the wild freaking west of research. 

* I don't like the term "the real world" because academia - and everything else - is the real world. Saying something is "the real world" is usually meant pejoratively to academia, when the reality is that there are simply different governing standards. Using the term "the real world" signals a lack of understanding or appreciation for the role academia serves. I favor the term "applied" instead. 

When I tell someone from academia that a study has to be done in 6 weeks, sometimes their brains short out and/or they panic. How could I possibly deliver a decent study in 6 weeks? I need at least 6 months to do so! Otherwise, it'll be terrible!

At a loss, they think that it's the company they're working for or the specific people they work with to blame. If things go really bad, deadlines become merely a laughable suggestion to be ignored and they become marginalized because they can't deliver anything. They're labeled "too rigid" or "impractical" or "difficult," when the problem is really just a different set of standards and priorities. 


Today, I always reframe UX research expectations for my interns and students.

From the outset, I explicitly set the expectation that standards of success are different in the academic versus applied setting. Here's what I tell them:

  1. There is a distinct difference between academic and applied research. I tell them my experiences with other folks and the challenges they've faced. I make them aware there are different standards. 
  2. In the applied setting, the primary factors of success are always - in one way or another - time and cost. Always, always, always. Time is money in the applied setting. 
  3. Most folks in applied settings know little to nothing of the academic rigor required to carry out peer reviewed research... nor do they particularly care! They just want a study "good enough" to meet a much lower threshold of rigor. Folks in an applied setting are not going to pick apart research work in a meaningful way - mostly because they don't have the training, but also because they lack the desire to do so. Their focus is on the results, not the study design.
  4. What folks in the applied setting need is data in order to make and prioritize decisions. And they need that data in a timely manner, preferably in a matter of days or weeks. The timeline is much shorter. 
  5. Reporting must be straightforward and heavily supported with visuals, not words. Put the most important information up front and get to the point quickly. Reports are more likely to be scanned than read. Whenever possible, use visuals to explain your findings. Do include information about methodology - that still applies. Don't expect that anyone is going to question your research methods.
  6. In general, limit citing sources, providing caveats, and/or footnotes. If you must include these, put them in a separate section of the report. (This is one area where it's helpful to know your audience.) 
  7. There's demonstrably less academic CYA in the applied setting. If anything, you're more likely to need political CYA because the report contains findings that aren't desirable (e.g. they are perceived to reflect poorly on the performance of a department or individual). Competency of the researcher is not the same as the desirability of the findings.

As someone moving into an UX research career, you need to be aware of this perception/bias and work against it. One of the ways you can address the concern is to seek out an internship in the applied setting, so you can get experience in a non-academic environment on your resume.  Another way is to be aware of the stigma and have a response prepared for how you intend to adapt. All of this is information we cover in our training for How to Get a UX Job

Best of luck in your search! I hope you find a wonderful job fit!

Have a question about UX? Ask Angela.