After 11 years as a Psychology Professor, I changed careers and moved from the academy to industry. I was a tenured faculty member in a Psychology Department at a small technological university in rural upstate NY. Now, I work as a User Experience (UX) Researcher at Key Lime Interactive, which is a UX/CX research, strategy, and design services agency.
When I started considering a career change, I was unsure what other career paths to even explore. I took my time making the transition from academia to industry – partly due to my overfull academic schedule and responsibilities coupled with burnout, partly due to needing time to disentangle my personal identity from my academic professional role, and partly due to logistical concerns such as timing and finances. Throughout the process of this career change, I’ve learned a lot. In this blog post, I hope to share some information for people considering or in the early stages of making a career change from academia to UX research. I offer three main tips: (1) find and use the many resources that are available; (2) develop and grow your UX network; and (3) give yourself grace but set some goals.
Tip #1: Find and use the many resources that are available.
Check out whether your academic professional societies offer links to industry. If I’m honest with you, I didn’t even know UXR was a thing until I attended a symposium at one of my professional conferences hosted by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). The symposium had talks from Social and Personality Psychologists who were working in industry. I was fascinated with the questions they were asking, the work they were planning, and the familiar link to my own academic research. I attended one of the Industry Happy Hours and was delighted to have conversations with people already working in industry and others considering the move. I started paying more attention to the sessions being offered at the professional conferences I attended, especially SPSP, and was encouraged to see intentional efforts being made to include Social and Personality Psychologists in industry. Between symposia sessions, posters, workshops, pre-conference sessions, and industry-focused happy hours, there were many opportunities at conferences I was already attending to start networking and exploring non-academic careers. With the growing number of Social and Personality Psychologists in industry, more and more resources have been created and made available on the society’s website and social media accounts. As a starting point, I encourage you to see if your professional society is helping facilitate connections with industry professionals.
Tap into the wealth of information on social media. One of my early go-to social media groups was the Ph.D. to UXR Facebook group. I was excited to reconnect with a few friends from grad school who were already in industry or transitioning to industry. I learned so much from the generous people in that group! This type of group was my first introduction to the UXR community, and I was surprised by how generous they were with their time and willingness to share their own experiences. Experienced UXRs took time to answer questions and offer guidance; they volunteered to review resumes, gave tips on how to convert an academic CV into a resume, shared stories from their own experiences, and offered encouragement. I found that once I joined one UX-focused social media group, I learned about other groups (e.g., the User Research Collective Facebook group) and resources, including slack channels, LinkedIn groups, and email listservs. Even beyond these tangible resources, I found these types of groups valuable in helping me realize I was not alone (both in my desire to change careers and in the collection of doubts and questions I had) and to discover there was a kind and interesting community I wanted to join!
Check out UX professional resources. I’m still in the process of discovering the UX professional resources, but I’ll share a few with you that I’ve found helpful. The User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) has lots of good information as well as regional chapters – many of which host networking and other events! I attended my first UXR conference – the Learner’s UXR conference – and found it really helpful. There’s even a Quant UX conference! I’ve heard about other UX events and conferences through social media groups and LinkedIn posts – definitely keep your eye out for more information from your network!
Read Medium articles. Medium articles offer a variety of information that I found helpful. There are articles from people who have changed careers, as well as UX-specific content to help you build a deeper understanding of the field and the work. There are helpful articles outlining the connections within UX and how different UX roles (e.g., research, design, writing) complement each other. There’s information about product cycles and actionable insights. There are even articles with advice on how to prepare application materials (e.g., resumes, portfolios) and for interviews.
Watch YouTube videos. I was somewhat surprised when someone recommended that I search YouTube to find more information. But YouTube is a great resource! There are well-known YouTube channels, such as Aona Talks and Kevin Liang which are filled with all sorts of valuable information. I’ve also enjoyed following The Bold PhD channel with Dr. Gertrude Nonterah; she shares information and talks with people who have left academia for a variety of industry positions (for example, check out this video of a conversation she has with a Communications Ph.D. who moved into a UXR position at Meta!). I also recommend searching YouTube for “a day in the life of a UX researcher” to learn more about the day-to-day work and variety of work UX researchers engage in. You can also search for videos about being a UX researcher at specific companies such as Google or Meta.
Tip #2: Develop and grow your UX network.
Considering a career change and then putting yourself out on the market doesn’t have to be a lonely, isolated experience! LinkedIn is a great way to connect with the UXR community. You’ll find long-time UX researchers, people who recently transitioned into UX from other careers, people early in their careers, and folks preparing or working to join the field. When I started using LinkedIn, I didn’t really get why so many people outside of academia talked enthusiastically about it. But as I slowly started connecting with more people and following/joining more UX-focused groups, I quickly realized how valuable LinkedIn was! I suddenly found myself scrolling through the feed and getting real glimpses into the chatter occurring in the UX field. Plus, people share information about internships, early career opportunities, job postings, and networking events. Although I’ve found that people are generally willing to connect, some people save “connections” for people they actually know and have interacted with. No worries, though! You can still “follow” anyone on LinkedIn; “following” someone means that you’ll see their posts in your feed. Plus, one of the neat features of LinkedIn is that you also typically see posts others “like” or comment on. So if you’re hesitant to make a full “connection,” go ahead and “follow” people as a start!
Attend events (including virtual events!) and start connecting! When I finally decided to actually move forward with making a career change, I struggled with finding time to commit to actually making the change, and I still had all sorts of questions. I realized I needed to reprioritize my time and intentionally carve out a bit of time (even “just” 30 minutes to an hour a week!) to dedicate to my career change. I committed to doing at least one UX research-focused thing each week. As I started intentionally searching LinkedIn and other resources for information, the most salient advice I saw was to network, network, network! But I was in an isolated, rural area, so I needed to find ways to connect virtually. I was thrilled to find numerous AMA (that’s Ask Me Anything) sessions where UX Researchers (often from a variety of backgrounds and companies!) shared their experiences of transitioning into UX; they often left a substantial chunk of time at the end of the AMA to answer people’s questions. These AMA events and similar networking events were pivotal turning points in my own transition-to-UXR story. I also found and joined a UXR book club that met once a month (this particular group, sadly, ended, but there are other book clubs out there!). Some people even offered virtual “office hours;” they’d set up a virtual link and gather online to talk with people, answer questions, share tips, and offer encouragement. In most of the networking events I attended, people were encouraged to drop their LinkedIn info in the chat and then connect with others who were attending. As my UX-focused network grew, so did my access to threads and posts about UXR. I started finding webinars, workshops, and more AMA events to attend. I loved these events because (1) I learned more about the field and the day-to-day work that’s done, and (2) I started building a network and feeling more connected to the UX community.
Set up informational interviews/coffee chats. Yikes, the idea of reaching out to someone and asking them to take time to talk with me about their UXR experience was daunting and something I avoided for a long time. But, the advice across all the resources I was engaging with was consistent: Network! As I joined more events and started participating more, I realized that many UX Researchers were happy to make time to talk. Others had helped them, and now they wanted to pass that assistance forward to help someone else join the field. I was so relieved to find that people were incredibly friendly and generous in sharing their experiences. Despite being busy with their own careers and lives, I met many people who were supportive and generously shared their own experiences of how they moved from academia to UXR. “Informational interviews” are really conversations with a focus rather than an actual “interview” per se. Most people recommend planning for 30-minute conversations and coming prepared with some questions (e.g., can you tell me about how you decided it was time to leave academia? Did you upskill or reskill before applying? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting your career change?). For more details about informational interviews, search YouTube and Google for videos and articles! There are also websites such as ADPList where you can find mentors – sometimes for a single conversation and sometimes for an ongoing mentor relationship. These mentoring conversations can look like informational interviews or can be opportunities for support in reviewing application materials or practicing your interviewing skills. I definitely encourage you to set up informational interviews and/or mentoring sessions!
Tip #3: Give yourself grace but set some goals.
Manage competing goals. As an academic, you’re likely facing a lot of demands and deadlines. From preparing for class sessions to mentoring and advising students to continuing your program of research to completing committee work, there’s often limited (or no!) extra time available for another task, let alone thinking deeply about changing your career. For me, it helped to block time on my calendar that was immovable (similar to class sessions!). I connected with some close friends who knew I was preparing to change careers, and we’d meet for “work sessions” – I’d often work on application materials or learn more about UXR, and my friend might grade papers or prep for their next class. Although sometimes we’d manage to block long stretches of time, most frequently, we’d meet up for a quick “work sprint” – sometimes as short as 30 minutes, often about an hour or 90 minutes. Having a short, dedicated chunk of time scheduled with a friend meant that I was going to show up (I rarely cancel on a friend!). Since it was just a short time period, I could usually set aside my academic work and focus on my career change. A lot can get done in a concentrated 30-minute period! I recommend leaving yourself a note with where you left off and where you want to pick up the next time you sit down so that you maximize your time rather than figure out what you were doing.
Find an accountability partner. With all the demands I faced with my academic responsibilities, I found myself struggling to prioritize my career change efforts (even when I tried to manage competing goals!). Outside of attending events and informational interviews, I kept canceling the time I had set aside to work on my resume or search for positions. I finally realized that I needed an accountability partner who was at a similar stage in the process. After a book club meeting, one of the women pinged me to set up a time to chat; while we were talking, I floated the idea of meeting somewhat regularly (e.g., once a month) to check in about how things were going or at times to just mute ourselves and work on our application materials. Finding her was a game-changer for me and helped me both actually get stuff done AND form a connection! Over a year later, we both have successfully transitioned out of academia and still connect about every two weeks!
Set realistic expectations. Although there are arguments to be made about the entire semester/year being busy, there are ebbs and flows in the academic calendar. For example, if you advise students, advising week (and often the week preceding and following it) may not be the time to plan on attending multiple events and restructuring your resume. But perhaps you can still chunk off a quick 10 - 20 minutes to scroll through LinkedIn and follow a few conversation threads to stay looped in or watch a YouTube video about UXR.
Take care of your basic needs! There’s a LOT involved in making a career change. It’s easy to start to feel buried in all the related tasks and to-dos that are squeezed into your existing responsibilities and schedule. For some people, there’s also a sense of hope and newness offered by a career change. In the midst of it all, I hope you remember to carve out the time and space to regularly eat real meals, get high-quality sleep, drink water, take walks, and connect with people you care about.
One of the biggest takeaways from my career transition was people’s incredibly kind willingness to help. I was thrilled to find that my colleagues in my first UXR position at Key Lime Interactive also share this sentiment. We believe in Paying It Forward. If you’re changing careers or seeking career advice, please join us for one of our UX Mentor Days! You’ll be able to select a 45-minute slot where you’ll have the chance to talk with experienced Key Lime team members. Sign up to be the first to know when our next event is scheduled.