Interviews with UX research leaders and those involved in hiring junior researchers: Common questions asked by students pursuing UXR.

Author: Nate Kovach

Nate Kovach
10 min readSep 21, 2021
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash


Within the last year, I have noticed an uptick in the frequency of certain questions I am asked by students regarding entry to the user experience research (UXR) field. I have seen similar patterns on LinkedIn, UXR communities on Facebook, and Reddit amongst other social media platforms. When asked, I have tried to answer these questions based on what I have experienced within the industry, observations, and input from peers.

Further inquiry and personal research illuminated that there was not a source of data from which these questions might be answered holistically and consistently, leading to confusion. Often, questions were answered by those working in the field of UX in articles or opinion pieces derived from personal experience. Therefore, I sought out those involved in the hiring of entry level UX researchers to learn and then aggregate major themes surrounding these frequent questions. I had 25 participants partake in 30-minute interviews. Based on these interviews, I have identified the common themes on the following questions:

  • What level of education is needed to enter the UXR field?
  • I see many job postings advocating for a graduate degree, will the field of UXR end up gatekeeping those who do not have one?
  • What are common pitfalls junior UXRs encounter when entering the field?
  • What is the importance of a portfolio, and what (if anything) should it include?

As a final note before reading further, this article should be viewed as a starting point from which to generate further conversation surrounding this topic. My goal is to discuss significant themes I found and communicate those with anyone considering UXR as a career. I hope to continue this research and publish subsequent information in the future.

Participant Demographics

Table 1: Titles and quantity of the participants.
Table 2: Participants highest level of education.

What level of education is needed to enter the UXR field?

Most people who inquire to me about entering the field of UXR are currently pursuing an undergraduate degree and considering post-graduation paths. I often speak to students contemplating an undergraduate degree change as well. These types of students I have spoken to are typically unsure as to whether they need to move forward with a master’s degree, or, if not, what bachelor’s degrees are best to be competitive in the entry-level of UXR employment.

Top answer: bachelor’s degrees:

For individuals entering the field in today’s market, a bachelor’s degree is required by most hiring managers as a baseline. Often, the preference from those hiring is to see a candidate coming to them with a degree which supplied research fundamentals coursework. However, if incoming candidates can demonstrate learning research fundamentals within their academic experiences, that was more desirable than a specific major for the bachelor’s degree. With that said, bachelor’s degrees within the social sciences were mentioned most often as a preferred major (Psychology and or a closely related degree were spoken of most often).

The reasoning behind the preference was shown largely to be due to the emphasis on research fundamentals while including coursework on study design, basic statistics, and human behavior found in said disciplines. Participants had a concern with the amount of junior level researchers who often enter the field lacking fundamental research skill sets without some-sort of educational background within which these items were taught. Furthermore, the individuals I spoke with had more positive experiences hiring entry-level candidates with these types of backgrounds.

A caveat: needing a bachelor’s degree in this field was mentioned less often for those performing a career transition into the field of UXR. Several participants whose companies were less strict with respect to hiring noted that hiring these types of UXR candidates could be of benefit. Career-changers often had other valuable skill sets such as communication skills, organization awareness, project-management, rapid onboarding, and excellent collaboration skills. In this situation, while a degree might not be expected, participants noted that they would still expect candidates to know the fundamentals of research methodology and more specifically an understanding of the core UX research methods most often employed.

Honorary mention: master’s degrees:

No participants mentioned listing a master’s degree as a requirement when entering the UXR field. However, most participants did state that a master’s degree is often helpful in overcoming the recruitment process in today’s current junior UXR market. When a candidate had a master’s degree with no UXR experience versus an individual with solely a bachelor’s degree, many participants felt more comfortable hiring those individuals with a master’s as they were more likely to have further solidified their research fundamentals knowledge. From a recruiting/HR perspective, participants noted that incoming candidates with advanced degrees were also more likely to make it through the screening process when compared to another candidate without a post-graduate degree, but with equal years of experience. To dissect the discussion surrounding master’s degrees further, there were often three reasons aside from furthering research fundamentals where participants felt a master’s degree was useful:

First, a master’s degree was noted to help those with no experience gather industry experience through internships. A few of the participants who took part in this study were or are currently instructing UX within academia. Often these individuals mentioned those graduate programs such as graduate Human-Computer Interaction, Human Factors, or Applied Psychology programs, pairing with companies for whom the students could then intern to gather industry experience.

Second, some UXR cultures (regardless of talent or years of experience) actively recruit candidates with a post-graduate degree and therefore said degrees do add value to a potential candidate for companies with these cultures. While it is typically not a requirement and only preferred, participants did report seeing a heavy preference in favor of advanced degrees at those companies. This was often more prevalent at larger technology companies.

Third, quantitative UXR roles were more-often filled by individuals with graduate degrees. This was attributed to the larger focus on data analysis and statistics in graduate programs. A graduate from a master’s program often gives hiring managers more insight when assessing the presence of skills needed to perform the tasks of a quantitative researcher.

Of note to those who read this and believe their qualifications as lacking due to not having the aforementioned degrees; do not lose hope but do be aware of the market and the factors at play in hiring decisions. Participants noted the ability to express research fundamentals, and interpersonal communication skills, often as being more important than degrees. Several participants also noted their companies trying to diversify their talent pool, including education background. One noted that some of their entry-level candidates without degrees had “turned out to be some of [their] best researchers.” Again, it was more important to a majority of the participants interviewed that the potential candidates could understand research fundamentals and explain the research processes.

Will the field of UXR end up gatekeeping those who do not have a graduate degree?

This question was often brought up in conjunction with question one. After students grasped a better understanding of what degree they would need, those who chose not to pursue a graduate degree often asked this question as a follow-up. These individuals often browse sites such as LinkedIn in which they see entry-level roles often preferring a master’s degree.

Participants I spoke with relayed that any gatekeeping occurring is often caused by internal human-resources/recruiting staff rather than the research staff. Many participants noted great candidates without certain qualifications, including graduate degrees, having been screened out by human-resources/recruiting only for the hiring manager to find out later that the candidate might have been a great fit. This is more prevalent than warranted in the participants’ opinions and is a reason that these individuals trying to hire UXRs often stressed the power of networking with those already in the field as a recommendation will often supply an entry point. Overall, participants holistically felt gatekeeping based on degree level would not become an issue in the UXR field outside of recruiting or HR processes. Again, a caveat of note is that gatekeeping was deemed more prominent at large technology companies and or quantitatively focused roles as mentioned prior.

What are common pitfalls junior UXRs encounter when entering the field?

Often, people pursuing their first junior UXR role are curious as to what entry-level UXRs struggle with the most so that they can preemptively work on said issue(s). When speaking to participants on this topic there was one theme upon which participants often agreed: entry-level applicants often cannot understand or explain their research processes for studies, situations, or questions. It was recommended that entry-level applicants collaborate with mentors within the field to understand the UXR research process in an industry setting and how to think, plan, and answer these questions by doing personal or mock studies prior to interviewing for a position.

Building off the above point, a lack of communication skills or an inability to guide others through research are barriers to employment regardless of education. In simpler terms, entry-level candidates often cannot communicate their research processes well. This is important as not only is it the job of a researcher to develop the research plan but to then also communicate findings clearly and explain how they were derived. One participant noted, “I look for interpersonal communication skills…these things are much harder to train than method and skillset.”

This lack of communication was mentioned also when presenting findings. One individual saying “[Junior researchers] are not great at story-telling.” Another participant noted junior UX researchers also need to “…remember that not everyone has all the research knowledge you do, and to make your findings and recommendations easily understood.” This was a theme echoed throughout the study. Like the recommendation above, participants recommended junior level individuals practice creating, presenting, and articulating a UXR study with mentors.

It is important to note that while participants felt junior level researchers lacked this understanding and communication surrounding research questions, methods, and presentation skills, it is not something many participants expected in a junior researcher to excel at. Participants said that while research fundamentals knowledge is expected, creating, and communicating a research plan is often not the responsibility of that entry-level individual, but someone who would be guiding that junior level researcher. However, nearly all participants expected junior researchers to possess a “growth-mindset” in which that researcher will take it upon themselves to observe and develop this skillset.

What is the importance of a portfolio, and what (if anything) should it include?

This is a justifiably confusing topic as UXR roles advocate for portfolios abound, but when looking up UX portfolios, nearly all examples were based on, and from, UX designers who had created website portfolios. Leaders in the UXR field have differing opinions on what research portfolios should be, should include, and how they should be structured. This was reflected in my participants as well. Responses from participants were split for this question, with about 50% advocating for and 50% in opposition.

Of those 50% advocating for portfolios, it was consistently noted that a researcher searching for a job did not need to create a website for said portfolio to be deemed quality. Often, participants felt instead it could be an online storage folder such as a Google Drive holding artifacts and or past deliverables with items such as a screener, moderators guide, study plan, final deliverable, etc. These artifacts show the hiring manager that one is capable of curating common documents which would be needed for the role. The participants advocating for portfolios also mentioned these do not need to be aesthetically pleasing. One individual denoting that “It doesn’t need to be beautiful, but it does need to tell the story of [your research] narrative.” Another participant echoing “I don’t really care about the format I just need to see that you understand the [research] process and the reasons behind it.”

Those advocating against portfolios had often given three reasons as to why they cared little about portfolio’s for UXRs:

  • Portfolios often mirrored UX design portfolios due to entry-level UX researchers taking guidance from what UX portfolios were available online. One participant noted “in my opinion, the biggest [issue] is that [potential junior researchers] will try and employ UX design tactics and, in my opinion, it doesn’t work.” This comment was echoed by several participants.
  • Often many hiring managers just did not have time to go through a portfolio and would rather ask questions surrounding the potential candidates understanding of the research process in an interview.
  • Most participants had worked or do work at locations in which anything shared externally would need to be heavily redacted, making any artifacts shared difficult-to-useless for evaluation purposes.

As half of participants advocate portfolios, it would be wise when applying to have a set of artifacts which can be shared with those individuals. This does not need to be a “beautiful” website. It should contain artifacts and past deliverables demonstrating an understanding of the research process and showing proficiency in creating common research artifacts. It was noted that if an entry-level candidate had yet to gain an entry-level job and or worked at a location where they cannot share these documents, they should complete mock-projects, volunteer work, and or guerilla-studies with people online, family, or friends. Lastly, if you find yourself in a situation in which the hiring manager does not care for a portfolio, you will probably be expected to discuss past projects, research processes, and project roles. Participants advocated mentors for guidance in this area.


To conclude, there was a consistent response in favor of obtaining a bachelor’s degree with research fundamentals coursework alongside the understanding that while not necessary, a master’s degree was often an advantage. Second, hiring managers do not feel in most-situations that gatekeeping based on degree-level will-start to occur within the field of UXR and note that when gatekeeping does occur, it is not by them/their peers, but the human-resources/recruiting staff. Third, it was noted that entry-level candidates often struggle with explaining their research process and articulating their findings, emphasizing that they should collaborate with mentors to improve in this area. Lastly, while the opinions on portfolios were mixed, since nearly half of participants advocated in favor for, it would be wise to have an easily available set of research artifacts to share.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and if you have any questions or are interested in discussing this topic further, please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.