Deciding on a career path is tricky anytime — let alone when you’re in the midst of your master’s or PhD research. Even if you’re interested in non-academic research, it’s difficult to know what to expect without actual industry experience.
Luckily, many companies now offer internships for students who want to explore the discipline of user experience research (UXR) before they graduate. At Facebook, that means applying your academic research skills to help improve products and services used by billions of people around the world.
To demystify the internship and its application process, we spoke with four interns who are now at Facebook full-time. Although they come from different academic backgrounds and schools, they shared some common concerns and tips.
Learning about the internship
How did these former interns learn about Facebook’s program? Most started with a web search on UX research in general or UX internships in particular. Qi, then a PhD student in social psychology, started to research UX careers and found out Facebook had some open positions. But she didn’t learn about the internship until she met with a friendly Facebook recruiter at SPSP, a major social psychology conference.
Another common way to discover the program was to look at the career paths of former students. A couple of interns knew of other students who’d either completed the internship or had gone on to accept a full-time position in UX. Alexa, another social psychology PhD, learned more about UX from an alum at Facebook. She also learned about the company’s culture by talking to a friend in another role at the company.
Interpersonal connections like these might seem elusive, but if you’re looking to find out more about the internship or UX as a profession, it’s worth asking around to learn who might have information. Your connections on LinkedIn might also be able to introduce you to a UX professional. Qi says she often gets emails from curious graduate students at her alma mater — another great way to learn more.
I’m not sure I’d like UX. Is the internship right for me?
None of our four former interns were dead set on pursuing UX research when they joined the program. Catherine, a media psychology PhD, was generally curious about the day-to-day of UX researchers at Facebook. Like many students, Catherine was “still on the fence between academia and industry. I wanted to learn a little more about both worlds before applying. In hindsight, I’m glad I did; it helped me better draw clear distinctions between the two.”
The internship can also show you what a day — or 12 weeks — in the life of a UX researcher is like. Many interns have powered through from undergrad to graduate school without a chance to experience non-academic research in action. As Melanie, a sociology PhD, put it, “Working in industry still felt quite mysterious to me, and it seemed like a huge shift. An internship seemed like the ideal way to dip my toes in, get some experience, without having to fully commit to a full-time job in a field I didn’t know much about (and it also had the extremely valuable side effect of improving my prospects of getting a full-time job, as someone with zero industry experience up to that point).”
Does Facebook need me? And do I need Facebook?
Some students find it hard to see how a particular research area would map to Facebook work, often unaware that many of their research skills can apply to a wide range of research questions. Alexa, who entered the internship focusing largely on quantitative methods in psychology, was surprised to learn that her understanding of human behavior enabled her to excel at methods like in-depth interviews. While industry research might look very different, your academic research skills are often directly applicable — or serve as scaffolding as you build new skills.
For Melanie, Facebook stood out as a company that hires people with social science backgrounds like hers, signaling that her skills and perspective would be a good fit. And for Catherine, who studied social media, getting to know Facebook as a product seemed like a logical next step in her career progression.
How does the timing work?
Timing is one key factor to consider when applying for the internship. Some of our interns found out about the internship in the final years of their degree program, but still had time to apply and complete the internship before returning for a final semester (which is required by the internship). They then received return offers right before completing their degree. Others who learned about the internship earlier on had more breathing room. While it’s important that you feel confident in your core research skills before applying, it can also be wise not to wait too long, just in case your first application isn’t successful.
Most UXR interns enter the 12-week internship in the summer months. Applications open in the Fall of the prior year, so it’s important to plan in advance.
Learning more about UXR
In addition to figuring out timing, many internship applicants have found it helpful to learn more about UX research before applying. Doing so can give you a head start on thinking about how your academic research skills might apply to the fast-paced world of Facebook.
Our former interns learned more about UX in several ways. Students who live in larger areas (e.g., New York) went to Meetups. Now that most in-person events have moved to virtual spaces, online gatherings are a great way to get a feel for how people think and talk about UX research. In addition, Melanie spent a lot of time reading up on UX as a discipline to internalize UX concepts and terminology.
Some aspiring interns also read industry books that helped clarify the product development process (one that helped David, a social psychology PhD was: Build Better Products: A Modern Approach to Building Successful User-Centered Products). They also watched online talks by UX researchers or (of course!) read our Facebook UXR posts on Medium.
How do I prepare for an interview cycle?
Interviewing can be daunting, especially when the stakes are high. Rest assured that you’ll have guidance. If you advance to the interview stage, a recruiter will walk you through the process.
Catherine noted: “The preparation materials prepared by Facebook are fantastic. I was highly impressed by the level of care the team had put into preparing the materials so that the interview didn’t feel like a surprise. My advice would be to go through those materials carefully and to speak with your recruiter if you have any questions. If you’re like me, you might be surprised at the openness of the company on what the structure of the interview will be like and what you should expect. I was initially worried that there would be ‘surprise’ or ‘trick’ questions outside of the prep materials, but this was not the case.“
Because the interview process is all about seeing if you’d be a good fit as an intern, it’s a good idea to approach it as a chance to just be yourself, rather than performing in a certain way or trying to outsmart the process.
That said, getting into a UX research mindset can help you prepare for the interview. As you learn more about UX research, the types of questions UX researchers tend to ask (and answer), and the product development cycle, you’ll develop a clearer sense of the types of questions you might be asked.
As part of the interview process, there is a final presentation. One tip from our interns here was to avoid focusing solely on methodology — which is important to detail, of course — and really think through the potential impact of findings, highlighting how a product team could use their insights. As Alexa advised, “Make sure you don’t give an academic talk. Make it accessible.”
What would I actually do in the internship?
Interns are paired with a senior UX researcher and are part of a product team, just like a full-time researcher. Interns have the chance to work on a Facebook product (Instagram, Facebook App, Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook Marketplace) or more cross-cutting research areas (e.g., Wellbeing, Privacy, Civic Integrity, and more!). We do our best to match Interns according to their preferences, depending on availability. Facebook offers general UX Intern roles, as well as more specialized roles (such as Privacy), which require their own application.
Over the 12-week period, interns work on 1–3 projects. Although intern managers help to carefully scope and craft the research projects, there’s lots of room for interns to shape which projects they take on in the later weeks of the internship. Interns will use existing research skills and also have the chance to develop new ones. There is a mid-point check in, which allows interns to have formal feedback on their early progress, and a final review.
Lessons from the internship
Our interns learned a lot over the 12-week internship, including how to conduct research to help shape digital products and services. Perhaps more importantly, they felt better equipped to decide whether they wanted to pursue a non-academic research path. There’s nothing like hands-on experience to help you discover whether you truly enjoy something.
Interns also benefit from learning new skills, both in designing and conducting research (e.g., how to write SQL code, or conduct a qualitative diary study), and in communicating findings (e.g., how to provide actionable product recommendations). In addition to collaborating with senior UX researchers, interns also learn from and work with a diverse array of people in various other roles, such as data scientists, product managers, engineers, and designers. Finally, UX research intern managers provide additional guidance and support.
Learn more about the UXR internship at Facebook.
Illustrator: Sarah Lawrence