Back to School: Starting an Academic Partnership

How a tiny team of Facebook researchers and designers teamed up with the University of Washington to pilot a partnership program.

Jen Chiu
Jen Chiu
Aug 6, 2019 · 7 min read

100% co-authored by Geunbae Lee and Jen Chiu.

In six months, a team of only six Facebook researchers and designers — all with full-time gigs — cultivated a unique academic partnership program that we’re now looking to replicate with other universities. During this time, we generated an academic partnerships pilot roadmap, recruited executive sponsors and university recruiting, and successfully piloted three different programs.

We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we’re not sharing our story (just) to brag. Whether you’re interested in starting a similar program in your own organization, or you’re a student or teacher interested in connecting with real-world designers and researchers, we think our experience can help you start exploring the possibilities.

What motivated us to take this on?

1. “Design in the Wild” Competition

  • Finalist teams got some high-quality interaction with Facebook researchers and designers when presenting their work.
  • Our researchers and designers were energized and inspired by engaging with students and being part of our judging panel.

What we learned:

  • We underestimated the level of effort required. The terms of our competition had to be vetted by our Legal/Policy team, which required more time than we had originally anticipated.
  • The non-finalist students who submitted a project didn’t get a chance to interact with us, limiting the impact of the contest. As part of our retrospective, we asked ourselves: Is there a way we can reach more students?
Our student finalist teams w/ our our FB judging panel and UW Faculty

2. Design Jam

“It was energizing to see the students showcase their creativity and collaboration. The Design Jam was a unique way for us to support future design talent.” — Robert Racadio, Facebook researcher and team lead of the winning team.

What went well:

  • Students loved it. One said, “I loved the opportunity to work alongside Facebook researchers, designers, and content strategists in a non-formulaic way that enabled me to get out of my academic bubble.”
  • Researchers and designers loved it. “So fun mentoring and engaging with students,” one employee said. “Their energy is infectious.”
  • Broader impact — we reached about 60 students vs. only the 7 student finalists in the design competition.

What we learned:

  • Students surprised us. Since the topic was well-being during career transitions, we assumed that, as students about to enter the job market, they’d pick a design solution with themselves in mind. Instead, students cultivated a range of use cases, including solutions for an older population approaching retirement.
  • It takes a village! About 25 Facebook employees helped make the day a raging success. Prep activities included creating speaker notes, recruiting team leads, creating the detailed structure/agenda for the day, coming up with scoring criteria, screening applicants, and more.
Winning team with their FB mentor, Robert Racadio

3. Capstone project

  • The students were proactive about setting appropriate goals for each milestone and communicating their progress.
  • The students worked collaboratively and generated high-quality deliverables.
  • The students continuously made refinements and improvements based on feedback from their mentor.

What we learned:

  • Trying to understand the perspectives, motivations, and thought processes of students are key to providing the most direct and actionable feedback.

Mentee Takeaway

“Geunbae [Facebook mentor] really pushed us to exercise our product-focused thinking skills, helping us think about getting the right designs for the right problems.- UW HCDE students Khang, Lynda, and Jonathan

Key Lessons from Piloting our Academic Partnership

Tips for getting started

  1. Define your goals. Is your primary goal recruiting, giving employees a chance to give back, or both? Establishing your goals will help you create a roadmap and choose the right partners.
  2. Reach out to your university recruiting team. Our university recruiters were great partners in a host of ways, including reviewing applications for our Design Jam and strategizing with us on making the most of our events.
  3. Assemble a core team with cross-functional representation. Target your outreach to colleagues who you think will be engaged and committed, and who will offer a diverse range of perspectives.
  4. Create a roadmap. Plan this work the way you would with your product team.
  5. Find an executive sponsor. Sponsorship is important for funding and sends a message to the core team that the work they’re doing matters and is being recognized. Executive sponsors can be powerful amplifiers, which is especially beneficial during early planning stages.

If you’ve taken part in such a partnership (on either the academic or corporate side) we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. And if you’re a student interested in programs like these, please help us spread the word by sharing this article with your faculty and staff.

“Thank you to Carolyn Wei, David Kille and David Hayward for helpful comments on previous drafts of this post.”


Authors: Geunbae Lee, Product Designer at Facebook, and Jen Chiu, Research Program Manager at Facebook.

Illustrator: Sarah Lawrence

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

Jen Chiu

Written by

Jen Chiu

Member of the human tribe; Diversity & Inclusion at Facebook

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade