Several weeks ago, a reader left a comment asking for advice. They wanted my perspective on whether they needed to get a PhD to pursue a career in UX research.
The short answer is: No.
The longer answer is much more complicated. For some odd reason, the answer to this question seems to always be a bit contentious and some UXRs get very emotional about it. I get the sense that for some UXRs the answer to this question gets very personal — almost as if the answer itself is a condemnation of their life choices. But the reality is that there are many paths (some conventional, some not so conventional) to starting a career in UX research.
I personally don’t have a PhD, though I was Phd-curious for a long time (and even applied unsuccessfully during grad school at Michigan). While I may not have personal experience of getting a PhD and transitioning to industry, I can give you the perspective of someone who’s been a UX researcher for nearly fifteen years, managed and mentored other UXRs of varying backgrounds for about five years, and interviewed over 100 UXR candidates at Google.
In this post, I’ll describe what I believe is the shortest path to getting started in UX research, what a PhD prepares you for, and why you may not opt for a conventional path to UX research.
The shortest path to UX research
In my opinion, the shortest path to getting started as a UX researcher is to get a master’s degree in HCI from a reputable HCI program. This means that you’ll probably need to take two years off from working/earning a living to devote to school full-time. Depending on your background and situation, this may seem like a very high cost (and that’s not including the student loans you’ll need to take out to cover tuition, housing, and all your other expenses). But I can speak from personal experience, my Michigan degree has paid for itself exponentially not just in terms of my earnings but also in terms of the life and career fulfillment it has enabled me to pursue. Being a Michigan alum has literally opened doors for me that were unreachable before.
But getting a degree alone isn’t enough — you have to be strategic about your approach to picking a school and spending your time while you’re in grad school. When picking a program, you should not only look at the coursework to see if it fits your interests and investigate the backgrounds of your potential professors, you should also look at your future alumni network. Are graduates of the program getting the types of jobs you want and at the type of organizations you’re interested in? Not only is this a signal of how employable you’ll be when you graduate, it’s also a signal of the type of connections your degree will afford you. My first two jobs in UX were through Michigan HCI connections. A few reputable HCI masters programs include Michigan, Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, UW, and Irvine [this list is by no means exhaustive].
Most HCI masters programs are only two years long. That is not nearly enough time to learn everything you need to know about conducting valid research and the foundations of HCI and user experience. You have to supplement your program with additional experiences. That means getting a summer internship in UX research. But that alone isn’t enough. While you’re enrolled in school, you have to make sure that some of your projects will make good portfolio pieces (not all of them will). Ideally, you should be able to extend one or two of those projects beyond your program. For instance, could you publish a paper based on the project or give a presentation at a conference like CHI or Mobile HCI? If somehow you have time in between coursework (I never did but some of my more enterprising friends did), you should also look into doing some part time work. You could help out one of your professors with data analysis or collection or you could try to find a part time job in UX. If your program allows you to take cognates in other departments, look into the type of classes that would give you value. For instance, I took a Phd-level qualitative methods course in the School of Sociology that, while demanding and difficult, formed the foundation of my qualitative research skills. Some of my friends took an ergonomics and human factors class in the School of Engineering. And if your master’s program offers a thesis option, you should consider building that into your program.
What a PhD prepares you for
When I was in grad school, the consistent message we heard about the PhD program at Michigan is that it wasn’t simply the next step in your education. It was a whole different path and one that you chose if you wanted a career in academia. PhD programs prepare you for a life of teaching and researching in a university environment.
Judging by my experiences of interviewing recently minted PhDs and mentoring and managing people with similar backgrounds, the same sentiment holds true today. PhD programs (even the HCI ones) prepare people for a career in academic research but not one in user research. Conducting research in academia is far more rigorous than conducting research in industry (and specifically conducting research to support product development). Our goals when conducting user research in a product environment, is to help teams ship products. That means informing teams of issues with how a product was designed or implemented, exposing teams to new trends in consumer behavior and sentiment, and influencing product teams to adopt new strategies based on user research. We apply rigor in user research but the level of rigor depends on the question being asked and the context. Need to make sure a last minute wording change is easy to understand? Quick and dirty is fine. Need to understand if a new concept that’s yet to be developed solves a problem? Some rigor and planning is needed. Need to understand the needs of consumers in a new market and drive product strategy based on that research? A lot of rigor and planning is needed!
What I see when interviewing and mentoring a lot of newly minted PhDs is a lack of understanding of when and how to apply rigor in product development (although the same is true for newly minted master’s students, though the emphasis on rigor is usually the polar opposite). I also see a lack of understanding of general principles of design, user experience, and the fundamentals of building a product and what it means to be an embedded researcher on a product team. And sometimes during interviews, I get the sense that freshly minted PhDs think that Google is a research lab (we do have those roles but they’re usually referred to as “research scientist” and not “user experience researcher”) much like academia where you set your “research agenda.” The reality is that when you’re an entry level UXR, you will most likely be assigned a product or feature and you’ll own research for that thing. That means you’ll work with the designers, product managers, and engineers on your team to determine what questions you need answered and when (and you’ll line up your research program to fit the product lifecycle).
This all isn’t to say that having a PhD isn’t valuable for a role in UX research. It absolutely is. If you have the means and time to pursue a PhD program and know that you’ll eventually want a UXR career in industry, you should absolutely go for it. And when I say means and time, it’s not just that you’re fully funded by your PhD program but that you can afford to spend 4–6 (or more!) years of your life not earning money and not saving towards your retirement. And it means that during that time, you’re also watching your friends who chose a different path earning money, saving, and buying homes while you’re still a poor student. Some people really struggle with this so you have to know yourself and make that decision for yourself.
An HCI masters degree is a really good way to get your foot in the door but it’s only two years! There are types of research that require a certain level of expertise and rigor that someone with my background simply doesn’t have. For instance, I’m not good at experiments or quantitive research. Some of my friends who have PhDs in psychology (cognitive, experimental, etc) are better prepared for this type of work and far more competent than me in that regard. So in some respects, a UXR with a PhD may have a wider research toolkit.
To be clear I’m not saying that if you don’t have a PhD, you won’t be as good of a UXR. It just means that you may end up doing different types of research. I personally haven’t found this aspect of my background to be limiting — at least not at this stage in my career (maybe when I was first starting out). But I do bring other unique competencies and skills that make me a good researcher.
So if you have the time and means to get a PhD, I say go for it! But be prepared to spend some time after grad school learning about product development and how to transition your skills to industry. If you don’t have the means and time to get a PhD but know that you want a UXR career, go the masters route.
Why you may not opt for a conventional path to UX research
I know a lot of very strong UXRs whom I’d love to have on my team who didn’t take either of the two conventional paths that I’ve just described. Some have master’s degrees but in unrelated fields. Others have their bachelor’s degrees only. They all managed to make their way to UX research. They may have spent time as contractors or temps for a few years until they built enough experience. They may have taken an online course or a bootcamp but they all eventually made their way to the careers they have today.
I personally wouldn’t advise you to take this route because I’ve seen first hand how much harder of a path it is and how hard these folks had to work to get to where they are today. But there are instances and situations where it’s very hard for me to encourage someone to drop everything they’re doing and enroll in a master’s program. For instance, I coach a few Googlers who are in different roles at Google but are considering pursuing a UX research career. I can’t in good conscience tell someone who’s already at Google to quit their job and get an HCI master’s degree. If you already work in tech, it doesn’t make sense to do that. But you may consider getting a degree online (for instance, Bentley offers one such program).
If you already have a master’s degree or PhD in an unrelated field, I wouldn’t advise you to get another degree in HCI. I’m not a huge fan of all the UX bootcamps that keep popping up but this might be the one instance where I’d recommend that route. Along with being prepared to take a research assistant position as you learn on the job.
I hope what you’ve taken from my post today is that there are lots of paths to becoming a UX researcher. And your degree and pedigree isn’t a sign of your competence. I’ve known plenty of amazing researchers with unconventional backgrounds and plenty of lousy researchers who have graduate degrees from some of the best institutions in the country.
It’s not where you came from but what you do with the opportunities you’ve been given.
- Lada Adamic has written about working in industry and academia. While her industry work is in a research lab environment, I do think it is worth reading for anyone considering both paths.
- When I was applying for grad schools, I read two books that I found very helpful: Getting What You Came For and Play the Game: How to Get Accepted and Succeed in Graduate School. Both books are probably a bit dated at this point but I found a lot of value out of reading them.
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