110 ways to get a job in user experience research

This article was originally posted at: Anthropologizing

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read 5,436 articles about how to get a job as a user experience researcher.

There is a lot out there. Too much. All kinds of opinions from all kinds of people. So many approaches. And a decent amount of inconsistent information. But it’s mostly pretty useful stuff.

This kind of thing excites me as a user experience professional and career coach. So, I put together this resource to try and get as many ideas as possible into one place. It’s a compendium of 110 tips and methods for efficiently, confidently and successfully making your way into UX research. These tips for learning, gaining experience and skills, career assets, job searching, interviewing and mindset, are based largely on my own experience as a researcher over the past 10 years, interviews I’ve conducted with candidates, and what I have seen work for colleagues and coaching clients. I’ve also incorporated some ideas from resources (with links) created by other experts in the field.

You don’t have to do all of these, but you have to do most of them to some degree. You’ll notice that some things are simply different means toward the same goal, like learning and gaining experience through an advanced degree versus courses and workshops. It just depends on where you’re at, where you’re coming from, and where you want to go.

But wait, there’s more! Check out the bonus list of 10 ineffective tips for getting a UX research job at the bottom of the page.

Learn

  1. Create a learning plan and dive head first into books, podcasts, webinars, Youtube, etc. – there are lots of recommendations out there, but you can start with this comprehensive list from Lade Tawak
  2. That said, don’t try to learn everything – figure out what is enough to get you from A to B, and start with what you are most interested in (pick 5 things instead of 50 things)
  3. Supplement your BA or MA education with courses from social science, business and design disciplines
  4. Get an advanced degree in a social sciences discipline (e.g., psychology, anthropology, sociology), humanities (history, economics), liberal arts, or other related field to become an expert in qualitative and/or quantitative methods and human behaviors. A master’s is good enough – you do not need a PhD. You will also make more money with an advanced degree. Note that an advanced degree isn’t necessary – being self taught can work well too!
  5. Do your due diligence – understand all aspects of UX research – planning, recruiting, research design, methods, rigor, data analysis and synthesis, reporting/deliverables, and making recommendations
  6. Understand key research approaches like generative/exploratory, evaluative and summative, what kind of questions they help answer, and the methodologies you would use to answer those questions
  7. Have a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of user experience, product design and development, business, and strategy (two of my favorite books for this are The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett, Alan Cooper’s About Face and The Inmates are Running the Asylum, three highly underrated and rarely discussed books that imho are way better than the cliche recommendation of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman). If I were hiring and knew you had read these, you would be on my short list.
  8. Have at least a basic idea of key UX roles (i.e., people who you will be working with) and what they do – e.g., product designer, front-end developer, product manager, content strategist, etc.
  9. Learn the language of design so you can talk about the field and your work appropriately (e.g., interface, metric, mental model, accessibility, navigation, iterative, persona, etc.)
  10. Understand the basics of the technology you are likely to be working on – for example, hardware (e.g., wearables, mobile devices), software, and platforms/operating systems like Android, iOS, web, etc.
  11. Identify gaps in your knowledge or areas you would like to further dig into and find relevant classes, training, workshops or certificate program. You can do this through learning about UX and also by evaluating job descriptions to see what they are looking for. I would recommend Curiosity Tank (Michele Ronsen), Nielsen Norman (note that certification is not required or expected as a general rule in this line of work), The UX Academy, Rosenfeld Media, User Focus (David Travis),
  12. Before you take (or pay for) classes or training, determine if the educator or program is reputable by evaluating credentials, expertise, experience, brand, measurable outcomes, etc.) Look for reviews on LinkedIn, Reddit and other sites. Talk to people who attended them to get their experience. There are soooooo many options out there with a wide range of approaches, quality, etc.
  13. Be very purposeful about how you are learning. Be thorough. Find robust programs, certificates or courses that will teach you what you need to know and also provide opportunities for practice.
  14. Create your own well-rounded custom learning plan. Bootcamps, short workshops and online courses may not be enough to learn what you need to know. Classes may be surface level and not go into the nitty gritty of methods or design fundamentals. Some people spend 2+ years in higher education learning about research methods, theory and approaches; this isn’t necessary, but a smattering of 2-hour webinars is not enough especially if you aren’t actually practicing what you learn.
  15. Attend meetups, webinars and conferences – access to these has greatly expanded due to the shift to online interactions because of the COVID-19 pandemic
  16. Talk with people of all levels of experience about their day-to-day roles, responsibilities and challenges
  17. Some people have posted essays about their career journeys online, which are worth a read for understanding the steps and variations in people’s paths – check out these posts from Tatiana Vlahovic, Jen Romano Bergstrom and this one on my blog with short interviews with three practitioners
  18. Find one or more mentors through your network or through free mentorship programs (Paul Derby has some great tips for how to approach this, including the recommendation of getting multiple casual mentors instead of just one formal one)
  19. Seek out researchers who have been in their jobs for only a year or two instead of just people who are highly experienced. Ask for informational interviews or mentoring. They will have a fresh perspective on getting their first role, which is a good complement to the perspectives of more experienced people. They will likely be honored and delighted to help to contribute to the community and be seen as an expert.
  20. Read through design blogs from major tech companies for a variety of articles on process and collaboration to what it’s like to work there and career tips – e.g., Adobe xD, Airbnb, Google, Uber, Vox, Invision, and Spotify
  21. If you are in academia as student or professor, learn as much as you can about the differences between academic and non-academic work culture and environments so you can more easily make the shift and avoid total culture shock
  22. Through your learning, you will come across a variety of ways of doing research – while there are definitely important practices and processes, there really is no one right way of doing things. There is a lot of creativity, especially within everyday workplace constraints.
  23. Eventually you need to switch from learning mode into action, to actually practice the things you are learning (this is the best way to learn)

Experience and skills

  1. Document what you have done in school and at work and see what connections you can make to research skills and practices (even if it’s a few examples, it will come in handy)
  2. Identify your transferable skills – e.g., project management, budgeting, facilitating, investigations, program evaluation, etc. You will build on these and also use them as examples in interviews and career assets.
  3. Inventory your hard and soft skills and accomplishments – no matter what they are. This is fodder for talking about yourself, identifying gaps, and connecting the dots to your future role.
  4. Forget the binary of “real world experience” and “other experience”. Your academic projects and non-UX roles are experience! Pro bono projects are experience. It’s just a matter of framing them in the context of applied UX research and design.
  5. Conduct a SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats – to identify gaps in experience and skills, so you can speak to competencies you have, gain ones you don’t, and understand priorities.
  6. Find an internship, apprenticeship or assistant role to get experience (and hopefully some mentoring); keep in mind that some internships are for current students only; you may also consider pitching to an organization to get them to bring you on as an intern
  7. Consider applying for roles in Research Operations to get your foot in the door, after which you could shift into a research role
  8. Find classes/training/degree programs that provide opportunities to practice what you learn (versus lectures where you passively intake information)
  9. If you are currently employed in a non-research role, create opportunities to practice research
  10. Shadow researchers in your workplace
  11. Offer to do projects for small businesses, start-ups or friends/family who own businesses to practice the end-to-end process of research (ideally they will pay you at least a nominal amount) – this is good practice for communicating the importance of research in design and business
  12. If you’re in school, inquire with the business, engineering and/or design departments about collaborative projects
  13. Create your own projects by finding a product to evaluate or a question to explore, oriented toward solving a problem or improving an experience
  14. Hook up with other people who need experience (in any area of practice, research or otherwise) for a team project
  15. Getting experience with project management and logistics is key because that’s a big part of being a researcher. E.g., recruiting participants, scheduling, budgets, etc.
  16. Volunteer for hackathons, non-profits, COVID-19 efforts, or other causes of interest

Career assets

  1. Document and understand your professional journey so you know how to talk about yourself and your value, and what differentiates you from others (your professional brand)
  2. Have a strong set of core professional assets – resume, LinkedIn profile and cover letter – each of which serves different but connected purposes
  3. When creating your career assets, use the framework of know, like and trust. You want to provide information that helps people get to know you, like what they see and trust you enough to see you as a viable candidate.
  4. Your resume should be no more than one page, including experience, education and skills. Yes, even if you are an academic with a 10 page CV. You don’t need to have more than one resume if you are applying for the same type of roles.
  5. Emphasize specific and qualitatively/quantitatively measurable accomplishments and outcomes when possible. Impact comes in many flavors, from product changes and achieving business goals, to process improvements and positive effects on team culture.
  6. Avoid traditional academic curriculum vitae. Don’t use academic jargon.
  7. Resume real estate is limited, so focus on the important content (competencies, roles, responsibilities and accomplishments) over things like hobbies and grade point average. If you don’t have space, then you don’t really need to put a professional statement/summary at the top, though they are not frowned upon, especially if they are solid and catchy.
  8. While Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are not the be-all and end-all of job applications, it’s important to make sure your resume is compatible. Match job description keywords, and submit only file types that the company accepts (e.g., they may not accept PDFs). One way to test this is to save your resume as a .txt file and see if it spits out the same content without jumbled text or missing information.
  9. Visual design and layout of resumes are important. Use effective font size and style, headings and a good overall structure to make it easily scannable by a recruiter (who will spend all of 10 seconds doing so). A bit of color is nice too. Graphics are not necessary. Bar charts and infographics are not a good way to communicate experience and skills. You can find templates on Google Suite, Microsoft and resume builder sites.
  10. Make the design of your career assets (resume, cover letter, LinkedIn, website) visually consistent.
  11. Don’t cut corners with your cover letters – tailor them to each job description, don’t just replace the company name and role. This is a persuasive essay to communicate why you are the best candidate for the job.
  12. For LinkedIn specifically, make sure your profile is up-to-date and as filled out as possible; people will Google you and this is one of the first results that shows up. It also helps raise your profile up on LinkedIn searches and the recruiter side of LinkedIn.
  13. Ask people you have worked with for written recommendations for LinkedIn or your website/portfolio, and endorsements on LinkedIn.
  14. I recommend a LinkedIn Premium trial (or subscription) for job seekers because you can see everyone who has looked at your profile (e.g., recruiters), get job application stats, and more visibility to recruiters. If you know someone who works at LinkedIn, inquire with them about getting one of their limited free Premium subscriptions they can give away each year.
  15. Create a portfolio for use in interview presentations (and on your website if possible) – yes, it does need to have good visual design because effective communication is an important skill, and this is how you show you have that skill; it will also set you apart from others who don’t do this so well and rely heavily on text. You can find free, well-designed templates on sites like SlidesGo, Canva and Google Suite.
  16. Have 3-5 solid case studies to choose from that showcase your best work. You can have more on your website, but you only need 2-3 as options for a presentation (typically you only have about 40 minutes to present). You can change them up depending on the company you’re applying to based on which ones are most relevant.
  17. There are tons of articles online that talk about the framework for case studies (I posted a few at the bottom). It’s important to talk about them by telling a story of the process and outcomes.
  18. You do not need a website, but having one adds to your credibility, and makes it easier for people to find you and check out your work.

Job search

  1. Be proactive, not passive. You are the one who creates your future opportunities. Jobs will not just come to you if you haven’t set a foundation and strategy for yourself and aren’t taking action.
  2. Don’t apply for every job you come across – this would be like swiping yes on every profile on a dating app; rather than treating it like a numbers game (trying to date everyone or apply for All The Jobs). Be picky and go for jobs that really resonate with you to put your time and energy into.
  3. Apply only to jobs you’re qualified for – it is easy for a recruiter to quickly see that you don’t qualify and put your application in the no pile. Don’t waste your time.
  4. If you are in school or have a job, begin planning and preparing for your job search
  5. If other people may not easily understand how your education or experience is relevant to UX research, be able to explain this to them
  6. Create LinkedIn saved searches with email notifications for jobs of interest. I am pretty certain that most jobs that are publicly posted can be found on LinkedIn, but it may be worth checking other job boards like Indeed, Glassdoor, Monster, etc. as well as research and design job boards like EPIC, local meetup groups (membership sometimes include access to a private list, like Portland’s CHIFOO), email listservs like Google Design & User Research, Slack channels, etc.
  7. Know the range of job titles to look for – UX researcher, user researcher, customer experience, design researcher, strategist, qualitative researcher, quantitative researcher, ethnographer, etc.
  8. Try searching job boards for specific skills or methodologies, which may surface roles with non-standard titles, or other types of roles where you can get UX experience.
  9. There is such a wide variety of job titles that it’s important to actually look at the requirements – e.g., some entry-level jobs don’t say “junior” in the title.
  10. Take the requirement of a certain number of years of experience with a grain of salt – focus more on what you have done, what your skills are, and how you can meet the needs of the role, and communicate this very clearly in your career assets.
  11. Connect with staffing agencies for contract work (watch out for recruiters who are shady, don’t understand what they are looking for, jerk you around, pressure you to take a job, or don’t pay enough)
  12. Hire a career coach (like me!) to help you with your career strategy, job search, career assets, professional branding, LinkedIn engagement, negotiating, etc.
  13. If you learn about a job from someone directly, follow-up to let them know that you applied. If you send someone a resume directly, make sure to also apply within the company’s system.
  14. Don’t assume you need to meet 100% of the requirements on a job description (not-so-fun fact – men tend to be less concerned about this, whereas women and people of color sometimes feel they need to be fully “qualified” and see themselves as having deficits in a negative way)
  15. Keep track of all aspects of your job search, including companies, referrals, any interactions and interviews, contact info, links and general notes, and status. Save all job descriptions in case they get taken down and to remember what you’re applying for. This will help you stay organized and is a resource for identifying patterns (e.g., number of interviews increases as you get better at pitching yourself, or after you complete your LinkedIn profile).

Interviewing

  1. Be prepared for the typical interview process – after you speak with a recruiter for an initial phone screen (do you pass muster for key requirements and sound like you know what you’re talking about), you will likely talk to the hiring manager or a team member next, followed by a group of people and some additional one-on-ones with a variety of people (e.g., researchers and designers, and possibly product managers). Know what they care about and their main responsibilities, generally speaking. Be able to speak to ways in which you would work them.
  2. You may be asked to complete a research activity as part of the process. For example, you may do a live mock interview or research planning exercise. You may be given an exercise to complete where you are given a prompt about a research question or business/design problem and asked to create a study plan.
  3. Practice live interviewing with others, or record yourself
  4. Practice answering behavioral questions (e.g., tell me about a time when…”) and the ever-important “tell me about yourself” question. Come up with examples you can discuss using the STAR method – Situation, Task, Action, Result.
  5. Practice answering research questions that are likely to come up – check out this list of questions asked during interviews with Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, as well as this compilation from interviews I did earlier in my career
  6. Practice answering questions related to research design – e.g., sample size, methodology selection, generative versus evaluative research, usability tasks, collaborating with and educating stakeholders, etc.
  7. Exude passion and excitement when talking about your work and the team/company
  8. If you lack certain experience, communicate your potential and show how what you have done and what you know relates to the role
  9. Showcase skills like communication, collaboration, problem solving, solutions-focused, conflict management, and leadership (preferably through examples rather than hypotheticals or generalizations)
  10. Research the company, product and team (find them on LinkedIn and learn about their backgrounds)
  11. Have a few good questions in mind to ask the team – e.g., how do researchers collaborate with product teams? What will I be working on when I join? What are some challenges the team is currently facing and how do you think I might be able to help?
  12. Remember that you are interviewing them too! You don’t want to take just any job if the role or company really doesn’t suit you and your goals
  13. Do a retrospective after each interview – think about what went well and what you can improve for next time; ask for feedback from recruiters and hiring managers
  14. Iterate on your process and approach as you learn and develop
  15. Send thank-you notes the day of your interviews, reiterating your interest in the role and why you’re the best candidate. Reference something you learned in the conversation, and ask a follow-up question if appropriate.

Networking and community

  1. Don’t think of networking in the traditional sense of awkwardly approaching random people – think of it as establishing genuine relationships through engagement and community participation, which will lead to opportunities in the future
  2. Social connections are the most effective way of finding about and getting jobs before they are posted to the public. There are numerous places to do this – LinkedIn, Meetup groups, professional associations, webinars, conferences, and starting with your first-hand connections.
  3. Use LinkedIn to share your ideas, experiences, perspectives and resources – this attracts people to you and organically builds your network; also post comments on other people’s content, including industry leaders!
  4. You do not need to have the title of researcher to talk about research! Jump in and give it a shot. This helps you build a brand and community as well.
  5. It’s easy to think of other people applying for jobs as your competitors – and they are in the sense that they, too, want a job, but consider them as your colleagues and community, people you can support and learn from and commiserate with; create a cohort that meets regularly to chat about career stuff, or a Slack group for sharing resources
  6. Show gratitude to people who help you through reciprocity, which builds goodwill and helps you stand out from the many others who aren’t considerate. Take the time to thank someone for their help, and keep them updated on your progress. Little things like this show gratitude which leads to stronger relationships and future opportunities. Don’t ask people for favors or referrals if you don’t know them or haven’t worked with/chatted with them.
  7. Don’t always expect a response from people you reach out to because people are busy, don’t check their messages, get too many inquiries, etc.
  8. Join one or more of the many UX research and design Slack communities, where jobs are often posted before they hit the public. Here’s a directory.
  9. Connect with alumni from your college/university – that connection may increase the likelihood of their willingness to take time to chat with you and help you further network

Mindset and reflection

  1. You may not have a research job, but if you have the fundamental skills and relevant experience, and you’ve done your due diligence, just call yourself a UX researcher. Own the title. This can help with confidence, too, in the face of impostor syndrome.
  2. It is a fact that there is no one path into UX research, and that you can get into it from just about any background or discipline. What you bring to the table is super valuable and often unique!
  3. Impostor syndrome is 99% likely to pop up to some degree. It’s because there are so many paths into research and there is a lot to learn and overcome. You may feel like you don’t belong in this field, but that will go away as you learn more, build confidence and figure out how to make the transition. I will wager that most people working in research today felt some kind of imposter syndrome when they entered the field, and even possibly for a while after that.
  4. Know that you are in a liminal state, as anthropologist Arnold van Gennep theorized. A state of “betwixt and between” defined by challenges and learning. You’re between your old identity and your new one. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s the only way you’ll get from A to B.
  5. Know why you are doing this – be confident that this is the right path for you to pursue
  6. Adopt a growth mindset – you are always learning, growing, iterating and improving. And you will have to learn a lot to make the transition.
  7. Keep track of your progress and accomplishments, both big and small; acknowledge and celebrate progress and success. Share this with others!
  8. Blog or post on social media about your job search ups and downs, insights and advice for others. This is another way to build community and brand.
  9. Don’t take anything personally in your job search – like a quick rejection after applying, if you get ghosted, or if you don’t get the final offer. Always ask for feedback, though don’t expect it from most people.
  10. Don’t make assumptions about things you don’t know – e.g., the recruiter hasn’t emailed me back in a week so I must not have gotten the job (sometimes things take a while, people go on vacation, etc.)
  11. Know that there are so many things that are out of your control and that you will never understand from behind the scenes – e.g., they might have already made their mind up on an internal candidate, but they had to post the job publicly (yes, I know, that’s super shitty, but it happens)
  12. Create a learning, accountability and support group of people in the same boat.
  13. Practice self-care because this is an emotionally involved process – take breaks, exercise, do what makes you feel good
  14. Persevere! Know that with proactivity, knowledge, experience and practice, you will find a job and it will be the right job

Bonus! 10 ineffective methods for getting a job in UX research

  1. Body swaps, deep fakes, cryogenic freezing
  2. Psychics, tarot, crystals, magnets, essential oils, tin foil hats, bleach injections, ear candling, ionized jewelry, hexagonal water or knocking on wood
  3. Matrix neck port
  4. Phishing, pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing
  5. Become a serial killer who captures UX researchers and makes a suit of their skin, then stand in front of a mirror and ask, “would you hire me? I’d hire me. I’d hire me hard. I’d hire me so hard.”
  6. Seeking answers at the Black Lodge
  7. Writing “ecneirepxe resu” in blood on a mirror in a haunted mountain top hotel
  8. Networking on Grindr, OK Cupid, Ashley Madison, FetLife, etc.
  9. Mansplaining
  10. Excessive puns or sarcasm

Additional Resources

Breaking into UX Research: Ideas from our UX Community – Paul Derby
Beta Grace: Interviewing for UX Research Positions – Grace Stoeckle
What is a researcher? A personal manifesto – Amy Santee
Applying for a UX Research Job – Laith Ulaby
The (Non-Traditional) Way to Break Into UX Research – Emma McCabe
Taking the Leap: How to get a research job out of grad school – Judd Antin
The 4 biggest challenges to starting a career in UX – Sophia Prater
So, you’re going to be a user researcher: top tips to get you going – Leisa Reichelt
I want a UX job! How to make a career change into UX research – Lauryl Zenobi
How to create a UX portfolio without UX experience | Inside Design Blog 
45 UX Portfolio Tips | IxDA San Francisco 
How to ace a UX research portfolio presentation – Miles Hunter
How to wow me with your UX portfolio – David Travis
Storytelling for a UX research portfolio – Nikki Anderson

To read the original article, click here: https://anthropologizing.com/2021/01/01/110-ways-to-get-a-job-in-user-experience-research/

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