Three hard truths I learned before moving to a non-academic career

The Times Higher Education just published my article titled Three hard truths I learned before moving to a non-academic career. They’ve also allowed me to reproduce it here.

I spent 10 years working as a faculty member at Erasmus University Rotterdam before transitioning to a career in UX (user experience) research in 2019. Since then, I’ve mentored dozens of PhD holders, postdocs and professors who want to leave academia for industry. Listening to others and going through my own transition, I’ve identified three hard truths that academics need to hear before they can successfully begin a new career:

Academia is a ‘known unknown’ to those outside of it
When I began networking with those in non-academic industries, I knew the vast majority would have a degree. The difference between us? I stayed in the academic environment, eventually earning a PhD. I was one of those super nerds who loved the university experience so much that I opted to triple my time on the inside.

Known unknowns are things we are aware of but don’t understand. A lot of people power through university as a means to an end. Staying in academia, in what some say is a cult, can be hard to comprehend. To compound this, Strada-Gallup consumer data from 2019 show that of working US adults, only 26 per cent strongly agree that their college education is relevant to their work and day-to-day life. Keep this in mind when relying on your advanced degrees to open doors.

When tackling a career transition, it is your task to translate others’ impressions of your academic work environment to its reality. We know that reality was a lot of intense, dedicated labour, chock-full of transferrable skills. We need them to know it, too.

Exude confidence not cockiness when mentioning your degree
In academia, you get a seat at the table by earning a PhD. It’s a huge, impressive accomplishment, and those of us who have a PhD – or are working to earn one – respect it. Outside of academic circles, it represents something different.

But those who leave after their student years have a different perspective on academic life. I had a corporate recruiter ask me why I would leave such a cushy job, after he reminisced about how his professors would teach a class and then disappear, only to appear again for one weekly office hour.

Recruiters, hiring managers and future co-workers might be impressed with your PhD, but it will not open doors the way it does in academia. Your new manager probably doesn’t have a PhD, and she’s higher on the food chain because her experience is more valued than a doctorate. That’s the reality when you enter a new work environment: relevant experience counts for more than education.

What this comes down to is practical self-presentation advice. Your relevant work experience, and not your degrees, should be front and centre on a CV. Use the PhD title after your name at your discretion, but keep in mind that translating what that degree and subsequent work experience adds to your new career is crucial.

Your cover letter should not be all about you, the work you did to earn your doctorate and the logic behind your transition out of academia. It should be about why you are the best fit for the job to which you are applying. Humbling yourself in such a way is also vital to embracing point three.

Learning new terminology is essential, but so is translating previous experience
Part of changing careers is learning what can seem like a foreign language. Jargon-heavy professions are everywhere. Expressing your experience in industry terminology means that you’re speaking the same language as your hiring manager and your future team.

As a hiring manager, I’ve read job applications from those who simply attached their academic CVs. I even had one candidate who uploaded a copy of a recent journal article he had published as a motivational letter. When you apply for a job, you need to answer the question: why this company? If you’re coming from academia, you also have to address: why this industry? And the strongest answer is provided in the language they speak.  

This starts with transforming your CV. I spent weeks translating my 10-page academic CV into a concise document. It was a painful experience. I had to take a deep breath and convert pages of publication details into one tidy number. Then I had to determine which parts of my experience were relevant for the job I wanted and express the impact those projects had − in the language of my new field.

Embracing these three truths means being empathetic to your new audience, whether it’s potential colleagues, recruiters or hiring managers. Remember, you’re the one who wants to make the transition, so the burden falls on you to do the work of closing the gap between what you were and what you want to become. It took me 18 months of hard work before I landed my first non-academic job. The transition took time and learning these truths along the way has made me – and can help you become – a more pragmatic professional.

Applying a Firefighter Model to UX Research Practice

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

As UX researchers, we’ve all been there: We have our research plans meticulously laid out. We envision weeks full of fascinating conversations with users, long stretches of analysis, and actionable insights that will blow everyone’s mind and might even impact the strategic direction of the product.

Then, Important Stakeholder(s) rush into our (virtual) office, arms waving, alarm-like sounds coming from their mouths. “Drop everything! We need to completely change focus!” In other words, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Depending on how much we need a predictable environment in order to thrive, this situation could provoke any reaction from a groan to a clenched jaw to a full-blown professional identity crisis. “How can they expect us to do our job?” we might cry. “This was a really important project! It took us forever to tweak the set-up! We can’t just drop it.”

Instead of seeing these intrusions as a disruption, what if we apply the Firefighter Model? I’d like to propose three ways we can thrive in our UX research practice, no matter what the priority shift: first, embrace the Firefighter Model, second, practice knitting in the fire station, and third, accept our firefighter identity.

Embrace the Firefighter Model

In name, the Firefighter Model hasn’t been written about much. There’s one book chapter written by Thomas McLarty III who describes the Firefighter Model as a form of corporate crisis management, where “the strategy is to focus resources towards the most urgent need: containing the flames and preventing further damage.”

The Firefighter Model applied to a UX research practice is a bit different: The crisis, or fire, is often internally generated, by product managers/design leaders/C-level execs who opt to change direction. The disruptive and unexpected nature of the fire most impacts the makers: the professionals who have to alter the course of their daily work (developers, designers, or, in our case, UX researchers). The Important Stakeholders alert us to the fire, and we – as UX research practitioners (a.k.a firefighters) – answer the call to put the fire out.

What’s important here is framing the Firefighter Model in terms of crisis management. When we are on the receiving end of urgent instructions to abandon ship, we might feel out of control, especially when we didn’t have a say in the change of plans. Embracing this model results in two positive outcomes: feeling a renewed sense of control and utilizing our time in the fire station.

“Knitting in the fire station”

I know the thought of embracing the Firefighter Model isn’t easy. There are probably a lot of you out there who are shaking your heads, refusing to admit defeat. Determined to stick with those plans. Maybe even pulling that firefighter helmet off and tossing it across the room.

I offer a form of resistance.

Being a firefighter means you spend a lot of time sitting around at the fire station. Thankfully, fighting fires is not a constant part of the job.

“Knitting in the fire station” is code for doing the job we thought we had as UX researchers. In essence, it means we agree to fight fires, but we spend the rest of our time anticipating and avoiding them.

This is where we draw on our UX research expertise. We can build up our research operations. We can spend time creating a panel of participants to contact when the fire alarm sounds – we’ll put out the flames that much quicker. We can create templates for sharing rapid results – a fire hose of actionable insights.

We can do research, too, even work on that low-priority project that our stakeholders failed to prioritize, but we know better. Despite everything we still celebrate the researcher’s mindset and trust our process, even if it doesn’t match mandated timelines. Who knows? Those “trivial” insights might just serve as a fire extinguisher in next month’s big blaze.

We can meet with our fellow firefighters to discuss how we are adapting to the model. Sharing frustrations and exchanging knitted goods – er, best research practices – are both great ways to bond with our community of practitioners.

“Knitting in the fire station” means, in other words, spending our non-firefighting time creating things that make firefighting easier and less painful. McLarty calls this approach the Fire Marshall Model: “…their primary responsibility is to focus on prevention strategies – establishing and enforcing fire codes and educating citizens on fire safety.” Our incidence of fires may drop considerably, just as it has in the real world.

Accept our firefighter identity

Acceptance: It’s the last stage of grief, and it’s a necessary part of embracing our firefighter identity. I know it’s tough.

Remember: In the Firefighter Model, a fire is an emergency that needs immediate attention. When there’s a fire, and we’re firefighters, our job is to put it out.

The existence of the fire is beyond our control, especially in COVID times. There’s no use in arguing about whether it exists. It does. Why not put the Serenity Prayer on mental repeat? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Now: This doesn’t mean that a digital product company – let alone a UX research practice – could or should operate in a constant state of emergency. However: when there’s a fire, our stakeholders are going to alert us, and they’re going to be relieved and grateful if we help to put the fire out. Being asked to participate is a massive validation of our worth. It shows our contribution is meaningful. Otherwise, why would we hear about the fire in the first place?

If we can learn to embrace the Firefighter Model, we might start to see ourselves as the heroes that we are.

You can also read this article on Medium.

A Researcher’s Mindset

A researcher knows that learning methods is a necessary condition to being successful. But these skills are not sufficient: Researchers must also acquire the necessary mindset in order to thrive in their practice. As a researcher who’s experienced the academic and UX side of research, I’ve seen how in both settings, a researcher’s mindset questions everything, lives comfortably in a grey area, and champions empathy.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

A researcher’s mindset questions everything

Having a researcher’s mindset means being obsessed with questions: generating questions, refining questions, answering questions, asking questions about the answers to questions. Before I got into UX, I spent 15 years teaching research methods courses to undergraduate and graduate students. The first thing we discussed was the importance of the research question. Start with its relevance: Is the question one that yearns to be answered, either by you or your stakeholders? Is the question one that can be answered using data? Then, given the scope of data on which you can draw, is the question too big, too small, or just right?

The same is true in UX-land: Tinkering with a research question until it feels solid is fundamental to the success of a research project. When a stakeholder approaches you with a topic, turning that topic into a question is the first step to scoping a quality project. If the question is researchable, answerable, guides the research process, and can be altered in the face of obstacles or new evidence, you’ve started on solid ground.

A researcher’s mindset lives comfortably in a grey area

“Yes or no, can you let us know in a week?” This kind of stakeholder question makes UX researchers take a deep breath and do some relaxation techniques. Researchers are trained to shy away from definitive answers to research questions: how can it possibly be as simple as “yes” or “no”? There’s a reason (beyond enjoying being long-winded) that academic papers are usually thousands of words long: There is no easy answer to a research question, especially a qualitative one. Research can instead reveal, in shades of grey, whether you are on the right track.

Of course we learn clever ways around this when dealing with our stakeholders (“Yes, and…”, “No, however…”) but a researcher’s mindset thrives in crafting insights until they become inspirational. This is not because we want to be difficult or incomprehensible, but because we are trained to see nuances. We recognize the plethora of elements that can affect the outcome of our research: the fit of research participants, the analysis we use, the audience for insights. We see research methods as living organisms and we imagine simple to complex projects based on time constraints. Perusing these grey areas can make things tricky but it also adds a delightful complexity to the research process. (Finding clarity in the face of these ambiguities is another skill worthy of its own article.)

A researcher’s mindset champions empathy

You Are Not the User: That is our mantra, sometimes chanted mentally as our stakeholders tell us how their own expertise is enough – no user research necessary! As researchers we also remind ourselves that we, too, are not the user: Whether academics focused on understanding attitudes towards dating apps, or UXers looking at user behavior, we conduct extensive research, perform careful analysis, craft our insights sharing, all the while remembering that our sworn duty is to be an outspoken advocate for our user’s perspective.

User empathy can sometimes be hard to remember in a meeting with skeptical product managers or leadership. This situation exemplifies another facet of our empathy: We also need to have empathy for our stakeholders, and understand their motivations, fears, pain points, and perspectives. Empathy for the user and the experience they go through before, during, and after using our product is crucial, but so is empathy for our stakeholders in order to communicate research insights in the most actionable way. The ability to champion both kinds of empathy is part of our mindset as UX researchers.

Ashley Graham talked about methods versus mindset in an insightful interview on Dollars to Donuts. She argued that others can always help you perfect your methods skills, but crafting a researcher’s mindset is the essential starting point for any UX researcher. Having such a mindset means “you speak up and bring the voice of the user to whatever context that you’re working in.”

As a UX researcher, you’re a whiz at writing interview guides and conducting interviews. You understand the intricacy of crafting solid survey design. You’re a pro at analyzing research data. But the mindset you bring to the table is what makes you a true change agent.

You may find yourself wondering: Do I have it? Can anyone adopt it, or does it require a specific type of person? What conditions must be in place for it to thrive? How could one measure it? Congratulations, you are on your way to acquiring a researcher’s mindset!

You can also read this article on Medium.

Just published: “The Introverted Mosquito”

The Introverted MosquitoIt all started with my son Adrian’s idea: Imagine if a mosquito were an introvert, and really wanted to be alone. With all the mosquito-repellent products out there, she’d have plenty of options if her goal was to keep other mosquitos away. 

I thought: Hey, that would be a funny story. Shortly after, during a Pokemon sketching contest, we discovered that my partner, Urville, has a knack for drawing.

The family project The Introverted Mosquito was born. Story by Adrian, written by Janelle, illustrated by Urville. And we’ve just published it!

 

The Grass is Greener

The Times Higher Education just published my contribution to the quit-lit genre, called The Grass is Greener (scroll to the bottom, the article is last in a series of three). They’ve also allowed me to reproduce it here.

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If you have always wondered about a life outside academia, I’m here to tell you: the grass is greener. Since my PhD days, I’ve been peeking over the fence. In 2019, I finally took action. My aim is to speak to you, an academic who’s contemplating leaving, and suggest why it might be a positive life-changing move.

One month into my new career, I had a drink with a still-academic friend. She’d been running three internal committees in the hope of making a vague promise of tenure come good. She’d neglected writing articles and had put a book idea on hold to monitor internal politics, and as she drank her wine she told me she’d lost. She’d been denied tenure. I listened, and I was outraged.

But then I recognised something. My heart was not racing. I was not consumed by the fight-or-flight response that usually overtook me during such conversations. Why? Although it made me angry, her story no longer reminded me of my own desperate plight. I’d found an alternative work universe where academic troubles did not exist. I know I’m still in the honeymoon period of my new job, but this professional pivot made me realise: after 15 years in an academic bubble, the best thing about leaving is finding out that the world is more than the ivory tower.

How did I get to this point? When building up my academic CV, I remember being drilled about the importance of “solo author” or “first author” publications: I would demonstrate my worth through individual visibility. Why do academics find stories such as my friend’s outrageous? She took on a role that contributed to her department at the expense of her own research output and, eventually, her career. We are socialised to baulk at collaboration, and horror stories such as this just push us further into isolation.

As an assistant professor, I loved how I could focus on my very own research topic. It’s a privilege to publish under your name. But there’s a dark side. If you don’t get credit, you have no value. We are afraid to share our research project until it’s finished – or, better still, published. I learned the lonely but effective strategy of keeping my cards close to my chest.

“Collaboration” is certainly one of today’s buzzwords. While networking for non-academic jobs, I heard the concept thrown about. In my second week in my new job, I saw it in action. Several colleagues presented work in progress, from a project that had been conceived four days earlier (four days: not four months, not four years). Everyone in the room gave constructive feedback. Not simply because they were nice people, but because the success of the project involved them, too: their work would excel if their colleagues’ work excelled. Their insights could contribute to the insights of the entire team.

There is no “I” in team, but there is one in “academic”. When there is scientific collaboration in an academic department, there’s an inevitable fight for authorship, which in my experience extends even to internal policy documents. In my brief time outside, I’ve learned that contributing to the research strategy and production of a team and, eventually, an entire company can be empowering. For the first time in my professional life, I believe that I can actually change a place for the better. It turns out that authorship isn’t so important after all.

There was a time when I forgot about my urge to leave. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. The phrase is meant to reprimand people who aren’t satisfied with their current situation. I was determined to be optimistic: I was on the tenure track, living the academic dream! I did the dance of grant submission, convinced that I was on my way to being a star. I failed, and failed again. And again.

Grants: all your ideas, painstakingly laid out over months and sometimes years of preparation. That list of publications you fought to assemble tacked on as proof of your competence. Then there’s blind peer review, in which an anonymous person gets to decide whether the grant proposal is good enough. A lonely professor, halfway across the world, who has some weird negative association with your topic, rejects your idea, and it goes in the bin. “It’s a lottery,” they say. “It doesn’t mean anything.” But it does. If you don’t win, you don’t know if it’s because your ideas suck or you just missed the mark by chance. That uncertainty, to put it mildly, messes with your mind.

In the end, this was the reason why I would never get promoted. The necessity of grant success became the thing that wore me down, more than anything else. For years I saw grant submission as a curse, but failing at it was also a blessing in disguise. It gave me the momentum to declare that I would no longer play a rigged game and to say goodbye. Now I have weekly meetings with a manager who measures my success through tangible outcomes. It’s as if I’m taking great gulps of air into my lungs after what feels like a lifetime underwater.

Should you quit? I know I just spelled it out, but forget about the dysfunction: the real question is simply whether you have that nagging feeling that you’re in the wrong place. If you’ve got that and you have the audacity to quit, find something else and realise there is a life outside the ivory tower, then I guarantee: the grass is always greener.

Putting the “academic” research in UX

An article I wrote a few months ago – called Putting the “Academic” Research in UX – has been published on UXinsight Notes. The article focuses on parallels between UX and academic research. Here’s an excerpt:

Whether in academia or UX, we do research in order to systematically uncover what people need, want, and desire. We do research to avoid coming to conclusions that simply reflect our private beliefs and opinions. By reflecting on the research process in this way, both types of researchers can improve their research techniques, argue persuasively for more time and resources for the research process, and, in the end, better the products (or papers) they are developing and improving.

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UXinsight Notes is a brand-new (still in beta!), Netherlands-based platform that looks to be a great resource for those interested in UX research. It aims to connect, stimulate and inspire UX researchers to share and expand their expertise.

A Dating App Autoethnography: Presenting Myself as a Researcher and User

888c835d4039f0da035f887c35abe14fThe Qualitative Report published my article “A Dating App Autoethnography: Presenting Myself as a Researcher and User”. The full article is available online, and the abstract is below.

Matchmaking mobile applications, or dating apps, have become hugely popular in recent years, with millions worldwide swiping through potential romantic partners. The literature on technologically mediated dating has explored how people manage impressions but has rarely taken an autoethnographic perspective: How does the author, both a researcher of dating apps and a user herself, experience self-presentation? In this paper, I first introduce a theoretical focus on impression management on dating apps. Next, I explain the choice of autoethnography as a method. Drawing from various source materials like personal journaling and chats with matches, I present two autoethnographic pieces: one focusing on my self-presentation as a dating app researcher, and the other on my own dating app use. I follow these by analyzing my motivations and impression construction in the dating app environment, keeping in mind theoretical insights. I conclude with a discussion into the challenges of an autoethnographic approach to impression management.