Making a Transition from Grad School to Industry as a User Researcher
We (Nishchala and Varshine) currently work as User Researchers at Cisco Webex. As recent graduates from Masters programs, we have already observed certain differences in the way research is conducted in academia vs professional environments. We want to share these learnings in the hopes of helping graduate students transition into professional research and leverage their academic learnings effectively.
Degree of Impact
As User Researchers at Webex, we are lucky enough to work on collaboration products that impact people in their day-to-day lives. It’s satisfying to know that the research you are conducting will eventually influence a product that millions of users use every day. In grad school, as interesting as your research may be, the degree of impact may be limited. A product you design may not actually get developed, a research paper that you write may not get published. It’s fulfilling to see tangible results in the real world!
Advocating for UX Research
When you are attending a grad program heavily focused on Human-Computer Interaction, you generally don’t need to advocate for the value of UX Research- your peers are already bought into it. In the workplace, however, a little more convincing may be required. For example, when a feature has a tight deadline and needs to be shipped, to non-UX researchers, usability testing may feel like a time-consuming or unnecessary step. Building relationships with stakeholders is not always a skill that students are exposed to in school. However, for your research to make an impact, learning how to articulate the concrete benefits of research at all stages of product development is incredibly vital.
Budget and Resources
One of the challenges that research in academia faces is being able to compensate people for their time. It often involves applying to several grants and writing up applications months in advance to ensure that there is enough budget to incentivize participation. This puts a strain on recruiting and the type of participants that come for the study. In professional research, based on the budget for the team, you’d be able to generously compensate your participants and show appreciation for their time. That said, the time spent in finding grants is now spent ensuring you are recruiting the right participants for your study and developing effective screeners to weed out the participants who may not fit your study or those who may be interested only for the monetary benefits.
While conducting user research in an academic setting, the results are usually contributing to a larger body of work. This provides flexibility in terms of choosing the topic and the exact area where you’d like to make a difference. User research in industry is usually driven by the need to find out specific answers that will help growth of the product or company. This does not provide the flexibility to choose the topic you like, but in many cases provides a very clear–cut picture of what the goals of the study are.
Work with experienced colleagues
User research in grad school provides a foundational understanding of different methodologies. Based on the program, one might have the opportunity to try out different methodologies for projects and research papers, which are usually small scale. Doing research as a part of the company provides you a practical way to improve your skill set as you work with colleagues with varied skills in different methodologies. You have the chance to observe experienced professionals set up and conduct studies, with the added perk that they might mentor you during your own study.
Research in academic and professional environments each have their own unique benefits and challenges. Before making the choice to stick to only one environment, we think it’s worth trying both. They have provided invaluable experiences that have helped us on our journeys to becoming well-rounded researchers.
Varshine Chandrakanthan graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a Masters in Information Management and Systems in 2019. She joined Cisco Webex as a user researcher in July 2019.
Nishchala Singhal graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Masters in Human Computer Interaction. She joined Cisco Webex as a user researcher in Aug 2019.