To address how a PhD truly impacts a career in user research, Mike Ryan (UX Researcher for Liberty Mutual) organized a panel of PhD-holding UX practitioners:
Photo by Bob Thomas
All four of us have PhDs in psychology-related disciplines, and all attended universities in the United States. But a lot of our advice remains consistent regardless of area of study and location! Here’s a summary of what we had to say.
According to the 2016 UXPA salary survey, only about 10% of respondents have earned a PhD level of education. I would imagine that this estimate is high, but it’s still a slim number.
Good news for Dr. You: because it’s uncommon, having a PhD distinction can help you stand apart from other job seekers. Many employers recognize the skills and passion that a PhD requires and are eager to pull you on board.
If you run your own UX consultancy or work as a freelancer, a PhD can also help communicate your expertise and value to potential clients. I personally find that those three letters after my name help prove that I am an established professional and that I am truly an expert in human behavior. In a field where the definition of UX is hard to pinpoint and people come to the table with a bunch of messy qualifications, having a relevant advanced degree is a wonderful asset.
The skills we learn in grad school nicely transfer to UX research and strategy work. We are great problem solvers and we’re good at learning new things — new terminology, new concepts, new software, new processes, or whatever we need to get things done.
Grad school also cultivates specific skills that are useful in UX work, like writing, speaking and justifying decisions. To be honest, most public speaking feels easy compared to orally defending your dissertation to your PhD committee.
We also learn to be very efficient. As grad students, we did a lot of different things in parallel: we took graduate courses, did scientific research, taught classes or labs, spoke at conferences, wrote journal publications, and worked with student or professional organizations. We now get things done quickly because we’ve learned to juggle a lot in the past.
It took eight years for me to complete a master’s degree and PhD in Human Factors. Other programs can be shorter, but you can count on turning over at least five years if you start from the level of a bachelor’s degree.
If you already have a good career going, it might not make sense to step away.
Grad school is also very intensive with little time for outside activities. In traditional PhD programs, it isn’t feasible to work another job while enrolled in a program. Some programs actually prohibit outside jobs, especially if the department is funding you.
In short, a PhD forces you to temporarily sacrifice a lot — like income, work opportunities and time with friends and family. This can lead to great outcomes eventually, but it is a slow and difficult process.
The panel agreed that we often tell people that a PhD is probably not the best avenue for them. And that’s totally okay! None of us regret ours, but there are so many other paths into UX that are more pleasant and direct.
Our panelists shared many personal experiences and offered a lot of common advice on considerations about the PhD decision. Here are some things to think about:
I hope this article is helpful to those of you facing this question, and I hope to see you at future UXPA conferences!