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User experience researcher: How I got my job and where I'm going

Exploring career paths, a student switches from biology to communication, discovering a passion for research. Despite challenges, she finds her niche in UX research, blending inquiry and curiosity. She emphasizes the importance of real-world application, building experience, and continuous learning in carving a successful career path.

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Video transcript

When I started college, I had it in my head that I was going to be a geneticist. Again, with the like, research and stuff, which meant I had to major in biology and I went to one of the best schools in the state for biology, which is SUNY Geneseo and I did that for about a year and a half and I was like math and chemistry is really hard and I hate this. And I had a scholarship that was riding on my grades and unfortunately, because I was so bad at math that was starting to become endangered. So I was like, well, I need to, I need to switch majors and I don't know what to switch to, everything else seems kind of terrible and boring but I landed on communication, 'cause, I honestly don't remember why I decided on communication. I think it was kind of like the only thing left after I rolled out, you know, sports medicine and speech path and like everything else that was there. But it ended up being a nice fit. It was really interesting and it was all about finding answers, because the track that I chose was journalism. So you're talking to a lot of different people, you're learning about their stories, but when I was trying to find a new major, I knew that science and math was not for me. I always thought it was really interesting and I loved learning about science and math conceptually, but it involves a lot of memorization, like doing your flashcards and memorizing formulas, but also like all of the exceptions to the formulas and it was just it was a lot to cram in there and I'm not very good at rote memorization. So I realized that was probably not the best fit for me, but because my parents were both engineers, it felt really uncomfortable, honestly, to break away from science and switch to a liberal art because I think, at least in western society, you kind of grow up with this sense that the only thing worth pursuing is science and math. You know, the kids who want to be artists and dancers and like, you're never gonna find a job and you know, what are you doing? You gotta be realistic and my parents were pretty understanding. But I could kind of see that that fear in them, like what are you gonna do with communication? I was like I don't know but you know, I'm gonna stay in college, which is probably the more important thing right now and I'll figure out the rest later. So it was honestly it was a big challenge for me, kind of reconciling those two points of view and feeling like what I was pursuing was worth the energy and the money of school. So in college, I met this professor who had come from a similar background, he was a mechanical engineer who had kind of scrapped it all to work go work for M2 BC and he had shot the Olympics and stuff, he was a really cool guy and he identified with me in that he wanted in his career, to kind of blend the the science and the art and he was the one who introduced me to research, because he said well, you know, even if you don't want to be a scientist and you can't do math, you can write about science and math and you can research how people learn about science and math So I started studying science communication, which is journalism about science or you know, how they represent medicine on like, Grey's Anatomy and stuff like that and I got into research because of his encouragement and I went to Syracuse to study Media Studies, which if you've heard of you know, those studies where people, you know, they plop a ten year old kid down in front of a violent video game and then they watch the kid go beat up a doll in a playroom. Like, that's the kind of research. I mean, I didn't do that but that's what media studies is, is the effect of how representations in the media affect our way of thinking about the world. So I did that and I loved it and then I was still like, well I don't know how to make money with this. Like I really enjoy it, but I don't know what to do with this, besides become a professor, which I didn't really want to do and I had a friend from college who was a software engineer and he had moved out here to work for Mozilla, making Firefox, and he said well, there's this thing called a user experience researcher, and I think this would be a really good fit for you and I said I have no idea what that is, but I don't have any other career prospects and at the time, Rochester was not doing very well economically and I was also really tired of ice and snow and I said, you know what? Screw it, I'm gonna throw it all away, I'm gonna move to California and follow the Gold Rush like everyone before me and I moved out to California with about three months savings and I said, if I don't find a job by the time my money runs out, I'm going to move back to Rochester and figure it out from there. And I got a job at a UX research consulting firm the day before I got on the plane to move back to New York and I've been here ever since. I think if you are designing your career path and you say, I know I want to be a UX researcher and what steps should I take? I think, study anything in college that involves some sort of inquiry or curiosity. So there isn't, right now there isn't a major for UX research. So anything like anthropology, sociology, psychology, any research-oriented field where you learn how to put together a research question and learn how to pursue a line of inquiry. So even journalism can be really important or really valuable with that, because you're learning how to ask a lot of questions and pursue these difficult leads and things like that. So anything that involves asking a lot of questions will be a good major for you and then, a grad degree really does help, honestly, with with UX research. I mean, I work daily with, I think I know more PhDs at Google than I did when I was in grad school. You don't have to have a PhD. It helps, but a master's degree is gonna be really valuable either in psychology, probably psychology or computer science, if you can swing it. If you can't, that's totally fine but cognitive or experimental psychology is gonna be really valuable to you. The other thing works out pretty well, I think, is working for a consultancy. So when I very first started out, that job that saved me from packing up and going back to New York was a UX consultancy and I worked with a ton of different companies. I learned a lot about UX research, but also the tech field in general and I got a sense for what I was good at, what I liked, what kind of companies I didn't want to work for or work with and it was basically a glorified internship. I was there for three years and I learned a ton about the industry. So, if you can get some sort of entry-level job, consulting, even in market research, will be a good bridge to to UX research. Figuring out how to interview for a job you've never heard of, is pretty weird and confusing because my friend was a software engineer, he you know a few researchers. It was still definitely kind of a rare job at that point, but I was able to talk to some people in person and learn what it was like to be a researcher, to learn what was required in a portfolio, so if this is the sort of thing that you're considering, for example, having some sort of research under your belt is important. I had grad school research, which helped a lot. I knew different methodologies. I had actual results to talk about, I was working on my thesis at the time as well, so I had these projects that had outcomes. I didn't have really any kind of industry experience, it was all academic. One thing that I was working on was, taking, and this is what I always tell people who are trying to break into the field, is take a website or an app that you either really like or you really don't like and, you know, interview five people about how they feel about it, like do you, do you use this app? Go through it, tell me what you like and you don't like. Write up a little report and even if it doesn't go to the people who made the app or the website, it shows that you know how to think about these problems and make recommendations off your findings. So that's a really good way to kind of jumpstart your portfolio. So there are a lot of different places that you can go as a UX researcher. If you're at a big company like Google, you can just switch teams, learn about something new for a while. Google makes it very, very easy to switch teams, if you're just interested in a different field. If you are thinking about moving up that ladder, you can always become a manager. For example, the person who manages my team is also a researcher and was a researcher for many, many years but right now, his main job is just overseeing the researchers under him, but also thinking about the research program in general, how to work with other departments at Google and making sure that research is in a really solid place for the company. You can also pursue a path known as independent contributor, which means that you are basically a standalone researcher who might work in a more horizontal field. So instead of working with small merchants on Google Maps, I might work on bigger picture questions on Google Maps. So for example, there's a fellow in my team right now who's an independent contributor and he works on research tools for all of the researchers on Google Maps. I think I am a ride-or-die researcher. I will always be doing something like this. I don't really see management for myself, because I like just diving into those questions so completely, and management doesn't leave a lot of time for that. So I really want to be able to keep pursuing my research questions for as long as I can. So employers look for experience, unfortunately, if you're starting out, there's always that question of how do I build experience if no one will hire me. It's that chicken or egg question, but I think especially if you're starting out, the most important thing to demonstrate, is that you know how to think about these problems and you understand how to apply your findings to a real-world scenario. Like I said, methodologies can be learned and a lot of companies are willing to let you learn on the job. I think the most important thing to convey, is that you have the company's interests forefront in your mind. So going out and saying, I will interview this person or this population for you and this is how it's going to make your product better, like, always tie it back to how it's going to make the product better.