It breaks my heart to say this, but now is not a good time for academics who want to go into user experience research.
In 2022, I worked with 49 people who were in the process of transitioning from academia to UXR, the majority of whom ended up finding their first industry job either during or soon after our coaching engagement. These folks made up 39% of my total client roster for 2022.
And for much of last year, transitioner job prospects were still going strong and steady as they have been for just about the past decade. That was until a pattern of tech layoffs began to emerge at the start of 2022, with the first big wave of mass layoffs happening in the summer. After a slight dip, it got even worse at the end of the year, continuing into January 2023, which saw the highest number of companies with layoffs, and total number of people laid off, from tech companies like Google, Salesforce, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft. While not as staggering as January, February was still notably disconcerting for the overall tech job market.
Tech layoffs over the past 13 months, layoffs.fyi
The unfortunate new reality for industry rookies
As far as academics who are currently looking at making a transition into UXR, I continue to get inquiries from bright-eyed newcomers who are excited about this field and know they have the fundamentals to do this kind of work, but they lack a nuanced understanding of the job market and the implications of the layoffs for UX. This is likely because they are just now getting started with their journey and haven't begun fully immersing themselves in the field through research and networking.
The unfortunate reality is that layoffs, hiring freezes, and budget cuts have caused the number of UX research jobs to largely dry up. The market has been flooded with freshly laid off UX research practitioners with years of experience, who have essentially jumped to the front of the line, making it even harder for academic transitioners to get a break. And even some of them are having a rough go of it. But I definitely noticed that the clients I was working with toward the last quarter of 2022 were having a harder time getting interviews, even with stellar materials and positioning, as layoffs increased and new openings became more scarce.
😱 The number of open tech jobs has decreased by 65% in the past year (trueup.io/job-trend). Note that while this chart is indicative of a major shift, it only tells part of the story because it does not include "non-tech" companies that employ tech workers/UX professionals.
Sadly, it's going to be this way for while - perhaps a year or maybe even more, depending on all kinds of economic factors that still remain a mystery to me (i.e., will we finally have the big recession that people have been freaking out about for the past 2 years?) I wish I had a crystal ball, but this is my best guess for now, and I will continue to pay close attention
I don't know how many UX researchers have been impacted by the mass layoffs of the past 13 months, but I would wager in the upper hundreds, probably even 1,000+, across all the big tech companies that have let people go, plus all the medium and small sized product companies. It's tragic for this community, and also because contrary to what businesses think, user-centric product development is needed now more than ever, especially with the rise of AI and ongoing ethical and privacy concerns of consumer technology. This is exactly where need talented social scientists, psychologists, writers, humanities and gender studies scholars, and other folks who have important perspectives and problem solving skills to contribute.
Is it a fool's errand to try?
It was already a lot of work to move from academia into UXR during the golden age of tech of the past 10 years, when UX gained more representation within companies, teams were growing, and new specialties were emerging such as Research Operations, UX Writing, Content Strategy, and Design Operations. Heck, I had quite a difficult time getting my first couple of jobs after grad school in the early 2010s.
I'm not saying it's now completely impossible, but it will require *exceptional* positioning to stand out. Most UX researchers are qualitative specialists, so it can help to have expertise in quantitative or mixed methods research, which are less common, but still in demand. Of course, training in a highly relevant academic discipline (e.g., social sciences, psychology, human-computer interaction, and really anything that involves doing research in order to understand humans) is essential. Domain expertise can also boost your profile - for example, you might have done your dissertation or master's thesis on a health care topic, so it would help your chances to apply specifically to health care companies. It used to be possible to use more traditional academic research in case study presentations, but people really want to see experience with collaborative, outcomes-based research projects. And as always, an intentional job search strategy, networking, polished professional assets (resume, website, LinkedIn profile, self-directed learning, and strong design & business acumen will be as important as ever.
What to do in the meantime
Anytime someone reaches out about working together on a UXR job search, I always consider how I might help them based on where they're at in the process, like if they're in the midst of interviewing with companies (it's sparse, but still happening!), or they're at the very beginning of this journey. I still believe I have an ethical obligation to at least guide people in the right direction by providing my perspective on the situation and sharing open access resources like this primer on how to get into UXR, and this list of articles for people in human-centered disciplines and academia who want to transition.
Until then, I encourage people to keep on truckin' and consider the following activities so you're ready to jump into a job search when the time is right:
Get an internship (usually reserved for current students or soon-to-be-graduates)
Immerse yourself in the world of UX and design and fill your knowledge gaps
Gain experience wherever you can (volunteer projects, incorporating UXR into your current job responsibilities, freelance projects, assisting consultants with projects)
To find projects, check out apprenticeship programs like https://techfleet.org/, and volunteer internships for your local civic hackers and civic tech groups (e.g., Hack for LA). You can also come up with your own projects doing UXR for a friend or family member who has a business.
Look for UXR jobs in sectors that haven't experienced tremendous layoffs and which match your domain expertise (e.g., health care, education, retail)
Consider related roles that will give you hands-on experience with products and service work in a business setting (e.g., technical writing, customer support/success, market research)
Start your own business
Stay actively engaged with professional communities (online and in-person) to build your network and get your name out there
Share your ideas in public to build credibility and a reputation
Explore other career paths outside of UX/tech
Maintain patience and hope
What about if you're on the fence and not sure if you should take the leap?
I don't have an exact answer here and don't want to tell people what to do unless I know more about their individual situation. What I do know is that the best way to make decisions that we feel good about is to anchor them in a clear vision of the life we want to live based on our unique needs, goals, and values. Figuring this out is the first step to devising a strategy and determining the actions to achieve your desire outcomes, whether that's going into UXR or doing something else in the meantime. Think about what's financially and logistically feasible for you and the people who depend on you, including what resources will be required, and lay out the risks and rewards. Look at any upskilling and projects as investments of time, energy, and money.
When it comes down to it, this is all one giant research and design challenge. Do just enough research to generate and test hypotheses, and conduct iterative concept and prototype testing, so you know what to ship, and more importantly, whether to ship at all. You may determine that now isn't the right time, or maybe it is in fact worth a shot!
And if you find yourself in a toxic environment, as I know too many academics are, please put your health and wellbeing first and gtfo asap, even if it means doing something completely different for the time being while you heal and prepare for your next adventure. You will probably make more money too.
And what does this mean for Amy?
These market changes have implications for my coaching practice and business model. I'm not planning on ditching academics entirely and may still take one on every once in a while if there is a strong likelihood that they can achieve this goal and I can be of assistance.
And due to the layoffs and overall job landscape for UXers, I'm revisiting my services and exploring new ideas like small group coaching, workshops, a digital storefront, and plan to focus primarily on working with current UX practitioners across various specialties.
I am not worried about myself or my business, because I like taking on challenges, and because there will always be people who need career coaching. In the meantime, I will continue to be as supportive as I can of the great folks who will some day be part of our UXR community of practice.
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