Takeaways from Expand Your Career Options – Research in User Experience and Education

This fall, three doctoral alum panelists shared their career stories and advice on preparing for a career in research in user experience and education. 

Roles in current employment

Jillian is a Senior Research Associate at TERC, a STEM research-based non-profit organization, where she works on National Science Foundation (NSF) projects for teacher development. She is also a half-time Postdoctoral Research Associate and a Co-PI at UConn for an NSF grant. Her two roles are “a little bit different kind of flavors of the same thing,” with both requiring methodological expertise, she reflected. Her role in TERC is more about deliverables, while her postdoc role is to make sense of a phenomenon and write publications about it.

Preeti and Tanesia work in similar roles in different technology companies. Preeti is a User Experience Researcher at ServiceNow, where she utilizes a mixed-method approach, including survey experiments and qualitative methods such as concept testing and user interviews.

Slightly different from Preeti, Tanesia’s role as a Quantitative User Researcher focuses on using survey research and developing instruments to understand user motivation. Her role uses her expertise in psychometrics to develop digital platforms. Both Preeti and Tanesia agreed they applied much of what they learned from their doctoral training to their current work. 

What the panelists like about their jobs includes the remote work option and flexibility. Preeti enjoys working in a collaborative environment where she can connect with different teams. Tanesia echoed that, stating, “Being in the environment with the cross-functional partners and being able to collaborate with people who have different perspectives on different training is something very much exciting to me because you get to learn a lot.”

|“Start thinking about communicating your research to a non-research audience, and perhaps to some of your friends in a non-technical fashion.”  – Preeti Srinivasan |

Skills that matter – communication and networking 

All the panelists believed that their doctoral degrees provided them with the training and research methodology they need for their jobs; on the other hand, additional skills are also essential in their workplaces, and communication skills are one of them.  

“A user researcher needs to negotiate with different people with various training and background,” Tanesia said, “You’re constantly negotiating what to do, how to do it, and when they do it. That’s like one of the most important skills typically overlooked.”

Preeti agreed, “As researchers, we are also trying to understand the business context and frame the research problems in such a way that people in the business world can understand us as well.” Avoiding technical jargon is a part of her advice for being a good communicator. 

When asked about ways to practice communication skills, Preeti suggested starting at home. She began by talking about what she did with her family. “Start thinking about communicating your research to a non-research audience and perhaps to some of your friends in a non-technical fashion.” 

Tanesia’s approach is to have an elevator pitch ready and polish it. “In user research, you get 15 minutes to do a presentation,” she said. “Share what the listeners are looking for – your insights and recommendations, the problem you solved, how you solved it, and ‘so what’.”  Answering the question “so what?” is to articulate the value of the solution and why it is important.

Jillian added, “It’s still important to know the method and jargon when you are with a team of researchers. Yet, when working in a team with people in different roles, communicating in plain language just matters.” She recommends using resources offered by the University, such as the Science of Science Communication Training and the Center for Career Development.   

Another important skill the panelists agree on is networking.

|“The way I’ve started to approach it, which makes more sense to me is to find people who I like their work.” – Jillian Ives|

Jillian believed that finding a networking approach that she felt comfortable with is important. “Going to conferences and shaking hands with a ton of people isn’t really my style of networking,” she said, “The way I’ve started to approach it, which makes more sense to me, is to find people who I like their work.” For graduate students who may have a small circle of connections, she suggests participating in various research projects and considering different faculty to help expand the network. “Think about how your research connects with people that are doing similar research is a good way to network,” she added. 

Tanesia approached networking a bit differently, “There were times when I just cold-called people.” A short outreach email or message she suggested could be “I’m interested in what you did. Can I have a quick conversation with you to learn about how I could be successful in this field as well?” She would also join parties and conferences where she could meet different people outside of her network. 

For Preeti, a profile on LinkedIn was the first step. She also tried the cold call approach via LinkedIn, “Talk to people in the companies that you might want to work at and those who have profiles similar to yours,” she suggested. 

The dos and don’ts suggested by the panelists for cold messages/emails:

– Don’t ask for a job. It’s rude.

– Don’t be scared. There is nothing to lose – if you don’t reach out, their answers remain a “no”. 

– Don’t just say “Hi, how are you?”

– Be specific and explain why you want to talk to the person and what you want to learn from the conversation.

– Be clear and precise. 

“People reach out all the time to complete strangers,” Tanesia said. “There are a lot of people in this field who are willing to network and mentor junior people as they’re entering the field,” Preeti added.

Planning for a career in a company or organization

|“Just know that your skills are transferable and have faith. You will eventually find something that works for you.” – Tanesia Beverly|

Jillian recommended the preparation stage should start with self-exploration to find out what you want to do, “Get the right experience to try something in the non-academic world and also on a research team. Ask yourself questions like what types of jobs you like and whether you like working with people or not, etc.” 

Preeti found her internship experience beneficial. Being unsure about her career path in grad school, she decided to try an internship to learn about the workplace culture and the work people do outside of academia. “I cast a pretty wide net,” Preeti recalled. Her first internship lasted 6 months and helped her gain real-world experience and the opportunities to apply her research training to an industry setting. She started considering user research as her full-time career and found another internship in the last summer before she graduated. The same company invited her to work full-time after her graduation. 

Talking about converting an internship into a full-time position, Preeti believed that it is all up to her employer’s hiring plan. Yet, she also attributed her success to her internship experience, “The internships are advantageous because when you’ve been with a company for 3 months, they’ve invested in your training. You also know what the company does and what their culture is like.” 

“Just know that your skills are transferable and have faith. You will eventually find something that works for you.” Tanesia advised.

Last piece of advice from the panelists

  • Know your personal brand and understand what makes you unique. 
  • Think about work-life balance.
  • Pay close attention to your transferable skills and think about how to apply your skills in a different way.
  • Believe in yourself!

Specifically designed for graduate students, Expand Your Career Options occurs every semester and features UConn graduate program alums who pursue a range of careers.

By Damiao Zoe Xu
Damiao Zoe Xu Graduate Assistant, Graduate Student and Postdoc Career Programs and Services (She/Her/Hers)