Should UXers get a PhD?

Is advanced education really more valuable than spending that time learning on the job?

We recently tackled this topic in a discussion panel at UXPA 2018 in sunny Puerto Rico!

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:

  • Elizabeth Allen of Brazen
  • Amy Bucher of Mad*Pow
  • Jen Romano-Bergstrom of Bridgewater Associates (and president of UXPA)
  • And me! Becca Kennedy of Kennason and Agrilyst

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.

Holding a PhD helps you stand out

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.

PhD skills are valuable

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.

However, PhD programs are time consuming and costly

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.

How do you decide whether to pursue a PhD?

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:

  • Passion: Simply put, don’t go after this degree solely because you think it will lead to more money or prestige. It probably will, but to be honest, you are unlikely to decide to stick with it until the end if you don’t truly love research for the sake of learning new things. Getting accepted into PhD programs can also be a challenge — you have to prove your passion to even have a shot.
  • Type of program: The panel discussion and this article specifically refer to PhD programs in social sciences, which are a wonderful segue into UX research. But there are other avenues to consider. Look at master’s programs and certificate programs to see if those will better give you the skills boost you want.
  • Cost: Even in the US, it is typical for PhD programs to fully fund students with a tuition waiver and stipend. This is great! But keep in mind that your grad school income is very low compared to full-time UX jobs and you might need student loans to supplement your income, depending on your financial situation.
  • Location: Are you willing or able to move? Are you looking to start a career in a new city or country? Or can you find a nontraditional online education that better suits your needs?
  • Advisor: As a PhD student, you work very closely with an advisor, meaning you need to be fully invested in whatever their research interests are. Make sure you apply to programs and advisors who will be a good fit and be certain that you and your potential advisor are compatible interpersonally and professionally.
  • Culture: PhD students also work closely with one another! My program was very small, with only a few students per cohort. Get to know existing students and get a feel for whether the culture is a good fit for you.
  • Other personal factors: For example, having a spouse or partner who can help cover bills and household duties can be very helpful. But do you have young children and not want to be busy all the time? Or do you have other commitments that you are unwilling or unable to give up during a PhD? A lot of personal factors can determine whether a PhD is right for you, and none are right or wrong.

I hope this article is helpful to those of you facing this question, and I hope to see you at future UXPA conferences!

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