From tenure to tech: Professors who pivoted to UX research

By David K.
5 min to read
January 26, 2021
Three paper planes fly to the right. A larger one flies to the left.


Former professors who joined Facebook’s UX research team share their experiences, including why they made the move and what they miss most.

There’s no single way to become a UX researcher. While some people come straight from school, others choose UX research as a second (or third, or fourth) career, including many academic professionals. To learn about their experiences, I talked to three former tenured or tenure-track professors who became researchers at Facebook.

What made them look beyond academia? What tips do they have for other professors who are curious about the UX profession? And what do they miss most about being a professor? (Hint: it’s not summers off.)

What prompted these professors to explore a different career path?

Every academic researcher has different reasons for considering industry research, but life circumstances are a common thread. Geography and mobility often play a role, as it did for Ana P., a former anthropology professor at Cal State and San Jose State. “I wanted to be able to live in a part of the country that I chose,” she explains, “not one that was chosen for me by my job.”

For some former professors, the key motivator was that their work had started to feel mundane. Joe G. was a tenured Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering at Penn State, where he’d worked for over 16 years. He describes a yearly routine of securing funding, teaching, and mentoring students that, although enjoyable, had become routine. Ana says that her research field “was starting to go in circles.”

In addition to some of these “pushes” away from academia, there were also several pulls toward non-academic research. For Sylvia V., a former Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, it was the realization that what she loved most about being a faculty member — generating new ideas, creativity, and teamwork — she could also get in industry.

In addition, non-academic positions can offer access to data collection at scale, the potential to make an immediate impact on people’s lives, and daily opportunities to collaborate with peers who have different expertise, such as data scientists, designers, and software engineers. Our researchers also cited the additional support they hoped to unlock in non-academic careers, both personally and professionally, ranging from compensation and benefits to more abundant resources to conduct research.

Eight shapes show the steps to create a paper airplane.

What do these former professors miss about academia?

All three researchers miss having students — particularly, as Joe puts it, the “wide-eyed, optimistic students who believe they can change the world.” While Facebook does have an internship program that gives senior researchers mentorship opportunities, it’s not the same as teaching undergrads or mentoring people through their PhDs.

Another lamented boon of academia: job security doesn’t get much more secure than tenure. And although every academic is likely tired of explaining that they don’t really get full summer vacations, academic research does offer some time to reflect between semesters (replaced at Facebook with a set amount of paid time off).

Change is rarely easy, especially when it means leaving something you’ve worked so hard for. As Ana notes, “I miss the prestige of the job, and the research that I invested so many years becoming an expert in.”

What adjustments does the transition require?

Academia’s “publish or perish” mentality can be difficult to shake. At Facebook, we focus on research that drives impact; internally publishing your research is just the first step. You’ll have the most impact helping team members internalize research findings, sharing your findings with other people and teams who can use them, and, ultimately, helping to shape the direction of a product — or the whole company. It’s worth noting, researchers at Facebook can and do publish findings externally, so if that’s your passion worry not.

Adjusting to tighter timelines can also be difficult. When a product team needs to quickly make a decision, your job is to help steer that decision by providing insight into the people who use the product. The fast pace requires an adjustment, but it can also be invigorating. “This transition pushed me to change and learn a ton about myself,” says Sylvia. “Working at a fast pace taught me to let go of perfectionism. In industry, I focus on being rigorous, but not obsessive, and have done some of the best work of my career.”

What academic skills can help profs transition to UX research careers?

Companies rely on UX researchers to help create, clarify, and test hypotheses, and to clearly communicate their findings. Sounds a lot like an academic researcher’s core skills, right? Many skills translate directly from academic research to UX research for industry, such as creating theoretical frameworks, synthesizing findings, statistical analysis, presenting complex data, and the ability to learn new skills.

Most core skills that professors have honed through years of research, communication, teaching, and collaborating are a perfect fit for non-academic industry work. It’s applying those skills to different types of problems — in a vastly different environment — that can be the most daunting. “It is terrifying to leave any comfort zone,” Ana says, “but in my case, it was a great move.”

A paper airplane heads upwards as dotted lines show the tangle of its past direction.

How can academics learn more about UX research?

Some academics gain firsthand experience with non-academic industries through consulting. Others learn about UX from former colleagues who’ve explored non-academic careers. Companies like Facebook also routinely visit major social science conferences, and host pre-conferences and symposia.

If you’re interested in exploring research opportunities at Facebook, please note that a lack of tech experience isn’t a barrier to becoming a great UX researcher. Many of Facebook’s UX researchers come from traditional social science backgrounds such as sociology, economics, political science, and psychology.

We’re regularly looking for talented researchers. Let our recruiters know you’re open to a career change!

  1. Check out our Careers page for open researcher roles.

  2. Make sure you have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile that clearly identifies your methodological research skills. And make sure your “am looking” toggle is on.

  3. Talk with any former colleagues who currently work at Facebook or who can connect you with researchers at Facebook. Feel free to set up informational interviews with researchers you know or have a connection with.

Thanks to Sarah L. for the illustrations in this article.

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