#140 - Should You Leave Academia? Advice for Researchers with Joe Stubenrauch

#140 - Should You Leave Academia? Advice for Researchers with Joe Stubenrauch

Erin - 00:00:47: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we're here with Joe Stubenrauch, and he is a UX Researcher at AWS. You've gone through a journey that I think a lot of folks are potentially interested in going through or maybe don't know yet they might be interested in going through. But anyway, the journey is going from academia into the private sector. And I know this is something you've thought a lot about. And so we're really excited to get into it. So thanks for joining us today.

Joe - 00:01:24: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to talk about this. It's a topic that I'm very passionate about, and it's also great to meet you.

Erin - 00:01:30: I've got Carol here too.

Carol – 00:01:31: Hey, everyone. Glad to be here. Nice to meet you, Joe. Yeah, as you said, many of our listeners have either worked in academia or interested in moving from academia. So lots of interest here.

Erin – 00:01:40: Yeah, on that note, it's been a fun difference for me doing marketing for an audience of researchers who have a very, very high hit rate of PhDs. So I think this is a very topical. Lots of folks. So maybe we could start with just hearing a little bit about your journey and why you became interested in moving from being a professor into exiting academia.

Joe - 00:02:03: I had a very typical, in some ways, path through academia. Academia, I often joke, is a career that's on rails, and it's about bottlenecks and survival often, rather than movement or deviation off the path. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school and straight from graduate school into my first tenure track position. And I'll say my experience is very particular, I think, to my field, which is history, or maybe particular to the humanities. So, I'm sure some of the things I share today may not resonate with some PhDs and will be very recognizable to others. During that trajectory, I always had doubts or questions about my fit with academia, but I tended to treat them as part of the obstacle to overcome, right? That this was negative thinking or self-doubt, and so you had to conquer it. And so I tended to stuff down doubts or thoughts about other careers or another life and got to keep your head down and just keep doing the work. And when I daydreamed about a different life or a different career, I interpreted it as escapism or a coping mechanism because graduate school in particular is a very anxious, stressful time. The research on anxiety among graduate students shows that it's off the charts compared to the normal population. But after tenure, the doubts and daydreams continued. I think I'd also learned more about myself and my work style. There were things that, as an academic, I had beaten myself up for them. And I began to wonder if maybe they weren't a weakness. Being a historian is a fairly quiet and lonely day-to-day work, other than when you're in the classroom. And I really love social interaction. I really like regular feedback versus writing a book for five or six years, and then it's published and 30 people read it. And then you find out if it was good. I'd like to clear deadlines. I'd like rapid shifts between projects. And I began to think, maybe this isn't a weakness. Maybe I'm just in the wrong spot. And there's a bit of burnout, a bit of feeling bored, a bit of being geographically in the wrong spot in the humanities. In a given field, there's just a handful of openings per year in North America. And so your chances of ever getting another position, much less one that's where you want to live, close to family, is very, very small. And I also wasn't sure academia was really good for my master's. I was very interested in the field of mental health, as far as just the narratives I had about myself, my productivity, did I have enough passion, all of those questions. And so I reached a moment where I was looking ahead at the next 30 to 35 years. I should have been happy. I'd reached the dream. I got tenured. I was at R1 Research University, the wonderful department. University was good to me. And instead, I just felt dread looking at this life stretching out in front of me, on repeat. And I realized if I could design my life from scratch, this wouldn't be it. I realized that I had to make a jump. I had to make a change. And I'd always had a daydream of working for a tech company on the West Coast. And as the COVID lockdown began in 2020, that feeling of being trapped in your life just got turned up to maximum. And I started looking for an eject button.

Carol - 00:05:20: Yeah. That's great. Thanks for sharing that. Wonderful to hear your story. And you mentioned something I wonder if isn't common to some other folks, which is this, I'm supposed to be happy. I'm feeling these like negative, like fear kinds of things. And I'll just muscle it out a little bit longer. And then when I get to the other side, it's going to be great. And then it sounds like that was a little bit of a tipping point for you, or it's like, actually, it's not, I've, I've gotten to that point. And it's, But then there's the sunk cost, right? Of, well, I just put all this time. So I imagine, was that a challenge for you in making that leap? Or were you, I know this isn't where I want to be. And even though it's, you know, a challenge to make the pivot, I obviously need to do that.

Joe - 00:06:04: It was a real barrier, I think that's what kept me in academia for almost 20 years was this feeling of I put so much into this and this is my true passion, right? And this is who I am. And so it's both sunk cost and you also are really having to reconfigure your identity, I think, depending on the field and the program, but graduate schools can really professionalize graduate students, that your field is a bit of a calling. It's way more than a job. It's a passion. It's an obsession. We admire other academics who are almost over the top in their obsession. We treat academia almost like monastic vows, right? I'll take on poverty and sacrifice about where I live, but it's all for this greater good. And so to give that up and then to walk away from, I even felt guilt about leaving a tenured position because in the humanities, they're so rare. And I knew so many people who I felt were smarter and more capable than me that hadn't gotten one that I almost felt ungrateful to leave. How could I be walking away from this? How foolish is this? So it took a long time. It was a lot to process. But I began to think about looking forward and does that identity I've had, does all of that work I did and put into this, how does it serve me in the future? And maybe it's okay if something was good and right for you at one time in life. And it's not anymore. It doesn't mean it was a mistake. It doesn't mean it was bad. It doesn't mean that you wasted. It just means that you've grown and you need to move into something else. And so I started trying to embrace that.

Erin - 00:07:45: And since leaving academia, it seems like you've written a lot on LinkedIn and elsewhere about your own experience and also helping others consider moving from academia into research. So we'll definitely be sure to link to your LinkedIn in the show notes. It's a really good resource. But it seems like you have a following of people who are interested in a similar transition. And so I'd love to hear what are some of the most common things you hear from people who are in that position of looking to move from academia into research, maybe some common reasons they want to leave or common fears that they have.

Joe - 00:08:15: Common fears will have to do with wasting and giving up something that they worked for so hard and then regretting it. There are a few fields where you can leave for industry and come back. The more practical the field, the more likely. Over in the humanities, you can't come back. Once you've left, the chances of being able to return is zero. There's the feeling of risk. There's a lot of concern about risk. There's also, especially over in the humanities and some of the social sciences, it's hard to imagine what you could do. You feel like you've been so specialized. And it becomes a bit of your academic currency, almost, how obscure and niche and specialized you are, that you tend to believe all of these broader narratives in our society about how the humanities are useless. How, oh, that's a, don't go and get that degree. What job would that ever give you? And so you believe, like, what could I even do? So what I hear a lot from people is, what jobs can I find? How do I translate myself to industry? It's a really common phrase. How do I go about thinking about my skill sets and what jobs are out there for me? I think that is probably one of the biggest barriers. And then how do you take practical steps towards that? Once you've started to identify a field, It feels overwhelming to navigate between what skills do you need to add? What networking do you need to do? What new genre of resume, of portfolio, of practicing for very different types of interviews? So there's a feeling of overwhelm with just how many moving pieces there are. I think I hear those the most.

Erin - 00:09:55: Yeah. So it's risky. It's a lot of work. And it might be a one-way door. It might be, which exacerbates the risk factor, right? It might be really, really hard to come back. So you've got to really think through the decision.

Joe - 00:10:07: Yes. And I think there's different journeys. So one of the journeys is you're in graduate school and you get to the end and you either realize you don't want a job in academia or there are no jobs. For some fields, there literally are no jobs. And there you're being forced. And it feels in some ways traumatic, but there's less risk because you literally have nothing that you're leaving. And then there's the journey out for people who maybe they have a lectureship or they're an adjunct, but they feel like the carrot's out there that they're going to get this position or maybe they do have a position. And then the one-way door nature of it becomes intense. And giving up tenure, which I gave up. I think that was between when I got the job offer and accepted were a couple of the most anxious weeks of my life. I felt like I was going crazy. And then once I made the decision and signed the contract, it immediately just complete peace and this feeling of, oh, wait, that was right. I was making the right choice. I was immediately glad.

Carol - 00:11:05: So I was going to ask you, how long has that been since those two weeks of…

Joe - 00:11:08: That was, yeah, the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving 2020. So it was in the…

Carol - 00:11:15: Two and a half, almost three years ago. And I think I know the answer to this question, but just to set it straight... Are you happy you made the transition?

Joe - 00:11:23: I'm incredibly happy. And when I talk to other academics who are weighing the pros and cons. I do really emphasize it's about pros and cons. There's no perfect option. And I think that's sometimes hard. I mean, maybe everybody goes through this, but I think academics, they come into graduate school with this ideal vision of what academia will be like. And so then when they look for some other job, they're looking for some other ideal that's equally like, “oh, this will be the perfect thing for me that will blend passion with just the right amount of intellectual stimulation and freedom and flexibility”. And just like academia doesn't actually live up to all of those thoughts, nothing else is. And so you really have to weigh pros and cons. And so for me, as much as I loved, I really enjoyed teaching. I really enjoyed my research. I liked the world of academia. I liked being in archives doing historical research. But I realized there was enough other variables in my life that I wanted to optimize that increasing or improving those areas was the right choice for me now. I mean, this brings us to like, why do academics want to leave? And it's often, well, I could give a very long list. It's career growth, sometimes feeling stagnant. It's career flexibility. Maybe you want to be able to experiment and try different things more quickly versus niching down forever in the same path. Mental health is a big one. Geographic mobility and proximity to family. The academic life is one where you just accept that chances are very low you're going to live near family or friends. I like to think of myself as cosmopolitan. I can live and thrive anywhere. But as the years went by, I realized Maybe that's not entirely true. And it's okay if a place is not your forever place. There's some places where it feel more like home than others. And then the day-to-day work of maybe having a team and more collaboration, a feeling of having more impact with your work, and of course, pay. We don't make a lot of money over in the humanities, and money itself isn't happiness, but it sure enables certain types of security and stability and life that can bring happiness. So for me, it was all of those variables. And so when I'll talk to people, I'll often ask them to step back and say, “okay, so you're really narrowing in on how academia does and doesn't itself make you happy”. But what about everything else? How are you doing in these other areas? And how would leaving improve those or not, right? And how would that change how you feel? And sometimes it's a matter of, there's things you can tweak and improve within academia, within your current role. And sometimes maybe you do need to go elsewhere.

Erin - 00:14:09: Right. Are those issues endemic to academia? Are they perhaps workable without making such a big change? And it sounds like a piece of what you're saying is when you just look at the career decision in a microscope, you might put a lot more emphasis on something like the one-way door or fear around the path that you've already been on. But if you can take a bigger picture and look at pros and cons, you might see other benefits to either leaving or staying to consider.

Joe - 00:14:33: Yes. So for me, a big part was I now I've moved from Texas, which had a lot of good things. I'd never been into college football before. And I got into college football and the barbecue is really good. And there's good people. But I've moved from Texas to the Seattle area where I'm from the West Coast, originally. It's my landscape. It's my parents-in-law live here. And so my daughter gets to see her grandparents on a weekly basis. Things like that, I think, have a lot more value to me now at this stage of life than when I was in my 20s, where it seemed easy to give some of those things up. And now, in my early 40s, I value them really differently. So back to that question of am I happy? Yes, I really recommend to everyone to reinvent your life, whether it be changing context or not, but really thinking about the different discrete areas of your life. And of course they all blend together, but what can you actually change and improve to mix around and refresh your life in the current moment?

Erin - 00:15:33: There's that great design your life book we can link to too, which talks about some of those concepts. And we did a previous podcast we talked about with Kevin Kelly. We talked about like you were saying, it doesn't have to be a complete flip, the binary of this or that. Obviously, the choice ultimately to either stay in academia or to leave might end up being a binary. But you might be able to test into moving into private sector or to make tweaks within academia. So these are all options to work with. We talked about a bunch of the cons that you have felt and that you hear a lot in talking to people. Just so we're not one-sided and completely poo-pooing academia, what are some of the pros? Maybe it's obvious, but what are some of the reasons you got into academia in the first place that people might want to stay?

Joe - 00:16:18: Sure. One, you're absolutely right. And I always want to be careful when I post and talk on LinkedIn or other podcasts that I'm not just throwing rocks at academia. It's a place where you can go very, very deep into a topic that interests you. It's a space where you can have impact on learners, on people who are hungry to learn and be in dialogue and conversation with them, not just helping them develop their thinking and their skills and their lives, but it really has a big impact on you, which is very energizing. For me, like in my own particular field, it opened some very interesting and unique doors. Getting to go into archives that the public isn't allowed into in the UK, you know, where just beautiful old libraries calling up historical documents and thinking, “oh, I'm holding something that was written by Queen Victoria. This is amazing, right? There's these really special moments with your topic and with your field that's allowed. Getting to go to conferences and getting to speak with just really smart, passionate individuals all in your field who've all gone the same path as you have a very similar journey, that can give a real feeling of community and excitement. There are both in the day-to-day. I think for some people, the fluctuation of the semester of times of intense work and then times of movement between phases of the academic cycle, I think really works for some people and personalities of rather than having a steady push, having these waves of activity can really work for some people. There is flexibility with that. If you are lucky enough to get a tenure track or tenure position, there's some real flexibility in how you construct your life. There's real constraints. But within those constraints, there's a lot of flexibility. I have a friend who has said to me, you know, because we talked about some of her challenges in academia. And she said, but ultimately, the fact that I can arrange my life where I don't have to be seen in public before 11:00 a.m., any morning is that alone is worth it. I could never go back.

Erin - 00:18:27: I do that too. Just saying. You mentioned that. It can be done. So imagine someone has done the pros and cons. They've thought through the fear of the one-way door. They've made their pros and cons list. And they're considering they really want to make a move. You mentioned that another one of the common fears is that their work doesn't translate to industry. And I wonder, how do you answer someone if that's their concern? And what are some of the jobs that are a clear fit?

Joe - 00:18:52: One of the things I say is that most jobs have this basic core of skills that's the same across them all of being able to work with stakeholders, being able to communicate, being able to get your work done on time, being able to deal with ambiguity, take on big challenges, plan a project, right? All of these things which, they are equipped to do from academia. Like they have all of these skills. Now, on paper, that's not enough to get them the job, but they're not starting from zero. There's this feeling of, oh, I'm starting from zero, but you're not. You're probably starting from maybe 70% or 80%. Now, some fields can just, they have these bridges in the industry that they just walk across. And even in UX research, I remember when I was breaking into the field, watching with jealousy of certain PhD fields, it felt like, “oh, if you're ABD in that field, Meta just seems to give you a job offer in the crazy hiring days”. That wasn't the case for history. But for other fields, you then do have to close those gaps, but it's very possible. And so what you really need to think about is, and it's through a process of experimentation and talking to people, what kind of work catches your interest, what kind of work energizes you, what are the daily types of tasks you can imagine yourself doing and wanting to do, and then what gaps would you need to fill to make that jump? I can really speak for the humanities rather than for them. One field, and it's the field I went into first for UX research, is instructional design. These are roles that have to do with helping people learn, designing curriculum, but it's within the corporate or industry space, often for internal employees. We have almost all of those skill sets. You need to pick up a couple of technical tools, you need to pick up some jargon, and you need to change your mindset to think about business problems. It's not just about the learner, it's about the business is paying you money because you are solving a problem for the business. And so keeping that in mind, but there's not that many shifts, right? I think UX is obviously a field of possibilities. I think there's many program management roles, which it's difficult to just say, “oh, you should look into program management because there's so many different roles”. And depending on the company and depending on what the domain is, you might never sniff that role as a PhD, or you might actually be able to move into that space very easily. So I know lots of people who've moved into diversity, equity, inclusion, program management roles, or even many big companies have these roles that are outreach to universities. So people coming from academia are very well equipped for those conversations. So where I tell people to begin is it's a very muddy initial moment of searching around, looking for different roles that come across your radar, I've put together a resource where I'm trying to collect where have humanities PhDs landed, like what types of roles are they in? And I'm putting it together with another friend and we have a pretty big list at this point of different 40 or 50 different titles. So finding those resources out there and then beginning to experiment, reading in them, talking to people in those fields. And it's sort of this ongoing iterative process of gathering a little bit of data, triangulating it with your other experiences, then moving forward and looking at everything as experiments and small bets where it's okay to investigate something and even go a little ways down the road and then it doesn't turn out and you go back and try again with something new, but you're not really going back. You're moving forward with more data. I think academics tend to be looking for and want to find and identify that they know the right path in advance before they start down the path. And that's usually not possible. And so it tends to immobilize us because we're really looking, we want to turn our research brains onto this, like, what is my career problem and solve it from our desks. And that's not the way to solve it. You have to talk to people, you have to get your hands dirty.

Erin - 00:23:02: And to be a researcher, but a scientific one, like you're saying, testing. Just maybe especially important for folks coming from the humanities as opposed to made that distinction between a humanities versus a STEM background. Taxonomy question for you. Behavioral sciences, where do they fit? Is that STEM or is that humanities? Is that its own third thing?

Joe - 00:23:22: Maybe it would be its own third thing or somewhere in between.

Erin - 00:23:24: Yeah, asking because we see a lot of behavioral science backgrounds end up in UX research.

Joe - 00:23:29: Yes, it feels to me, to me over in the very far side of the humanities, it feels like, oh, that feels pretty scientific to me.

Erin - 00:23:37: Okay, so the first step is, maybe you want to look at your pros and cons list and what do I want to optimize for and form an initial hypothesis of what kinds of roles and what industries might be a good fit for getting rid of some of these cons, keeping as many pros as possible. And then from there, start talking to people and doing some research.

Joe - 00:23:59: And then beginning, and this is coming from the book you mentioned by Burnett and Evans, Designing Your Life, which is a book I recommend to everyone, I love that book. Doing what they call prototyping, doing experiments, which where I was saying, getting your hands dirty of actually doing the work. Doing some learning, but then doing some side projects, whether that be on your own, whether it be finding a way to do it in your current role or finding a way to volunteer with it. So I can share two prototyping experiments I did early on in my career transition I first had thought like, well, I really want to work for a tech company because that gives me mobility and just opens up doors to either the West Coast or I've always had a dream of living in Europe. I should learn to program. So I started teaching myself programming and I enjoyed it. I saw where it could fit, where I liked it. But I also realized I was hitting a point where I felt like this is really hard and that's okay. But I'm not sure I'm ever going to be good at this or I might always be mediocre at this. And to get good enough to get hired at a tech company, I'm realizing is going to take me a longer span of time than I want it to take to move to industry. And so that may not really be a good reason to pick your career going forward, especially as a young person. But as someone in my 40s, I was just sort of like, you know, I don't think this is the right moment for me in this career. And I'm also not finding right. I'm able to convince myself with that line of logic rather than I have so much passion and enjoyment for this that I just want to keep doing it. So I stepped back and I thought, okay, What are some other skills that I could try to use? Because I'd always had a little bit of a tech interest side. And so I thought, well, I really like communicating. I enjoy writing grants. What about the nonprofit world? And so I started volunteering for a local nonprofit, writing grants for them. It was a nonprofit I was already aware of and donated to. And I emailed the director and I said, “I can't help you with the actual work. It was a nonprofit that helps very, very young children that have experienced trauma that's affected their brain growth from stressful social situations and family situations”. I said, “I'm not the right person. I can't volunteer and work with these children. But I do have a skill set in running grants. Would you be interested in someone helping you write grants?” And the director wrote back and said, “in my 19 years of being director of this nonprofit, I've never had someone volunteer to write grants”. So I tried that out. That was a lot of fun and had a lot of meaning as far as the impact. Some of our grants that we wrote were successful, but I was starting to…Now I feel shallow after pitching this wonderful nonprofit, but I started to realize that my goals as far as being able to relocate and the mobility that I wanted in life and maybe some of the compensation I wanted, that that path in the nonprofit world was going to be a very long one or maybe impossible to get where I wanted to go. So I tried out both of those, and there were different things in them that I could see the pros, but I also realized at a certain point, this won't get me to the type or speed of optimization I need. In these other areas of my life. So that's when I looped back and I ended up talking to a woman who's a career coach for academics. And she said, “we were talking through different options”. And she was the one who said, “you should look at instructional design”. And when I looked at instructional design, I saw, ah, here's like, it's lightly tech, but not heavy tech. There's some tech stuff. Like I enjoyed building web pages, It's that level of technical skill, plus all of these other existing skills I have. I think I can do this in the timeframe I want, and it's going to be interesting work. And it's needed in the corporate world. So I started experimenting with that. I started learning some e-learning software, and I built a course, and I thought that was actually really enjoyable. And I started reading books in the field, and oh, I'm actually interested in these conversations. And that kept pulling me in. And so I just kept following it, pressing the pedal harder and harder as I got more and more data points that this seemed possible and like a good fit.

Erin - 00:28:04: I love this. I also am a huge fan of the Designing Your Life book. So we'll definitely be sure to link to that. Definitely a favorite. And prototyping is a big concept there. I'm curious if either you did prototyping or if you've met anyone that's done prototyping in the world of user experience research and what that might look like.

Joe - 00:28:20: Do you mean prototyping, like career prototyping?

Erin - 00:28:23: Yeah, so we talked about career prototyping in a few realms, but I just wonder if you've come across anyone who did prototyping around a UXR role and what it might be.

Joe - 00:28:32: So I did a little bit of that myself. I had been in the corporate world in an instructional design role and ended up talking to a friend who had a history PhD from the same program that I did. And she noticed me on LinkedIn. She also works at a large tech company. And she reached out and said, “hey, we should just do coffee because we came from the same history program. We both ended up in tech”. And when we were chatting, she's a UX Researcher, she started telling me about her work. And I thought, this is really interesting. So, I Googled around and like, should I read about this and came across, which I'll recommend to everyone, Erika Hall's Just Enough Research and Think Like a UX Researcher by Travis and Hodgson. I read those two books and came away from it, wow, this is a really interesting conversation. And that was towards the end of 2021. And so I ended up deciding that 2022 would be the year of experimenting with UX research. So I started looking for how can I start doing UX research in my current role of instructional design? Because I saw already the bridges. How do we understand our learners better? What are their needs? What are their actual behaviors? How are they actually using these training materials? What help do they actually need on the job? How do they actually learn? How do they maintain their skill sets? I think in the instructional design world, we'll want to be learner-focused, but we're still often under pressure from the business to create these deliverables, to create these training courses, and not starting with what does the actual user need? So I pitched to my leadership, I said, I was actually just moving into a new role where I was running a new program for a group of internal learners at the company that we'd never supported before. And I said, we need to understand these learners better. I want to do some UX research training and I want to do some interviews and we need to talk to them. And my team was also developing a new tool. And so I said, can I do some research around that? And so that started leading to doing some learning and experiments within my own role. And it felt it was very low risk because the worst case scenario was like, I helped make our training better and better understood our learners. It was something I should be doing anyway in the role, but I was starting to be very intentional about implementing methods from UX research, using the language and approach and thinking that I was finding in the world of UX research. And that was early prototyping. Then I started talking to UX researchers internally at my company, and they were really interesting people and they were having really interesting conversations and challenges. And I clicked with them. And it's not that you have to find a field where everyone clicks with you, but it’s nice since you're going to be working with them all the time. And so that enabled me to start doing some shadowing and then saying, “hey, could I help you out with this”. And since I was internal, and that was safe, and it's not possible to do this if you're external, if you're still in academia to say, “hey, can I get involved in your projects?” No, right? NDAs. But once I was already in the corporate world, once I was already in industry, then I could start experimenting internally. And so it went through this process of doing some learning, getting my hands dirty, trying some of my own projects, starting to shadow and talk to other UX researchers. At every step, it confirmed my interest in that I found this really fascinating, and it pulled me along. So by October 2022, I got an internal job offer to transfer to a UX Research Team, where I've been since then. So I'm still a baby researcher. I'm still a baby UX Researcher.

Erin - 00:32:13: Awesome. And that reminds me, we've done a couple episodes on just breaking into UX research and building your UX research career in general, not necessarily from academia, and that's a really popular way to do it. Is to start in an adjacent role, whether it be product management or user experience design or even marketing or whatever it might be, and to dabble in and to... It works especially well in larger companies where you can do that. But I'm curious how you landed that first job in the industry. You talked about how you were prototyping. And then was it difficult to turn that into a full-time job? Did you have to sell those transferable skills a lot?

Joe - 00:32:51: So every successful pivot, you'll begin to hear about luck. So there was luck. For me, the luck was I was in the very first wave of the great resignation. I don't think it was even a phrase I'd heard. When I made the decision, but I realized I was one of the early stage of hitting eject during COVID on your career and switching around as so many people did. And companies were hiring. So that was a good context and a lucky context in that moment. But to close the gap, I felt like I had to prove that I could come in and do the daily mundane grunt work of the role. And I think sometimes this is a challenge for PhDs because either we believe we can't do it or we feel like we've already proved ourselves and we have so many skills already and it's obvious we can learn. Why won't someone take a risk on me? And so I encourage academics to really put themselves to the position of, well, the user, the customer, of the hiring manager, of what is their pain? They have a role that's open, with work that's piling up, They need someone who can step in and make an impact from day one. So you have to find what are the tipping points that show you can make that impact. So for me in that first instructional design role, even though I felt like, oh, there's a lot of alignment here when it comes to learning theory and thinking about good course design and thinking about effective instruction. The day-to-day of the role is often just churning out e-learning. I mean, churning out, that's a negative word. But it's producing e-learning that meets the needs of the business because, “hey, we need a training on X, Y, Z and somebody's got to build it. Can you step in and build it?” And so for me, it was creating a portfolio that demonstrated my mastery of the tools of the trade. I felt like from academia, I had enough of a convincing argument about the theory side. But then I had to close that gap. And so I made an e-learning portfolio in which I had several different projects. Some of them showed technical skills that wasn't even like a full course, but just showed like, “hey, I know enough about JavaScript that I can hook this up and it does X, Y, Z under the hood and allows you to track user behaviors in these ways in your course or track what they are doing to allow them to have these branching scenarios where their choices through the training are carrying with them”. So it's technical stuff. But then I had one big piece that showed my end-to-end process. And so I think that was what the fact that I could do the mundane grunt work was what then made my academic skill set interesting. Because otherwise I would have been interesting, but like, well, that's weird. Quite ill, like, oh, that's, eh. And you move on, where instead I had this portfolio front and center. And then once you see, okay, this person can do the basic work. They don't have industry experience, but they have all this other experience. Now they feel like the remaining gaps can be closed because they know they're going to lie on you to do the basic day one work.

Erin - 00:35:54: You've written a lot about the value of portfolio and the application process and also how to build a good portfolio. I'd love to hear any general advice you give to someone who's looking to build a portfolio to make a transition.

Joe - 00:36:06: So this will really depend on field. And I, oddly, despite being in UX research, I know more about instructional design portfolios than I do UX research portfolios, probably because I've been involved in hiring for instructional design, whereas... Again, back to luck. I moved into my UX research role a week before all the hiring freezes. I like squeaked in. I would still be an instructional designer if things had been one week slower. So in building a portfolio, I would really emphasize that it's a process of storytelling. It's not of just like documentation. This is not your archive. This is not your bibliography. This is picking the most effective stories. And you need to think about what story is each piece in the portfolio telling. And you only have a few stories. You don't want 100. You don't want 10 even. Look around. What's the norm in your field? But I've seen, at least, especially in instructional design, I think it's the same in UX research. You really only need two to three compelling stories that show your end-to-end process, and then maybe how you tackle particular themes, maybe how you take on particular challenges. And that will then help you as you design the piece or put together the piece in your portfolio. You have to choose like, how much detail do I include? Which details do I include? And so thinking about each piece as having a plot and a story helps you identify what do I include here? What do I want a hiring manager, a recruiter, the hiring team to come away with from this? And it shouldn't just be a story of, or it's not sufficient that the story is, “oh, she's competent. He's competent. It needs to be some other story on top of that that you're telling”. So that's my advice with portfolios is to really think about it as an exercise in storytelling and you have three plots that you can share.

Carol - 00:38:02: Yeah, that's great. And then I think a good framework that you started to talk about, right, there's you want to show you have these tangible, transferable skills. You probably want to show it sounds like you're willing to do some grunt work, just get what needs to get done. And then you want to show that you can learn where there might be gaps or that you have these unique and interesting abilities. And that's maybe where the storytelling can be really helpful too is sharing who is this person? Why are they unique? And not just, you know, checking all these boxes, we need checked in this role too.

Joe – 00:38:33: Yeah, precisely.

Carol – 00:38:34: Well, okay. And so things have changed, as you pointed out. It's a more challenging job market. So does any of your advice change other than to hope for a little extra luck because you might need it now? Or what is your advice for folks in these slightly more challenging times?

Joe - 00:38:50: I'm not sure my overall advice would change too much beyond adjusting expectations around timelines. And that's hard because some people have the privilege of a longer runway than others. But I would shift emphasis, I think, early on in my thinking and when I was first, because as soon as I made the jump, I started, like within days of starting my new job, I was having, I was shocked that it's like tenured professors are reaching out to me and saying, “how do I do this?” And I was really emphasizing the portfolio, the getting your hands dirty, the showing like you can do the work. You've got to upskill, swallow your pride. And now I would still say that, but I would equally emphasize networking and community. Not that networking and community is a simple A to B, you network so you get the job, but rather that... One, it gives you a way to sustain you through the job search and the job pivot. But also as a way to make you aware of possibilities, not just open roles, but of different types of roles, of different types of companies. For UX research, it's not a stampede into the big tech companies anymore. That's not our moment. So where else is hiring? What other needs are there? What does the world look like in research ops? What does the world look like? There's other types of adjacent roles where one that might end up being what you actually love doing, but also can be a way in. And so I'm not a believer necessarily. And you'll hear sometimes, especially on LinkedIn, this talk of the hidden job market, that 80% of jobs aren't listed. That's not actually true companies list their jobs. But it might be that a very large percentage of them are filled through referrals, through networking. And so I think we're in a moment where networking and conversations and community building and relationship building is both a way to sustain yourself, but also to make those connections that will open doors. I wish that wasn't the case fully. I'm someone who enjoys networking and enjoys community. But one of Carol's question about what are common things that you hear from academics? Well, one of the common things I hear is I'm an introvert. I don't want to do coffee chats. I don't want to do informational interviews. And of course, there's issues of neurodivergence and there's issues of privilege that goes into this easy sort of, well, you need to network. Well, that looks differently and is different for different people. But I do think that is probably, if anything, how my advice has changed. And I myself am an example of I wasn't out on the open job market for UX research. I was taking that internal role, internal route.

Erin - 00:41:27: So we talked about prototyping and building a portfolio and then networking. What are we missing? Are there other big pieces of advice that you give to someone who's looking to make this transition?

Joe - 00:41:35: I think the remaining pieces of advice often tend to end up being more tactical with what do you do with your resume? And what does your LinkedIn look like? And here are strategies for job interviews. But I feel, for me anyway, and I'm sharing my experience where I still feel so early in the journey to be a source of authority. I feel like I'm not. But I do feel like those themes of prototyping, networking, building a portfolio and upskilling, those are the main areas and everything else becomes tactical in part because those tactical pieces are things you can iterate on and practice on and get data on pretty easily. Like if you've sent out your resume a hundred times and you haven't had a single interview, then you know that's good data. Time to work on that resume. There's something wrong. You need to get it in front of a mentor or a coach or a colleague. If you're getting interviews, but something else is happening, you're not making it into further stages, now you've got feedback. Okay, time to start iterating on the stories I present live in interviews, time to work on my interview strategy. So you can get more feedback on those quickly. And so, yeah, I would say maybe that's more the tactical side.

Erin - 00:42:53: I think could talk for a lot longer. There's so much to cover here, but I feel like we'd be remiss if we didn't at least dabble into the topic of what to do once you've made this transition. So just your first 30, 60, 90 days, you're leaving a whole different sector into a new one. You've gone through the hard part of finding the job. You're there. Any definitely do, definitely don't do just advice from having gone through it yourself that folks should know about.

Joe - 00:43:20: This feels very fresh advice, so I'm giving advice to myself, my very recent self. I would say, one, within the circumstances you find yourself in, you may feel under a lot of pressure to start proving yourself and showing results and impact. And that's good, and it's fine to be hungry for that and to go after that. But if there are opportunities to take a little time to onboard, to learn the space, to pick up domain knowledge, to maybe move a little bit more slowly and talk to stakeholders before jumping into a project. You're in this golden moment where you have permission to learn and really just turn all your academic research skill sets onto that. Absorb everything you can because the pace is only going to pick up later. So really embrace those early days as a moment of learning. Obviously, self-serve, be a self-starter as much as possible. But now is also the time to ask good questions. Other pieces of advice. This is very particular. So advice to myself. And I actually don't think this has been a weakness for me, but it's been a new thing for me. Escalate. Escalate quickly. Wisely. But you aren't working alone. You have people who will clear roadblocks for you. And academia... Generally, you really were just on your own and only very big dramatic things are a moment where like your department chair would have to be brought in to help you. But this is a different context where it's okay to ask for help or it's okay to maybe not ask for help, but to identify roadblocks. Your team and your manager are there to help you with those. And that's like very different and new for me. And maybe another piece of that is your team is there to help you and you can rely on them. I think I was in a field and part of academia where you really wanted to be this self-sufficient genius. And yeah, you got feedback from friends and at conferences, but really most of it was had to be your work. It was so important. It was just yours. And it's so fun being in a new context where I showed this to someone and they came up with a bunch of good ideas and they're on my team. So I've just like taken all their, you know, I'm not claiming their ideas as my own, but like I'm just taking them and running with them. That's okay. I think it can actually be really empowering to realize. You can rely on other people and there's people to help you when there are roadblocks. And so to make use of that, rather than feeling like, well, I've got to prove my, you're not in academia. You don't have to prove yourself off all alone and then come out with the brilliant product on the other side or the brilliant deliverable. Use your team.

Erin - 00:45:50: That's great. Don't be the hero solo artist. And also make sure to balance the quick wins with learning and asking questions. Awesome. Great advice. This has been so much fun. I know we want to close by sharing where people can find you. You have a newsletter, you're on LinkedIn.

Joe - 00:46:07: Yeah, those are the two places. I'm on LinkedIn. I post a lot, hopefully not too much. And I have a weekly newsletter that I've started. By the time this podcast airs, I hope the newsletter is still continuing. And I haven't run out of ideas. Well, now I have to. So if not, there will at least be a good archive of the newsletter at my website. So please connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm always happy to chat by direct messages or just welcome you to the broader network of people in my feed. I love meeting people. So yeah, reach out.

Erin - 00:46:39: We'll link that in the show notes. It's joestuben.com/newsletter. But we'll link it up there. Thank you so much. You're such a fun guest.

Carol – 00:46:47: Thanks so much. Have a great day.

Joe - 00:46:49: You too. Thank you very much.

Erin - 00:46:52: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences, brought to you by User Interviews.

JH - 00:46:57: Theme music by Fragile Gang.

Episode Video

Creators and Guests

Carol Guest
Carol Guest
Senior Director of Product at User Interviews
Erin May
Erin May
Senior VP of Marketing & Growth at User Interviews
Joe Stubenrauch
Joe Stubenrauch
Joe is a former professor of British history at Baylor University, and the author of a prize-winning book published by Oxford University Press. During the height of the pandemic, he walked away from tenure and joined a big tech company in order to redesign his life. Now as a UX Researcher at AWS, Joe has found unexpected similarities between his work as Victorianist and his work in the cloud. He also writes regularly about the transition from academia to industry and is obsessed with how people can reinvent their lives and careers.