User Experience Research for Humanities PhDs

Written by
Rebecca Sausville

May 24, 2022

May 24, 2022 • by Rebecca Sausville

If you are a humanities PhD looking for work outside academia, you may pass over job listings in tech and user experience (UX), thinking you don’t have the hard skills required to work in those fields. But let’s take a closer look. UX is a tech-adjacent field concerned with all aspects of how a user interacts with a target: a product, a website, software, or an app. It’s not a new field, but it is growing as more companies recognize the value of catering to users on macro and granular levels. A robust UX program is sustained by research, written copy that assists the user, and design built around ease of access. UX researchers, writers, and designers are increasingly necessary both at major tech companies and smaller entities from finance to city government. User experience research (UXR), in particular, is well-suited to the qualitative skills you have if you hold a humanities PhD.

What Can PhDs Bring to the Table?

As a humanities PhD, your tool kit of qualitative research skills might not seem as robust as someone coming from a social sciences background. But, as with other transferrable skills that humanities PhDs tend to overlook, if you have written a dissertation, you have done intensive research work. Paul Boshears, a philosophy professor turned UX professional, described the PhD holder as a “research Olympian” in an episode of the podcast Users First (hosted by the UX researcher Alessio Ferracuti). Even if the content of that research does not translate to a broader audience, you have proven that you can think critically through research processes, approaches, and methodologies. Risha Lee, an art historian now directing UX research at American Express, in a webinar for the Versatile PhD, emphasized academics’ proven ability to engage quickly with new ideas, from the processing to the synthesizing. Now the question arises: How do you leverage these skills? You made choices along the way when choosing research questions and answering them: being able to explain why you made those choices is your first step to articulating the transferability of your skills to a UXR setting.

But How Do I Do UXR?

To get started, it might be helpful to browse portfolios of UXR work, such as this compilation provided by the UX researcher Paul Derby. The takeaway: anything and everything can be enhanced by UXR. Projects—which generally have a start-to-finish time of about a month—range from preproduction information gathering (e.g., what do people need from this product?) to ensuring the ongoing usefulness of an existing product (e.g., are people getting the most from this product?). There are dozens of methods that UX researchers employ to gather information based on the research goals and the stage of a product, ranging from interviews and usability testing to eye tracking and A/B testing (i.e., given two designs, which performs better?). You can also get an idea of the types of projects that UX researchers conduct by participating in one through services such as Dscout or UserTesting.

How Do I Build a Bridge from My Field to UXR?

Many of the technical day-to-day skills required to do UXR are learned on the job: that is, you don’t need to go in knowing, necessarily, how to use the tools that a given company uses (there are many!). But you do need to be familiar with a battery of evaluative methods that are probably new to you, unless your field of research involved human subjects (which is admittedly rare for people based in languages and literatures, but not so rare for people whose research may have had an ethnographic bent). Fortunately, there are several routes one can take to get those skills.

  • Additional training

In recent years, boot camps for immersion in tech fields have proliferated, promising intensive training and touting impressive success stories. For someone who is able to invest in further education, a reputable boot camp can be a golden point of entry into the industry. However, there are many boot camps that overpromise and underdeliver, leaving students without a substantial leg up over people who have acquired their training through academic degrees and hands-on experience. Due diligence is key—start by looking for boot camp alums on LinkedIn, and ask them about their experiences. 

  • Mentorship

UX is a field rich with camaraderie. If you’re going into the field fresh, having contacts in the field is essential, especially if you find someone who has come into UXR from academia. Their feedback on your self-presentation will be invaluable, especially with regard to changing your “academese” into the impact-driven narratives (and lingo!) favored in the industry. The MLA Job List blog talks a lot about LinkedIn, and it is a great port of call for finding UXR mentors: search for your discipline and UXR to see if anyone has made the transition, and seek them out for an informational interview. But beyond your field, ADPList and UX Coffee Hours are directories of tech professionals (not limited to those in UXR) who make themselves available for free informational interviews or coaching sessions. For users of Facebook, the group “PhD to UXR – from academia to UX research” is a valuable forum providing information for people at all stages of a career change to UXR, whether you’re dipping your toes in or you want advice on a UXR résumé or salary negotiations.

  • The self-guided path

Many universities offer students and faculty members free access to LinkedIn Learning or Coursera courses, which provide adequate introductions to UXR fundamentals. There are also many books, podcasts, and websites, some of which Simon Taylor, who does UXR at Twitter, has compiled in his “UX Research Resources for Beginners.” (Taylor is also a humanities PhD, with a degree in history.) A major resource in the field is the Nielsen Norman Group, which offers certifications at cost but also has a large variety of free articles and videos for the autodidact.


If you’re looking for new outlets for the skills you acquired during your academic career, UXR is an option worth exploring. Although it will require learning a new vocabulary and new skills (and will come with a lot of rejection), UXR draws on the empathy, inquisitive nature, and analytic mindset that many humanities PhDs already possess. Those who make the leap will ideally find a fast-paced, financially stable, collaborative, and intellectually challenging home at one of the many companies realizing the importance of strengthening their knowledge (through research) of what the user wants.