No matter your specific field of study, an anthropology degree equips you to better understand humans — how and why we act, what we value, and what forms our beliefs about the world. One booming field that values this perspective is user experience research
Since user experience research has become one of the fastest-growing markets for working anthropologists, this blog post explores how an anthropology degree can help you find a job in the field.
About User Experience
User experience, or UX, refers to how a person feels when interacting with a product or service.
User experience research, also known as UXR or user research, studies how people interact with and use products, such as software. UX research is essential for creating successful digital products and services. Using various methods like interviews, testing, and field studies, UX researchers gain valuable insights into user behavior that inform the design process.
UX researchers come from many fields, including human-computer interaction (HCI), design, psychology, and anthropology. While any of these disciplines can set a UX researcher up for success, an anthropology degree with its training in ethnography offers some unique advantages for understanding how people interact with their environment and understanding cultural contexts.
Why an Anthropology Degree Helps
UXR is all about humans, not technology. Though we often study how humans interact with technology products, we are ultimately concerned with the needs of humans and not the other way around. Given the humanistic nature of the anthropological perspective, anthropologists are a great fit.
Additionally, as anthropologists, we are trained in most of the qualitative research methods required for the job. Common UXR methods include interviews, surveys, and observation-based contextual studies. Other common methods include usability testing, eye-tracking, user analytics, and other quantitative research methods. While those may be new to many anthropologists, they can easily be learned.
Finally, we are well-versed in synthesizing data and storytelling. These skills are particularly helpful in tech, where we contend with vast amounts of quantitative data that tell us the “what” or “when” but not the “why.”
The UXR Job Market
As Gillian Tett pointed out in a 2019 Financial Times article, tech giants like Intel and Xerox have included anthropologists on their teams for years. But in more recent years, there has been a UX boom. Jason Buhle, the Director of UX Strategy at AnswerLab, the largest independent consultancy exclusively focused on UX Research, has reported that there are now more than 50,000 UX researchers, and many are anthropologists.
This statistic is particularly good news, given that an estimated 79% of US anthropology doctorates do not obtain tenure-track positions at institutions of higher learning in the U.S., according to a 2018 study.
Common UXR Career Questions
Recently, I participated in the Careers Expo at the American Anthropology Association annual meeting in Seattle. The Careers Expo is spearheaded by the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology. If you haven’t attended, you should consider doing so in the future. It is a great opportunity to share and learn about careers in business, non-profits, and government.
While there, I was asked some common questions about UXR that I’d like to share.
Q: Do I need a PhD?
A: It depends on the role you are applying for and your work experience. If you want to work on long-term bets for Google, you will most likely need a PhD. If you are starting as a junior researcher, especially at a company that has a less mature practice, you almost certainly will not need a PhD.
Q: Should I go to a boot camp?
A: Many of us working in UX would caution against boot camps. The quality of education is often questionable, and most lean more toward UX design versus research.
Q: Will certifications help?
A: It’s possible, though I wouldn’t stake my career on it. Certifications are a dime a dozen in UX these days. Like boot camps, some are very questionable, and the good ones can be expensive. If students/early career practitioners push me to make a recommendation, I tell them the only one I would consider is the Nielsen Norman certifications.
Q: Do I need to code?
A: No, most roles, especially qualitative UXR roles, require no coding. That said, learning skills like python and R will make you very attractive in the coming years, and statistics will never hurt.
Q: Do I need to know about design, technology, or business?
A: While you don’t need to be an expert if you understand the language, roles, and rituals of each, you can converse about them knowledgeably in an interview or work context. The more you know, the better. Consider it a research project!
Finding a Job in UXR
As a career coach helping anthropologists transition into UX, I find that the required steps often differ based on where each person is in their journey. While there are no hard and fast rules, I think about the process through these steps.
Conduct a Self-Audit
First, take stock of all of your previous research experience. Document as many details as possible. Ask yourself questions such as:
- How many studies did I conduct?
- How did I recruit the participants?
- How did I manage the project?
- What research methods did I use?
- How many participants were involved?
- What was the duration of the study?
- How did I analyze the data?
- What was the outcome?
- Did I use any specific tools that may be of interest?
- Was it funded by a significant institution for a significant amount of money?
Most researchers often have more experience than they think, or at least that they can recall. If you are still a student, you can document your experience as you go. If you are a graduate, you may need to work harder to recall it.
Define the Target Market
Next, you must research the UX job market to select roles that are a fit. While I appreciate there are times in our lives we just want to get a job, targeting roles will aid the process. It may be helpful to ask yourself these questions:
- How much academic and/or professional research experience do I have?
- What are my values, and what would I be happy doing?
- What industry is right for my values?
- Do I have any subject matter expertise that would lend itself to a particular industry or company?
- Do I prefer large companies with [presumably] more structure or a startup environment where I can wear many hats?
- Will I be happy in a more or less mature research practice?
- What geographic location would I like to find myself in?
Reframe Your Experience
You need to frame your research experience for industry. First, you need a one-page resume. Let me say that again—you need a one-page resume. While your CV is likely impressive, it is not the right fit.
To get to one page, you likely need to cut more than you are comfortable with. Painful as that will be, it has to happen. Almost everything but education, work experience (if relevant), relevant skills, and research will likely have to go. The goal is to demonstrate that you will be a good fit for conducting research in an industry setting.
To that end, also drop the academic speak, and reframe all of the content to mirror the language of the job posting.
Apply and Iterate
Finally, if you are not getting calls back after applying, you likely need to revise your resume. Take this as feedback, rework your resume, and submit an updated version to the next batch of jobs to see if it performs better. Do this until you are consistently receiving a callback.
Similarly, if you consistently receive calls for interviews but you are not landing a job, then you may need to work on how you deliver your career story. Like with the resume, you can use each subsequent interview as an opportunity to make improvements and perfect your delivery.
In either case, view rejection as an opportunity to learn and rethink your resume and interviewing style. It does not mean you will never make the transition; it simply means you must learn from the experience and embrace the concept of iteration. Think of it as a UX project.