How I got a (quantitative) user experience research internship
Since internship applications for next summer are going to be released in the coming months, I’ll share my journey towards getting a quantitative user experience research internship at Google Summer 2021. Hopefully, this post will help you streamline your own internship/job application process if you are interested in UXR.
To that end, I’ll provide a broad timeline of what I was doing in the months leading up to the offer.
FYI: I’ll be using UXR and user experience researcher/research interchangeably throughout this post.
January 2020 - February 2020 (spring semester of 3rd year of PhD program): information gathering online to narrow down career options
Since I was more than halfway through my PhD program and my career after graduation was top of mind, I became curious about non-academic options for psych PhDs. So naturally, I started doing some research. I read posts from different sites (e.g., here, psychologicalscience.org, apa.org, linkedin.com, insidehighered.com, medium.com) about what people do after their PhD (e.g., wonderful list of career options for psych PhDs here and here). Another option is to check out the list of people who graduated with your specific degree from your university (LinkedIn allows you to do this or you can check in with your department for this information) and see what they’re doing now (assuming they’re on LinkedIn or have their own site). Finally, you can look at job postings on LinkedIn, Google, Glassdoor (among many others) that require a psychology PhD and look at the job description to get a sense of what that career might look like.
In my search, I came across a post on one of the SPSP (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) Chats for non-academic careers and reached out to one person in the chat on LinkedIn - which launched me into the next “stage” of the timeline: informational interviews.
February 2020 - October 2020: informational interviews to maximize learning
Informational interviews were an integral step in the career exploration process, I learned so much about the different career options available to me, especially about things that people may not be as comfortable posting online. I highly recommend talking to as many people as possible - once you get the hang of it, it becomes less intimidating! Talking to people is one of the best ways to learn about many of the “unwritten rules” of entering any industry. Although I call them “informational interviews,” I would think of them as conversations where you have the opportunity learn something new. Sometimes I “cold-messaged” people on LinkedIn, with a message that looked something like the following (note that LinkedIn has a word limit for messages if you aren’t connected to a person, so you may have to do some wordsmithing to get it to fit into the word limit):
Hi [insert their name], My name is [insert your name], I’m a [insert your current role, e.g., fourth year PhD student in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania] and I’ve been trying to explore career options after I graduate, including UX research. Are you available for a call to chat about transitioning from academia to UXR?
Hi [insert their name], I’m [insert your name] - a [insert your current role, e.g., 3rd-year grad student in psychology at Penn considering industry positions]. I wanted to reach out because [insert reason that you are reaching out to them specifically, what about their background is especially interesting to you? - e.g., I saw your blog post or talk about XYZ] and would love to learn more about your experience in UXR. Let me know if you’d have some time to chat!
Some questions I typically asked:
- When & why did you know you didn’t want to do academia (or more formally: pursue an academic career)?
- What other careers did you consider in your job search, if any?
- Why did you end up choosing [insert their position] instead of other careers?
- What companies did you apply for and why did you end up choosing [insert company name]?
- Is there anything you wish you had learned or known before starting your career?
- Are there any resources (e.g., books, youtube channels) you recommend for anyone trying to enter [insert their position]?
- What was one of the most difficult parts of transitioning from academia to industry?
- What were some of the skills you learned during grad school that you highlighted in your job applications? What were some of the skills that you didn’t think were necessary to mention?
- What do you like and dislike about working at [insert company name]?
- What are the most rewarding parts of being a [insert their position]?
- What are the most frustrating or challenging parts of being a [insert their position]?
- At the end of every conversation, I thanked them for their time and asked the person I was chatting with if they could connect me with someone else (e.g., Do you know any other [psychology] PhDs that took the non-academic route that you think might be useful to reach out to?). This last question on the list is essential - with it you are able to begin a cycle where you are constantly being connected to new interviewees to learn from.
Although I have the above questions in a specific order, I would be sure to go with the flow of the conversation - and of course other questions came up along the way!
I learned 2 important things from these conversations:
After talking to psych PhDs with careers in consulting, data science, and user experience research (which seemed to be some of the more common positions for people with similar backgrounds to mine), I decided that I was most excited about a career in user experience research.
One pattern that came up over and over again during these informational interviews was to try to get an internship… so I started looking into that. Last year, applications start being released as early as October - and so begins the last stage of the process.
October 2020 - April 2021 (Google offer): applying and interviewing for UXR internships
Be ready for an emotional roller coaster with the application and interviewing process - it’s not exactly easy, but the more applications you submit and interviews you do, the better you get at it.
To keep track of things, I made a spreadsheet with the following columns:
- Status (submitted, interviewing, rejected, etc.)
- Due (N/A if there is no deadline)
- Position (UXR, data science, etc)
- Link to application (note: this may expire quickly, so I highly recommend the next column)
- Job description (copied and pasted directly from the application)
- Materials needed (resume, essay, etc)
- Reference (name/email)
- Other notes
Many sites where internships/jobs are posted allow you to subscribe to receive notifications with updates about new postings, which I highly recommend doing. Timing is really important when it comes to applying, especially for some of the bigger companies, so the earlier you submit, the better.
In total, I applied to about 80 internships (mostly UX, along with some other roles, such as a data science and people analytics) - I got an offer from one other place on top of Google. Although this is easier said than done, I wouldn’t let the process get too into your head. AonaTalks (see list of resources below) discusses the plethora of reasons you could be rejected (many of which are outside of your control) in this video. Sometimes it just comes down to timing, maybe a company that would’ve been perfect didn’t have headcount for interns that year, or it may even be that companies are especially conservative with taking on new people during the pandemic.
How I crafted my resume
I didn’t receive any feedback on my applications when I was rejected nor when I was given the offer. Therefore, I cannot be completely sure these are characteristics of my application that helped me get my internship, so keep that caveat in mind as you read this section. With that said, some common recommendations that came up in my informational interviews and while receiving feedback on my resume include:
Collaboration is a hugely important skill across industry positions, so I would definitely highlight that - especially if you worked with those outside of your field, which is typically described as “cross-functional collaboration”
Limit the resume to only 1 page. If you are still associated with a university in some capacity (and perhaps an association is not even necessary), the career services at your nearest university can provide feedback on your resume. On top of getting feedback from career services, I would also highly recommend asking for feedback from a couple of the UXRs you’ve been talking to during your informational interviews.
Look at the descriptions for the jobs you are submitting to, and directly speak to/include that phrasing - it feels like cheating, but sometimes companies may actually use those keywords to filter applications, so you want to make sure yours doesn’t get lost in the pile!
If possible, quantify the impact you may have had in any projects you led. Having impact through your research is extremely important in UXR - although my understanding of what qualifies as “impact” is still fuzzy, impact can include: taught N people a new skill (that is relevant to UXR, e.g., data analysis) in a workshop or class, ran an experiment that showed our intervention can reduce Y negative outcome by X amount, shared results at conference with N attendees, etc.
For the quantitative UXR internships:
- I made sure to emphasize my experience with data analysis and writing code. For instance, I made my resume in R (see my post here if you want to try it out yourself) - not sure if it made me stand out, but it’s definitely a way to show directly that you know how to code in R.
- I’m currently pursuing a masters degree in Statistics along with the PhD, which probably helped, since statistics in such an integral part of the quantitative roles. Even if you aren’t necessarily pursuing a degree in Statistics, you can emphasize any relatively advanced statistics you’ve applied in your analyses (“relatively advanced statistics” is admittedly somewhat vague, because I’m still not clear, see my resume as an example of the statistical skills I highlighted for quantitative roles)
- Bonus skill: I also think having experience with Github might’ve helped - although I couldn’t use it during the internship for security reasons, it probably signals that you are relatively code savvy and care about sharing code and resources generally, the latter of which is a bit part of Google culture
- Something I DID NOT highlight in my resumes was the size of the datasets I was working with - although having 6000 participants (or X MB of data) may seem huge in some academic fields, it is a relatively small sample compared to the size of the data many quantitative UXRs may be working with. Instead, I would highlight evidence of your data manipulation skills.
What I learned during the application process
- There are far more positions available for people who have experience with mixed methods (eg., not just analyzing survey data from MTurk, which was primarily my experience, but performing moderated interviews) - I think this is part of the reason I was rejected so much, quantitative UXRs only work at the big companies that can afford them - so there were fewer options that matched my specific skill set.
- Some questions are asked over and over again during interviews, so if you can brainstorm your answers to those questions, actually write them out and practice what you want to say in advance, it will really help with your interviews.
- A lot of times there aren’t any specific deadlines for applications. For those applications, especially at bigger companies, apply as quickly as possible (with your reference, if applicable - see next section)
My top recommendations for applying
Even though I got rejected many times, I learned a lot during the process. Based on my experience, my top three recommendations for the UXR application process are:
- Most important, especially for bigger companies, is to have a reference. This drastically improves your chance of getting noticed out of the huge pile of applications. This is where your informational interviews come in. Sometimes if mention that you are applying for internships, the person may offer to be a reference. Or if you’ve had at least a couple of conversations with them, I’m sure they’ll be happy to provide one if you ask.
- Although this is probably easier with full time positions, if possible, try to apply for internships that you are slightly less invested in before the ones you are especially excited about. Because I had done so many interviews before the Google one, I felt like I had much more confidence because I had really started to nail my responses to the typical interview questions by the time I interviewed with Google - Aona talks about this in her video here. If that’s not possible, practice answering the most common interview questions on your own (see resources section for what those may look like)
- Always prepare targeted questions for the interviewer, especially if you know their name before you enter the interview (although sometimes this isn’t possible). At a minimum, do a bit of research on the company beforehand, so you can directly speak to why your values align with theirs.
Here’s a short list of resources I recommend for exploring UXR as a career option and subsequently nailing the internship application process:
LinkedIn salary to see how much different career options pay across companies and locations
AonaTalks on YouTube helps you learn specifically about preparing for UXR interviews and life as a UXR, I had the joy of getting to know her during the internship, she’s an amazing person! Some specific videos I recommend to check out if you are preparing for interviews:
To learn broadly about preparing for interviews and being on the job market, you should check out the Self Made Millenial channel
This post on dscout shares some recommendations for crafting your resume for UXR applications
To learn more about the methods employed by UXRs, which you will be asked to discuss during interviews, check out Kevin Liang’s channel for a wealth of resources
Best of luck!!
If you are applying for internships soon, I wish you the best of luck! You got this 😄