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How to...
transition to UX Research with a Humanities PhD

This piece on How to…to…transition to UX Research with a Humanities PhD is developed from a Zoom interview with Dr. Sumyat Thu, a senior UX [User Experience] researcher at Bosch USA, with two Aruna members Rupak Shrestha and Chu May Paing in December 2022. The following exchange has been edited for clarity.

More about Dr. Sumyat Thu and her projects can be found at

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sumyat-thu-phd/

“UX (user experience) research is the systematic study of target users and their requirements, to add realistic contexts and insights to design processes. UX researchers adopt various methods to uncover problems and design opportunities. Doing so, they reveal valuable information which can be fed into the design process.”

-Interaction Design Foundation

 

Read more on UX research and what UX researchers do at https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/ux-research

UX

Chu & Rupak: First, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, and What do you like to do?

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: Yes, I am Sumyat (she/her). I identify myself as a Chinese Burmese/ Sino-Burmese diaspora woman, as part of the Burmese diaspora [in the US]. I am currently in LA; I just moved here three months ago. I did my MA and PhD at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. 

My field is technically in the English language and rhetoric. It’s how it’s described in the English department [I got my PhD from], but it’s interdisciplinary and it depends on how you want to approach it – language studies from a sociological lens. It can be anything. For me, I focus on the intersection of language and literacy, language and race, multilingual issues and policies in refugee and immigrant populations. So, I did my dissertation with a group of Burmese college students who identify as multilingual immigrant students of color and how they navigate the dominant languages and racialized ideologies through their language and literacy practices. 

 

And then, I worked as a VAP [Visiting Assistant Professor] for UW for two and a half years, and now I am working remotely as a Senior User Experience (UX) Researcher at Bosch from LA, where my extended family is. In my free time, I am learning kickboxing – learning a few new things here and there. 

 

Chu & Rupak: So, you already mentioned a little bit about your dissertation. Can you add more on what made you transition from academia to UX research? How was the transition from undergrad to grad school? What was your goal pursuing a PhD initially? If it's different from the career you are in now, how has that aspiration evolved over time?

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: In undergrad, I majored in Psychology but took classes in the English Department on writing and non-fiction. Even in my undergrad at my alma mater, I worked as a tutor at the Writing Center for a little over three years. I really liked the challenge of working with students from so many different backgrounds. I enjoyed being a sounding board for them on ideas and helping them with different writing assignments such as political science policy memo; biology lab report. As a Psychology major, I wouldn’t necessarily understand everything students were working on, but I liked the challenge of helping people refine their ideas or thought processes regardless of the discipline 

 

At first, I was thinking about whether I should go for graduate studies in Industrial Organizational (IO) Psychology. That was my focus in undergrad. At a small liberal college that I went to, the Chair of the Department at the time specialized in IO Psychology; because of her, I studied that branch of Psychology. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to pursue it as a career or something I’d enjoy doing seriously. 

 

So, I started talking to some of the alumni from the English Department. Some of the students were in the English PhD program, in English Language and Rhetoric. They told me about the program. Normally, as an undergrad, you wouldn’t hear about English Language and Rhetoric – it doesn’t exist as an undergrad major, so you wouldn’t know until you learn about it otherwise. At that time, I thought writing was my passion as I love writing and loved working with the students. I enjoyed writing, teaching writing, and talking about writing with students. This is my passion, so I thought I should just follow my passion and worry about everything else later. That’s pretty much what I did. Just like my professors, I wanted to become a professor. Maybe direct a writing center down the line. That’s what I thought and that’s why I decided to go for the PhD in English. 

 

The University of Washington English Department was one of the largest in the country with multiple tracks such as PhD in rhetoric and composition, Literature, etc, and also a terminal degree for creative writing like MFA [Masters in Fine Arts]. The Literature track had the highest number of graduate students. The English Language and Rhetoric track, which I did, had a small cohort with people at different stages . So, it felt like we couldn’t keep in touch with each other very well. My friend and I who were in the same track, we talked about how, for example, people in the Literature track could keep each other in the loop as a larger group, but for us, it was harder to do that. 

My PhD process was fine for the most part, but of course, with the PhD journey, there’s always roadblocks and challenges that everyone faces. To be honest, I went to UW because that’s the department, at least from what I saw, with at least a few faculty of color – not just all white academics. And their research areas are varied enough that I could work with several people. I did work with several different people. But, for what I wanted to do with my dissertation — taking a critical approach to language and race and Critical Race Theory — there was literally one faculty member who supported and understood my vision. So, without her, it would have been really challenging – mentally and emotionally. 

 

My dissertation chair was really efficient and effective. He gave me feedback on time so that I could defend on time. In my dissertation, there are analyses of conversations on racial identities I had with students who participated in my study. And I would write up the analyses and reference the Critical Race Theory and the ideas about the contested category of “Asian American.” For Burmese people who are a small minority of that identity, it’s hard to easily identify with an Asian American label. But, it’s so funny that my dissertation chair, he would skip those pages and wouldn’t provide critical commentary. He would let it pass. Moments like that were a bit deflating because when you are doing a dissertation, you already only have a very small group of readers and your chair is like your main reader. And things that you are passionate about, you sometimes want conversation and dialogue with them. I didn’t really get that from him, which is fine. That’s just how it went. Literally, just one person in my department understood what I wanted to do. Because of her, I stuck through grad school. Because of my friends and my family too. And sheer perseverance! 

 

I did think about quitting grad school, seriously maybe twice, but I didn’t end up doing it because at the second time I thought about it, I thought to myself, “I am too far deep in the journey. If I quit at this point, I wouldn’t have anything in my hand. I wouldn’t have any result.” After putting all this time and effort and sweat and tears, I needed to have some kind of milestone to leave with. I stuck through it; I am glad that I did. I did learn a lot. Now I can say that I have a PhD. I can use it for UX Research and other opportunities.

 

Chu & Rupak: That’s interesting. We didn’t know that you studied IO Psychology. Now, we are curious, do you think if you had pursued a PhD in IO Psychology, would that be different? Do you wonder about it?

Dr. Sumyat Thu: That’d have been a two-year MA actually because that’s what was recommended to me by my professor at the time and was more of a pragmatic path than pursuing a PhD. I did wonder about it. I had a couple of friends who graduated in the same year with me, who majored in Psychology. One of them did go on to do a MA. She is now working as a IO psychologist at Pepsi. It’s interesting. It’s one of those things that you only have one life. Whatever you do, you did it for a reason. Even though the dots might not connect right now, they will be later. So, have faith in your own choices and processes. Some of the life choices can be messy, but it does make sense when you put it all together. It does make sense for me at least. As an immigrant, I was very interested in multilingual practices and identities – expressing yourself through writing, how you negotiate power dynamics and social identities through communication. I am glad that I was able to spend 5-6 years really studying that. That fulfilled my “nerdom” pursuits!

 

Chu & Rupak: You mentioned that you wanted to become a writing professor or work as a director for a Writing Center. So, how has that career aspiration changed? At what moment you realize “oh I am not going to do that anymore”?

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: Interesting that I worked as a VAP at UW, my alma mater as well. My experience as a VAP and a grad student in the same place was different. A VAP, which is a full-time employee at the University and the Department. It was interesting to see the changes in power dynamics when I became an employee. I guess I already knew it as a grad student, but to experience it first-hand when I became the VAP, in terms of the professor profession – either Tenure track or non-tenure track – are not well- supported by the institution, in my opinion. And not having an equitable salary that is commensurate with where you live. I was in Seattle and Seattle was a really expensive city. There were no salary increases for faculty for years. Generally speaking, the academic profession is not financially well-supported by the institution, so sometimes people have to rely on their own families or their significant others’ careers and incomes. I was very turned off by that. Even though we know that the Universities have a lot of money. People who are at the heart of the university, who are doing teaching and research, why shouldn’t they be paid an equitable salary? That’s the first reason.

 

The second reason is work-life balance. As a VAP, it was not that bad. I had pretty good boundaries around work-life balance. But one of my mentors went through the tenure process. I also see it with my friends who are now in tenure track positions. They are doing so much so that they could put impressive things on their tenure files. They are working like 60-70 hours a week, writing their book, working, teaching, keeping up with the departmental responsibilities. My mentor suggested that I take on a tenure track position, but I was not happy about the struggles inwork-life balance, but if you want to put on an impressive tenure file, that is the only way to do it. You have to put in hours and hours of work. You can’t really say no to the responsibilities that are put on your plate. You have to do them enthusiastically to show that you are a collaborative member of the department. Things like that. During my PhD, I was putting in a lot of hours into my dissertation. So, I was very tired at the end of it. I just didn’t see myself being able to continue that lifestyle if I were to continue on with the tenure track. 

 

Another reason is that I realized how conservative it could be to work in an academic department. It depends on the leadership of the department and the people you are working with, but it can be kind of like working at a bureaucratic government office. If you think back to the bureaucratic government in Burma, things move so slowly. If you want to change something, you need to advocate for it so many times. For the ball to start rolling on the ground, it takes so many steps. I’ve seen that happen in my own department. So, if you want to make progressive changes, that culture is not conducive to that. For my working style, I just don’t see it fitting into that lifestyle in the long term. So, those are the reasons why I couldn’t continue with academia. 

 

So, when I sent in my resignation letter, my department chair was surprised. He said he was very sad to hear that. He was hoping that I’d apply for the tenure track position. They hadn’t announced it yet, but they were going to open the job call. And he was going to let me know to apply for it. But I was like, “It’s a bit too late.”

 

Chu & Rupak: During the transition process, was there any mentorship available to you? Was there anyone really helpful to you?

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: UX research can exist in different industries. If you think of UX research, it’ll normally be the tech industry, but it can exist in the public sector too, for example, government or the public sector. When I transitioned, I had heard of the term UX before. And I thought you have to know some sort of code to work in UX research. First, I did informational interviews with different PhDs working in UX research. At first I was going to apply for Higher Ed administrative jobs, then I thought to myself maybe I should talk to a Humanities PhD working in Tech. So, I talked to an English PhD (specialized in Rhetoric) who work in UX in the healthcare industry. She let me know she doesn’t have to know any coding or software engineering. I got more interested in it as a potential career. She signed me up for a UX research listserv (an email listserv where UX researchers ask questions to each other and post jobs). I observed what people are doing, going to workshops about UX research and what UX researchers do. 

 

In UX research, you do research targeted on products, services, and tech innovations. In some cases, you might also do some kind of spreading awareness. Research could be discovery-oriented where you don’t have the products yet but then you are researching what should be invented, and areas where we should invest our research in. That makes me feel confident that I can still work with my skill set. It wouldn’t be that much of a leap. For example, some grad students I knew from UW took coding bootcamps and became software engineers. I didn’t want to take that route. 

Chu & Rupak: What particular skills can social sciences and humanities PhDs bring to UX research? What should they highlight more?

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: Even though my field was technically in the humanities, the research methods I used were very much from Social Sciences. My line of research in English PhD was very much social science oriented. 

 

For people with a PhD in social sciences, invest in your knowledge about research methods (both quantitative and qualitative) and be able to do staple research methods. Do know complexities of research methods in interviews. How do you do interviews so that it’s not extractive? How do you do that equitably and compassionately? If you look at quantitative methods like surveying, you might need to know statistics. Are you able to do regression? Or a large scale statistical survey. Invest in research methods. 

 

With qualitative methods, ethnography or observational research, how do you observe so that you are gaining insights from what you are seeing and hearing? How do you translate those data points that are going to be important for your clients (aka product owners). If you are working for the city or the government, it could be something like researching digital systems of the local government so they can serve the needs of people who are using those online systems better. Be able to translate from your research data what would be important to the target audience and stakeholders. 

 

For my own job application, it was such a meandering kind of a long process to translate my dissertation to a tech audience. They don’t know or care about theoretical concepts. I asked myself the question of how I translate that for them so that they care about them. 

 

Chu & Rupak: What sorts of experience and skills were transferable to you or what did you have to learn in the first few months as a UX researcher when you transitioned to Bosch, that was really in the academic toolbox? 

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: Since I am more of a qualitative researcher, I am very comfortable in that space. For the quantitative side, I’ve done surveys to some degree, but not large-scale surveys. Now, I am leading a survey project. In a product-centered research environment, the knowledge about the products really drives how you are designing the survey. That’s not something you can learn before you get the UX job; something I had to learn on the job. You don’t know what products the companies will put out unless you are an insider to that particular company.

 

Bosch has a lot of automotive products like automotive parts, EV related innovations, and other AI related inventions. Automotive is not something I usually spend time thinking about. So, I am expanding my knowledge. It takes time to figure out the language of these product spaces. If someone is already interested in automotive, it might be easier for them. But that’s not the only product Bosch has. As part of a central user experience team in the North American region, my team works with so many different product teams at Bosch.There are definitely differences in how you would communicate to stakeholder audiences vs. academic audiences. Be adaptive to how you are telling the stories

 

I am finding myself using surveys a lot. I am relearning how to read quantitative data; how I design surveys, measures, etc. Another thing is I did a lot of anti-racist equity work before transitioning. One of the reasons I was able to transition was because of that too. My company is giving more attention to inclusive design - they want products to be able to be used by people of all backgrounds and identities. So, we have inclusive educational programs Bosch is doing just for professional development. I am co-leading some of those programs and teaching some courses like introduction to UX for Bosch employees. Depending on the job, you might still be able to use not just your research, but also your teaching skills. 

 

Chu & Rupak: What is your advice for grad students pursuing PhD and wanting to go to UX or people who recently graduated with a PhD?

Dr. Sumyat Thu: I’d recommend taking on some kind of UX education courses either through the membership at your institution or your own funds if you can’t take advantage of an institution. UW had LinkedIn professional education (LinkedIn Learning), I was taking UX courses on LinkedIn. I was going to community events and learning more about things that you have to do - building my UX research portfolio, practicing interview questions. Whoever is interested in UX research, spend some time way before you have to have a job lined up, before your dissertation stage. Try to do informational interviews with as many people as possible. I was doing that. I learned a little bit about UX research. One of the people I knew did not do social science research. She is now working as a proposal writer for Deloitte. She has a history PhD. She is using writing skills for corporate communication strategies. 

Fields like content strategy, UX writing may be different. Try to get knowledge about different fields and decide what it is that you are going to spend time applying for jobs. Definitely do a part-time job or volunteer for the kinds of jobs you’re interested in. Volunteering through meetups (Hack for LA) volunteer lab group. They are doing UX research for social causes. They might be doing UX research for a non profit or city research. You need on-the-ground experience to be able to talk about in the interview. 

 

My dissertation chair didn’t really encourage me explicitly to go for academic jobs. I had other mentors (a woman of color) who wanted me to go for Tenure track positions. I told them that I want to broaden my horizons. I did all the informational interviews on my own. When I met with my advisor, usually for exams, papers, prospectus, etc, I did tell him that I was interested in alt-ac [alternative to academia] careers. It was helpful that there was a micro seminar at the UW humanities center: One/two credit micro seminar, with speakers from different sectors, who talked about how to use your PhD in an alt-ac career. I pursued those opportunities and connections trying to learn more on my own. That's not something your advisor will do. I asked one of my advisors to put me in touch with some people. But the list of people she recommended to me was all academic. 

 

Chu & Rupak: What are some of your professional goals and how does your current role align with them? 

 

Dr. Sumyat Thu: I feel grateful that I landed this job. I could still do research and do equitable work (such as inclusive product design). I like the people I am working with. They align with my values. I wanted a fairer pay, remote position. For many people, professional goals change overtime. For now, I was looking out for those things and this job satisfies these things. 

 

I think in UX research, you are trying to advance knowledge; in some cases you might be able to do positive social impacts. For now, the way I think about it, UX research is not the career where I am causing harm to people. I can’t say for the long-term professional goals. But I can see myself spending a long time in UX research. There might be interesting research that people are doing that I might want to be a part of. It does align with my values of not doing harm and being aligned with diversity and inclusivity goals. You can’t get everything that you want in a job. For me now, for my own personal reason, I am focusing more on my family–to be closer to my family and to be able to work remotely.

 

Resources on academics transitioning to UX Research, shared by Dr. Sumyat Thu

-So You’re an Academic Who Wants to Make the Shift to UX Research

-So You’re Interested in User Experience (UX) Research? Thoughts from an Anthropologist Working in Industry

-UX Research job market advice for academics

-Facebook group called "PhD to UXR - from academia to UX research"

Cite as: Aruna Global South (2024). How to to…transition to UX Research with a Humanities PhD. Aruna Global South How To Series. February 26. [website link]
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