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My name is Rosie and I’m a former academic

By ucjubil, on 23 May 2017

By: Rosie Webster, a UX Researcher at DrEd

Lessons and challenges from shifting from academia to a start-up.

I started out in academia. When I was doing my PhD, I had hopes of being a professor some day. However, when I did my first post-doc and moved into digital health, I became frustrated with the slow speed and lack of direct impact. After some investigation and moving around, I finally found my niche: a role where I could utilise my skills in research and health psychology, and exercise my love of digital health. This is how I came to be a UX researcher at DrEd.

I do research with our users (and potential users), to understand their needs, expectations for online healthcare, how they feel about their health conditions, and to test concepts, designs, and our product. I am applying a lot of the skills that I gained during my training in psychology and my career as an academic: research design, qualitative interviewing, survey design and analysis. The environment and ways of working, however, are wildly different.

The challenges

Firstly, one of the biggest challenges is working at a much faster pace. Whereas in academia, you might be given 6 months to a year to complete an in-depth qualitative study, in a start-up you’ll be lucky to get a month or two for everything from planning to reporting. This means that you have to be pragmatic, and consider what is the minimum you need to do to answer your question. The research may not be quite as rigorous, but at least you have useful insight that can be actioned and used incredibly quickly, which is hugely rewarding.

The second big challenge is around working with stakeholders from incredibly different backgrounds to yourself. Having worked on interdisciplinary projects before, I’d already had a taste of this; however, it’s much more prominent in this environment. I’m not just doing research to submit it to peer-reviewed journals or another grant application. I’m doing research to support the work of other people within the company. This is mainly for the UX designers, but also for the marketing team, the product team, and more. Often, these people don’t think in the same way as researchers: they may be more visual, more creative, and often don’t have time to read tens of pages of research reports (understandably!). Working with these brilliant people, engaging them in your research, and communicating findings to them, can sometimes be a challenge. It’s a learning curve, which means understanding what your colleagues need, finding new ways to communicate, and letting go of some ways of working that you’ve been trained in for years.

The rewards

Adapting to this new environment is a challenge, but I feel that the rewards outweigh that. As I mentioned earlier, there’s so much more visible, immediate impact of your work. Doing research to understand a user’s needs then seeing a designer bring that to life in something that can then be built and used is just brilliant. Further, while the research is more pragmatic (and perhaps less rigorous), it’s also less bureaucratic. While we have to be very careful about data protection and ensure that we’re always behaving ethically, we don’t have to apply for ethical approvals and complete endless amounts of paperwork: this is something that I certainly don’t miss! This means that when we need to do research, there’s nothing holding us up. We can collect the data that we need, and use it quickly to make our users’ experience better.

The start-up world is very different from academia; however, many of the skills learned in academia (and in psychology in particular) are very transferable. Have you made a career move, or are you thinking about it? What were/are you hoping to get out of it?

BIO: Rosie Webster is a UX Researcher at online healthcare company DrEd. She has a PhD in Health Psychology and is an associate of the UCL CBC.


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One Response to “My name is Rosie and I’m a former academic”

  • 1
    Sumit wrote on 23 May 2017:


    Great to hear about your “alternative” experience! Always good to know how things can be approached in a different way. Who knows, maybe after my own PhD I will go down that road too ;-).

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