Over the past few years, I’ve realized that what I most enjoy doing is designing and building tools other people can use to make stuff.
Realizing this mission statement and identifying what types of professional opportunities would enable me to do this full-time involved a lot of trial and error. (Making and designing as a practice will always be something that can be enjoyed as a hobby, but it’s a whole other beast to try to figure out how to find / create a job doing it.)
In the process of figuring out what made sense for me, I talked to a lot of different people I admire who have built amazing product in varying capacities (as designers, developers, researchers, educators, and engineers), both for-profit and as part of non-profits.
What I quickly came to understand is that every designer I looked up to was in a “unicorn” position. They seemed to have roles that could only exist under very particular circumstances – just for them.
At first, this was really discouraging because I didn’t think it was possible to find the same opportunity that they had. But then I realized that it’s actually quite liberating, because it’s less about finding job descriptions that match exactly what you’re looking for, but finding organizations that are flexible enough to let you expand your role into one that is customized just for you – a “unicorn” position.
In my search for a job that would let me design and build tools for other people to use, I ended up applying to a LOT of different type of positions, feeling it was more important to find a good match in terms of day-to-day responsibilities and impact than to be chasing a specific job title. I applied to jobs in academia (tenure-track, non-tenure-track, administration) and industry (UX design, hardware engineering, user research, product design).
After reflecting on this experience, I realize that I have applied to more different types of design positions than anyone I personally know.
This “guide” is a summary of everything I wish I had known about different types of design roles, in academia and industry.
I’ll share summaries of what the application, interview, and negotiating process was like for each. (Given that experiences applying to positions are really based on how far you get in the application process, I will qualify every job below with how far I got into each application.)
Everything here is solely based on my own experience applying to these positions, specifically over the last 4 years, from when I was completing my dissertation at the MIT Media Lab to my current position as a Design Engineer.
When I spoke to people for advice, they always qualified what they said with something to the extent of “Don’t try to replicate this.” Here, I do the same with the caveat that everything below is centered around my own background and goals (to be able to build products that empower other people to make things). That may not be your goal — you may want to create conceptual prototypes without having to worry about all the implementation details (testing, security, etc.), so keep that in mind while reading. I also did not survey other people with these job titles specifically for this post, but I have had conversations with friends that work professionally in each of the positions, so I have some confidence that the ideas I share are, to some extent, generalizable.
I’ll start off by describing what it was like to apply to academic jobs and what the expectations were in terms of day-to-day responsibilities, and then follow with the same breakdown for industry design positions. If you’re only interested in one of those two categories, feel free to skip to the section you care more about.
But first, some context
Everything I describe will probably make a bit more sense if you know a little about my background.
I studied mechanical engineering with a focus on product design for my bachelors and masters and then did a PhD in interaction design.
I never worked full-time in between academic programs, but I did do a lot of design internships at a variety of companies (large-ish companies like Fisher Price, design firms like IDEO and Insight, start-ups / small companies like Luidia and 5-Wits). I do think that even this limited industry experience helped with applying to both academic and industry positions; on the one hand, universities thought that I had enough practical real-world design experience to inform teaching design students, and on the other hand, companies didn’t feel that I only knew how to do design work for small-scale research projects.
Because I was looking for full-time work after I finished my PhD, I wasn’t applying to any entry-level positions, so this post is mostly about mid-to-senior-level design roles. That being said, when I first started applying for jobs, I felt a lot of pressure to only apply for senior-level positions (mostly because I knew I could have applied to junior- or mid-level positions years earlier after I had finished my bachelors or masters), but, while getting a PhD prepares you in very unique ways, it can also mean you have less practical design experience than others who started working as designers right after their undergrad / masters. More on that some other time…but some of this post will inevitably be about what it’s like to apply to design jobs with a PhD because that was my personal experience — sometimes people assume you want to be a manager / director if you have a PhD, but I still wanted to actually be doing the design work.
Jobs in Academia
Assistant professor (tenure-track faculty position)
How far I got: Applied to a handful, interviewed for some, turned down 1 offer. I applied for faculty positions in large research universities as well as design schools.
Design responsibilities: For the most part, tenure-track academic positions are less about you personally designing day-to-day and more about how you empower other people (your students) to do design work. If you find a position in a smaller institution, you can be more hands-on, but with other responsibilities that you have (teaching, service, mentoring and advising undergrads/grad students), you will have far less time to do so compared to being a grad student.
Tenure in academia is fundamentally dependent on how much you publish, even if there are other elements factored into it. For me personally, I realized I cared more about designing tools that people actually use than is normally possible in academia. There are a few examples of academia-based research labs that design real tools for people to use, but there is little incentive and funding to sustain these tools because academics are evaluated based on how much new work they publish, which often means moving onto a new project rather than refining an existing one. One way around this is partnering with a large company that has more resources to build and sustain a product, but realize then that as an academic, you will have less of a hand in the day-to-day design work (the partnering company will handle that). If you enjoy more advisory-type roles than doing the nitty-gritty of design work, this could be a good fit.
Also, another note about publishing — most journals are completely inaccessible to anyone outside of academia. Because of this, unless you are writing academic work on academia, for the most part, the people you want to actually learn from and apply your insights don’t have access to your work. Academics that really care about working past the “ivory tower” typically give public talks, write blog posts, give interviews on NPR etc. so the public can be more informed by their research. But most academic departments unfortunately don’t value this type of “outreach” nearly as much as they care about journal articles in considering your tenure case.
Applying: Applying for tenure-track academic jobs takes, by far, the most time compared to any other application process. Probably at least 5x as much time because you need to prepare lots of different statements (cover-letter, research statement, teaching statement, and sometimes documents like diversity statements, teaching portfolios, etc.). It’s on an extremely long and fixed cycle, where you apply sometime in the fall / early-winter between September and January, interview in the winter, and find out the results in the early spring.
For Human-Computer Interaction positions, I found the single-most useful resource for finding job listings was the CHI-jobs mailing list.
Interviewing: You have to prepare a 30–45 min job talk and interview 1:1 with many different people in the department over the course of ~2 days. You also typically have lunch with students. For 2 large public universities I interviewed at, the interview culminated in a round-table where each person on the hiring committee took turns asking questions from a set list they ask all candidates – I heard this is pretty common.
Negotiating: You can negotiate your salary, relocation costs (which you inevitably will have to since if you’re an academic, you have to be willing to work anywhere since job openings are few and far between), and start-up package (how much money you have to start your own group, including funding to pay grad research assistants, physical space for your lab, any equipment you need, etc.).
Generally, you make significant less money and work much longer hours in academia compared to industry. This is really important if you are thinking of starting a family and want to make sure you can live comfortably and sustainably.
I’ve heard that HCI in particular has a huge problem because most industry research labs will pay far more while still enabling you to engage in rigorous publishable work, all while having access to much larger, real data sets from the products they build (e.g., Facebook, Google, etc.). All this while not having the other academic responsibilities in universities (teaching, service). So academic departments for HCI are having a hard time finding candidates that will choose them over working in industry research labs, which is a shame because how many students are impacted by this! So many factors here!
Faculty (non-tenure track)
How far I got: applied to a few, interviewed for a few, turned down 1 offer.
Design responsibilities: I feel like non-tenure track is a catch-all for all the critically important but not equally-valued positions in an academic department. Annoyingly, being non-tenure track almost always has limitations that affect how well you are able to do your work — for example, you may not be able to directly advise students or even be PI on a grant.
For one non-tenure track position I applied for, it seemed like you had the exact same responsibilities as tenure-track faculty, except you were contract-based and had to get re-evaluated every year, and you were paid less. This definitely set off some red flags.
For another, it was completely based on teaching and research that is teaching- / education-oriented. Some institutions have a very well-defined career path for teaching-oriented positions, which is fantastic to see. For one teaching-oriented position I applied for, the course-load was 6 courses a year, which is significantly more than the typical 3–4 for tenure-track.
Applying: The process is virtually the same as tenure-track but may require a longer statement / portfolio focused on teaching, if applicable.
Interviewing: For the teaching-oriented position I applied for, I was asked to give 2 mini-lectures, one on a design topic of my choice, and another on a concept they assigned to all candidates. There was no research-oriented job talk. Students and faculty were invited to attend and participate in my lectures. It was a lot of work (but also fun) to prepare these classes!
Negotiating: I can only speak for the teaching-oriented position because that’s the one I got an offer for. I was surprised to find that there was a start-up cost for this non-tenure track position to be able to support curricular material and conference travel for education-focused research. Like tenure-track positions, the salary, relocation, and start-up were all negotiable.
Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t have the capacity to teach 6 classes a year and also have time to pursue my own design work, but I really liked the department I applied to and would consider it in the future. Which is to say that even if things don’t work out, you can gain a lot of experience, meet interesting people, and get to visit a new city by applying to a job.
Academic Administration (Director)
How far I got: I applied, interviewed, and ultimately retracted my application when I took another offer.
Design responsibilities: You get to set a vision for how a department / organization will uniquely contribute to the larger design community and collaborate with a large staff to see that vision through. From a high-level, you foresee the budget required to maintain the programming and staff to achieve this vision and are involved in hiring and evaluating everyone that works with you.
As a director, you brainstorm with your staff about what programming to create at your institution and also what collaborations you can form with industry / other academic institutions, but the staff are the one implementing those ideas (creating classes, running programs, etc.) You also write a lot of grant applications to ensure that you have enough money to sustain the department.
Requires a high-level of interpersonal and management skills.
Applying: Your cover letter needs to show your leadership experience and ideally fundraising expertise. There were also specific questions I had to respond to about both of those things.
Interviewing: In an initial phone screener, different staff within the department asked me questions about my vision and how I would raise money, as well as questions about my management style.
Once I was invited in person, I met with all the staff and students and gave a talk on my vision for what the department could do to grow its impact in the design community. Almost all the questions had to do with management, but probably because that’s where they pinpointed that I had the least experience. For example, one question I was asked was how I’ve handle interpersonal conflicts between employees.
Negotiating: I retracted my application before knowing what the result would be, so I have no idea what negotiating for an administrative position would be like. But my takeaway from this experience is that as a director, the most important aspect is to set a guiding vision and create a work environment that empowers other people to carry out that vision.
How far I got: I applied, interviewed, and did not receive an offer from a research scientist position I applied to as part of a center in a large research university.
Design responsibilities: Partnering with non-profits to implement research on public programming. Writing white-papers and speaking at non-academic conference. As a research scientist, I would imagine you still get to do some of the design work required to implement a particular program (the design work is dependent on what exactly that type of program is).
Applying: The application was quick: a cover letter and CV.
Interviewing: I gave a 30 minute talk on a specific area of research I would want to contribute to at the center. Then there was a design exercise where I was asked to take one of the examples of the ideas I shared in my talk and walk through exactly how I would implement it — how I would design a pilot study, who I would collaborate with, how I would raise money, how I would share the results with the public. Everyone within the center took part in this interview. They paid for my travel, and the entire interview process took 1 day.
Negotiating: No experience with this.
Research Fellow / Post-Doc
How far I got: I applied and interviewed for two museum post-docs, one of which I was rejected from (it was a poor fit) and the other of which I withdrew my application.
I also submitted an application for an industry-lab post-doc that didn’t go anywhere.
Finally, I was invited to be a post-doc for a listing that did not exist. (I get the sense this is pretty common for post-docs — you either ask someone you may have collaborated with / admired if you can be a post-doc with them, or if someone likes your work and wants you to contribute to their department, they may ask you to work with them.)
Design responsibilities: Being a post-doc is kind of like an extension of grad school — you get paid just a little bit more, you usually do it for just a few years after you finish your dissertation (unless you’re in the pure-sciences like bio, and you do it for another decade), and you can almost exclusively focus on research without any of the distractions of class assignments. People usually use it as a stepping stone to boost their CV in preparation for tenure-track faculty positions. You can sometimes get grant-writing experience out of it too, but often institutions won’t allow you to be a PI on a grant because you’re only there temporarily, so you don’t get credit for the grant-writing directly.
As a post-doc, you are the one carrying out the design work, along with grad students and undergrads contributing to the project. That can be everything from designing flyers to recruit participants to a workshop to designing interview protocols (user research) to designing technologies to test your research goals. It’s really dependent on the lab you’re a part of.
If you don’t want to be tenure-track faculty, it’s probably not a great idea to become a post-doc because it doesn’t really prepare you for much else, especially if you already got a lot of design experience out of being a grad student. But if you really want to work with a particular faculty member (maybe you were already collaborating with that professor as a grad student), it can be a great way to continue your work and publish more about it.
Also — a specific note about post-docs outside of universities: these roles prepare you for leadership or research positions as a research affiliate or scientist in non-profits. People in academia typically look down on / discredit post-docs in non-profits, so you kind of pick where you want to do your post-doc based on where you ultimately want to end up, i.e., a post-doc in a museum is not really transferrable to most university faculty positions. Often, you will not be publishing journal articles or conference papers and instead will be writing white-papers geared towards more general, non-academic audiences.
For me personally, I was really lucky that I had a lot of agency as a grad student — I got to choose all the projects I worked on. Most post-docs are hired to work on a particular grant, so sometimes you get lucky and get to work on what you wanted to work on anyway, but other times you’re working on someone else’s project, which I personally wasn’t interested in for the most part. However, there are some really cool post-doc fellow programs where you have a lot more freedom and that even may pay you more than most tenure-track faculty positions (for example, if you become a post-doc at Microsoft Research).
Applying: For ones you’re applying to without a personal connection to the department, it’s similar to a faculty application (cover letter, research statement, and portfolio).
Other times, it’s just a conversation with the PI, with no formal application process.
There isn’t really a standard process.
Interviewing: For both museum post-docs, I interviewed in person. Museums are notoriously under-funded, so neither paid for any of my travel expenses to get there (for example, for one, I had to pay for my own rental car). The conversations with the research staff had to do with my prior research experience. They talked about the specific project they were looking for a post-doc for to gauge how interested I was in it.
Negotiating: No experience with this.
Academic Jobs Summary
I think I applied to basically every type of academic position there is (tenure-track faculty, non-tenure-track-faculty, research scientist, and post-doc). My takeaway from this experience is that unless you are a research scientist or post-doc, you probably will be in more of a leadership position where you won’t be doing much of the design work yourself. Also, in academia, you get paid much less than you do in industry, with less opportunity to scale products / platforms / programming / etc that you design unless you partner with another organization, at which point they will most likely be handling that design work anyway. However, you have a unique opportunity to impact the next generation of designers by teaching classes and mentoring students.
Jobs in Industry
User Experience (UX) Designer
How far I got: I applied to several user experience and interaction design positions at large and small companies. I have worked professionally as a UX designer for 2 years since I graduated from grad school.
Design responsibilities: UX design is very ill-defined and dependent not only on what company you work for, but what specific product-team you work on. For some smaller companies, UX design translates to anything the customer sees and experiences, which will include user interface design (creating mockups and interactive prototypes using tools like Sketch, Photoshop, Illustrator, Framer, etc.), user research (talking to customers, organizing focus-groups, designing surveys), and even some implementation (front-end development). In larger companies, roles are more specialized, so there’s a lot of handing off visual mockups to engineers, and less doing implementation as a designer.
If you are applying to be a UX designer, I have a few tips:
- Talk to a UX designer at that company during the application process. Find out what they do day-to-day. Ask how they interface with engineering and whether or not that handoff is a smooth process — or maybe if they get to push code themselves as designers. Make sure to talk to another UX designer, not a PM that has an idea for what a UX designer should do rather than what an actual UX designer at the company does do.
- Find out who your manager is going to be and what the organizational structure is like. Is the person who is ultimately evaluating you someone you look up to? Do they have skills you want to learn from? Do they have the interpersonal skills to actually be able to mentor you if they have those skills? Do you want to be in their position in ~2 years (in terms of what they do day-to-day)?
- Discover what the group’s process is like to implement new features. Who has the power to make decisions? Is there a structured way to suggest changes?
Applying: The portfolio is the single-most important thing. Having a portfolio that shows a range of projects and shares exactly what your responsibilities on each projects were is critical. The design of the portfolio itself, even outside of the projects it contains, says a lot about your aesthetic.
Interviewing: You are typically asked to walk through a product you worked on in the past and how you went from conceptualization to design. They are typically getting at understanding your process, how you make decisions on when a design is “ready” to push to production, and how you collaborate with other members of a design team.
For one interview, they gave me a design challenge and I had 45 minutes to try to design something to match the challenge. It was a video interview, so I screen-shared and did it live. Note — I wish I had asked whether I needed to talk aloud, because I think it turned out they just wanted me to do it, and talking while doing took up some valuable time.
Negotiating: Salary, sign-on bonus, equity, and relocation are all negotiable. For both companies I ended up negotiating with, the number of vacation days was fixed. I found that in industry more generally, there is a lot more flexibility with choosing location (many companies have offices in multiple cities around the world, or at least in a desirable one because they want to attract talented people), and many also let you work remotely if that’s what you’d prefer to do.
The most important thing about UX is finding out what exactly UX means to that company — how flexibly do they define UX? When they say user experience, do they actually mean user interface designer? In my mind, user experience should encompass the entire experience of using a product, from how a new customer comes across a product to how they use it. If a “user experience designer” doesn’t evaluate how the product is used by gathering feedback from users and using that feedback to inform design, it’s not user experience in my eyes — then you’re just a wireframe designer.
How far I got: I applied to two user research positions at two large social media companies. For one, I think something happened where the position on the specific team I applied to was no longer available. They offered to connect me with other teams that may have open positions, but since these teams were working on boring stuff like advertising, I withdrew my application. For the other application, I had an initial conversational interview with a recruiter after I was referred, but it didn’t lead to anything.
Design Responsibilities: User researchers dive into how customers experience a product through a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques (interviews, surveys, and analytics). They use insights gathered from their studies of how people use and experience a product to distill recommendations to a product team.
A few things I learned from interviewing for user researcher positions — if a company is big enough to have a user researcher position, it usually means that they see user research as distinct from user experience / product design. That means that as a researcher, you are typically exclusively focused on running user studies, analyzing user study results, and making recommendations to a team, rather than coming up with exactly what changes to make to a design (typically the work of a UX designer) or how to implement those changes (usually a developer).
In both my experiences applying as a user researcher, I got asked why I wanted to do research since I had a lot of design experience. The recruiters or managers I talked to seemed to want to warn me that I would not be designing if I was doing user research. I replied by saying that ideally I could both design and do research as part of my role, which I’m pretty sure worked against me in both cases since they want people that would be happy being fully dedicated to running user studies.
Application: For one, I submitted a cover letter and CV to a job listing on the company’s site. For the other, I was referred by a friend who works at the company.
Interviewing: Both started with a phone interview where I talked about my experience running user studies and why I was interested with working for the company.
Next, I had a video conference call where I had to give a 45 min talk about my research and how it applied to the company. (Note: this was my first time giving a job talk over video conference, and I realized I couldn’t look at my notes and share my screen at the same time!) Then they had me do a design exercise where they gave me a list of problems they’ve noticed with how customers use their product, and then they gave me 60 minutes to design a user-study protocol to address one or more of those problems.
I ended up putting together a Keynote presentation that outlined a specific question I would try to answer from the list of issues they shared with me, how I would recruit participants and compensate them, how I would conduct the study (what questions I would ask, diary study prompts, etc.), and how I would approach analyzing the results. Then I had to present that protocol to a team of researchers, who asked me questions about it. The whole thing was really long, at around 3 hours.
After the video conference call, they flew me out to their office, and I had 1:1s with a lot of people on the team. I think they were just judging at this point whether I was someone they would be happy working with day-to-day.
One thing I noticed from the questions they asked me is that user researchers at companies don’t undergo the same rigorous requirements that you have in academia if you’re trying to publish results. For example, there’s typically just one researcher assigned to a feature, so there isn’t something like inter-rater reliability where you have multiple people interpreting data.
Also, a bunch of the user researchers asked me how I would justify the importance of user research to engineers. I found that question to be kind of sad and indicative of a larger problem in Bay Area tech.
Negotiating: There was no negotiating here as I had no offer.
Hardware / Industrial Designer
How far I got: I went through two rounds of interviews with an early-stage startup before I retracted my application after receiving another offer.
Design Responsibilities: You get to do a lot of CAD design work with attention to ergonomics and design and interfacing with manufacturing to ensure quality. You collaborate with a larger design team that contributes ideas to how a physical product should interact, look, and feel.
Application: I found the job on Angel.co and submitted a cover letter, my portfolio, and resume.
Interviewing: I had an initial screening with a recruiter before talking to one of the co-founders. They asked me about my approach to design and why I was excited about the company, as we all as what ideas I might have for their product line. It was very conversational.
Negotiating: No experience because I retracted my application.
So I didn’t actually apply to work as a mechanical engineer after I graduated from grad school, but I did have some thoughts about mechanical engineering positions from the experience I had as an intern at a few companies (working on consumer products at IDEO, baby products at Fisher Price, medical devices at Insight Product Development), so I’ll share that here.
Most of the mechanical engineers I worked with did CAD 80% of the time. They were deep into SolidWorks or Pro/Engineer and were primarily concerned with the manufacturability and structural integrity of a design (FEA, mold design, etc.) They also did mechanism design and cared about things like fluid dynamic and thermodynamic simulations, especially in the case of medical devices.
I would say that as a mechanical engineer, you really are working on the technical aspects of manufacturing a design. Mechanical engineers are often distinct from product designers in companies that build hardware. Product designers seem to have more flexible positions where they work on more of the user-facing aspects of the product.
Industry Jobs Summary
If you like doing lots of different types of design work, it’s really important to discover the distinctions between different types of design roles within a company. When there is a greater number of distinct roles (user researcher, product designer, UX designer), the roles are more specialized, so there’s more handing off of work between teams. When you work for a smaller company, you have more flexibility to bridge those traditionally separate roles.
The single-most important realization for me was discovering where I could be contributing to all aspects of design, from visual design to user experience to working directly with customers to understand how we can make their experience better. When I graduated from grad school, I didn’t know what questions to ask to uncover whether or not design within a company encompasses all of these roles, but after applying to several different types of design jobs, I think I now have a better sense. Especially for people coming from an HCI research background, where you’re used to building and evaluating every project you work on, identifying where you can contribute in many different ways can ultimately help you find jobs that best match your interests.
Hopefully this writeup is useful for anyone, especially coming out of grad school, interested in the world of design professions and the different types of capacities you can have in academia and industry.
There are plenty of tradeoffs, from agency, impact of the products / research you work on, flexibility in location, and significant gaps in salary. I think the most important thing is to really reflect on what design work you’re most excited to be thinking about day-to-day, and seeing whether what you’re interested in matches what other people with the same job title do within that organization.
I realize now in writing this that I didn’t write so much about how you can expand any of these roles into a “unicorn” job, but I think that’s a much more complex ideas to cover and best told through stories from many different types of designers, not just me. I’m hoping to do that in an upcoming series of interviews with unicorn designers I admire. If you have any recommendations for people to interview, please let me know! And if you have any experiences applying or interviewing for any of these types of design roles, I’d love to hear. (: