Since finishing grad school in 2011, I’ve been unemployed (or underemployed) and looking for a job on four separate occasions, including after graduating, moving, quitting, and my latest job being a casualty of budget cuts. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again in the next couple years, either to me or to others, especially with the growing “gig economy” and reliance on contingent professional labor. On the flip side are some hopeful developments, including the expansion of tech businesses into the Portland, OR area, and the growth of user-centered design as a business practice, which may potentially lead to more full-time research positions.
A Job Search Timeline
My first stint with searching for a professional job was in the beginning of 2011, about four months before I was to graduate with my master’s. Naturally, this came along with the difficulties many new grads face, like limited real-world experience and idealized first-job expectations. On top of that, I was coming from the social sciences (not as many direct professional inroads, not as much budget for related roles), and it was the tail end of the Recession of 2008, so the job market was still recovering.
Three months after I got my degree, I landed my first job as a consumer researcher at State Farm Insurance. Time passed, and I stayed until my partner and I moved to Portland in late 2012 after he took a new job. It took nine months of busting ass for me to get a true hold on the Portland job market, and in summer 2013, I broke into the UX world with a research job at a small design firm.
I stayed there for a year and change until I decided to leave in summer 2014, without another job lined up. It was risky but totally worth it, because my well-being was at stake. Opportunities came rather quickly, but I didn’t want to jump on the first (or even second) thing that came along just for the sake of having a job. The past couple years help me grasp what I was really looking for in a job, team and company, so I kept this at the forefront of my search, and waited. It took me only three months this time to find what turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had – a lead UX research role at a start-up called SpendWell Health.
Fast-forwarding to today, my job was a casualty of recent company-wide budget cuts, and I finished up at the beginning of July after working there for only six months.
A job search can be rough on the spirit. I have had plenty of moments of frustration, anxiety, depression and pessimism with these in the past. If I know one thing, though, it’s that with enough practice and perseverance, these feelings decrease over time, while confidence and frequency of success increase. This has been my experience, and I attribute it to having gone through this enough to know how to land on both feet, thanks to the experience and knowledge I’ve gained, and the and the professional strategy I’ve developed.
What helped me get through? Here’s a breakdown of my (still) evolving strategy into a list of key tasks and my overall perspective/mindset from each job search period.
Graduated with my MA; needed to find a job to make ends meet and transition into the professional world.
- Updated my resume and LinkedIn
- Applied for about 50 jobs online, out of post-grad desperation but also to increase my chances of success, get experience with interviewing, and practice selling my skills
- Created my professional website and blog to establish an online presence
- Signed up for Twitter
- Did a bit of freelance work to pay the bills
Perspective and mindset:
- Open to a wide variety of job roles and sectors (non-profit, for-profit, government); my goal was to simply take what I could get (with somewhat low expectations) and then figure out my career path from there, as long as it was at least somewhat related to research
- Excited about going out and doing anthropology in the real world
- Pessimistic at the lack of jobs, but trying to keep a chin-up attitude
- Open to going wherever the wind takes me – no geographic limitations whatsoever
- I kept at it long enough that at the end, I had two offers within a week of each other and was able to choose rather than simply take the first job I got
Moving to Portland (2012)
Left my job at State Farm and moved with my partner to Portland.
- Updated my resume and LinkedIn
- Before I got to Portland, I reached out to everyone I knew to see if they could facilitate connections with anyone who lived there (and I mean anyone!), and then I reached out to those leads
- After arrival, I began to explore the professional community and build my network by attending networking and other professional events and joining local groups
- Connected one-on-one with people I met through these channels to get a better understanding of the local UX/design community and job prospects
- Began blogging more regularly to showcase my ideas and experience
- Increased my tweeting to build my online presence and connect with people
- Faked it till I made it: immersed myself in UX as much as I could without having worked as a UX researcher, by reading books and articles, talking with UX professionals, and thinking hard about how my research and anthropology skills translated over
- Started talking about my skill set and professional self in terms of design research and user experience rather than qualitative research, consumer research and anthropology
- Did a bit of freelance work to stay busy, get more experience and make a few bucks
- Created a detailed spreadsheet of all the companies I was interested in working at and that I applied to, as well as all of the people I met and how, so I could keep track of things and use it for future reference
Perspective and mindset:
- While being geographically limited to Portland helped narrow my scope, there were (and still are) not a lot of design/UX research jobs here, so I had to move quickly, be nimble and look at every interaction as a potential opportunity
- Oftentimes I didn’t want to go to professional events for the purpose of networking because the results were never certain, and thinking about going to them isn’t fun, but the more I pushed myself to go, the more I benefited; in fact, most networking I have done has led to something, whether direct and immediate or indirect and gradual
- It took me so long to find a job that there were periods where I got pretty down and out about the prospects, and felt stigmatized for being unemployed, but I made it through; I was also very lucky to have the emotional and financial support of my partner Isaac, without whom the process would have been even more difficult
- I jumped in without any of knowledge of/connections to the local job market and had to figure things out as I went along, unearthing job leads, figuring out how to talk to people about my skills, connecting the networking dots, convincing people that I could transition into UX research with my anthropology and qualitative research background and limited experience, and putting myself out there by all means with the inevitable risk of failure; this is a huge task that requires immense energy and commitment
- All of this helped me think more deeply about the type of work I want to do
- My hard work paid off and I had two offers within a day of each other (this seems to happen based on commitment to the search, being in the right place at the right time, and just putting myself out there in every way that I can)
Leaving Empirical (2013)
Decided to leave a job, team and company that were a bad cultural fit, but without a new job lined up.
- Went back to my list of companies and people from my previous search as a starting point to see if I wanted to follow up with any of these; continued building this list
- Tapped into my professional network for leads and advice
- Continued blogging on topics related to UX, design, business, anthropology and research; this helped me share my voice, connect with others, build professional credibility and reflect on my career path
- Connected with a handful of local recruiting/placement firms that specialize in tech roles, which I had not done before but wanted to try out as an avenue for employment
- Began working with an awesome career coach who is both an anthropologist and former UX researcher, to refine my career search strategy, better understand my career goals and values, practice telling my professional story, and reflect on my career journey thus far
Perspective and mindset:
- I received social, emotional and professional support from my partner, career coach, and the fantastic group of friends I had cultivated at work and in the local design community, from the time I decided to leave the job, up until I accepted a new one
- It was important to remind myself that I left this company for good reasons that were not a negative reflection of me as a person or researcher; this, plus my previous experiences and all of the support I had, gave me the confidence and momentum I needed to move forward
- By now, I had enough work experience not to be considered a junior anymore, which put me in a better job-seeking position (if UX research jobs are rare, entry- and junior-level positions in UX research are even more so)
- I was much more picky this time around; I applied for five jobs and was offered three of them
My position ended due to budget cuts.
Today marks the beginning of my third week after finishing up my latest job at SpendWell, and while I was disappointed in how it turned out and sad to leave a fantastic team, I’m feeling very optimistic about my prospects. Since 2011, I’ve essentially been building up a solid strategy for what to do during these off-periods, and I picked right back up from where I left off. My professional network is robust, I’m socially and professionally active, I have good knowledge of the Portland job market and tech scene, and I carry with me a refined sense of my professional self, story and goals.
My schedule is speckled with networking events and coffee meetings, and my daily routine includes most of the tasks I’ve outlined above. In terms of new ideas, I’m considering what else I want to do during this break to maintain momentum. For example, I want to increase my knowledge and skills in various aspects of business, technology and user experience design, so I’m learning more about interaction design, visual design, information architecture, programming, strategy and other fields. I’m looking at a couple of online design courses, getting advice from designer friends, and devouring books like Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience, Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess, and David Kadavy’s Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty. Expanding my skills to be more “t-shaped” as they say, will help set me apart as a job candidate, improve my ability to be an effective researcher and communicator, and even allow me to pinch hit on design and strategy tasks in my future role.
I can’t quite say that I’ve “survived” this job search yet since I haven’t found a new job, but I’m excited and have only good feelings, as well as the necessary confidence and optimism to jump back into the game. More businesses are sprouting up in Portland, especially in the tech sector, and the level of awareness and value of user-centered design is increasing – hopefully this means bigger budgets and more design and UX (research) jobs. My plan is to keep on keeping on with this strategy, and refining it along the way for the more-than-likely event that this will happen again in the future.