This article was submitted by Ashlea Rendell, a PhD student studying Information Systems.
In June 2017, my day-to-day life changed quite unexpectedly (despite my best planning and preparation for the move) from full-time employment back to full-time study.
I’ve spent the last 3+ years working as a User Experience researcher in industry, for nib Health Insurance, and making the transition from being a member of a 3-10 person team (depending on the project) back to project lead and worker bee lonesome was certainly a shock to my system. Things I had envisaged being an issue weren’t, and some surprises caught me off-guard along the way.
Though it’s still early days by some measures, these are some of the lessons I’ve learnt thus far. I hope they can perhaps help you if you’ve made the same transition I did.
1. Budget, Budget, Budget
While I fondly look back on my undergrad days and remember how I felt ‘rich’ at the time, after working full-time for a few years the student financial situation took some getting used to again. By no means do I live a fancy lifestyle, but having a well-paid industry job is quite different to balancing the books on a student scholarship or income.
Spending some time planning all of my expenses, bills and ideal spending money has helped me enter 2018 with a better budget in place so I can manage the social outings I enjoy, and still have some left over for the piggy bank.
Instead of buying lunch a couple of times per week, pack your own lunch and invite your desk buddies for a picnic outside. It’ll save you precious pennies and give your brain some fresh oxygen for a productive afternoon at your desk.
If you’ve got a phone or internet plan, look around and see if there’s a provider who’s offering a better deal, or discounts for students. Take advantage of student discounts at cafés and restaurants, and keep in mind programs like UNiDAYS to consider signing up to.
Hello, old friend.
2. Find Your New Routine
Though I’m definitely self-motivated (I think I’d be crazy to take on a PhD if I wasn’t), I initially felt lost without the enforced 9-5, Mon-Fri routine of full-time work. No longer did I have team lunches at 12 and coffee at 2 – instead, I found myself working to the point of hangry all too often (we’ve all been there).
But I quickly realised this isn’t either productive or sustainable. Start by scheduling into a diary or calendar your supervisor and lab meetings, and then plan the rest of your working week ahead of time, the same way you would if you were in full-time work. Schedule in regular breaks to make sure you can be both mentally and physically at your best while working.
And don’t forget to find the time you work best. Personally, I love the early mornings in the lab when no one else is in yet, and I have multiple screens set up in a home-office space for those times I really want to work uninterrupted. Working from home may not be appropriate or the most effective method for you, but make sure to spend some time to find out what is.
10am: Meeting with Supervisor. 11am: Meltdown / existential crisis. 12pm: Lunch.
3. Develop your Elevator Pitch
I still work part-time in industry, and also attend regular non-academic meetups and conferences. Oh, and I have a large family, none of whom have completed a PhD. Initially I was dismissive of talking about my research, partly because I didn’t know how, and partly because I didn’t think anyone else could possibly be as interested in the role of landscape imagery in e-commerce user interface design as I am.
Turns out I was wrong – I just hadn’t found the best way of communicating what I do.
Though I make no pretence at being an expert, practicing my elevator pitch has done wonders for opening up new conversations and potential collaboration opportunities for my project. Granted, not everyone knows your field as well as you do, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested.
Rather than focusing on the nitty-gritty, when I’m talking with someone in industry, I focus on how my project aims to advance the UX field’s understanding of how psychology, research and design fit together. When talking with my supervisors and in lab meetings, my discussion trends more towards methodologies, different discipline approaches, statistics and ethics.
While these are important conversations to have (especially ethics – do it early, do it now!), chances are your next-door neighbour or family friend perhaps isn’t as interested in these details as they are in exactly what it is you do everyday. After the umpteenth time I was asked, “But what do you actually do?” I realised some people just want to know you actually go to an office, sit at a desk and work for a full-time working week. And that’s okay to talk about too. Make sure you know when to pitch and when to simply share your day to day experiences.
While being able to talk concisely about your work is a valuable skill,
do be wary of anyone who gives you a briefcase full of money in an elevator.