Tenure Prof to UXR Tech: Joe Stubenraunch

May 23, 2023

Recently, I had the great opportunity to interview Joe Stubenraunch. I learned so much and I believe it’s my best interview yet!

He shares valuable content including views and learnings about transitioning from academia to industry. I find his Linkedin content very insightful and encourage you to check him out. You can find Joe’s Linkedin here.

Joe is currently a UX researcher and before that, he was a tenured history professor and graduate program director at Baylor University. 

Below are my interview notes 👇

Welcome, Joe. What’s your background? 

I'm a user experience researcher in tech. I have been in this position for about six months. Before that, I was still in tech, as an instructional designer. Prior to that I was in academia and most of my career has been in academia. I got my PhD in. History with focus on late 18th and early 19th centuries British history. Then,  I had a very traditional academic path from graduate school to tenure track to tenured, and then, I had a midlife crisis and decided to completely reinvent my life…

Why did you decide to start a career in Tech after already having achieved Tenure? 

The decision to start a career in tech after achieving tenure was largely due to geographic reasons. With tenure, it is difficult to move to a different institution, and the prospect of living in the same place for the rest of his life was overwhelming. Additionally, the academic work required in my field did not provide opportunities to thrive, and I wanted to work with regular milestones, feedback, and more growth. I also enjoy reinventing myself every couple of years, which is not ideal in academia. The pandemic also played a role.

Why consider a career outside academia?

Academia has its own set of pros and cons, just like the industry. While there are constraints in academia, such as the limited job options due to the hierarchy and pecking order, there are also certain freedoms that come with seniority, such as being able to research and teach what you want, attend conferences you're interested in, and even take on administrative roles to build programs within the university. However, there are also certain rigid constraints within academia that are difficult to escape unless you're a superstar. Overall, it's important to consider the implications of choosing academia and the sacrifices you may have to make, such as living far from family, but ultimately it's about choosing the pros and cons that work best for you.

How did the transition from academic to tech look for you? 

I was exploring different fields outside of academia and stumbled upon instructional design as a possible option. Tech companies were doing a lot of hiring at the time and I saw opportunities to grow within the industry. I had considered nonprofit work and even teaching myself programming, but they didn't seem like the right fit. I spoke with a career coach who suggested instructional design and program management. It felt validating to talk to someone about leaving academia as it's often frowned upon. Eventually, I found a job as an instructional designer at a big tech company and it opened up new options for me.

As I was exploring Instructional Designer role, I had a moment of realization that I already had the core skills and competencies required, and could gain other skill needed easily. My university experience provided me with training for effective learning. While the corporate context is different from academia, designing effective curriculum and learning experiences felt familiar to me. I did need to learn some technical skills, particularly instructional design and dealing with the tools to build e-learning, but I enjoy tinkering and building webpages anyway so it wasn’t a big gap. I finally made my first jump into industry as an instructional designer and that has now provided me with opportunities to grow.

What is a typical profile and skill set of an Instructional Designer?

There is a mix of people who enter the field of instructional design. Some come from industry, already in a related field, and have experience with training and helping others, while others come from teaching backgrounds in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. Some have doctorates in education, and others, like me, may have doctorates in unrelated fields. I did not feel out of place transitioning from academia to instructional design and found it affirming to receive positive feedback about my abilities to handle deadlines, communicate, negotiate, and compromise. 

Roles and Opportunities for Humanities PhDs

Instructional design is a suitable role for humanities academics, as well as program or project management. Additionally, UX design, UX writing, and UX research are growing fields where humanities academics can thrive because they require the interpretation and synthesis of qualitative data and the ability to put oneself in the shoes of users or customers. Some humanities academics may be well-suited for roles in diversity, equity, and inclusion within a corporate setting, depending on their background and experience within a domain. 

While some roles may require additional technical skills, there are likely many opportunities available for humanities academics willing to explore and learn new things. In any case, it’s important to have conversations with folks in various industries and discover new roles that suit an individual the best, as there may not be a clear-cut name for every opportunity available in the industry.

What are your thoughts on the total number of available roles in Tech vs Academia?

In industry, there are typically fewer barriers to entry and a wider range of available roles compared to academia. In academia, hiring only occurs couple times a year and the competition for jobs can be intense. In industry, despite the current contraction of roles, the total number of roles should grow over time.

What are the challenges for Academics who may have to go step down in their career to re-start a career outside academia?

Transitioning from academia to industry can be challenging, especially when it comes to prestige and mindset as an academic. The academic system creates a mindset that leads to value and prioritization of prestige, which can make it difficult to step back in their career. However, I encourage academics to view the transition as an investment in themselves and to be humble and willing to prove themselves in their new role. They are solving problems for their new employer and stakeholders, and need to show that they can have an impact. While it may require stepping back initially, with the skillset developed as an academic, catching up quickly and proving oneself is possible, leading to opportunities and pathways opening up in the future.

You can listen to the podcast episode on the following platforms:


Hope you found some insights from Joe’s story 


P.S. I’m offering 1:1 coaching/resume review sessions. If you’re interested you can book here: https://calendly.com/phdtoindustry/connections 

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