03 August 2008

Academics and business - advice for new practitioners

I had an interested electronic conversation with a usability consultant last Friday. His viewpoint was that academic work counted for little when trying to get a job in the field of usability / interaction design. This was not expected because he himself had a PhD though I am not sure if it was particularly aimed at the field.

My point of view is different. I have come across many practitioners both in industry and academia. On the whole, I find that academics are far more knowledgeable than the industrial ones who tend to want to complete projects as soon as possible. I have also found that a minority of industrial practitioners are lacking in skills: for example, one UPA meeting I attended was about card sorting which is a very basic technique in psychology. In my view, every practitioner should know about this. A verifiable minimal level of competence is one thing that this industry desparately needs because it is true that someone can work in the role of interaction design and usability for years while still having fundamental misunderstandings about key topics. Training can help resolve those.

The counter argument is that academics lack knowledge of business practice, but again this misunderstands modern academia. From my own experience, there is no job security (tenure is extremely rare and becoming extinct except for the very top names). Continued service depends upon being successful, mostly in terms of having papers published in peer-reviewed journals (no mean feat), and getting grants (the competition is often far more fierce than for the commercial world here). Collaborations are common (hence team-working) along with the need to be self-motivated and act upon one's own initiative. Managing budgets and staff is universal for most senior academics, as is communicating information to a wide variation of people (from fellow academics through to the general public). The best communicators that I have ever known have all been academics with one exception.

So what is the truth? This is not so clear but the simple answer is that it depends upon the person. Without understanding the person behind the qualifications and experience, no accurate judgements can be made.
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