Six career ladder myths that might be holding you back

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Written By Scott Kubie

Founder and Director of Content Career Accelerator. Indie rock fan. East Coast living midwesterner.

There are no entry-level astronauts.

Many people transitioning into UX, product, and content careers find themselves a little baffled, stressed, or overwhelmed by UX career ladders and job levels. This is understandable, as it can be rather baffling.

I’m going to break down where I think the confusion comes from. I also want to highlight common misapprehensions about career ladders that might be costing you time and money.

Ladders and Levels

Levels are a status associated with a specific job function (UX designer, content designer) that denote your relative seniority. Levels are typically part of your job title — the thing you’d put on your business card.

Mature organizations have separate ladders for separate career tracks, i.e. individual contributor (IC), people managers, executives/directors.

I’m going to assume some basic familiarity with the idea here, and use two example ladders to illuminate some job ladder myths. (If you need more background, check out the “job jargon” section of this guide.)

Let’s consider two made-up ladders from two different companies for the IC track of their UX research function.

AlphaCo 

UX research at AlphaCo has 5 levels on their established UX research career ladder for individual contributors (ICs): 

  • Junior UX Researcher
  • UX Researcher
  • Senior UX Researcher
  • Lead UX Researcher
  • Principal UX Researcher

At AlphaCo, junior UX researchers primarily do “ride-along” work in collaboration with other researchers. Whereas principal UX researchers are often running their own special projects and teams, and have little interaction with the rest of the department. There’s one guy nobody’s seen in years!

BetaCo

BetaCo also has a UX research function. Their IC ladder looks a little different:

  • Junior Associate UX Researcher
  • Senior Associate UX Researcher
  • UX Researcher
  • Lead UX Researcher
  • Staff UX Researcher

BetaCo’s Junior Associates tend to be recent grads with little-to-no professional experience. Staff UX Researchers often guide and mentor Associates. They also own UX research for a key customer journey, and frequently collaborate with other Staff UX Researchers to develop cross-journey insights.

Apples, Meet Oranges

So. Five levels, five potential job titles, for the same function (presumably), on the same track (IC), at two different companies. 

Is this apples to apples? Or apples to oranges? Or pumpkins to circular saws? What can we assume, and what should we not assume, from these two ladders?

At a minimum, I’d say it’s Minnesota apples to Maine apples, and maybe even apples to oranges. Looking at these side-by-side — as you might if you’re considering applying to AlphaCo and BetaCo — might lead you to some incorrect conclusions, rooted in myths or even simple misunderstandings.

Let’s dig in.

Myth 1: Jobs with the same label always exist at the same level.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, no. Looking at our two ladders, the “Lead UX Researcher” role sits in the same spot, second-from-the-top, on both ladders.

But at AlphaCo, Leads have three levels of non-associate work behind them — Junior, mid, Senior. Whereas at BetaCo, there’s only one level, UX Researcher, which comes after two associate levels.

It’s possible both ladders have similar expectations and compensation for the role labeled ‘Lead’, but you couldn’t know without asking. If someone brought these to me, my outsider’s guess would be that ‘Lead’ is a more prestigious and better-compensated role at AlphaCo, because there are more steps with higher expectations that come before it.

The inverse of this assumption is also a myth in need of busting…

Myth 2: Jobs on the same rung are the same, even if the titles are different.

In the weird world of UX careers, you can’t assume that Lead = Lead, Principal = Principal, nor even that 3 always equal 3.

You can’t conclude, for instance that AcmeCo’s first rung is the same as BetaCo’s first rung. Nor fourth to fourth, nor sixth to sixth. You just don’t know! Some ladders have more or fewer steps to reach the same height. Some ladders are shorter. Some are taller. This is only partially a metaphor. 😂

Always be wary of drawing conclusions based on comparisons between two different companies.

Myth 3: The lowest level on the ladder is an entry-level job.

Bzzt! Wrong, sorry. Sometimes it is, often it isn’t. This is the one that often makes people sad, but if I don’t tell you the truth I can’t help you. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Ladders don’t tell you whether it’s an entry-level job or not. Junior might be entry level. It might not — and in some UX roles, it often is not. 

Informally, people use entry level to mean “no experience required; this can be your first job out of school”. It’s entry as in “entering the work force”. If you want to become the CEO of General Electric someday, you might take an entry-level job in the mailroom in order to learn more about the company and start to make connections.

Astronaut is not anybody’s first job, even if they went to a bootcamp space camp. There are no entry-level astronauts. Sometimes the lowest-level job on a career ladder is still one you will have to work toward and gain other experiences to become competitive for.

And that’s why you see junior roles asking for 1, 2, 3 years of experience. They don’t necessarily mean 3 years of full-time professional experience as a UX designer somewhere else — at least, hopefully they don’t mean that, because that doesn’t make a ton of sense. But they do want you to know your way around a UX or product team and be able to hit the ground running. It’s easier to convince someone you can do that if you’ve at least been adjacent to UX work in a professional capacity, or already have direct experience in-house with the company, like in a support or marketing role. 

In AlphaCo’s UX research department, their junior-most team members have the formal title of Junior UX Researcher. Whether or not that’s an entry-level role is something we’d have to ask them about. It could be, for someone with the right education. But maybe not.

But what’s going on there at BetaCo, with those Associate titles? Well, some companies, including our fictional BetaCo, have apprenticeships or associate programs that are more open to, or even designed for, newcomers without formal experience in the role. Those might well be entry-level jobs.

So at BetaCo, the informal term “junior level” might not have much meaning. Or maybe they see “UX Researcher” as their true junior level, but found that other stakeholders don’t like to work with “junior” researchers, so they don’t put it in the title. Or maybe they use junior casually to refer to both levels of associates. You can’t know unless you’ve asked, or been there. So ask!

Myth 4: I have to start at the bottom of the ladder.

Bzzt. Wrong. This one’s good news! You are not Drake. You don’t have to start at the bottom. You’re already here!

If you can demonstrate the skills and competencies needed for a certain level on the ladder, you absolutely can and should go after that level, even if you’ve never had the job titles that come before it at a given organization.

For many roles, the skills needed for greater seniority are people skills like facilitation, leadership, mentoring, and so on. Or they’re looking for more active management of projects and teams, even in an IC capacity. If you are coming from another career, it’s possible that you are very competitive on many skills for some higher-level roles, and potentially less competitive on some skills that are emphasized more in junior roles. For curious, confident professionals, a lot of those more junior skills can be picked up as you go.

In our examples, someone who got an HCI degree and did some user research and usability testing in college might be ready for an associate role at BetaCo or maybe even the Junior role at AlphaCo. Whereas someone with 15 years in academia, heavy on research but in a different context, might be a competitive option for a more senior or even lead researcher position. Like many things in design, it all depends!

You don’t necessarily have to go through every rung on the ladder — your first job in UX content, design, or research could well be at a Senior or Lead level if you have the right experience and skillset.

Myth 5: I was a Senior Designer, so I am a senior designer.

I mean, sure, yes, great. Thing is, people are often talking about two different things when they use the words junior, mid, and senior.

There’s the formal usage, as on our job ladders — Junior UX Researcher, Senior UX Researcher. 

There’s also informal usage, which speaks more to where you are in your career journey for a particular skillset — junior = early career, mid = you guessed it, mid-career, senior = typically 7+ years, give or take, and moving up and up. Different industries and roles might have different norms about how much experience makes you a “senior” or even “veteran” in the field. Personally, I try to leave the labels on the ladders, and either talk specifically about years of experience, or talk about career stage with terms like early career, mid-career, experienced, and veteran.

Where I see some people get a little crossed up is thinking that titles that they’ve had, like Senior Content Designer, are part of some sort of shared industry-wide understanding of what a Senior Content Designer is capable of. And so even after leaving that position, they describe themselves as a “Senior Content Designer”. 

Self-identifying with a specific spot on a career ladder when you don’t have a job is, if nothing else, a bit odd. (But where, mon frère?) More importantly, it can bias you against opportunities that might be great for you, both up and down the ladder.

As we’ve explored, senior might not even be a specific level at many companies you’ll want to apply to. Further, even if it is, you might well be qualified for something at a higher level at that company. A Senior Associate researcher at BetaCo had the word senior in their title, but they are almost certainly not seniors in their personal career journey. 

Using myself as an example, I like to think I would be very competitive for top-level IC roles as a content designer or UX writer at many companies. But I’m not too proud to admit that if I had to put on my big boy pants and work for a highly-structured organization with a high-maturity design practice (an Apple Inc., for instance) I might find that I still have a lot to learn. A “mid-level” role at an organization like that might be a bigger win, for your resume and your bank account, than a more illustriously-titled role somewhere else.

If you feel pulled to describe yourself with a level in a cover letter, LinkedIn headline, or similar, consider sticking to the facts instead:

  • Facts: years of experience that you have.
  • Facts: roles that you are open to.
  • Facts: job titles you’ve had previously.
  • Facts: industries you’ve worked in, or would like to work in.

Leave room for people to imagine you as high up on the ladder as they like.

Myth 6: The top of the ladder is as high as I can go.

This one is tricky because it’s true and not true at the same time. In the literal sense, it is actually true. If your company has a ratified document called “UX Writing IC Career Ladder”, and the top rung is “Lead UX Writer”, welp, yes, that’s the highest title you can currently achieve as an IC UX writer in that organization. 

But that doesn’t mean your career is at a dead-end, in general nor at that company, when you reach that level. You could, potentially, work with departmental leadership to articulate a new, higher level with different expectations and responsibilities. (This is far from easy work, especially if you still have IC duties to manage, but it’s not unheard of.)

You could also go just about anywhere from there. In the CCA community, we talk a lot about “ziggy zaggy” career paths. It’s very normal and good and fine to move around a bit — different ladders (other skills), different tracks (IC, mgmt, leadership) different rungs, different industries, different audiences. There’s always more to explore.

You can also grow in place. The top doesn’t have to be the end. You might simply enjoy the position that you have, especially on an IC ladder. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on top of that ladder for several years, even a decade or two, if you’re still enjoying the work, learning from new challenges and projects, making an impact, and getting those raises, baby!

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