Psychologist logo
Claire Hamlet
Education, Research, Teaching and learning, Trainees and training

Why do so few psychology researchers and clinicians work in industry?

Claire Hamlet shares her reflections as a Health Psychologist and User Researcher.

03 January 2023

Digital health innovations present unprecedented yet exciting opportunities to transform the way healthcare is delivered. The skills acquired during a PhD or doctoral training are highly sought by employers beyond academic science. Whilst a job in industry may not be for everyone, careers in digital health should be treated by universities as legitimate career options. If they fail to do so, not only will this disserve researchers and clinicians, but the end users of digital health technologies. 

In April 2021 I left a seven-year research career in academia for industry. Like many, the pandemic gave me space to reflect on my career, and I felt it was time to make a change. Fortunately, due to the lack of roles titled ‘Health Psychologist’, we have always been encouraged to think outside of the box when job hunting. This meant I was open to any role as long as it allowed me to conduct health research and see my findings have a greater impact on healthcare than typically seen in academic papers. 

During my job search, I was surprised by the number of roles where psychology academics and clinicians could add real value. User Experience Research (UXR) roles stood out as they want people to plan, design and conduct research to uncover people’s needs, motivations and behaviours, present key findings to stakeholders, co-design with end users, and teach and mentor others – all key skills of psychology academics! However, with little past exposure to industry or tech, I was unsure if I would enjoy an industry role. I also did not know how to position my academic experience in a way that would resonate with industry professionals. However, after a couple of months of conducting my own research, asking for informational interviews (informal meetings where you can ask questions about a role – highly recommended!), familiarising myself with the lingo, and reworking my academic CV to fit on one page, I landed a User Researcher role for a digital healthcare company.

We are well positioned to help health innovators ensure their products are evidence-based, leverage behavioural theory, are co-designed with end-users, demonstrate efficacy, and are safe to use.

Whilst it’s been a steep learning curve, moving into industry has been great for me.  I’ve found that my role still includes my favourite aspects of academia, such as leading research with patients and health professionals, analysing data and extracting key insights, and presenting findings to stakeholders. However, my research is more applied, I work at a much faster pace with people from all different professional and cultural backgrounds, and I am also better paid, with a permanent contract and clear opportunities for career progression. Finally, despite my concerns, I have conducted stimulating research projects, with my findings and recommendations improving patient experiences, and even impacting business decisions.

Since my transition, I have realised just how valuable our training and skills are as psychologists to the digital health industry. We are well positioned to help health innovators ensure their products are evidence-based, leverage behavioural theory, are co-designed with end-users, demonstrate efficacy, and are safe to use (as noted by Benedetta Spadaro and colleagues in their 2021 paper, ‘Building the digital mental health ecosystem’). However, despite this clear alignment and industry demand, I’ve noticed few academics and psychologists in industry roles.

I believe a large part of this problem is that universities focus on preparing PhD candidates to pursue academic careers and are less inclined to do this for roles in the private sector. The same can be said for clinical psychology training, which understandably prepares candidates for NHS roles. This not only leads to a lack of exposure, but an innate belief of ‘selling-out’ if you leave academia or the NHS for industry. There is also a belief that industry work does not help people, which is often a key driver for both academic and clinical careers. I also think (as I can relate) that a sunk-cost fallacy is a factor, whereby the sacrifices made to establish a career as an academic or psychologist makes it extremely difficult to consider leaving behind.

What are the risks?

The risk of failing to prepare psychology academics and clinicians for digital healthcare roles is that these are being filled by those without appropriate training (e.g., understanding and intervening in health behaviour, advanced research methods, human ethics, and managing clinical risk). Without this expertise, digital health innovations present an increased chance of negatively impacting the well-being of their users. Indeed, the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps found that only 20% of the 350,000 health apps available to the public meet appropriate safety standards, including Clinical/Professional Assurance, Data and Privacy, and Usability and Accessibility. Of particular concern is the increased public use of mental health apps due to the pressures of the pandemic on mental wellbeing and services, as trained psychologists are not always involved in their development.

Course leaders should leverage relationships with those working in industry positions who can teach industry-relevant topics to students and provide mentoring for those seeking industry roles.

An additional risk of failing to expose academic researchers to industry is that the scarcity of academic roles, coupled with the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ means more people are leaving academia than ever before. If they do not know how desirable and applicable their skills are to a variety of different interesting industry positions, they may leave for roles that do not utilise their advanced scientific thinking and research skills.

What needs to change?

Clearly, it is important that the next generation of psychology students are prepared to take on digital healthcare roles. But how do we do this? Firstly, universities, course leaders and PhD supervisors need to acknowledge that not all students will want to work in academia and start to uphold industry roles as an equally credible and viable career option.

Secondly, whilst advanced knowledge in psychological theory, research, clinical interventions, and experimental design are applicable, PhD students will benefit from access to elective modules to further prepare them for industry roles in digital health (e.g., consultancy skills, design thinking, entrepreneurship in digital health). The diversity of academic departments makes it likely that relevant modules will already exist that course leaders can gain access to for their own students. 

Course leaders should leverage relationships with those working in industry positions who can teach industry-relevant topics to students and provide mentoring for those seeking industry roles. Such relationships could also create opportunities for placements and even post-graduate employment.

Lastly, academic-industry partnerships should be encouraged and publicised across psychology departments. Not only does this cross-collaboration drive innovation, but it can provide people at different stages of their academic career with valuable exposure to industry, which is vital if they wish to make the move in the future. 

About the author

Claire Hamlet is a Health Psychologist and User Researcher. She currently leads user experience research at ORCHA, helping to ensure digital health solutions are safely integrated into health and care services. Outside of work, Claire teaches and mentors social science students and academics for careers in digital health.