Complete a PhD while working fulltime? Challenge accepted!
Working and studying simultaneously is no easy feat, but that didn’t stop UX architect Dejan Ulcej from taking on this challenge! We asked him a few questions about his experience of balancing his PhD and job at trivago.
Tell us your story! How did you end up at trivago and what is your current role?
Before joining trivago, I was working as a design freelancer and had a small design and development agency with my colleague. I was also doing my PhD in social sciences at the University of Ljubljana, so I was already working and studying. However, I’ve always wanted to work in an international company and have a global impact, so when I saw an open position for a designer at trivago, I decided to apply. I joined without any specific plan on how long I wanted to stay. Now after 5 years of being here, I am a UX Architect in the Hotel Search team and a talent lead.
How did you approach trivago with the fact that you want to do your PhD while working here?
At first, I thought that I could write the theoretical part in Germany (during the weekends) and do the research part in Slovenia. But then one day I realised that I wanted to stay here in Düsseldorf and focus on the projects I had, which would leave me less time to go back to Slovenia. I had to rethink the whole PhD plan. So, I immediately started talking to the user research team about possibilities to do research here, at trivago and with trivago talents instead of in Slovenia.
For my research, I needed the support of psychologists – and we have some good ones at trivago. My key research method was experiment, which I have never done before and which required a concrete research plan. I introduced the idea to my mentors (Dr. Svete and Dr. Podlesek), to my leads, to the Talents and Culture (HR) team, spoke again with the researchers… and they all agreed. Since this was the first time that somebody was asking to do experiments in the company, some of my colleagues seriously thought that I was kidding. But in the end, they were all very helpful and supportive!
How did trivago help you with resources to finish your PhD?
Signing the NDA with the company was the first thing I did, since my research involved employees and company’s inventory. After that, I approached our user research team again to “borrow” the lab where I could do my experiments and QA team to get the devices I needed. Psychologists also gave me some very good tips on how to run experiments, so that I wouldn’t scare participants or miss an opportunity to get reliable data from measuring. One colleague from the software engineering team helped me to build a website that I designed for the purpose of research. I really tried to do the whole research in a way that nobody would be blocked by me.
When everything was ready, I started inviting team leads. 72 randomly selected team leads of that time joined the experiment. They sacrificed their lunch time, morning coffee or gym-time after work, just to help me to get the data. The response was really good, some of them even asked if they can join. Some because of curiosity, some probably because of the coffee I gave to every participant as a reward for their time and effort! After getting the data, a colleague of mine helped me with the statistical analysis. As I’m a designer, that was another level of learning for me. I have to say that support from my fellow talents was amazing – they were all so efficient and passionate about everything. That was very motivating for me! So, looking back… the main help came from trivago talents.
How was it to balance your work and study?
It didn’t work well from the beginning. It was challenging to do anything over the weekends because writing a PhD thesis requires time and focus. Once I managed to focus, it was already Sunday evening. So I decided to take 3 or 4 weeks off and just sit, read and write. I organised my own Kanban board at home to track my progress… It probably sounds weird, but it helped me to stay motivated. When one chapter was done, it felt like a small victory to move that post-it from “In progress” to the “Done” stage. In those times I also didn’t socialise much. My girlfriend showed a lot of patience with me, so I had good support at home as well. After the thesis was written, it felt like starting a new life. But taking days off, focusing and getting things done was definitely a good idea. However, I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for trivago’s flexibility regarding taking time off.
Which learnings did you take from your PhD that has helped you in your role at trivago?
Well, the PhD was about information visualization, so that knowledge always helps in designing data. Maybe the more important one was patience. Being patient. After all, finishing my PhD took me some years. Sometimes I wanted to finish things too fast… like write a chapter fast or just be happy with the results of the first analysis. But then I had to admit to myself that the outcome was not good enough. A chapter could be better if I had more sources, results would be more significant if I did more measuring, and so on.
Patience helped me to reconsider things, consolidate thoughts, make better decisions, get more objective results – it helped me to deliver a better outcome. So, that brings me to another learning – how to stay objective and be more honest with yourself. Scientific methods and statistical analysis forced me to follow certain rules and criteria. If I ignored them, my results would be incorrect and conclusions wrong. No patience, no objectivity, bad outcome. I try to use that experience now with the AB testing at trivago. So I guess I could say that PhD helped me to understand some of our core values even better, especially the power of proof.
Thanks for sharing your inspiring story and learnings with us Dejan! It’s great to hear that you’re able to apply the experience you gained through your PhD in your daily work and that you felt supported along the way. Our philosophy is to always want to learn more, create more, experience more and your story is a prime example of this! 🙌🏻