Sorry I'm late to answer this as well. I absolutely agree with Ashlea :).
I can give you examples from the three different types of experience in UX roles that I've had. The first was more research based, I came into a company for an internship and was put to work on a specific project. I had direction from my manager, but it was very much the beginning ideation phase of a particular solution that would work with an existing product that the company had. So I was working with developers, a product manager, financier and business analyst to try and understand the existing product and the way that it worked, as well as the customers. I completed a competitor analysis both of the existing product and of the particular solution my project was around. I was involved in creating journey maps, a full day workshop with current customers who may also use this solution and also phone calls to overseas customers. This project was a great example of completing research up front as it actually turned out that the larger market in America (where the main audience was thought to be) would actually have no use for this particular solution because it wasn't a problem for them to begin with!
After that project finished, I basically started working with the UX team for RFPs, proof of concepts in terms of designs to win certain projects. This involved a lot of learning around the financial area and insurance in order for me to understand the work area. This was quite fun and different as there was limited time to actually research and involved a lot of quick ideation around the problem we were being asked to solve (if it was actually the correct problem and whether what they were asking for was the best way of going about it), sketching, mood boards, then presentations of the process we took to get to a possible solution. Now this is more agency style as it is what you do to win the proposal. Most of the time your end result isn't what you would go with if you won the proposal, you would do a lot more digging, research, ideation and refining.
My last and current role involves porting an existing product (made with silverlight which is now becoming unsupported) to a web solution - although unfortunately it will have to be able to work alongside the old product until its functionality is completely fleshed out.. As part of this we were involved in a 3 day workshop which prioritised and scoped the features in the current system and mapped them to proposed workflows. We had to become intimately familiar with the existing system and documentation and try to understand the reasons behind some of the functionality and workflow. We've been using Material Design "guidelines" and our devs work with Material Design and Angular in order to create the front end workflow, behaviour and functionality that we design. After the workshop we had a series of interviews with users in order to create personas which we could then incorporate into our user scenarios and even in our UAT scripts and testing. Now we are completing series of sprints where we complete ideation and think through particular features, their workflows and all the touch points in the system, trying to improve them while still tying in with the existing system.
So on a day to day basis I will currently be doing anything from:
- Going through designs with Business Analysts or our testers
- Completing UX reviews of the dev work to date
- Ideating and designing the upcoming work and creating assets that can be handed over to our BA's
- Talking with our product owner around ideas and designs and any questions that get raised
- We work a lot with Jira, which sucks up a lot of my time responding to questions on bug or improvement tickets
Two words I will specifically pick out from what @ASHM said is flexible and fluid! I can't tell you the number of times we have had to quickly iterate on a design solution because something comes out of the wax work that SMEs forgot or were too busy to specifically pick up at the times they were walked through. One thing I'm learning is to pick your battles. You will always have things that you want to fight for to get in, but unfortunately you have to figure out those that will have the best outcome for the user as you won't be able to get them all. The other thing is that UX is a particular hard role as everyone can be a critic. Everyone can look at a design or an idea and give an opinion about it, you are on the front line and have to be good at handling that.
Whew, sorry to write an essay, hope it gives you an idea :).
In terms of your above questions, the best way to get experience I've found is by being immersed in the environment that gives you the learning, whether it is a job or course (although I would suggest job for the experience). So if you don't mind the pay cut, it could be good to look for a job in the area, but you need to be the one who decides what is best for you :).