Is the reality that most UX designers/researchers start in visual/graphic/web design and move into UX?
This varies a lot from market to market. In Minneapolis, where I currently work, the vast majority of "UX designers" have backgrounds in visual design. But:
- As much as anything, this is because there are very few people in this market with a background in UX or HCI.
- "UX designer" roles in this market are almost always hybrid UX/UI roles, where both UX and visual design skills are expected. (And as you've experienced, the visual design aspect is usually emphasized.)
Contrast this with a market like Silicon Valley, where UX without visual design is a much more common phenomenon. This is mostly just a function of the attitudes of companies in that market towards UX.
Does 'design thinking' and process (creative, collaborative) play a significant part of these roles and would you consider it valuable for the role I'd like?
Absolutely. Understanding the design process is not just a significant part of a UX role, it often is the UX role. When I do consulting work, my job is essentially to work with a company to help them learn how to implement the design process into their product development.
Also, there's a third question that you didn't explicitly ask:
Should I go to school for graphic design if I want to become a UX designer?
I don't think so.
You say you want a UX job, with activities like "user research, user testing, user interviews, analytics, mockups, wireframes, working with clients/stakeholders, content hierarchies, contextual inquiries and so on". Which is all well and good, but none of those are graphic design.
I recommend you find a way to develop UX skills, not graphic design skills. This might mean going back to school, or it could mean developing your own portfolio, working with startups, or getting a development job with a focus on user experience features.
You're right that, unfortunately, "some academic background" won't get you too far. A full-fledged graduate degree might get you somewhere, or at worst would get you the right networking opportunities to find a job. But if you're in a market that wants visual design skills, that may not help.
But consider this: if you do go to school for graphic design and get a job that way, it's going to be a job where you are essentially a graphic designer. Don't settle for that.
tl;dr If you want to do UX, do UX. You might not be able to get a "job as a UX designer" right away, but do something that will build up the right skills, not graphic design skills that aren't relevant to what you want to do.
Source: This is more or less exactly what I went through. Academic background in computer science with a focus on HCI, then software engineering work focused on user experience features, then developed a portfolio and did consulting work with startups independently, now currently consulting for a larger company that actually pays me to be a "UX designer" and no one expects me to touch Photoshop. (Which believe me, is a good thing.)