Should You Go to Graduate School to Learn UX Design? (Part 1)

Forest Road

Photo credit: Jessica Ivins 

Sarah’s story

A friend of mine, Sarah, is a UX designer who specializes in interaction design and prototyping. Sarah recently asked me if she should go to graduate school for Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

HCI is the study of how people (users) interact with technology. The terms HCI and UX are, for the most part, interchangeable. The term HCI is typically used in academic contexts. The term user experience, or UX, is typically used in industry contexts.

Sarah’s not the only one who asks me if she should go to graduate school to study HCI. Aspiring UX designers often ask me things like,

  • Does a master’s degree in HCI hold more weight than a different degree or diploma?
  • Will I be more marketable with a master’s degree than without one?

These are great questions, but I wasn’t sure how to answer them until recently.

Like many UX designers, I wasn’t formally trained in UX. I didn’t go to graduate school. I learned UX on the job. Of all the UX designers I know, only a few of them have graduate degrees in HCI.

A few weeks before speaking with Sarah, I talked to one of my mentors. I told her that people often ask me, “Should I go to graduate school for HCI?”

I asked my mentor, “How would you respond to that question?” She immediately said, “It depends. What are their goals?”

So I asked Sarah, “What is your goal? Why are you considering grad school?”

Sarah told me she wants to be a well-rounded UX designer. She has experience with coding and prototyping, but she has little experience with user research or UX strategy. She hasn’t led user interviews. She wants to learn the ins and outs of usability testing. She wants to be a leader for her team. “I want to be a resource for a large team,” Sarah told me. “I want to be so well-rounded that I can advise a team when they come to me with UX questions.”

My best advice for Sarah was to work on a team with people who are already doing those things. I told her to shadow those people and learn from them.

Most HCI programs are designed for people with little or no experience in HCI or UX. Because Sarah has experience in the UX field, and because she has many connections in the UX field, grad school didn’t seem to align with her goals.

What is your goal?

If you’re interested in becoming a UX designer or going to graduate school for HCI, first ask yourself: “What is my goal?”

If that question seems too broad, determine what X is in this sentence: “I want to be able to do X upon graduation.”

Do you want to create prototypes and test those prototypes with users? Do you want to specialize in information architecture while working on a large UX team at a large organization? Would you like to be a UX team of one—a person who wears many hats? Do you want to practice UX design at a startup?

Figure out what the X is before you move forward. If you’re not sure what the X is, narrow the X down to two or three things you may want to do.

Knowing your goal(s) will help you determine the appropriate next steps to take on your career path. The next steps could include graduate school or something else.

Consider your location

Before joining Center Centre, I worked for two product companies and three client services organizations (agencies) in the Philadelphia area. None of them required UX designers to have a master’s degree. However, the job market in your area could be different than the Philadelphia area.

Get to know the job market in the area where you live or in the area where you’d like to work. Find UX job listings in that area. Do those jobs require or prefer a master’s degree?

If you’re an aspiring UX designer, I highly recommend attending UX events in your area. (I wrote about this in a previous post, My Advice on Becoming a UX Designer.) While attending, get to know UX designers. Build relationships with them.

As you build relationships with UX designers in your area, ask them if local hiring managers require or prefer master’s degrees.

After building relationships with these UX designers, tell them about your goal. Ask them if they think graduate school is a good option for meeting that goal.

Investigate your industry

Is your goal specific to a certain industry? If yes, conduct research to learn if a degree is required. Let’s say you want to be a UX designer at a large financial institution. Find out if large financial institutions prefer UX designers with master’s degrees.

How to research grad school programs

Like I mentioned before, I didn’t go to grad school for UX design. I don’t have any first-hand experience to share. However, if I were considering a graduate degree in HCI as a path into the UX industry, I would take the following steps.

Ask targeted questions

Before you apply to an HCI master’s program, ask targeted questions about the program. Make sure that you’ll graduate ready to achieve your goal.

Make a list of the HCI programs you’re interested in. Contact each program and ask questions like,

  • I want to do X. How does your program prepare me for X?
  • How does the curriculum and/or project work give me experience in X?
  • How are the program’s projects applicable to real-world projects?
  • Have recent graduates landed jobs doing X? Are you able to share examples? Can you put me in touch with a graduate who is doing something similar to what I want to do?
  • If graduates land jobs doing X, how long do they stay in those jobs?

Project experience

UX hiring managers want UX designers with real-world experience. Hiring managers want to know how you tackle design problems. They want to know how you handle challenging situations. They want to know how you navigate workplace politics, budgets, timelines, and technical constraints to produce a product with the best possible user experience.

Theoretical assignments will teach you tools and methodologies, but theoretical assignments won’t give you real-world experience. Ask the HCI program staff members questions like,

  • What real-world projects, if any, will I work on throughout the program?
  • What type of internships are offered? What type of real-world projects will I work on throughout those internships?

Job placement

While researching HCI programs, ask how many of their recent graduates have UX jobs. Make sure the HCI program has a track record of producing graduates that land jobs—and keep them.

It’s one thing if a graduate lands a job. It’s another thing to keep that job for a year or more. If graduates are landing jobs but not keeping them, that could be a red flag. It could mean that the program’s graduates aren’t prepared for the industry.

By the way, no educational program can guarantee you a job. (Guaranteeing you a job is unethical, and, in many cases, illegal.) It’s up to you to get a job, whether or not you obtain a master’s degree in HCI.

Faculty members

Ask about the faculty. Ask questions like,

  • Who are the program’s instructors?
  • What connections do faculty members have to hiring managers?

If your goal is to work at an agency, ask if the program hires adjunct instructors who work at agencies. Ask if their full-time faculty members have connections to area agencies.

If your goal is to become a professor of HCI, take a close look at the full-time faculty and ask them how they could help you meet that goal.

There’s no prescribed path

There’s no prescribed path for landing a job in user experience. To determine if graduate school is your best path, first determine your goal. Then ask hard questions about whether or not the HCI program will help you meet your goal.

Be sure to compare graduate school options to other options. See my other post, My Advice for Becoming a UX Designer, for my suggestions on landing a job in UX design.

More to come in part 2

Stay tuned for Part 2. I’ll share more recommendations on attending graduate school to learn about UX design.

Disclaimer: I’m a faculty member at Center Centre, a vocational school that prepares students to be industry-ready UX designers. Some of Center Centre’s student applicants also apply to HCI graduate programs.