Should You Go to Graduate School to Learn UX Design? (Part 2)

Woman walking through the woods

Photo credit: Jessica Ivins

In part 1 of this series, I encouraged you to determine your goals before committing to a graduate school program. In part 2 below, I share what I’ve learned from speaking with HCI program graduates.

From the Mouths of HCI Graduates

When writing this article, I realized that I had many unanswered questions about HCI graduate school programs. What is the HCI graduate school experience like? How do HCI programs prepare (or not prepare) students for their careers? Are graduates able to apply what they learned in school when they land jobs in the industry?

To answer these questions, I spoke with some of my colleagues in the field who earned master’s degrees in HCI.

Lee Gingras, UX Program Manager

Lee Gingras is a UX program manager at LiquidPlanner in Seattle. She graduated from University of Michigan in 2009 with a master’s degree in HCI.

I met Lee at the Midwest UX Conference in 2012, where she gave a presentation about UX apprenticeships. In that presentation, Lee urged the audience of UX designers to offer UX apprenticeships at their organizations. Lee felt that apprenticeships were the best way for aspiring UX designers to gain experience.

During the presentation, Lee said the projects in her master’s degree program didn’t fully prepare her for the UX industry. One of her assignments in graduate school was: “Design an app that inspires social change.”

I agree with Lee. I can see how projects like these wouldn’t prepare students for the industry. UX designers tackle specific design challenges with defined constraints. I can’t imagine a client or product manager asking you to solve a nebulous problem like “inspire social change.”

Recently, I asked Lee to tell me more about her graduate school projects. Lee told me:

[The university] did the best they could to give projects with real stakeholders. There were no [project] constraints… the sky was the the limit. As design students, we were working together to design a theoretical thing. There were no realistic implementation challenges or budget constraints. We didn’t even cover soft skills.

When Lee graduated, she realized that she wasn’t prepared to work with clients:

I did a few contracts where I was the only designer. I felt so lost. I didn’t have the skills to know what constraints were. I didn’t have the skills to be client-facing. We didn’t do any client projects in grad school. Getting on the phone with a client and defending your design with someone who’s not a professor—that was really scary.

However, Lee went on to say that her internship experience was invaluable:

The best part of the program was that I had a few internships. Internships gave me an idea of the job I wanted. They gave me an idea of how to look for something that would be a good environment for me. I wanted a job where I had people I could learn from. I didn’t want a job where I was going to be the only UX person or the first UX person.

Lee also said she was lucky to land a full-time position at an organization that trained her:

I got lucky. I was hired out of school by Christina York. We worked together at Ithaka. Christina is very smart, and she was an excellent mentor. I learned all my soft skills from her. She taught me practical, real-life UX. She knew I just came out of school. She knew I didn’t have all the capabilities. She hired me knowing that.

Alla Zollers, UX Coach

Alla Zollers is a leadership coach and UX designer in Oakland, CA. In 2005, Alla earned her master’s degree in HCI from Indiana University Bloomington.

“I didn’t learn very much in grad school that helped me. I learned everything on the job,” Alla told me. “I literally learned it on the job. I made a lot of errors. Then I read a lot of blogs like A List Apart and Boxes and Arrows. I figured it out.”

 Like many people, Alla struggled to learn soft skills once she was working in the industry:

The biggest challenge for me was interpersonal skills. It’s taken me years to figure out how to work well, how to communicate, and what battles to pick. Academia doesn’t prepare you for that.

I asked Alla, “If you could go back and do it all over again, would you go to grad school? Or would you do something else?”

I would get an internship and start building a portfolio. I have interns now who are in college. I tell them to do projects for free. I tell them, ‘Do projects for your cousin or your aunt. Do all the steps of the project, document it, and build it out. Do the research, do the IA [information architecture], and iterate on it. Do it in your spare time.’

Like me, Alla’s a big fan of reading UX books to learn the craft. “Read all the UX books you can,” Alla said. “They’re practical. They’re out there.”

Lee and Alla didn’t feel fully prepared for industry challenges when they graduated. Kaarin Hoff and Whitney Hess, however, talked about how their graduate school experiences paved the way for their careers.

Kaarin Hoff, Information Architect

Kaarin Hoff is an information architect at The Understanding Group (TUG) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She earned her master’s in HCI from the School of Information at University of Michigan in 2013.

Kaarin spoke very highly of what she learned in her graduate school program and of the people she met in the program:

School is an amazing opportunity to be committed and immersed. You’re surrounded by all these people who are equally nerdy and obsessed. You get to talk for hours about amazing subjects. I was surrounded by people making this a priority in their life. It was a huge blessing.

I asked Kaarin what skills she learned in graduate school that she applies on the job. “I learned user research, usability testing, and all sorts of best practices,” she said. “Best practices were baked into every class.”

Kaarin learned many other things that she still applies on the job. “I learned how your eyes move through the page and how your brain works fundamentally. I use those things every day.”

Kaarin landed a UX job through the HCI program. Dan Klyn, who works with Kaarin at TUG, teaches an Information Architecture course that Kaarin took while she was a student. Kaarin interned at TUG, and before she graduated, TUG offered Kaarin a full-time job.

Whitney Hess, User Experience Coach

Whitney Hess is a user experience coach and personal development coach in San Diego, CA. Whitney earned her master’s in HCI from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004.

Whitney and I were unable to coordinate an interview while I was working on this article. However, Whitney talked about her graduate school experience in her interview with the The UX Intern podcast in February 2014.

Wesley Noble, host of The UX Intern podcast, asked Whitney what she got out of her graduate degree program. Whitney responded:

Everything. I got everything out of it. Yes, it is totally possible and very likely to have a successful career in this field without a formal education. The vast, vast majority of people in user experience don’t have some kind of HCI background or related education.

Whitney went on to say what made her experience so valuable:

I was able to do projects in the ideal way… in an academic environment, not with all the business constraints, with a tremendous amount of freedom and support.

I [learned] a certain way of thinking about the work we do, a certain philosophy that underpins why we care so much about taking care of our customers, and why we care so much about an iterative design process. The why behind all of it just really got drilled in. That has supported me in all of the work that I’ve done since.

Whitney explained how her graduate school experience prepared her for her career:

Even though I didn’t have any experience when I graduated from school, when I was in my first job, I had that philosophy. I knew what my purpose was. And I totally attribute that to Carnegie Mellon’s HCI program.

What are Your Goals?

Some of the UX designers I interviewed have mixed feelings about their graduate school experience. Others said that graduate school was a tremendous experience that laid the foundation for their careers. 

Like I said in part 1, determine your goal, then ask yourself if graduate school is your best path for achieving that goal. If you decide to pursue grad school, ask hard questions about whether or not an 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. 

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.