Should You Break into UX with a Master’s Degree?

If the major of your bachelor’s degree isn’t any UX related field such as graphic design or human-computer interaction (HCI), one possible pathway to break into UX is to study HCI in grad school. A good master’s degree in HCI gives you a solid foundation in UX design, some practical experience of working as a UXer for a real client, and a pretty good credential for landing a product design job. That said, grad schools are not a prerequisite for being a UXer. They tend to be expensive and not that easy to get into. Having been a graduate student in HCI, I wanted to give you a glimpse of my experience and help you make an informed decision.

Hard Skills

A good HCI program in grad school walks you through and deep dives into many important aspects of UX, including design thinking, user research, interaction design, visual design, and some fundamentals about user interface programming. It helps you learn UX in a comprehensive and systematic way. While I’d taught myself visual design for years before entering the program, I knew very little about design thinking and user research, so these two parts in the curriculum were really valuable to me.

Soft Skills

Most course projects we needed to complete in our program were group projects, each of which lasted for 3-4 weeks. In the 2nd and 3rd semester, there was also a 7-month capstone project where we were divided into teams to work with real clients to solve real problems.

Group projects required a lot of collaboration, so it was a good opportunity to learn how to navigate team dynamics and communicate with stakeholders. Conflicts could arise, and so we needed to learn how to handle and resolve them.

It was really good that my classmates came from diverse backgrounds, not just computer science or design, but also economics, psychology, humanities etc. Each of us brought different skillsets and perspectives to the table so we could learn from each other. For instance, I’d barely talked to a client before, but in the capstone project, I got to learn how to communicate with the client in a professional setting by observing how my teammates did so.

Career Prospect

Getting a master’s degree in HCI could increase your chances of being hired by the big tech companies like FAANG.

Take a look at the following job ad from Amazon, you’ll see that a bachelor’s or master’s degree in HCI is a preferred qualification.

A job description from Amazon

More importantly, you’ll often can find classmates/alumni who are already working in those tech companies, so it’ll be easier to find out what’s like to be a UXer there and get a referral from them.

High Tuition

If there’s any drawback of going to grad school, it’s probably the cost, which could be up to 50–60K USD. If that’s your goal, plan ahead financially, whether that’s through working for a few years or support from parents. Oftentimes, no scholarship will be provided because these programs are usually taught programs rather than research programs.

Fast-Paced and Highly Intensive

The workload of these programs tend to be heavy. Classes could start pretty early in the morning. I remember in the 2nd semester, 4 days out of a 5-day work week, my classes started at 9am. Considering the fact that I often needed to stay up late to complete projects and assignments, it was pretty common for me to get only 6 hours of sleep. Time management became pretty important.

One mantra I had during that time was stop trying to be perfect. I knew that I was studying with a lot of intelligent classmates in the program and juggling multiple courses. If I could learn something and make small progress everyday, that was already a win for me.

It’s good to know that no matter how amazing the HCI program is, it can’t teach you everything in UX, so keep learning even after you graduate.

If there’s anything I could’ve done better during the program, it’d be job searching, which I didn’t plan well. The program was so intense in the 2nd and 3rd semester. I wanted to do well in my projects so I ended up not allocating enough time to getting my resume and portfolio ready.

Final Thoughts

After weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a master’s degree in HCI, should you decide to submit an application, be prepared to write a statement of purpose, get recommendation letters, save enough for the tuition, and think one step ahead about your career trajectory after the program.

Should you decide not to go to grad school, that’s also fine: plenty of amazing UXers did not do that. In that case, you might want to learn more and gain more experience through online courses, reading books and working for a few more years in the industry.

Author: Simon Li

Designer, coder and animator.

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