I’m reminded of a well-educated friend who has a BS (Bachelor of Science), MS, PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), and MBA who said to me about his formal schooling, “I went to business school to learn that I didn’t need to go to business school.” Having a graduate degree helped me land jobs early in my career. But once I was about three years into my work experience, my master’s degree mattered not at all. Later in my career, my graduate degrees have enabled me to teach. If that’s an aspiration of yours, go for it. But, when it comes to User Experience, no one really needs a graduate degree. However, there are situations in which you might want to earn this credential.
If you’re a working professional and want to change careers to become a UX professional, attending graduate school could help. The Master of Science in User-Centered Design at Brandeis University is for working professionals who have little previous experience in User Experience and want to learn the basics of UX research and design. Students can complete this program by attending school either full time or part time, and it’s completely online. (Full disclosure: I was the primary instructor for the Introduction to User-Centered Design course at Brandeis for two years.) Such courses can help you jump start a career in User Experience or enable you to understand what skills you already have that could translate to a career in User Experience. You can use these programs to build a portfolio of work while continuing to work at your current job. The downside of part-time, online programs is that you won’t build the kind of professional network you would in a full-time program. Changing careers—like most things in life—is more about who you know than what you know. In online programs, you never get to meet the faculty or your fellow students face to face. It’s tough to make lasting connections solely through discussion boards.
If you’re currently a UX designer or researcher and you think you need a master’s degree to get a promotion or receive some other type of acknowledgment at work, I suggest that you explore your motivations. Graduate programs cost time and money. Even a part-time or online program requires tuition and fees that you might not earn back. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that designers with master’s degrees make, on average, 19% more than their colleagues without graduate degrees. While these numbers are dated, even if you round up or look at the earnings of Web developers—which is the next closest job category the BLS tracks—who make 23% more with a master’s degree, you still need to do the math. Would you make more than you’ve spent on graduate school over the lifetime of your career? Maybe, if you can convince your boss to give you a raise or find a job that pays better than the job you’re in.
I had a student at Brandeis who enrolled in the graduate program to prove she could do the job she was already doing. If this sounds like you, double check that you’re not suffering from impostor syndrome, reporting to a boss who doesn’t understand your role, or working for an organization that doesn’t value User Experience. Sometimes the best remedy for feeling undervalued is to move to a new company.