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The State of UX Design Education, Part 2: Graduate Degree and Certificate Programs

June 7, 2021

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the state of UX design education. In Part 1, I discussed the role of undergraduate education in User Experience, including a comparison of design versus liberal arts and sciences programs and an examination of bachelor’s degree versus associate’s degree programs. Now, in Part 2, I’ll examine graduate degree and certificate programs and discuss how they might help or hinder a career in User Experience. Watch out for Part 3 next month, in which I’ll look at the future of User Experience and what hard and soft skills will be most in demand.

Needing Versus Wanting: Not the Same Thing

Before we dive into the question of whether UX professionals need a graduate degree, let’s first answer this question: does any professional ever really need a graduate degree? It’s true that some professions do require a master’s degree or the equivalent. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or librarian, you should plan to go to graduate school for your MD (Medicinae Doctor), JD (Juris Doctorate), or MS (Master of Science), respectively. If you want to climb the corporate ladder in business or finance or translate general business skills to a new industry, you’ll likely need an MBA (Master of Business Administration). Bear in mind that these are still edge cases. Most people working in the arts and humanities and many of the sciences have productive, successful careers without graduate degrees.

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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.

PhD Versus Master’s Degree Programs

If you love school and have the luxury of delaying the beginning of your career, if you want to conduct research in an academic setting, or if you want to teach User Experience, graduate school is the right move for you. But you need to choose between a master’s degree or a PhD program. Here are some thoughts to guide you. Completing a PhD program requires that you attend school full time for, on average, four to six years—and sometimes as many as eight years—depending on the program. Most PhD candidates teach while attending classes, conducting research, and writing their thesis. This leaves little time for work, either full-time or part-time. On the plus side, you’d have teaching experience and a research portfolio. This should leave you well positioned to teach at an accredited college or university or to practice UX research or design.

If earning a master’s or PhD checks all your boxes, you must find the program that is the right fit for you. As with undergraduate degree programs, graduate programs can be tough to evaluate. To name just two examples of PhD programs in User Experience, Berkeley offers a PhD in Information Management and Systems, while the University of Washington offers a PhD in Human Centered Design and Engineering.

If you’re interested in a master’s degree program, you’ll have a lot more options and more flexibility, too. However, as with undergraduate programs, you’ll have to decide what degree would be right for you. A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree in the arts, which means you could apply for teaching positions sooner or later in your career. You could get a PhD in art or design, but that’s not necessary for you to teach. Just as with science and humanities PhDs, these programs take time to complete, but might not yield a higher salary for a UX designer than an MFA would. Many great colleges and universities, including School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Vermont College of Fine Arts, offer low-residency MFA programs that are designed for working artists and other design professionals.

Similarly, if you want to complete a master’s degree in human-computer interaction or UX design, many programs offer part-time or online options. You could complete a Masters in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University as a full-time or part-time student, online or in person at campuses in Waltham, Massachusetts, or San Francisco, California. In addition, Bentley’s User Experience Center offers consulting services to local and global clients. Graduate students at Bentley assist with these projects, learn alongside experts, expand their networks, and can list these projects on their resume. Northwestern University offers a Master’s in Information Design and Strategy, with optional online courses. And California College of the Arts offers a two-year, low-residency MBA in Design Strategy, which sounds like my next must-have, totally unnecessary degree.

Other Educational Options

Graduate school might not be right for you for a variety of reasons. But if you still feel that you need formal education in User Experience, you could consider other options. Organizations such as General Assembly and Springboard offer bootcamp-style, immersive courses for career-changers. While still pricey, these programs are cheaper and faster than graduate programs from accredited colleges, and they claim to offer career support and mentoring. Taking this non-traditional route could save you time and money. Plus, you could make valuable network connections. You’ll have instant, curated access to like-minded mentors and colleagues who could be hard to find in an unstructured world. However, I recommend approaching their sales pitches with a healthy dose of skepticism. Remember, their success stories are just that. There’s no room on their Web site for the students who did not land dreamy-sounding job titles with six-figure salaries.

The Nielsen Norman Group offers conferences, courses, and certifications in design and research along with their weekly newsletters and extensive library of articles and videos. Jared Spool’s UIE group has a vast collection of recorded seminars that are available through a subscription. Lynda.com, which is now LinkedIn Learning, claims to offer hundreds of courses and thousands of videos tagged User Experience. I recommend exploring every option before committing. Ask whether your current employer would pay for conferences or courses. Find out whether your company already has a subscription to one or more of these services. Make friends with someone in your organization who is already doing the job you want to do. Ask that person out for coffee and mentoring.

Conclusion

Can you afford to forgo graduate school? Yes. Can you afford to go? That depends. First figure out how to pay for it. If someone else is paying, just say yes. If you’re paying for graduate school out of your own pocket or considering taking out student loans, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. If you’re already a UX professional, don’t assume you need a degree—graduate or otherwise. Even if you’re doing the job without the title or were denied a promotion because you don’t have a degree, don’t assume that’s a “you problem” as my teenagers say. Start searching for an organization that would value your contributions and try not to get caught up in hoop jumping. Don’t pay for an expensive graduate program just to get a bigger paycheck. Your boss might not give you a raise the second you receive your degree anyway. You still might have to leave your current position to realize that bump in salary you’re seeking.

Education is important. I believe it’s the great leveler. I am a life-long learner myself. I wouldn’t be teaching if I didn’t think I was contributing to something worthwhile. But, according to a survey of employers, there is no substitute for professional experience. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce: “Most employers confess that master’s degrees are nice, but they’d simply prefer to hire a candidate with a larger overall professional background than one that is deeper in educational pursuits.”

Changing careers requires changing the way you think about yourself and your previous work experience. It could be just a question of repackaging yourself rather than having to engage in expensive re-education. 

Principal/Founder, Black Pepper

Brookline, Massachusetts, USA

Sarah PagliaccioSarah is Founder and UX Guru at Black Pepper, a digital studio that provides customer research, UX design, and usability consulting services. Sarah designs complex mobile and desktop Web apps for healthcare, financial services, not-for-profit organizations, and higher-education organizations. Her focus is on UX best practices, creating repeatable design patterns, and accessible design solutions that are based on data-driven user research. Sarah researches and writes about bias in artificial intelligence (AI)—harnessing big data and machine learning to improve the UX design process—and Shakespeare. Sarah teaches user-centered design and interaction design at the Brandeis University Rabb School of Graduate Professional Studies and Lesley University College of Art + Design.  Read More

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