learning IxD in school: is a master's degree necessary?

14 Mar 2005 - 10:12pm
11 years ago
3 replies
2668 reads
Meredith Noble

Hi everyone,

I am planning to pursue a career in interaction design and am looking for some
advice about how much master's degrees are valued in industry.

A few questions:

1) Do you look for a master's degree when selecting people for IxD- and
HCI-related jobs at your company?

2) Is a "professional" master's degree (just coursework) looked on just as
highly as a regular master's degree, which includes research?

3) How much does the name of the school matter out in industry?

I've received admission to a Canadian school where I would complete a research
master's in HCI, with coursework and a thesis, as well as admission to a
professional master's program in the U.S. where I'd simply complete coursework.
I'm basically trying to figure out if the (massive) debt I'd incur by taking
the professional master's route would be worthwhile in the long run.

I'd be grateful for any advice/insight you can give me! I haven't been keeping
up with list traffic for the past few months so hopefully I'm not repeating a
past question here. :)

Thanks so much,

Meredith Noble
Engineering Science 0T4 (Comp Eng), University of Toronto
meredith at meredi.com ~ http://www.meredi.com


14 Mar 2005 - 10:56pm
Wendy Fischer

My coments below:

Meredith Noble <ixd at meredi.com> wrote:
1) Do you look for a master's degree when selecting people for IxD- and
HCI-related jobs at your company?

No. I look for people with relevant experience and a suitable knowledge base regarding IxD, HCI and user centered design. A degree in something related is important, but experience and knowledge are most important. Related degrees are CS, Design, Interactive Media, HCI, Symbolic Systems, Psychology, etc. A master's degree is not important.

2) Is a "professional" master's degree (just coursework) looked on just as
highly as a regular master's degree, which includes research?

I believe so. I think it depends on what context you are doing it. I guess I have a professional master's degree, since the program that I studied at was more practical and professional related rather than research and theory oriented. However, I also worked full time while I was studying and didn't have much time to work as an RA and do research. In my spare time, I did have my personal IxD projects and also spent some time polishing school projects. If you were just a student and not working, then I'd say I'd expect you to do some type of research if the opportunity existed in order to get experience. If not, I'd expect you to supplement your school with related IxD activities (internships, projects, jobs) in order to put your education to use and get experience applying what you are learning.

Also, do you want to pursue a PhD at some point? A research oriented masters degree will help you pursue this.

My recommendation is that instead of throwing yourself into grad school after you are done with your bachelors, go get 1-3 years of experience working in Industry so you can decide if you enjoy IxD, technology and want to spend the money on a graduate degree in the field. If you can't get an IxD job, then see about getting another type of entry-level job in the technology sector to get some experience and exposure.

3) How much does the name of the school matter out in industry?

It does matter in some respects. A product design degree from a well known school like Carnegie Mellon or Stanford University will go a lot further in Silicon Valley and help get your foot in the door as opposed to a Master's degree from the infamous Univeristy of Phoenix.

However, your eduation is what you make it. If you are spending large amounts of money and time on a graduate degree, then you should be spending time and investing on internships, networking, your portfolio, research projects, and focusing on everything that will help you land an IxD job in the future, once you complete school. You should look at what career resources the school provides, opportunities for research, networking, how are current students finding jobs, access to industry, etc.

I have a master's degree from a lesser known school with a really good HCI program. The program is really good, but the school has become recently focused on making money and producing students with degrees, as opposed to producing students with degrees that can find jobs quickly. Some students are just studying HCI because it's one of the few programs where they don't have to take too many programming classes and they can take art/design/psychology classes in a School of Computer Science. They think it's a quick way to get a degree in technology and that they can get a job easily once they graduate. Many students did not focus on their development, and now find themselves in debt, and without the proper knowledge, and experience and focus to get an IxD job.

The one thing that I can stress is focus and dedication in order to succeed in your IxD career.

The name of the school that I went to hasn't impeded my finding a job. After 7 years of experience, my experience stands out. My previous experience with supply chain management helped me land an internship with a well known company rather than the name of the school that I went to. I am sure that I was competing with students from Stanford, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon for the internship. If I had a chance to go back, I might have considered going to Stanford or Carnegie Mellon if I had known better, but that's in the past.

>From looking at your website, it looks like you have been accepted and are most excited about Carnegie Mellon. I would say that is a good choice and that you would probably do well in going there. However, just make sure that you get some experience and that you enjoy IxD as a career before you plunk large amounts of cash down for a graduate degree.

15 Mar 2005 - 7:15am
Kevin Cheng

My quickest response is to point you to an article I wrote on my
thoughts after my master's last year.


Kevin Cheng (KC)
OK/Cancel: Interface Your Fears
kc at ok-cancel.com

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15 Mar 2005 - 10:48am
Dan Saffer

Not to be an education and design snob, but a degree in HCI is not a
degree in interaction design. They shouldn't be confused. HCI programs
are usually run out of Computer Science departments, where "design" is
a very different thing than in design schools. The methodology, tools,
and attitude in approaching problems you learn in HCI are not the same
ones you would learn in a design program.

This is not to say that there's no value in an HCI degree or that HCI
graduates aren't doing interaction design work. Obviously there is and
they are. But I think HCI programs are a lot more successful in
training researchers and usability professionals than they are


Dan Saffer
M. Design Candidate, Interaction Design
Carnegie Mellon University

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