Another beginner in need of advice: employment or grad school?

3 Nov 2011 - 5:58pm
4 years ago
4 replies
1421 reads


Sorry to write another one of these beginner's advice threads: I know there are a lot of them and I have read a lot of them. I would still like to try to get some advice pertaining to my specific situation, if that's all right.

I'm a recent graduate from the undergraduate program in cognitive science/HCI at UCSD, which is really a UX research type program with not much emphasis in design or technical development. I have taken some courses in art and an IxD class over at the University of Washington after moving home to Seattle, and would like to move into the more overall design path. 

Ideally I would like to work for a couple years to focus my goals, then go to grad school, but I've been looking for employment for a few months now, without much luck. Admittedly, I have made many of the common mistakes that have been discussed, and I'm trying to do things like tailor my applications to the companies and ask for feedback, etc. Aside from the lack of experience, I am also concerned that my lack of real design training has just let me create things that don't have the so-called essentials, or don't follow modern standards.

So that leads me to my main question: in order to boost my level of experience, should I concentrate on my own projects/trying to get employment, or try to grad school? From people I've talked to, grad school seemed to be a way for them to focus and grow after they already had some experience. I'm also unsure that going to more school would really fulfill the 5+ years of experience that many companies require. Then again, because I am making a little bit of a switch from research to design I'm not sure I have the right skill set to get the kind of experience from a job I want, and applying willy nilly seems like a bad approach. 

Well, I also understand that getting to graduate school isn't any easier than applying for a job, and don't really have any qualms about trying both. I guess my concern is that if I try everything at once I'll end up getting nowhere. I would just like to hear some general opinions on, for example, might my time be better spent in a masters program or working on designing websites for family friends?

By the way, if anyone wants to offer me some feedback on my portfolio, you can find it at I'm working on not getting my feelings hurt. I think I tend to have a problem with focus, so comments on that kind of thing help. 


Janet Shih


4 Nov 2011 - 12:54pm

Hi Janet,

I think it's great that you're even asking this questions. It's realistic, pragmatic, and smart to be concerned. With easy access to knowledge and information, it's a really competitive world, and the typical model of completing all of your education before you start working doesn't work for some people. I'd like to offer you my advice because I was in your situation not that long ago. Without going into my typical long-winded rhetoric, I have two answers for you:


  1. Do both simultaneously. Because spending another 2 to 3 years in graduate school -- full time -- is most likely going to rack up your debt, and steal valuable "real world" experience. Most employers really don't value your educational background -- just that you have at least some. Having an advanced degree gives you a bigger foot to get in the door, but it won't really get you a better position without experience to go with it. Employers want to know that you've worked in teams for real clients and/or developing real products -- which means you understand process, methodologies, jargon, deliverables, communication, etc.
  2. It actually depends on what your long-term and short-term goals are. You have to ask yourself some practical and philosophical questions: Do you want to get ahead in your career faster? Do you want to make more money? What's happiness to you? How soon do you want to buy a house or have a family? Do you mind a temporary schedule of night and weekend classes on top of a full time job? Do you mind being a broke full time student for several more years? Are you willing to risk trouble finding a job due to lack of experience? Is it just passion for your career that drives you? Etc.


But everyone's path is different. I joined the army shortly after high school. When my four year enlistment ended, I went right into an undergraduate program for interactive design. During undergrad, I made sure I did at least several internships and freelanced sporadically. I knew I wanted to go to grad school to expand my skillset, but I also knew that I could learn a lot more working for a fast-paced company. So I put grad school off for just a couple of years. But that gave me some time to research graduate programs. When I decided to go back, I continued to work full time, and found a great program that I could attend in the evenings. It was a bit frustrating because it ate into a lot of my free time. But in retrospect, it wasn't that terrible. With only a thesis left to write, I'm almost finished the program; and I've amassed 5 years of professional experience -- 6 by the time I finish my master's thesis. I'm very comfortable with the path I have taken -- I've diversified my experiences and developed my character. But like I said, it's different for everyone -- different means, personalities, values, etc.

Regarding your interest in adding design to your skillset, in my experience a lot of design is self-taught and independently learned -- often by osmosis. If you can find some kind of internship or employment that at least gets you close to designers from whom you can learn, there's nothing to say that you can't make a shift from specialty to another within an organization.

Hope this helps.

4 Nov 2011 - 2:20pm

Thanks for the reply!

I think your answer makes sense. What I was really concerned about was that continuing education would not really add to the real world experience part, and actually be less of a benefit than the money and time put into it is worth. I would rather spend a few years working first. 

However, from what my recent job hunting experience has been telling me, I'm afraid that the major "cognitive science" doesn't appeal to most companies as someone with proper design background, and will pass me over in favor of others. It's also been hard for me to get positions as developers, since I'm not a CSE major. And as far as I've seen, there aren't many companies that differentiate between UX researchers and designers unless they're larger corporations. So I'm feeling a bit cornered. 

I tend to be the type who would rather focus on one thing at a time (I'm a perfectionist), but I suppose it doesn't hurt in trying to do both at once! 

6 Nov 2011 - 2:36pm

My email reply post didn't seem to work. So I am reposting via the thread:

If your question revolves around money, take a look at UPAs 2011
income stats, it breaks it up quite nicely. Because it is Copyright
info, I do not feel comfortable writing it out, but feel free to
contact me privately and I wills share some of that information with

7 Nov 2011 - 12:28am

This was really interesting and definitely adds some perspective to my situation. It was also interesting to see the gap between genders which is an entirely different thing altogether. 

Thanks for this!

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