Opinions sought - is it really worth finishing grad school?

15 Jul 2013 - 2:19pm
34 weeks ago
21 replies
4224 reads
jcharles00
2013

Hello folks,

I'm thinking aloud here, and wanted to hear some other opinions..

I'm an MFA Interaction Design graduate student doing my first internship as a UX designer. One of our clients planted a seed in my head that maybe I shouldn't finish my graduate program and just get into the job market, and that seed has taken root. 

There are lots of messy details as to my background and why I'm considering this, but I'll bench those for the time being. suffice to say, my current resume says I have undergrads in Computer Technology and Communication, worked in IT as a content manager / technologist for 12 years, and can do lots of user evaluation, cognitive science and visual design "stuff". I have fluency in entrepreneurship/business and consumer science, but no work experience there. I'm also 35 and have "life experience".

Is there a case for finishing the MFA? What is it? Why/Why not? Would love to hear from folks with more real world / industry experience than I. 

Comments

15 Jul 2013 - 3:26pm
philipbrook
2008

Finish the program: puts a marker in your life; shows the world you formalised a change in direction rather than drifted into a new role; equips you with a theoretical and critical underpinning to your practice; affords you a lifelong network of like-minded people.

Work will be there when you leave. It'll be harder to go back and finish in 10 years when you nurse regrets.

15 Jul 2013 - 6:56pm
jcharles00
2013

Hey Philip, thanks for the feed back! Could you answer some questions to clarify your position?

Why do I need to show the world a formalized change in direction? Do you think evidence of a topical lexicon (demonstrated in portfolio and conversation) doesn't show that enough?

One of the things I've found on the job is that, at least in this position, almost all of my work is theorical and critical - it's the main thing, not an underpinning. I get that from reading, doing and .. thinking. Not much of that in academia.. they just care that I did 300 sketches and that my black is no more than 70%.  (although I did have one great critical theory class.. that instructor didn't get her tenure.. go figure)

Could you elaborate on the lifelong network? I already do a fair amount of networking across industries. I really enjoy conferences and go to a lot of them in various fields. (industrial design, design research and UX in the past year)  What does degree completion offer in this area that I'm not already getting?

I definitely understand regrets.. they are hard to predict. Right now I'm regretting that I have been in academia for the past 15 years, and not out in the field learning things that matter. :/

17 Jul 2013 - 2:10am
philipbrook
2008

I think you asked the questions because you know the answers but need a sounding board.

Employers like to see you finish what you started otherwise you may be seen as a dropout or lacking in commitment to finish.

University/college networks differ from work networks. The shared toil and cameraderie is different.

Be patient about the learning. Things that appear irrelevant or absurd often bring dividends later. 

There's a model of decision making (I forget who said it); how would you feel in 10 mins, 10 days, 10 months, 10 years.

18 Jul 2013 - 12:08pm
jcharles00
2013

I don't know the answers.. but I have heard all the dogma. I'm seeing the huge disconnect between academics and industry, and I'm also seeing a disconnect in the "wisdom" that gets repeated and the way things really work. thats why I'm trying to go a little further down the rabbit hole with this. 

Thanks for the replies. :)

15 Jul 2013 - 3:26pm
philipbrook
2008

Finish the program: puts a marker in your life; shows the world you formalised a change in direction rather than drifted into a new role; equips you with a theoretical and critical underpinning to your practice; affords you a lifelong network of like-minded people.

Work will be there when you leave. It'll be harder to go back and finish in 10 years when you nurse regrets.

15 Jul 2013 - 3:40pm
eriklevitch
2008

What if your current employer offered you a full-time job? Would you take it? Would you go back to school to finish your degree? 

15 Jul 2013 - 3:54pm
jcharles00
2013

Erik - I don't know if I would take it if offered. Indifference is based on location - I'm 5000 miles from my upside-down mortgage at the moment. 

If I did take a job right now, it's not like I'm just deferring education. I don't think I'd ever go back. I don't really have aspirations to teach, and the feeling I'm getting is that if my skills don't speak for themselves enough for an employer to hire me, it's probably not a place I want to be. I could be wrong though.. 

15 Jul 2013 - 3:59pm
Wendy Fischer
2004

I did the same thing but ultimately went back and finished my graduate degree 4 years after (I wasn't that far from completing, about 4 classes).

Completing a graduate dgree is a epoch in your life. Completing it makes you look well rounded and makes you look like you follow through and complete things. Having the degree affords you a network, affords your peers to respects you because you have something they aspire too and something that took you a lot of time (and money). Once you complete that degree, it can afford you a potential salary increase, as opposed to a lower salary since you didn't finish the degree.

A very senior art director at Excite@Home look at my resume before I went back to school to finish my degree and basically said, "you didn't finish your degree. I wouldn't hire you because it shows you don't follow through and complete things."

Jobs are there and will always be there. Completing your degree is a once in a lifetime thing. Most likely you won't get another graduate degree. You could always work full time and go to school part time. If the employer wants you that bad, negotiate with them and get for them to pay for your degree.  I think the only thing that would stop me would be an enormous opportunity, like  a FB or Twitter, and I'd really have to think hard about something like that.

15 Jul 2013 - 4:18pm
jcharles00
2013

Interesting. So what was the tipping point that made you decide to go back? Did finishing it get you what you were looking for?

This is the second response that mentions that a grad degree gets you a network. What does that mean? 

Is there really a salary increase? I mean, did you see one from not having the grad degree to getting it? I am definitely of limited data points, but from what I'm seeing out here on the West Coast, the degree isn't necessarily the main motivator for salary. Similarly, I used to think that you had to have a degree in the field (whether thats IxD, cognitive science, "design" or whatever) to get a job in that field.. but I'm seeing that it's not really the case. at least not all the time. 

Getting employer funded isn't a bad idea. I will keep that in mind. one of the things I've been kicking around is maybe trying to do the remainder of my program at a distance. all I really have left is my thesis, but because it's an MFA, I have to create a gallery show as a part of it, and it's kind of time consuming / location dependent. trying it at distance is probably the best choice if I were to actually complete it though.. I am guessing it would be a major pain to try and transfer a whole program worth of credits over to a new school. 

15 Jul 2013 - 5:20pm
eriklevitch
2008

Getting a graduate degree is fine, but don't expect too much from it (as with many things in life). 

16 Jul 2013 - 1:10pm
Wendy Fischer
2004

The main tipping point? The dotcom bust and watching the Excite@home Titanic go down.

As things were getting bad, I decided to go part time and finish my degree. I had transferred some courses back to DePaul University that I had taken out in SF. I had to take my capstone class, and that meant flying back to Chicago once a week to take it and work with my advisor on my thesis.   I think overall finishing my degree came me a sense of completeness. It was something that had been open in my life that needed closure.

A graduate degree is a choice, it's not a guarantee that you will get a salary raise or a promotion. I did go back to school because I had an art degree, and wasn't happy with what I was doing, working as an admin assistant. I orignally went to get an MBA in marketing, hated it, and then looked around and saw the HCI program at DePaul University had just started. I had just started a job doing marketing/technology stuff and wanted to get in a program that I could leverage my design background and make more money and have more fun. At that time, I wanted to do multimedia design on CD Roms. Obviously that's a blockbuster business these days :P.

Since I didn't do any interships in undergrad, I made every attempt in graduate school to get the experience I needed, which meant moving out to California, working for peoplesoft for a year as an intern, and then staying out here to work as a ux designer during the dotcom boom. Even though I originally wanted to do art direction and graphic design, my interest and ability and degree lay more in the direction of usability and user experience, and things just fell that way. I feel blessed that I chose my degree at the right time in the right field and things fell the way that they did, and that it eventually permitted me to get into mobile user experience design. I think my degree had opened doors to me, it afforded me a network, and opportunities I would not have gotten considering my prior undergrad degree and experience. It's kind of what you make of it.

 

16 Jul 2013 - 8:32pm
jaxxon
2010

I really hate to say it, but I no longer condone paying for an education in design (graphic, ux/ui, web, etc.) or software development. It's a really sad state of affairs. Tuition is simply too high and student loans are a dangerous prospect.

My advice to students out of high school at this point is this: get a cheap education at a two year college and study communication, basic sciences, math, writing, etc. and explore your interests. After that? Get paid to learn!

Let's say you want to go into web design and development. Don't pay a university (nor even an online program) to learn. Find your first client. For example, go to your local farmers market and find a booth that needs a web site. Offer to do it for them for free, or in trade for veggies or for a couple hundred in cash. Buy a book, search free online tutorials, etc. Take however long you need to learn the skills necessary to complete the job. Then, you've got something for your portfolio and you can go from there. $400 for the next one. More advanced functionality. Etc. etc.

I'd extend this approach all the way up the line to advanced IxD. Why pay someone else to teach you something that's already obsolete by the time you learn it when you can get PAID to learn more current and relevant things now? When I was an undergrad at my university, I knew more than the professor in my field. I ended up teaching grad level courses as an undergrad. Why? Because I had already immersed myself in design and computer graphics on my own before I went to school. I was already ahead of the people who were supposedly there to teach the stuff.

Also, I'd argue that hiring managers that care about a degree are a dying breed. The CEO at our startup has a degree from MIT, so he cares a tiny bit because he comes from a generation where that mattered. But these days, a degree is a nice-to-have and not nearly as important as experience. So is that degree worth the time and $$$$$$? I'd argue not at all. There's no substitute for experience -- which you can get paid to gain!

Again, it's a terribly sad statement that we are at this place in our education system now, but we're here. Hope this helps any aspiring designers out there who are debating the question for themselves. My 2 cents.

17 Jul 2013 - 6:45am
Sean Pook
2008

I'm going to play devil's advocate. As a UX recruiter I can't emphasize enough the value employers place on commercial experience over academics, and the UX industry is terribly difficult to transition from academia to the commercial world. I've known folks with good degrees to have waited years for the right company to come along and hire them. Just do a search for graduate interaction designer - you can count the jobs on one hand.

Finishing your degree is important, but if you're career focussed and you get a great opportunity to join a reputable firm in the IxD or UX field, grab it with both hands, bite it, hand cuff yourself to it - don't let it go. With 2 years commercial experience you're safe and can apply for most mid-weight positions. 

 

Put it this way - a UX designer with 2 years commercial experience and a half finished degree will have so many more options than a graduate without that experience. You can always finish your studies later or do them part time. Just my two cents.

17 Jul 2013 - 12:39pm
Joel Eden
2006

Lots of great advice so far, but one thing I don't think I saw (from scanning the responses) is simply do both. Why do you have to choose school or "real world?" It can be tough, but that's what makes great things worth working hard for. I worked full time in the UX field while getting a PhD (as a part time student), over 5 years, while my wife and I had our first 2 kids...that's a lot of crazy packed in 5 years. It's a lot to do school and work at the same time, but I also think you get a great perspective, mixing the work and academic perspectives at the same time. It can suck while you're going through it, but it feels great once you're done (school).

17 Jul 2013 - 3:39pm
Wendy Fischer
2004

Sean, I'd play devil's advocate  to your devil's advocate and say that employers want both, the degree and the experience. Particularly when you get to the senior levels, two people, one with the experience and one with the experience and the degree, the degreed person will win out.

I think Jcharles could do both, maybe work full time and go to school part time. However, with an MFA, it's creative, intensive and most MFA program that i know of require more of a full-time commitment than a similar MS program, because you are expected to be in the studio working on your 'art' and conducting research, etc. Most MFA programs are a 3 year full-time commitment. I'd say take your time, jobs aren't going anywhere; make an investment in what you are doing and finish because it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, given that most MFA programs are competitive to get into. Do the internships and get experience, but finish. When you are done, you have that degree; if you want to teach, go teach. Focus on making art, not money, because you won't get that chance again.

 

Wendy

 

18 Jul 2013 - 5:22am
Sean Pook
2008

Well played Wendy, is that technically an Angel's advocate? Very apt for you :-)

With all things being absolutely equal, then yes the degree can be the deciding factor, but I often see education getting less and less important as one climbs the career ladder. At UX Director level for example there are so many other deciding factors that would be considered before the fact that the candidate didn't finish his/her degree came into play. However this varies from company to company and it's true that I have worked with one or two firms (only one or two though) that have a strict HR policy of only hiring University/college graduates regardless of how talented or experienced the candidate is.

But yes, if the OP can, do both for sure.

18 Jul 2013 - 11:37am
Wendy Fischer
2004

touche.

I think having a basic university education helps in regards to hiring professionals, I don't think people need to have graduate degrees, but if JCharles has already started one and is well into it, then finish it.

I think there are certain aspects of our profession that necessitate a degree. I prefer researchers who have significant research experience, preferably gathered from doing research at the graduate level. The best quantitative people come from this aspect. However, my best qualitative researcher I've worked with had an english degree, and worked up through the ranks at Intuit and learned usability testing through doing and observation by working with the best people, and she found she had an aptitude for it.

I have experiencee very philosophical and esoteric designers who think a lot and approach design differently than others. I find these people have graduate degrees and have gone though some type of program that really causes them to think philosophical and esoterically deep thoughts about design.

18 Jul 2013 - 11:38am
jcharles00
2013

Thanks for the advice guys. I appreciate it. 

I am actually already doing grad school while working, but the work isn't related to my education, so it's not all that helpful. (I have to work because I'm stuck in a mortgage and have to make payments) I'm trying to find somewhere local to my university that will take me in for UX or IxD, but I'm not finding a whole lot going on in Indiana.. at least companies that would hire me without 4+ years of experience.. 

I think that's a little bit where this whole question has stemmed from. I think I could get a full time job here in San Diego. I have made some good connections through work, and in general the requirements like the degree you have and time in the field seem a little more lax than back home. At school, no one in my program has real ties with industry.. We've only had two grads so far and they went far away for work. If my university was out here, everything would be peachy and I'd just do both. but it's not, so I have to improvise.

 

18 Jul 2013 - 5:12pm
Ed Rice
2008

I got an MS (in Indiana). It was one the best experiences of my life. I finished when I was 32 and I've got a great job. But it wasn't about getting a job, although most of my classmates had no problems getting them, it was about the thinking. Without the pressure of clients and users, there's an opportunity for a different kind of thinking. Not better, just different. My professor weren't managers, they were scholars and thought leaders. But that's me. I don't know if you should finish or not. I know it was the right decision for me, but I'm not sure it is for you. 

About Indiana, I'm from Indianapolis, there's not much there. I live in NYC. Good luck. 

18 Jul 2013 - 7:38pm
jcharles00
2013

Hey Ed,

I definitely can see the idea of having time to thinking and experiment.. and maybe thats my issue - because I'm working so much, I _don't_ have time for all of that. I find that I am generally just shuffling through, struggling to get stuff done. I've had so much more time.. in general, since I've been working this internship full time. I wish I could go back to a time before debt and dumb decisions and do things a better way, but it's not an option. 

I suppose it's good to hear another opinion on work in Indiana. bummer that it's a negative one! 

30 Nov 2013 - 3:37am
joshigrv
2013

I'm an engineering dropout. And i don't like the fact. The fact that I'm a design Aspirant and Electronics Engineering went too hardcore for what i could manage makes it a decent enough excuse. But a design aspirant dropping out on design education doesn't make any sense to me. I'm aspiring to do MFA in IxD myself and i will go through a distance learning bachelor's program just for that sake now.
From where i stand, i just wish i could take up a master's course... there is so much to learn and experiment.

Even though there are disconnects in Industry & Education but that is the very thing that build perspective.

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