“I Have a Master’s in UX Design” (Part 3)

Having seen the quirks and the foibles of UX and Grad School, we now ask, “What really is the role of Graduate School in UX education?”

What role, then, does Graduate School play in UX education?!?

To answer that, I looked up some UX research and design folks who weighed in on the question above and asked what they really feel about going to Graduate School for UX. I spoke to one of them while the rest had their views published on a blog post somewhere.

Elizabeth Allen, Ph.D. 

Dr. Allen is from my city, spoke at UX Research Conference Toronto, and tackled The Question with her fellow PhD colleagues at UXPA 2018 in Puerto Rico.

A screenshot of the UXPA 2018 session "Should UXers get a PhD?". Includes a session description and the panelists.
*pines painfully from afar*

I wasn’t at the conference, unfortunately. So when Alec Levin hosted Elizabeth in his online radio show, I jumped at the chance to ask her directly. On air.

Danielle on Twitter

First (successful) call in to #TheUXRShow comes from @jemrosario for @elizallen_: what are your thoughts on getting a PhD as an entryway into UX research? Join the convo & listen here: https://t.co/6pAFxBDMKe

For Elizabeth, the PhD was an opportunity to intensively study something she was truly interested at. She sees her academic training as truly valuable and has helped her become a formidable authority on UX research now that she is an independent consultant.

But it definitely wasn’t a cakewalk. She believes there are serious costs associated with Graduate School and it’s a commitment that should never be underestimated. Unlike the private sector, getting a PhD is like “picking your boss for the next 5-8 years” and you have to stick it out with him/her if you want to complete your entire PhD program.

Elizabeth Allen on Twitter

Thanks @jemrosario for your great Q on #TheUXRShow about my #UXPA2018 panel with @becca_kennedy @amybphd @romanocog @ryaninteractive! https://t.co/hg9q7CBUzj

The Verdict: No regrets going through the PhD. But “you don’t need it” to become an effective UX researcher or designer.

Becca Kennedy, Ph.D.

A few days after Elizabeth’s appearance on Alec’s radio show, her fellow UXPA panelist, Dr. Becca Kennedy, weighed in.

She wrote a longer article about it on UserZoom. Her tl;dr version pulled no punches.

becca kennedy on Twitter

I wrote this article summarizing points from our #UXPA2018 panel with @ryaninteractive @elizallen_ @amybphd & @romanocog! When UX newbies ask about PhD programs I usually say “DON’T DO IT.” It’s… overkill. But it depends! And using academic skills in UX research is valuable! https://t.co/rf07Ql0bDB

Like Elizabeth, she considers the research skills acquired in her PhD incredibly valuable. But she doesn’t hold back on the incredible commitment that’s required to see through the PhD program. Not only is a PhD about your intellectual interest in a specific topic but whether you will thrive in that academic environment. Will you like the new place and the new people, for instance? And while PhD programs tend to be fully funded, the cost of living is a crucial factor to consider as well.

The verdict: It’s valuable, skill-wise. But it can be overkill (for your first UX position). Tread carefully.

Jessica Ivins

Jessica is a UX educator at Jared Spool’s Center Centre, a vocational school dedicated to building the next generation of UX professionals.

The school itself is bucking traditional design education by teaching full-day workshops (to get the theory in) and then have students apply them intensively through REAL projects with REAL businesses for REAL educational and professional impact (and hence a REAL UX portfolio).

She tackled the Graduate School question in a two-part blog post as early as 2015. It still shows up on Twitter every once in a while:

Both blogs argue the need for asking yourself why do you REALLY want to go to Grad School for UX? The ‘really’ bit cannot be understated because inasmuch as Grad School can infuse you with serious skills, the true battlefield is in its application. Part 2, in particular, featured two UX pros who learned on the job and two whose academic training prepared them for the real world. All of them had a Human-Computer Interaction graduate degree.

The verdict: Split decision. Ask instead, “Why do you really want to go to Grad School for UX? What are you REAL goals moving forward?”

Emma Meehan

Emma confesses to having a meandering path towards UX research. She “hated college” until her third year when she discovered some new modules in “Applied Research and Usability”. Life wasn’t the same since.

Her first UX job was as a UX designer before applying to become Intercom’s first UX researcher. She did this despite massive self-doubt about her skills and qualifications. Nevertheless, she persisted. 

So, how can I break into UX research?

My short answer here is “grad school is the quickest way.”

I felt I had a LOT of catching up to do when I first started and learned fast that UX research is not just testing prototypes and customer calls. From deeply understanding the principles behind human behaviour to knowing how to design surveys, it’s meticulous work.

However, as you just read above, there are many successful researchers that are primarily self-taught. Here’s some practical advice for those of you hoping to take that path …

Emma Meehan, “The (Non-Traditional) Way to Break Into UX Research”

From a pure educational standpoint, Emma is convinced that Graduate School is the fastest (and the most credible) way to learn UX research. The structure and rigour of academia ensures that you are conducting research to produce knowledge, an ethos that’s been academia’s mission since time immemorial.

This doesn’t mean, though, that learning UX (in this case, UX research) is impossible. You can still get UX education through books and conferences, although that’s no replacement for that guided, full-time (academic) adventure.

The Verdict: It’s possible to learn UX outside of academia; but it’s also the fastest way to learn UX research (and design) if you’re really in a hurry.

Tom Tullis, Ph.D.

Now we hear from a UX veteran. Dr. Tullis is a UX Research Consultant who was the former Vice President of UX Research at Fidelity Investments. He is the author of Measuring the User Experience and is recognized as one of the foremost voices in UX as we know it. 

Here’s his view on Grad School for UX:

3. Consider an Advanced Degree


This is perhaps a controversial tip. I’ve often been asked whether you need to have an advanced degree to be a successful UX researcher. Certainly I’ve known many people in this field who are very successful and yet don’t have an advanced degree. But I think that having an advanced degree in a relevant field increases the likelihood of your success as a UX researcher, especially in today’s environment.

Tom Tullis, “Five Tips for a Successful Career as a UX Researcher”

It’s important to contextualize Tom’s advice and how his own career progressed as a result of his PhD. Yes, he endorses Grad School for UX especially for a profoundly study-driven practice such as UX Research, but he also acknowledges those who succeeded without it. 

This doesn’t make him a traditionalist who believes that only Graduate Degree holders can succeed in our field. Rather, he is acknowledging the Masters’ or the PhD’s potential to be a differentiator as UX enters its prime.

Here in Toronto, I’ve heard of two companies that have been very explicit about their desire for Masters’ and PhD graduates for their UX roles.

This is unfortunate. But sometimes, companies need that specialized knowledge to be a differentiator. They need people with a hard-earned skillset to break new ground which, for the two companies I’ve mentioned, is critical considering they were consultancies serving high-profile clients in business and government.

As a non-PhD holder, I’m sad that I will never have these companies’ time of day. But I also see why they’d ask for one given the type of work that they do.

The verdict: A Master’s or a PhD is valuable especially for UX research. It can be your ace as UX matures into its prime.

Should UXers Get a PhD, then?

It depends on who you talk to. 

There are supporters and skeptics on this Grad School for UX debate and I’m honestly convinced that it is inconclusive.

But if the portfolio advice industry were to be asked (a.k.a. the people who constantly weigh in on Medium on how to create a UX portfolio), you will learn that it’s all about the experience and the projects, which Grad School may or may not be equipped to give you.

“Design an app for social change.”

An actual assignment in Lee Gingras’
HCI Graduate Program (as Jessica Ivins found out). 

Really? “Design an app for social change”?

Sure, it may be a wicked problem and you have to break it down into its component parts. We know, however, that the real world doesn’t work like that.

Professional UX projects are very defined, problem-wise, and wouldn’t dare tackle something big and nebulous during the ‘paper napkin’ stage (a.k.a. ideation).

Chances are, you’re coming in to a company with a defined product vision and backlog (sprint schedule! user stories! release schedule!) and you were brought in to make it a reality.

This is a case where Graduate School fails to be a formator and errs, instead, on its knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake ethos.

I don’t know whether Graduate School definitively prepares people for UX. But it seems like the School of Hard Knocks fares (slightly) better than formal education when it comes to hiring the girl or guy.

This isn’t to say education is unimportant. Rather, experience ensures that the person’s skills can be a real match with the company’s needs and that the person can be productive from day one.

This was the hardest lesson to learn when I was starting out. Even with 1 or 2 shipped projects under my belt, I was always told they need someone who could “hit the ground running” because, apparently, my existing skills and experience weren’t enough.

In other words, it’s about applying your knowledge than just knowing the damn thing – knowing how versus knowing that.

This union of theory and practice is what every UX education company, outfit, or school should seriously strive for. We live in a profoundly craft-driven discipline that measures expertise through the outcomes and things we make.

It’s not enough for us to know Fitts’ Law. We have to apply Fitts’ Law and bolster that company’s fortunes because of Fitts’ Law.

What should you do?

So if you’re wondering if you should go to Grad School to become a UX practitioner, see if you get experience in the field first before making a decision.

Get a feel for the design process through tiny projects or collaboration opportunities with fellow designers or makers in your city. Dig deeper if you like the work enough.

And once you find that this work is interesting enough for you after practicing and shipping a couple of projects for actual groups and/or companiesdecide if a greater commitment – Grad School or not – is right for you.

Our field is a highly learnable field. Let not a credential tell you otherwise.