“I Have a Master’s in UX Design” (Part 1)

There’s a truism that more education = more opportunities. But does advanced education *really* benefit UX design? Does it really command higher respect and admiration? Or does it lie somewhere else?

A few weeks ago, Chris Govias, Head of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), was in town for a talk on Digital Government.

It was an engaging night where he took on misconceptions about design in government and how the CDS was looking to be a simplifying force for (federal) digital services. He had a very intimate crowd too, which meant questions were flying during and after his Q&A.

I can never forget one girl who lined up after the talk. She was beaming in admiration over the CDS’ work and how she wished every company was doing just that.

And then she said something I couldn’t forget:

“I’m doing a Master’s in UX Design!”

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Live view of me hearing about that Master’s in UX design

I came home pondering that a lot.

More schooling, more opportunities!

There’s a truism that more education means more opportunities. Graduate school has been known as a promotion launchpad and a viable route to getting that corner office, or management position, what have you.

I often wonder if this is applicable in UX design. Sure, there is value in higher education. But when you consider the craft-driven nature of UX work today, does more schooling really equate to more opportunities? Does it equip you to solve a company’s challenges in a practical way? Or is it still experience that does the hard knocks and learning for you?

Me and my insecurities

I graduated New Media Studies and Philosophy not too long ago. It was a program that let me dabble with digital’s academic and practical side, learning the theories behind “digital”, and applying them through code, design, and project management.

You couldn’t ask for a more fulsome application of digital than New Media Studies, and I couldn’t be prouder of the choices I have made as a University of Toronto undergrad. 

But it hasn’t always been that way.

There was a time when I considered ditching Philosophy into something more ‘practical’. A part of me sensed that New Media was going to come down to visual or graphic design and that Philosophy was just too intellectual and impractical to hang my New Media degree on. I was concerned that my lack of visual sense was going to be a liability in the near future, and that Philosophy was not going to help it.

I thought about going into Studio.

So I sat down with my Program Director to ask whether it made sense to be in Studio than in Philosophy.

She encouraged me to stay in Philosophy because she sensed in me this penchant for analysis. She felt that I was someone who asks tough questions about life (in general), and that this would be an asset in the workplace. She said that critical thinking is in such short supply professionally, and that bringing this questioning mindset will ensure that business decisions are taken from “all angles” and decided with “all the facts on the table”.

I was sold.

Since then, I’ve carried my Philosophy background like a badge of honour. It does help me do good UX by questioning assumptions and habits, asking “why” and “what’s the end goal?” whenever I’m in a research session. 

But I still have my doubts. What if I ditched Philosophy for Studio? What kind of designer will I really be? Will I be more visually-oriented? More design school like? More “legitimate” in UX (having been bred in an “art/design school” environment)? Will I have a flashier portfolio, rich in visual design than design thinking (a.k.a. words and sentences like a “real” UX portfolio)? And many, many else.

And then you hear about the Master’s in UX Design.

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Another live feed of me hearing about the Master’s in UX design

A “Master’s” in UX Design

Let’s be clear: Graduate school is a legitimate and valid life decision. The benefits of advanced education cannot be understated and the specialized knowledge you can get from it can be life-changing.

But I’m also skeptical about the benefits of a Master’s or a PhD especially if it is your ticket to that first UX job.

Really, what is the role of advanced education in bringing forth the next generation of technologists and designers? Is it to deepen the foundational knowledge one has acquired during his/her undergrad or professional years (i.e. Grad School’s traditional premise)? Or is it to introduce yourself to a new field you haven’t been in before (a.k.a. Grad School as a hard reset)? 

This isn’t me questioning graduate school or people’s life decisions. It’s about the value of graduate school in UX when there are other options to get the field’s basics. We can certainly debate the effectiveness of these education options (e.g. bootcamps, workshops, certifications, and online classes). But you have to grant that the flexibility of these options in both time and money can be second to none.

Functional Vocabulary

My former boss recently graduated from a Master’s program in Design Strategy. I asked what was her experience and what she got out of it.

She said that the Master’s was a really nice and “enriching” experience personally. It broadened her (already deep) knowledge about design and technology and got her studying things she wouldn’t have done before.

But from a pure career standpoint, “what a Master’s really gives”, she says, is the “jargon” to look at design problems.

So I asked her point blank,

“Would you consider your Master’s to be a pre-requisite in becoming a UX researcher/strategist in our city today?”

And then the solemn declaration…

“I’m not sure…”

She’s skeptical whether her Master’s is a slam dunk requirement to becoming a UX practitioner or design strategist.

But she sees how this can be a qualifying line for a UX strategy role – one that transcends UX “analysis” (a.k.a. “tactical UX research” such as user testing and analytics research) and instead studies futures, business models, and long-term design innovation. 

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I dunno if a Master’s is REALLY NEEDED for that junior UX job.
But the ads ask for it anyway. #shrugs

So if a Master’s seems to be about the “jargon”, then what is its real role in a designer’s employability? Is there a causal relation? Or is it mutually exclusive?

To be continued in Part 2… 

Published by Jem

Jem is a UX practitioner who builds insightful, creative and usable digital experiences. A journalist by trade, he transitioned to digital media upon discovering its power to create compelling (longform) stories that captivate and motivate. Today, he combines both UX research and strategy to design digital experiences that people love.