How to choose a UX Master’s Program Things to consider based on roads I’ve taken

UX Master's program

It’s not a secret that UX is a booming field. Many people want to break into the this area and the first questions they ask tend to be: “Should I get a degree?”, “Which program?”

I asked myself these questions after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business (Taiwan, 2010) and ended up collecting two Master’s Degrees in UX Design along the way — Master of Design for Interaction (DFI) at TU Delft (Netherlands, 2011–2013) and Master of Human-Computer Interaction and Design (MHCID) at University of Washington (USA, 2015–2016).

This article intends to explain my rationale behind my school selection as well as some reflection on my experience. I thought that some aspiring designers out there might be inspired by the road someone else has taken.

Do I need a UX Master’s Degree to break into UX?

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

I assume that most people reading this do NOT have an academic background in UX. If I have to speak in all honesty, I don’t think a UX degree is “required” to break into UX. In fact, I believe that many UX skills can be self-taught and everyone can have a UX mindset regardless of roles and levels.

The benefit of getting a UX degree though, is it “makes the transition process easier.” Imagine any of the following situations:

  • You haven’t built a design portfolio

  • You haven’t built up credibility in UX to get a job or take client work

  • You know no one in the field

  • (For international students) You haven’t lived in the country

  • (For international students) You haven’t mastered a local language

  • (For international students) You have no valid working visa

Before attending my first Master’s Program, I checked off almost every item on this list. In my case, school created enough time and supportive space for me to “soft-land” in an unfamiliar territory. It paved a way that was less daunting and set up goals that were immediately actionable.

What to consider when picking a UX Master’s Program?

Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the decision right. — Phil McGraw

I started with researching all options. I only looked into English programs because English is my only second language. Top 50 Best Value UX Design Graduate Programs by Value Colleges and A Global List of UX-related Bachelor & Master Degrees by UX Mastery are good starting points. Additionally, at the end of this article, I include a hand-picked list of UX Master’s Programs according to the overall impression I got in the industry.

What follows is the criteria I used to weigh the pros and cons of each school:

Expense

Namely, how much money do I need to spend to get this degree? This includes the tuition, cost of living and miscellaneous fees. (See the list at the end of this article to get a general sense.)

Job prospect

This should be evaluated together with the expense. It’s easy to get hung up on the initial cost without thinking through the potential return. For example, the cost of a degree in the U.S. tends to be significantly higher than other places. However, the median income of a UX professional and UX job opportunities are much more in the U.S. than other places, too. I personally can save 3–5 times as much money (after deducting tax and cost of living) working in the U.S. than in the Netherlands.

Length

Most UX Master’s Programs last for 2 years, while a few are consolidated into 1 year. Some prefer a 1 year program because the overall expense is typically less than a 2 year program. Others prefer a 2 year program because it will offer more time to learn and build up a portfolio. Plus, there will be summer internship opportunities, which can be a critical step before finding a full-time job.

My first 2-year Master at TU Delft was intense. I spent almost all my time on assignments and to just “absorb” what teachers taught me in class. I did an internship in summer and went through a solid 6-month individual capstone project with a design agency in Amsterdam. I can’t imagine if I were to take a shorter program, because there wouldn’t be enough time to learn.

On the contrary, after the first Master and a few years of working experience, I had a much better control on my second 1-year Master at UW. Although it was still a super busy year with lots of assignments and group work, I was able to have some leeway to work on “personal projects” outside of school. This time I felt 1 year was more than enough to boost my career.

School/program reputation

If you graduate from a Master’s Program, the name of the program will very likely appear on your resume forever. A reputable school/program will not only do you a favor when it comes to job searching, but also open up access to a strong alumni network for many years to come.

Class size

I only realized the effect of the class size through the comparison of my two Masters. I had 60–70 classmates in my year at TU Delft DFI, while there were only 36 cohorts in my year at UW MHCID. It’s obvious that people in a bigger class tend to form cliques based on the existing network, while a smaller class create opportunities for people to get to know each other and develop closer relationships. I personally prefer the latter experience.

The curriculum

UX overlaps with a wide variety of fields, such as psychology, ergonomic, computer science, graphic design, etc. Generally speaking, most of UX programs aim for breadth instead of depth, because 1–2 years is just not enough time to go too deep. In addition, one shouldn’t expect that a Master’s Program teach you cutting-edge design techniques because those things are constantly changing. The value of a Master should be about research disciplines and the ways of thinking.

It’s worth noting that different programs might have different focuses due to the program’s history. For instance, Berkeley skews toward academic research while UW structures more for industry professionals. CMU is well-known for its tech-driven culture, while TU Delft (or other European programs) highly values human-centered approaches.

Location

The location of the school will determine the benefits you can get outside of the school. For example, studying in a tech hub (Bay Area or Seattle) will guarantee more UX events, networking, internship, mentorship and even job opportunities. Alternatively, studying in the center of Europe (e.g. the Netherlands) will expose one to new culture, experiences and more opportunities to travel.

Post-graduation work visa

This is super critical for international students who want to work in a foreign country after graduation. In both Europe and the U.S., it’s much easier for people with a local degree to stay and work than it is for people without a local degree according to the immigration policy.

For example, the Netherlands offers an “Orientation Year” visa and the U.S. provides an “Optional Practical Training (OPT)” visa for graduates to work in the country for a year without work visa sponsorship from employers. This significantly lowers employers’ barrier to hiring foreigners. Note that in the U.S., if your program belongs to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), your OPT visa can potentially be extended to 3 years! Make sure to double check with prospective programs if they belong to STEM or not.

Regarding working in the U.S., the most commonly asked question was “Can I directly apply for jobs in the U.S. without a U.S. degree?” The answer is a “Yes” with a caveat that the success rate is extremely low. Currently, if you are a foreigner (don’t hold a green card or U.S. passport), you’ll need to find an employer who’s willing to hire you and sponsor your H1B visa. This will normally involve thousands in lawyers fee, a lottery with less than 40% winning rate, and a 6+ months waiting period without a guaranteed outcome. As a result, very few companies are willing to make this bet unless you are absolutely irreplaceable. So far I haven’t known any designer who successfully comes to work in the U.S. via this strategy.

My journey

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I attended MSc in Design For Interaction (DFI) at TU Delft from 2011 to 2013 when I switched my major from business to design. Back then, I just wanted to “explore” for both my personal and professional life. The UX field was still in its infancy and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a designer. The fact that TU Delft has a good reputation, is situated in the center of Europe and offered a scholarship that waived almost all my tuition fees was just too appealing to turn down.

Two years of training at TU Delft DFI equipped me with a solid understanding of the user-centered design process from concept to completion. After graduation, I took on a full-time job as an interaction designer in a design agency in the Netherlands for almost two years to keep honing my hands-on design skills.

During that time, my love for UX design deepened day after day. I became certain that I wanted to devote myself to this field and started to question if staying in the Netherlands was going to fulfill this desire — I didn’t speak the local language and the UX job opportunities were limited in the area. These thoughts led me to want to continue my career in the U.S. and therefore, getting a 2nd Master’s Degree became the most efficient means to an end (connecting with the tech community and acquiring a work visa).

This time I only considered a one-year program in light of the cost (both time and money). I attended MHCID at UW from 2015 to 2016. It was a perfect option for me because it’s a prestigious program, only 11-month long, with strong career outcomes, and located in a booming tech hub — Seattle, WA! I walked in the program with a “career-centric” mindset, utilizing this year to polish my portfolio as well as sharpen my “soft skills,” such as presentation and networking. This boosted my competitiveness in the UX job market and I luckily became an interaction designer at Google after graduation.

My journey continues…

If I can leave one piece of advice in terms of choosing a UX Master’s Program, it’s to think about this decision beyond just a degree. Think about the place you want to live, the community you want to connect with, the lifestyle you desire and the career opportunities that can realize your full potential. I wish you the best luck on your journey! :)

List of UX Master’s Programs

This list was hand-picked by me according to the overall impression I got in the industry. The information was taken from the schools’ official websites at the time this article was written (Nov, 16, 2017) which is subject to change.

Note that the tuition below may NOT include miscellaneous fees and cost of living which varies widely by locations. Also, it doesn’t take into account tuition waivers such as scholarships, teaching assistantships (TA) and research assistantships (RA).

Schools in the U.S.:
Schools outside of the U.S.:

(This article was also published on Medium)

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