By Stewart McCoy

Will a master’s help you get a better UX job or salary?

I received an email this week from Meghann, a junior UX designer, who wrote me asking whether pursuing a master’s in HCI (specifically, at DePaul University) would help her get better job opportunities or a higher salary. I told her, in short, yes.

My full response:

A master’s is time for reflection and self-motivated projects

I think the DePaul HCI curriculum looks great and would serve you well on your path to advancement in the UX field. Anecdotally, many of the best UX designers I can think of, and designers at top companies, startups, and agencies, have a master’s or some form of graduate education. While it’s not required, and while completing a master’s in HCI won’t necessarily make you a better or more sought-after designer, it will buy you lots of time to read, reflect, and work on your own projects. If you use your time in grad school to research companies, and skill sets, and design problems that interest you, you’ll finish your program with a pretty good idea about your career direction. Meanwhile, the courses you will have taken will give you a pretty good start in that direction.

The graduate internship is your stepping stone

Probably the most valuable course in any grad program is the internship. Your ability to get an internship will be primarily based on the quality of work in your portfolio and your ability to walk potential employer’s through your design thinking and process. And because you’ll be applying for an internship as a master’s student, you’ll be positioned to apply to top startups, companies, and agencies—ones where you would have a more difficult time getting your foot in the door if you were applying for a full-time position. And interning at those places will help you understand what it takes to get a job at such a place and what they expect of a candidate’s portfolio, all the while building your portfolio up with professional-quality work.

Many leading designers have their master’s

One of our interns at Opower just finished her master’s at Stanford, and while she graduated with a degree in civil and architectural engineering, she took several HCI and CS courses and even was a TA for an HCI course. Our other intern is halfway through his HCI program at Indiana, where one of our full-time designers also completed his master’s. I did an internship for a web design agency directly out of my master’s program—but it was with a highly-regarded agency that wouldn’t have taken a chance on me if I hadn’t spent time working on my portfolio while I was doing my master’s. Our Director of UX has a master’s in Product Design from Stanford and likely wouldn’t be in her management position without it.

Your portfolio is most important

I want to emphasize the importance of an excellent portfolio once more. The best way to spend your time outside of class while pursuing your master’s is to work on self-motivated (or freelance) interaction design or user research projects, fine tune your visual design skills, or learn to code and build your own web app. You should design your own website to showcase your design work, and it should be the first result on Google when people search your name.

Follow these design women on Twitter

If you’re not active on twitter, I recommend following designers like @whitneyhess, @samanthatoy, @lahutter, @nettatheninja, @Mari18, @steph_hay@ugleah, @jina, @madw, @jessicahische, @ginatrapani, @kissane, @sourjayne, @ashsmash, @karenmcgrane, and @owltastic.

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