Kevin Cheng  

HCI Grad Schools : Are They Worth It?

September 10th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I completed the final requirement of my Masters in HCI and Ergonomics at University College London’s Interaction Centre (UCLIC). Generally, I chose not to mention the program much because the bulk of my experience that fed my articles came from my past experience as a consultant. However, it seems appropriate now, with some starting their programs and others finishing, to look back and evaluate the past year’s education.

I’ll discuss my views in two parts. In this article, I’ll look at my view of what the benefits and problems of HCI grad school are based on my experiences both in UCLIC as well as interacting with educators and students from other programs. Later in the week, I’ll give a more in depth review of the UCLIC program itself.One of the inherent problems in writing an article like this is that like the discipline itself, there are many varieties of programs which offer overlapping but non-identical components. We have HCI schools like Carnegie Mellon’s HCII or UCLIC, interaction/industrial design programs like Interaction Design Institute Ivrea or Savannah College of Art and Design, library science programs like University of Texas in Austin, Information Systems programs like SIMS@Berkeley and University of Maryland, human factors and cognitive science programs like University of Queensland and University of California San Diego and many many other worthy programs covering different areas of the landscape (Stanford, University of Bath, Georgia Tech, Indiana University and even more).

What this means is that if you do your research, you’re likely to find a program that teaches the things you’re looking for. Personally, I entered the program after three years as a web designer and four years more as an in-house HCI consultant. That means what I might get out of a program is potentially much less than a recent undergraduate.

The most common question I get asked is, “was it worth it?” To which I answer, “Yes, but I feel dumber.”

When I came out of high school, the first thing I learnt in undergraduate courses was, “everything you’ve been taught up to now has been a lie or at best, a gross approximation.” Great. Back to square one. Coming off of HCI consulting where I felt I had all the tools I needed in my toolbox, the first thing I learnt in graduate courses was, “you think you know a lot but really, there’s a whole lot more you don’t know.”

It’s only appropriate that as a comic strip site, I express my point with another comic. A fine illustration from Piled Higher and Deeper shows why grad school makes you dumber.

What have I learnt? I’ve learnt how little I actually know and more importantly, how much more there is to learn from the field. There’s a lot out there and plenty of room for people to become experts in one area or another.

Does the program help me perform better as a practitioner? Well it certainly broadens the scope of things I want to consider when I conduct research or testing. In reality, consulting is typically bound by silly things like “time” and “budget” and I’m likely to utilize the same trusty tools I’ve always employed in the past. As is the case with any education, it’s very much foundation building and theory that matters most. Tools change and adapt to situations and technology. By discovering the research done before and what lies ahead, I can avoid reinventing the wheel or worse, repeating past mistakes.

That is not to say that grad programs don’t supply the tools to perform effectively in industry as well. Until you use the tools in a work situation with real projects, however, you never get a full grasp of which best suit you and your situations. I had the luxury of possessing this experience already and applying the theory directly to situations I know I will find myself in.

So was it worth it? I’d say for the relative investment in time, the broader scope of the field I’ve discovered, and the overall experience, yes, it was entirely worthwhile.

I’m interested to hear what prospective students feel they will be getting out of their program and what past or current students feel they are getting out of their program. If you’re an educator, I’d also be keen to hear what you feel your goals are in your program (whether you mention where you’re from is up to you).

19 Responses to “HCI Grad Schools : Are They Worth It?”
David Heller wrote:

Hi Kevin,
I’m someone soon to be making the jump to grad school. I talked about this on some list recently, but I forget which one, so I’ll just be redundant for those who are on that list …

First, I want to really appreciate the “I feel dumber” aspect of grad school. I would rephrase it to a feeling of being completely overwhelmed in the face of opening a closet overflowing with so much amazing stuff to learn. This is why as you get higher in education you tend to specialize more and more. I think the opposite is true in the professional world, where as you go up you tend to generalize more and more. But I digress.

I’m starting to take a couple of pre-requisite classes so that come Fall ‘05 I can start a Masters in Industrial Design program at Pratt Institute. I will say that choice of school is as much about geography than it is about all the criteria and differences you mention above.

How did I come to choose a pure traditional IndDes program? It is an interesting story indeed.

First, I think it is important to understand that while I think you used the term HCI, you really mean User Experience for the purposes of this article. This brings up an important axis on your personal chart to find your target, which is design vs. research & validation. For me, I’m squarely on the design angle here. So I really was only considering programs that were connected to design and would give me the equiv of an MFA in some way as opposed to a more MS degree that programs associated with comp sci and cog psych (more traditional HCI programs) are associated with.

The other axis I see here, is personal interest. You have to go to grad school for you. What do you dream about doing? What is that product, service, other that is in your mind that you never have time to explore b/c you always work for clients?

The last axis for me is what experience do I already have vs. what would compliment that.

So to help understand where I am at.
Axis 1 I already said is squarely on Design (capital D).

Axis 2 (or interest) is interested in space and products.

Axis 3 (or experience/compliments) I have over 7 solid years of doing interaction design, IA, & usability in a wide arena of environments (in-house & consulting), so going to school for that seemed a bit off. The area that I need the most work on is more formal design education and thinking about physical forms and space.

Voila! … We have Industrial Design.
Like I said geography is a static parameter for me, so Pratt is the only grad program in NYC, so there isn’t a lot of variabilty, but after a short conversation with the assistant chair of the department I feel satisfied with my decision.

Other factors that might effect other people are cost, professors of interest (if they are searching for that sort of mentoring relationship), specialties of focuses of faculty, etc.

I think while we have to realize that a lot happens in 2 years, that it is good to have an idea what you hope the degree is going to do for you, your career, and your overall future. For me, this was growingly clear as I have been feeling a “glass-ceiling” effect in my career due to my lack of formalized design training, and due to the fact that I have no experience in physical form. I also know what type of company I want to work for when I get out and I have a clear sense of the thesis i want to be working on while I’m at school.

Last thing, I like the idea of getting a degree that sets me up to be something completely different in my life if I feel that IT is dead or I otherwise become unemployed. I mean there is no shame in designing garlic presses and desks. It is just a great x-over skill.

So that is me. — dave

Chris Moritz wrote:

Based upon what Dave wrote, I have a question:

Is it better to look at higher education as a means towards personal fulfillment as opposed to furthering one’s career?

I’ve considered looking into the program at the University of Michigan, but I just can’t imagine coping with the time and expense of it amidst a full-time career and near-future plans to start a family.

I suppose it makes sense to speak with the faculty and at least check into the program (I mean, hell, none other than Peter Morville himself teaches the Information Architecture class).

David Heller wrote:

Chris, it is a balance of both. For me I know it is. But I do think that a degree in UX related discipline of your choice is not the same as an MBA. I don’t think they are comparable. An MBA is a ticket to a different level in the world. A masters in HCI, MIS, MIndD, etc. has two pieces involved b/c there is a definite purposefulness to the whole thing. It is academic and it is professional at the same time (depending on the program). Again, you have to balance it for yourself.

One note, I plan on stopping my full-time work when I begin classes fall ‘05.

Jez wrote:

I love the fact that your course was called “You-Click”, and the (unrelated) fact that your cartoon is recursive.
(Sorry, I just had to say)

Hania Kutcher wrote:

Worth it? For the money — Yes. My BA and MSI helped me consistently double my income every 2 years for the past 8 years. For personal enlightenment — No. I learned tons more with regular old FREE library books. Use grad school to network and as a resume builder. It’s not undergrad; you’re not there for fun or “learning”. Grab the sheepskin and go. It’s just a piece of paper. School = material (you can read for free at the library), other students (can learn from co-workers), profs (don’t expect eagerness to explore the world of knowledge; they’re only interested in free labor and churning out papers), and name recognition (brand yourself as an ABC alum and people WILL call you). I went to the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Made a few close friends, otherwise a simple business transaction, $40K for the diploma.

CTK wrote:

I work at a large IT company with a well established UCDS/UX/HF community. For those who want a similar position, an advanced degree is a must. New hires with such a background are able to hit the ground running, and more so for a phd than a masters. For the most part, individuals without it are passed over.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Hania said:

I learned tons more with regular old FREE library books. Use grad school to network and as a resume builder.

It’s true that many of the things you learn in grad school can be self taught in books and online. However, I found that it was much easier to discover what things I wanted to learn more about in grad school. It was like an introduction to a landscape, after which you can go and look at whichever parts you want to more. Also, one thing you don’t mention is that beyong putting $40k into your degree, you’re putting in TIME and that can be even harder to come by than $40k. Having the time to concentrate and spend 100% on studying a subject to me was something you just couldn’t do while working.

As for networking, I guess that depends on the program. Personally, I feel I made a much better network through industry work and conferences than through classmates. Not to say my classmates are not a valuable network, but it’s simply a much smaller one.

I also disagree that it will necessarily make a huge impact on your income. I had a nice doubling effect before I ever came to the program (which of course tailed off in the crash) and while I think the degree will help me get jobs, I don’t think it is as big a factor as you portray.

Your experience has obviously been different but whether that’s from the degree or simply because you are good at what you do one can never tell.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Is it better to look at higher education as a means towards personal fulfillment as opposed to furthering one’s career?

As Dave said, it depends on what higher education you’re talking about. I think of PhD’s as very much the pursuit of knowledge and personal fulfillment and is really a career unto itself. Masters tend to be more for career but I wouldn’t do it purely for that reason (Hania has clearly stated otherwise above so there’s obviously more than one side to this). Sometimes I do think of it as purely $$$ for a piece of paper but in general, I should hope you have some interest in the subject and learning more about it or why even invest that money in the first place?

Some programs do have part time programs but from what I’ve seen, I’d suggest trying as hard as possible to go full time instead. You get more out of the program and there’s less chance of a bureaucratic mishap. For what it’s worth, some programs, like what I was on, are one year instead.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

For those who want a similar position, an advanced degree is a must. New hires with such a background are able to hit the ground running, and more so for a phd than a masters.

Perhaps I am misreading this but are you saying that PhDs can hit the ground running in an industry position better than a masters graduate? That seems bizarre to me for any position other than research. Masters programs by and large focus on more practical aspects in addition to the theory taught whilst PhDs are very specialized and focused research positions on a particular subset of the field. How are PhDs more equipped than Masters for the position you describe?

David Heller wrote:

I would also add that reading by yourself is not education, but just knowledge. Unless that knowledge you gain through reading is pressed against a level of discoure with peers & mentors it is just static information. What makes academic time so valuable is the relationships one makes not for networking per se but for exploration.

I also see a big difference between an MLIS program which is primarily set up to be a professional degree where the person is prepared for a job, vs. a degree where a thesis is as the core such as an MFA or a Masters in HCI. The time one spends in critical discourse on a thesis project is really to me the most important part of an academic degree.

I aslo agree with Kevin that while I do see that some companies have created a glass ceiling for non-degree folks, there are a growing number of companies that get it, that design is about practice. Again, not everyone is a designer, so it is very different depending on what part of the UX puzzle you are looking at.

Sarah Goldman wrote:

I have many comments. However, I must ruminate before I formally post.

But before I go (for now), if you haven’t seen this article, it is worth a read (it’s a bit old, but nonetheless, it is relevant - and sorry, you do have to go to the library or access an online DB like proquest to get it):

Schoenfeld, V., Shapiro, R.G., Brown, M.L., Jahns, D.W., Andre, A.D., Lund, A.M., Cooke, N.J., & Eggemeier, F. T. (1998). To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.: That is the question! Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, pp. 1152-1156. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

P.S. - Great comic, by the way - thank you for sharing that. It validates some of my own thoughts based on my graduate school experiences.

Dave Humphreys wrote:

I’m considering the Masters in Human Factors at The University of Queensland but have a degree of concern over just how much work there is out there for people in a usability (can somebody please explain what HCI stands for) field. I work in government, with a particular interests in both usability, IA and intranets and other knowledge management tools. I get worried that a postgrad course like this might box me into a corner, but damn it looks interesting. The question I don’t expect you to answer is - should I consider something a bit broader?

Juan Casares wrote:

I studied the HCI Masters at Carnegie Mellon.
It was an incredible experience. I had focused in computer science and the program opened me the doors to the whole field of HCI.
Some of the advantages of such a program:

  • a) Intense work with a group of incredibly talented people (both students and faculty).
  • b) You learn about other disciplines. HCI is multidisciplinary and here you get to study all: graphic design, psychology, CS, etc.
  • c) You work on really cool projects. Such as human-robot interfaces, virtual reality, intelligent tutoring systems, kinetic typography, etc. Won´t use these skills at work, but…
  • d) You can take more risks, creatively.
  • e) It certainly helps get a better job. Gross estimate: 1 year masters = 4 years work experience.

You could find all these in a specially cool job, but those are hard to find. And, of course, there are some skills you can only get at work.
Students who already had a lot of usability experience focused on other areas of HCI and research.
And, I also met some of my best friends there. :)

uurf wrote:

Although you say that as a practitioner you’re “likely to utilize the same trusty tools I’ve always employed in the past”, remember, all of that info so indelicately stuffed ‘twixt yer ears in the last annum will inform your design decisions from here on out, whether you realize it or not. (for better or worse :) ) But then again, you already knew this - in fact you say it, above.

OK back to work now.

Coleman Dash wrote:

I can say that grad school was definitely worth it for me. I received my Masters in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Human Factors from Clemson University (Go Tigers!) and I don’t regret the decision one bit. The part that I liked most was that it was a good mix of research and applied work that prepared me for my job as Human Factors Design Specialist today. Though the research portion was without a doubt beneficial, I enjoyed the applied part the most. In several of my classes, I worked on teams that developed and delivered real world products that are still being used today; one was actually part of an interal website for a major Fortune 500 company that they are currently using (and they love it!). Though these were class projects, we also had to deal with the real world issues I see today on the job: limited time (deliver the project by the end of the semester or get an F!) and money (try pulling together some resources on a college funds, talk about a tight budget!). Grad school provided me with a solid basis for the real world and helped me realize where in Human Factors I would like to concentrate my efforts and opened the door to a wealth of resources to support what I want to do.
One major point I want to bring up is that I think what you put into grad school is what you get out. In many of our projects we had the option to choose the scope , how much we wanted to get out of it and how much we wanted to learn. The place where this most evident is your thesis. My advice to anyone entering grad school is to make sure your thesis is something you want to do and is structued so that you benefit from it as much as you can. I was into doing applied work but also wanted to build my research skills so I designed my thesis such that it was a good mix of pure research yet was applicable to real world situations.
To sum up yes grad school is worth it and can prepare you for your career whether it’s real world product development or more of a research based position but it mostly depends on how you structure it and how much effort you put in.

FYI on the issue of money; alot of grad schools offer assisstanships where they pay your tuition and pay you a stipend as well. My first year I was a TA (which pretty much convinced me teaching would be the perfect retirement job for me!) and my second year I was a research assistant. Both were pretty fun jobs and the money was enough for me while in college.

Go Tigers!
(I also came away with a serious case of Tiger Pride!)

james wrote:

“everything you’ve been taught up to now has been a lie or at best, a gross approximation.”

they only say that to keep themselves in a job. Just imagine trying to teach people that think they know it all already.

Most of the tutors on my fine arts degree were only there because the couldnt make it in the real world…

The point of any further ed. (and i’m talking mainly about undergrad at this point) is to prove that you can apply yourself and make it to the end and to show that you ain’t a quitter. If you learn something too and find a career at the end then that’s a bonus.

If you go to higher ed. make sure you enjoy yourself too.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

they only say that to keep themselves in a job. Just imagine trying to teach people that think they know it all already.

Most of the tutors on my fine arts degree were only there because the couldnt make it in the real world…

Well I didn’t do a fine arts degree so I can’t speak for your experience but I do think most of what I learnt in high school science ARE gross approximations. I’d say most learning happens in university, actually given how poor the secondary education in North American and UK are nowadays.

Brian Kenyon wrote:

I am considering taking the RPI HCI Certificate program. It is possible to even use the credits towards a Masters. Having already received my undergraduate BS in EMAC Electronic Media Arts and Communications I feel that an HCI Masters may be a great expansion and career move. Does anyone have any thoughts on getting an HCI certificate verses a full-on HCI masters. I already have several years at a start-up that survived the bubble and have focused on online web-marketing, product development and web development. I felt as an undergrad that an HCI masters may be the best move pre-bubble. However after sticking it through through my own company Im coming back around after realizing and learning from mistakes made in a start-up company that I may be missing some things. As a good friend said “A Masters doesn’t necessarily teach you how the real business world works, but rather how things should be done”. And I tend to agree that 1 year of grad school can equal 4 years of real-world hands on learning.

Lester wrote:

Hey Kevin. I’m a recent design grad from San Francisco State. I am working as a designer atm, but am considering about grad school in the field of Library and Information Science at San Jose State in 2 years. They have a Information Architecture, Systems and Design program, do you know if it’s a good program? And do you have any recommendations for similar programs in the Bay Area? Thanks.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?