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The Dirty Little Secret About UX Master’s Degrees

5 minute read
Debbie Levitt avatar
Does a master's degree really make you a UX master?

The candidate interviewing at your company recently got a master’s degree in UX. Very impressive, she must be a master, right? But, wait, does she have any real-world experience yet? This might be her first UX job so she may not be a master yet. She might have been working in UX a couple of years and is still entry level, then again she might be a UX veteran.

Most UX Master’s Programs Require No Previous UX Degree or Experience

Looking at many of the master’s degrees in UX, interaction design, or the like around the world shows that the initial offers are typically classes such as, introduction to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), foundations of HCI or the like.

At most schools, if you have a bachelor's degree in anything, you can get a master’s in UX next without having to first take any introductory courses or place out of such courses due to industry experience.  

Compare this to a master’s in computer science from Stanford. You cannot start this degree program without having passed the following courses at Stanford or an approved institution: Logic, automata and complexity; probability; algorithmic analysis; computer organ & systems; and principles of computer systems.

Without requiring foundation courses before the master’s classes can be taken, many advanced UX degrees are starting the master's program with, “What is UX,” “What kinds of jobs are out there” and “What types of specialties exist within UX.” All of us would assume that someone starting a master’s degree already knows these things. “[Unfortunately,] this is an introductory MSc into UX. It’s probably not going to match the needs of someone with advanced knowledge of the domain,” the head of the program explained.

What degree should someone with advanced knowledge of the domain get if not a master’s? Should UX veterans go straight for PhDs because master’s programs are often aimed at newbies? Why did we skip bachelor’s degrees on the typical path of educational achievements?

Related Article: 13 Must-Have User Experience (UX) Design Skills

A Bachelor’s Degree in Wolf’s Clothing

Some (but not all) UX master’s degrees are really bachelor’s degrees given a fancier name. This means that existing UX practitioners trying to add letters to their names will come to find these master’s degrees a waste of time, too introductory and not challenging. It can even be demotivating because of the requirement to spend time regressing to newbie-level topics or instructor’s bizarre and academic interpretations of work you've already been doing for years or decades.

Graduates of these UX master’s programs will tell you they, “Just went through the motions,” to do well enough in classes and graduate. “I can’t put paying work on hold to do fake work that proves I know how to do my paying work.”

Not All Programs Are Well-Designed

If it’s a good program, they are teaching what UX is, core principles, how to conduct and interpret UX research and testing, and approaches to information architecture, interaction design and sometimes prototyping… though hypothetically, this should be bachelor’s degree material.

It’s ironic to imagine a UX degree that is poorly designed, but they exist. One unnamed disastrously designed master’s program goes from week 1, “What kinds of jobs exist in UX,” to week 2, “Write up a UX research proposal for a potential client.” Quite a jump.

Learning Opportunities

This same poor program devoted approximately 6 weeks to interaction design over the course of the entire, “Master’s in UX Design.” Truly a misnomer. This same program did not teach, “user-centered design,” the approach used by most of the planet. They were teaching a model the head of the department made up. The department head appeared to want to leave his legacy at the price of graduates, who are likely to be laughed out of job interviews when they proudly declare they never heard of UCD, but used this "other" model.

Related Article: What Is Conversational User Experience (UX)

Poor Programs Hurt Students and Workplaces

While the schools sit back and count your money, they are causing real problems in the workplace. The weight of the master’s degree makes a hiring manager assume the candidate is more experienced than they may be. Sometimes these graduates enter the workforce with a senior title, placing extremely high expectations on someone who might really be entry level. Hiring managers and HR are more likely to believe that someone with a master’s degree has years of experience rather than what in some cases is the truth: they just learned this. The workplace might not have hired the strength and experience they were expecting, which can affect product, culture, process and customer satisfaction.

Poor Programs Lower Respect for UX

UX is already suffering or non-existent at some companies. If your company brought in people with master’s degrees who were new to the discipline and had little work experience, it perpetuates a lack of respect for UX.

Hire More Carefully

Hiring managers must ignore the siren song of the master’s degree unless absolutely required for the position. When hiring for UX talent, look for talent by reviewing the resume and portfolio. No matter what their degree, ask the candidate about approaches, steps and problems they solved using their methods.

UX is one of those specialties that does not require a formal education. Those with a natural talent for it can pick it up through apprenticeships and mentoring, trade schools, training courses and work experience. Those without a natural talent for it are weak practitioners even if they have taken courses or completed degrees.

There’s nothing wrong with an advanced degree, and many jobs often require them for UX research specialists, however, nothing should be assumed about a candidate just because they completed a master’s degree program.

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