Passion led us here

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When I coach junior user researchers and designers, one question I'm asked more frequently than any other is: "Do I need a Masters degree in UX?"

In good user researcher fashion, my usual response is to answer this question with a question: "Why do you want to do a Masters?" I then listen carefully to their answer.

If they say something like, "Because I love the field of UX and I want the opportunity to do a deep dive in theory and practice", then I encourage them to pursue their dream by taking an academic path.

But if they answer, "Because I want to improve my employment prospects and earn more money", then I'm less sanguine about their choice. If you want only to improve your career prospects in UX or boost your salary, I believe there are better ways to spend your money and time.

Advantages of doing a Masters in UX

First, let's review some of the advantages of pursuing a Masters degree in UX. Although I don't have a Masters in any subject, I do have a PhD in psychology, so I appreciate the siren call of academic life. I'm pleased I did my PhD since it made me a critical thinker and gave me the opportunity to read and think deeply about a topic over a period of three years. So it's definitely the right choice in certain situations.

In particular, spending a year doing a Masters degree will help you:

  • Gain a good grounding in the academic 'received wisdom' of UX.
  • Allow you to ignore commercial pressures when doing your research. This means you can make your own decisions on what to do, without a pesky project manager telling you there's no budget or no time. If you love the field of UX and want to immerse yourself in it unfettered by the constraints of real world projects, you'll love doing a Masters.
  • Do a deep dive in one specific area of UX that may excite you. Completing a dissertation is a notable achievement and shows what you can deliver when you are given the freedom to plan and deliver UX work.
  • Spend a year with like-minded people talking about UX. This can be especially useful if you work as a 'UX Team of One', feel isolated in your role or go through periods where you feel uninspired.
  • Defend your research and design ideas against your tutors and peers who may know considerably more than you about UX.
  • Decide if you want to a PhD in the field and do further academic research.
  • Get a salary boost. Holding a masters degree adds about $4k to your salary in the UX field. But if a salary boost is your only aim, keep reading.

Before you choose that Masters in UX, answer these questions

I believe there are three questions you need to answer before making the decision to take a Masters in UX:

  • Does your chosen employer value a Masters in UX?
  • Can you afford a Masters in UX?
  • Is the curriculum relevant?

Does your chosen employer value a Masters in UX?

If your research shows that the organisation you want to join is asking for a Masters, that's obviously a good reason to do one. But the field of UX is so new that many organisations increasingly value experience over qualifications.

For example, I spoke with Ian Fenn, author of 'Designing a UX Portfolio: A Practical Guide for Designers, Researchers, Content Strategists, and Developers'. Ian told me that his research shows hiring managers do value Masters degrees but they value comparable work experience even more highly. He argues that it's networking and enthusiasm that will get you your first role, not an academic qualification.

I also spoke with Lisa Murnan, author of 'How to Get a UX Design Job'. Lisa said, "We're seeing the need for a Masters degree less and less. When I was researching this topic for my book, I discovered that many UX design job postings don't mention educational requirements at all, or simply say, 'Bachelor's degree or equivalent experience.' It sometimes comes up in job postings for UX researchers but even then most hiring managers seem fine waiving that requirement so long as it's clear that you know what you're talking about and have the experience and skills to back it up."

Can you afford a Masters in UX?

In addition, taking on a Masters degree is not for the faint hearted. You'll want to consider the financial cost and the time you'll need to invest. The financial cost will vary from institution to institution but as a benchmark, the tuition fees for UCL's 'Human-Computer Interaction' Masters is £10,740 (£25,880 if you are outside the EU).

As regards the time, to gain the most benefit from a Masters, you'll probably want to do it full time, which can take 1-2 years. But this can require a leave of absence from your job or even resigning. If you have a good job with good prospects, this makes it very difficult to take the leap.

In particular, you lose time that could be spent gaining experience. Research shows that each year of experience you have in UX adds about $1900 to your base salary. So if it takes 2 years to get your masters this is no more benefit than gaining 2 years' practical work experience. And if your aim is to boost your salary, you might be better off moving to another country. The country (and region for the US) has the biggest impact on what you get paid. The median salary in the US is $110k, compared to $104k in Switzerland, $67k in the UK, $65k in Canada, $61k in Germany, $44k in France, and $33k in India. Or move to a bigger company: in the US, salaries at companies with fewer than 10 employees are paid around $20k less than the equivalent positions at larger companies (above 1,000 employees).

Is the curriculum relevant?

I mentioned above that a Masters is a good way to gain a grounding in the academic 'received wisdom' of UX. But UX is not an academic discipline. Many, if not most, of the advances in user research and design have tended to originate from commercial enterprises (think Xerox Parc). This is because UX is inherently a practical discipline. Universities rarely have their finger on the pulse of industry. This means your Masters in UX could date very quickly since it's likely to cover yesterday's technologies, approaches and fashions. As a consequence, in the absence of relevant work experience, the chances are slim that your Masters in UX will give you practical, real-world experience.

One area where this is particularly important is in development methodologies. Nowadays, nearly every organisation develops software using an agile methodology, like Scrum. You can't do UX work on these projects without an understanding of how to make it fit within a Scrum framework. Gone are the halcyon days where you could spend weeks doing up-front user research and design work. You need to deliver your UX work within the cadence of a two-week sprint. This isn't something typically taught in a Masters in UX but it's central to being an effective practitioner.

An alternative 'Masters' in UX

Given hiring managers' preference for street smarts over book smarts, are there other ways of gaining experience, such as through self-study and networking? After all, you could gain a lot of experience in the one or two years you spend on a Masters. But where do you start?

I recommend treating it like a project. If you're considering spending over £10k on your education, ask what else you can do with that money that might offer more value. Imagine you were writing a proposal for your UX education with a £10k budget: what would you do?

Here are some ideas you might want to consider. You could easily do all of these activities for less than 10% of the overall spend on a Masters.

Start with an inventory of your UX skills

A good first step is to have your portfolio and CV reviewed to find your strengths and weaknesses.

Find a trusted advisor or 'critical friend' to give you an independent assessment of your abilities — or alternatively, pay someone who offers this service. You don't necessarily need to meet in person: a Skype meeting or even a telephone call would work. The important point of this review is that it needs to be critical: if you ask a friend or colleague, you may find they don't provide the objectivity you need.

If you can't find a critical friend or can't afford to pay someone to assess your skills, use the worksheet in this article to assess your UX skills.

Get a broad understanding of the fundamentals of UX

There are many differing definitions of 'user experience' and this can make it difficult to appreciate what you are expected to know. So it's worth reviewing an approved syllabus that covers the fundamentals of UX. There are two good ones to choose from, both of which take the process model in ISO 9241-210 as their starting point:

You can take courses that cover these syllabi in person or online (via Udemy) or you could just download the syllabus of one of these certification schemes for free and use it as a framework for self study.

(Disclosure: we run training courses in the BCS Foundation Certificate).

Create a customised learning plan

Once you understand the scope of UX and you know your own strengths and weaknesses, you can now create a tailored program of study that's perfect for you. Imagine you were designing a Masters that was tailored just for you: what would you cover?

For example, the syllabus for the BCS Foundation Certificate in UX is structured around these areas:

  • Guiding Principles
  • User Research
  • Illustrating the Context of Use
  • Measuring Usability
  • Information Architecture
  • Interaction Design
  • Visual Design
  • User Interface Prototyping
  • Usability Evaluation

Your portfolio review will show strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. Don't waste time learning what you already know but spend the time more productively by addressing your weaknesses.

There are dozens of cheap and free online courses in UX as well as books by the shelf load. Dive in!

Network at cheap or free UX events

You want to ensure that your learning doesn't take place in a vacuum. Being open to new ways of thinking about UX is central to your education, so attend some UX events happening near you. Many of these are free, such as evening talks organised by organisations like the UXPA and NUX. You'll find other 1-day events that attract great speakers where payment is required but these are still relatively cheap to attend (especially relative to the cost of a Masters). These events also give you the opportunity to network with people and this in turn gives you the opportunity to get the inside track on jobs in UX.

Invite some guest speakers into your home

Most Masters degrees will include 1-hr lectures from visiting speakers. Don't think you need to miss out on these. Instead, draw up your wish list of people you would like to hear speak. Then at a fixed time every week (say Friday at 3pm) review one of the conference talks freely available online. If you can't find your chosen speaker, turn to resources like UIE's 'All You Can Learn' library where you can get paid access to excellent content from leaders in the field.

Build your prototyping skills

Whatever your role in user experience, you need to be able to create a mock-up: either to illustrate your design idea or simply to put something in front of people who can evaluate it for you. Knowing how to prototype is a bit like being a good cook: people will always find room for you on a camping trip.

We are living in a kind of renaissance for prototyping tools: not a week goes by without a new tool being developed by someone. You can learn the basics of these tools fairly easily. Download trial versions of tools like Sketch, Axure, Adobe XD and InVision and decide which one suits you best. Then follow along with videos on the developers' web sites.

Create your own dissertation

A key part of a Masters degree is writing a dissertation, which shows a candidate's ability to think independently and demonstrate their skills and abilities. You can do the same thing with your 'personalised' Masters. Here are some ideas:

  • If you're currently working, do some skunk works UX in your current job. What, in an ideal world, should your organisation be doing in UX? Which parts of this could you do yourself if you came into work an hour early a couple of days a week?
  • Contact a local charity and offer to usability test and redesign their web site to increase donations. Or contact a local start-up and offer your help testing their product.
  • Choose an application or web site that you know well and that you feel needs improvement and test and re-design it. If you're looking for design problems to work on to demonstrate your UX chops, here's a list of 100 design exercises.

Conclusion

If you love the field of UX and want the opportunity to do a deep dive in theory and practice, then a Masters in UX will be a good choice for you. But before making the leap, consider creating your own self-paced, personalised syllabus. This has the opportunity to be more fulfilling, more useful and considerably cheaper than the academic alternative.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) is a User Experience Strategist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, why not join the thousands of other people taking his free online user experience course?



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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) is a User Experience Strategist. He has been working in the field of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

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