So you’re interested in UX Master’s programs?

So you’re thinking about grad school… A few years ago, I found myself in the exact same place. Having gone through the process of researching, applying to, and even completing a UX master’s degree (UW MS HCDE class of ’17!) I thought I’d put together a post that might help others who are in the same position.

To give you some context on where I’m coming from, let me tell you a bit of my story:

I graduated from SJSU in 2013 with a double major in Behavioral Science and Psychology. Out of school I spent about a year and a half working at a biomedical device start up based out of Los Altos that was creating an iPad application to measure blood loss during surgery. I spent my first 6 months in hospital operating rooms talking with doctors and nurses while collecting data for a study that the company was submitting to the FDA. At around month 7, the company was re-designing their app and since I had spent the last 6 months talking to users every day, I became really involved in the re-design. That was my first taste of UX work and I liked it a lot. Fast forwarding a bit – UX tasks at the company dried up (they were a pre-commercialization startup and more focused on selling product than designing products at that point) so I decided to leave.

I was applying to UX jobs and did get a few interviews but at this point, I had only a very small amount of UX experience. I was always interested in graduate school so at this point it kind of made sense to just go for it. With my educational and work background I felt like I had good research skills and understood a user centric perspective, but no real training in design or tech. So what I was most looking to get out of school was an opportunity to develop/hone design and coding skills, and build out a portfolio.

Without further ado, here is “Spencer’s non-exhaustive guide to HCI masters programs.”

There are a lot of programs out there and a lot of factors to consider. If you’re interested in pursuing further studies/ a graduate degree in HCI / UX etc. I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself:

  • What skills do I already bring to the table?
    • i.e. research, design, coding, copywriting, understanding of business needs, people skills, team management skills, etc.
  • What do I want to get out of a program?
    • For me this was “I know research already but I want to become a capable designer and programmer, and I need to build out a strong portfolio.”
  • What are my (specific) career goals after finishing a program?
    • UX Designer? Interaction designer? Motion designer? UX Researcher? Project manager? Product Manager? UX Writer? Teacher?
  • What type of program will best suit my needs?
    • One year programs get you up to speed and out working more quickly but are typically so packed with stuff that you can’t really do much work outside. Some of my friends who completed similar programs felt they were a bit rushed.
    • Enrolling in a multi- year program means potentially more time to absorb content/develop skills, plus you will have a summer break -> internship opportunity! Also, depending on the program, opportunity to work while in school, etc. Tradeoff is more time spent in school.
    • Bootcamps/certificates are lighter on content but much faster and cheaper, and in some cases may be all that you need.

I did a bunch of research of different graduate programs in HCI/ UX related fields but on a high level – there are a few different types of programs out there:

  1. “Professional programs” like MS HCDE, CMU MS-HCI, UW MHCID. These are mostly skills/professional development focused and are typically 1 year full time (ex: CMU-MCHI, UW-MCHID) because they are for people who want to do a career change/level up skills and get working quickly. They give you opportunities to network and get a portfolio built fast so you can get back out there. These are what I would call “terminal” degrees.
  2. “Theoretical programs” such as Stanford MS Symbolic Systems, U-Mich I-School. These are typically 2 years+. While these are also good for people who want to work in industry, I think they are more geared towards those who are thinking about a PhD at some point. A lot less applied, less portfolio focused, more theoretical, and with a “pure research” bent. (*Bear in mind this is my outsider assessment.)
  3. Non degree programs such as bootcamps, certificates. General Assembly offers a lot of these, UW also has a certificate in User Centered Design. These are similar to the professional programs mentioned above but on a much more accelerated timescale, and with lower capital investment.

Some breakdown info on programs that I researched (also available as a spreadsheet – and updated with some international programs that may be free, even to non-EU citizens ). I can’t guarantee any of this is accurate now but it was in 2015:

School Name Location Website Program Title Degree Type Duration GRE Required? Application Date (2015) Application Requirements (2015) Total Estimated Cost of Tuition
University of Washington Seattle, WA http://www.hcde.washington.edu/ms MS Human Centered Design & Engineering MS 2 years No 1/15/15 Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree, one college statistics class. Application: Personal statement, 3 letters of reccomendation, current CV/Resume, optional portfolio, questionnaire, unofficial transcripts PDF from all schools $46,416.00
CSULB Long Beach, CA http://www.csulb.edu/colleges/cla/departments/psychology/ms-human-factors/#Overview MS in Psychology, Option in Human Factors MS 2 years 1/15/15 Pre-requisites: GRE (institution 4389, department 2016), Psychology undergrad. Application due on CSU mentor by Jan 15, Application due to department by Jan 15. Official transcript due to department by Feb 5. Letters of reccomendation, statement of purpose
University Of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI https://www.si.umich.edu/academics/msi/human-computer-interaction-hci Master of Science Information, HCI Specialization MS 2 Years Yes 1/15/15 First Consideration for Financial Aid: Apply by 1/15/15, Final Deadline: 5/1/15. PreReq: 4 Year Degree, Transcripts, GRE (Institution code: 1839), Statement of Purpose (4-6 pages), Personal Statement(1-2 pages), 3 letters of Rec, Resume
University of Washington seattle http://mhcid.washington.edu/curriculum/ Master of Human Computer Interaction and Design M-HCI+D 1 year Yes 1/20/15 Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree, 3.0 GPA in last 60 Units. Application: GRE (strongly reccommended), Portfolio of design or development work (optional), Resume or CV, statement of applicable work experience (optional), Statement of purpose, application questionnaire, 3 letters of reccomendation, unofficial transcripts from all schools $45,770.00
Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA http://www.hcii.cmu.edu/ Masters of Human Computer Interaction MHCI 2 years -3 semesters Yes 1/31/15 Prerequisites: GRE. Application: 3 letters of reccomendation (submitted online), current resume, transcripts from all schools attended (unofficial with application, official by mail) GRE: Institution code, 2074; Department code, 0402 $41,000.00
SJSU San Jose, CA http://www.engr.sjsu.edu/hfe/ MS Human Factors & Ergonomics MS 2 years No 2/1/15 Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree, GPA of 3.0 or better. Application: online applicaiton, 3 letters of reccomendation, $34,360.00
Georgia Tech Atlanta, GA http://mshci.gatech.edu/ MS-HCI MS 2 Years Yes 2/1/15 Prerequisites: Undergraduate GPA >=3.0, GRE (Desired >=80th percentile on all subtests). Application: Educational/professional background, statement of purpose, letters of reccomendation. Gre:Institute Code 5248 $88,104.00
Stanford Stanford, CA https://symsys.stanford.edu/viewing/htmldocument/14246 MS Symbolic Systems MS 2 Years 2/17/15
Indiana University- Purdue University Indiana Indianapolis http://soic.iupui.edu/hcc/graduate/hci-masters/ MS Human Computer Interaction MS 2 Years 3/15/15
Arizona State University Mesa, AZ http://innovation.asu.edu/degrees-programs/human-environmental-systems/applied-psychology-graduate MS in Applied Psychology MS 2 Years 4/1/15 Pre-Req: Bachelor’s Degree, Undergrad Stats course, 3.0 GPA. Application: Online Application, Transcripts, GRE, 3 letters of Rec, Resume, personal statement
De Paul University Chicago, IL http://www.cdm.depaul.edu/academics/Pages/MSinHuman-ComputerInteraction.aspx MS in Human Computer Interaction MS Pre-Req: 2.5 GPA, Bachelor’s Degree. Application: Transcripts, BA, Optional Resume, Optional Letters of Reccomendation
Rochester Institute of Technology Rochester, NY https://www.rit.edu/programs/human-computer-interaction MS Human Computer Interaction MS 8/1/15 Pre-Req: Bachelor’s Degree, Undergrad GPA 3.0, GRE if GPA below 3.0, pre-existing skill in computing as demonstrated through work experience. Application: Electronic application, Transcripts, 2 recommendations, Curent Resume $40,820.00
University Of Texas Austin Austin, TX https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/programs/masters MS Information Studies MS 2 Years Yes 12/1/14 Apply by 9/1/15 for spring admission
University of Colorado- Boulder Boulder, CO http://www.colorado.edu/cs/prospective-students MS in Computer Science MS 12/15/14
University of Maryland MS Human Computer Interaction MS Yes 12/15/14
Indiana University- Bloomington Bloomington Indiana http://www.soic.indiana.edu/graduate/degrees/informatics/hcid/index.html MS Human Computer Interaction Design MS 2 years Yes 1/1/15 3 letters of reference, GRE Required (IU’s institution code for reporting your GRE scores is 1324, and the department code is 0404 for informatics degrees.) Statement of purpose, Transcripts
UC Irvine Irvine CA http://www.ics.uci.edu/grad/degrees/index.php?track=inf-ict MS Information and Computer Science, Concentration in Informatics MS 12/15/14
UC Berkeley Berkeley CA http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/programs/mims Master of Information Management Systems MS 2 Years Yes 1/6/15 Pre-Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree, GPA > 3.0, GRE Scores, Statement of Purpose, Programming Competency and Proficiency. Application: Statement of Purpose and Personal History. 3 professional letters of recommendation.
MIT Cambridge, MA http://www.media.mit.edu/ Media Lab

What I did:

After carefully considering my needs, I ended up applying to 8 grad programs:

  • UW HCDE
  • UW MHCID
  • GA Tech MS-HCI
  • U Michigan Information school (they have an HCI specialization)
  • CMU M-HCI
  • SJSU MS Human Factors
  • CSULB MS Human Factors

My top 3 were UW HCDE, CMU M-HCI, and GA Tech M-HCI. I got accepted to all of them but I eventually chose HCDE because:

  • It’s a two-year program, which to me meant more time to think/develop ideas during school
  • I wanted the opportunity for an internship
  • Seattle is a really great place for networking in the tech industry.

As far as getting into HCDE: It sounds like admission is becoming more competitive each year. I took the time to read the research of a bunch of different professors etc. while I was applying and just made sure to follow the application instructions to a tee. I think it also helped me a lot that I already had relevant experience, a UX portfolio, really good undergrad GPA, and high GRE score. The program’s administrator Pat Reilly might have more info for you about what they are looking for these days. I’d also really encourage you to reach out to professors at the school.

At another point I may do a more complete write-up of my experience in the HCDE MS program but for now, here are some other links to check out:

14 thoughts on “So you’re interested in UX Master’s programs?

  1. Hi Spencer,

    Thank you so much for this blog post. I found it to be really useful. My name is Richard, and I am a recent liberal arts graduate with a major in Economics.

    I have a growing interest in UX design (Research, Interaction) and is currently doing an online class with Springboard.

    I am interested to know the differences between UW HCDE vs. MHCID. Do u have any comment from your past experience?

    I really appreciate it.

    Best,
    Richard

    Like

  2. Hello,

    I am doing research about UW UX program and I found it is helpful. I am concerning about Personal Statement and Recommendation Letters. Can you send me your sample PS and briefly tell me about the content of your recommendation letters. It would be really helpful if you can help. You can reply me through my email. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

    Cheers,
    CT.

    Like

    1. Hi CT. Glad you found this post helpful. Personal statements are just that – personal, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to be sending mine out. I do know however that I made sure to follow the instructions in the prompt exactly, had relevant experience to talk about, and made the effort to read research papers by faculty and was able to discuss this research along with specific reasons that I wanted to go UW and HCDE. Recommendation letters are sent directly from the recommender to the school, so I can’t really comment on their contents. Best of luck!

      Like

  3. Great post Spencer, this helped me a lot in deciding which colleges I want to apply to.

    Do you have any insight into what the folks at UW HDCE/MHCID expect in the student portfolio?

    I’ve done limited design work in college and for some personal projects but I’m not sure if that’s what they expect to see in a portfolio.

    Like

    1. Hi Aashrey. I think that design work that you did in college + personal projects is perfect. Sounds pretty similar to what I had going in. I’ve never been on the admissions board but I do think that they judge each applicant based on where they are at. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect somebody fresh from undergrad to have 10 years worth of professional projects. Show the best of what you’ve got. Good luck!

      Like

  4. Hi Spencer,

    Thank you so much for this blog post. I found it to be really useful. My name is Alice,

    I have a growing interest in UX design (Research, Interaction) and is currently doing an online class with Springboard. I am planning to apply for MHCID, and was wondered what portfolio you submitted when you applied for UW. Can you please share your portfolio ? I really appreciate it 🙂

    Like

    1. Hi Alice. Cool to hear that you are interested in UX. Online classes are a great place to start. I would also recommend reading some foundational texts such as:
      – The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
      – Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

      The portfolio I applied with is the same one on which I created this blog post, just updated with some projects that I did in school. If you take a look at “Fitting four pedals into two” that’s from before I was in HCDE and should give you an idea of what I applied with.

      Good Luck!

      Like

  5. Hey Spencer,

    Thanks for the article! I’m applying for the hcde program at the University of Washington this next year and was wondering if you could offer any advice on the application process. What kinds of things did you put in your application to make you stand out?

    Like

    1. Hi Matt,

      Hard to say – but I would guess that my application stood out because I had high test scores, a strong undergraduate GPA, relevant work and educational experience, a portfolio of example projects, and a well written (and researched) personal statement. I made sure to follow all the application instructions and get my letters of recommendation and application in on time. Not much more to it than that. I don’t think it’s a matter of “putting things in” so much as demonstrating fitness for the program by what you have already done. Graduate programs want to accept people who are 1) going to succeed in their program 2) be successful after completing their degree, thus reflecting well on the program. The best way to maximize your chances of acceptance are to demonstrate that you will do these things through your actions – you’ll have a compelling application as a result.

      Hope this helps!
      S

      Like

  6. Hey Spencer,

    I’m thinking about applying for the UW HCDE program but I don’t have a portfolio. Reading through the admissions requirements, it says that a portfolio does not need to be submitted or needed.

    “Could I submit a portfolio?
    No, due to the volume of applications, we ask that you not submit a portfolio as it will not be reviewed. Please only submit the required application materials.”

    I have a strong background in IT with lots of work experience. Will this be sufficient in applying?

    Thank you!

    Like

    1. Hi Matt

      It sounds like the admissions instructions may have changed since when I applied – At that time a portfolio was not required but you were able to send one along if you had it. From my perspective I’m not actually sure that this is a change for the better, as it shows that the admissions committee may be investing less time in each candidate than before. I would imagine that strong candidates already have some related work to show (hence, a portfolio), and a portfolio of work is going to be essential for the job search process after the program.

      As far as having a strong IT background, I think this has the potential to help your application but it will ultimately depend on the complete package that you present. Take a look at some of my other comments here to see what I mean. Good luck!

      S

      Like

  7. Hi Spenser, I very much appreciate your sharing! my background is fashion design. I want to switch to UX/UI design. I figure the concept of design is all related, in another word, design things are a matter of making product with customer in mind. do you think my background will help me get into UW MHCID? thank you in advance!

    Jane

    Like

    1. Hey Jane – I do think that having any kind of design background is helpful, but you’re going to need to demonstrate a connection between the two in order to impress the admissions committee. Good luck!

      Like

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