Why I’m getting a graduate degree

I used to be an extremely stubborn person. Back when I was working on student debt data for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I got so afraid of crippling student loan debt. Crunching the numbers, it seemed impossible that I would be able to afford to pay for a graduate degree out of pocket without getting a loan, so I deemed the whole thing impossible and decided I was never going back to school.

I also hated my undergraduate experience. (I got a degree in Global Studies, an inter-disciplinary major combining Economics, Political Science, History, and Sociology). I couldn't wait for those four years to be over with, and if not for my final global studies seminar, I would've finished half a year early. My undergraduate program was very heavy on academia and research, and required me to write papers on topics I spent less than a day deciding on and creating arguments for. As much as I liked writing and loved learning about different cultures, academic research was not a field I wished to pursue.

Additionally, at the time (2012/2013) there weren't too many interesting programs for design or user experience on my radar which seemed to provide any learning I couldn't experience on my own or in a work environment. I was aware of the HCI program at Carnegie Mellon and the Interaction Design program at SVA, but both required me upending my life and moving, something I wouldn't consider doing to go back to school.

Five years ago, it seemed like an irrational choice. I said never for quite a while, but my life changed and I started to push against of these things I had been saying never to for so long.

Challenging my stubbornness

Two and a half years ago, I moved to Seattle and subletted a place from a women who was attending my current graduate program, HCDE at the University of Washington. I think living in her place for a summer while she was interning planted in my brain this idea that many people don’t go into graduate programs immediately after undergrad, and there were a variety of people and reasons for going.

Reasons

Unlike most people starting graduate programs, my intent wasn't to break into the industry. I'm already firmly engaged in the industry and contributing to it. Even though I've worked on a variety of problems over the past eight years, I felt the work was getting stale and I was becoming too bitter about working in a tech industry which created solutions for problems which weren't too important.

On a more selfish level, I thought surrounding myself with people from different backgrounds who didn't think like me and were still enthusiastic about working on real problems without worrying about investors would reinvigorate my love for design. In some ways, it already has!

1. More challenging work

One of the benefits of doing a graduate degree program is the opportunity to work on some fascinating problems. I've already worked on projects which have redesigned flight booking, designed a tool for someone with low-vision, and researched usability problems for Alaska Airlines. There's an even wider range of problems students and faculty are focusing on in my program. Last quarter, students designed biolumenescent displays, and other projects have included testing vr and voice-based systems.

This has been a good mix of projects, both physical and digital, and has gotten me out of a traditional digital product design flow. Working on new and interesting projects has been the best benefit. I've found I get extremely depressed when I don't have projects to work on, so it's also been a great way to flex my creativity.

2. Working on broader multi-disciplinary teams

My work over my career has allowed me to work on teams with really wonderful and knowledable folks, but they were mostly designers and developers, and I had to work reaaaallly hard in some jobs to maintain a position that allowed close relationships with dev teams. So far, my project teams for my graduate degree have been much broader, encompasing mechanical engineers, data scientists, researchers, and students right out of undergrad who have an amazing capacity to learn. Being a part of teams with broader backgrounds has allowed me to think about problems in different ways than the mindset I was trained into for my career.

3. Making connections

Since the HCDE master’s program is highly competitive, accepting only 20% of applicants, all my classmates are insanely smart. I like how our classes put everyone on the same level regardless of experience, because everyone has something to contribute and something to learn. Some of my classmates who are starting their careers will be designing some amazing things in the next few years, and the ones who are more like me are already working for great companies in Seattle.

Additionally, since this is a Seattle-based program, many designers and leaders at large and interesting companies in the area are invited for speaker series and events. I've been focusing more on settling into Seattle, buying a house and doing diy renovations, and working on my art network, and less on design networking. This program provides me a way to add some of the design networking I've been missing over the past two years.

3. Resume-building

I've got to be honest, seeing the completed degree on my resume will be amazing. It'll also be thrilling to know I'll be the first person in my immediate family to have a graduate degree (even though my parents know many programming languages and my aunt has several STEM masters degrees). However, my larger goal was to get more team-building experience for better leadership opportunities, and this program has certainly helped in growing my confidence leading teams.

Weighing the benefits against the cost

Taking a loan out to go back to school was something I was still not willing to compromise on, so I needed to make sure I could actually afford it before attending. There's been a ton of debate on the value of college educations in technology fields. I feel it's problematic to tie higher education degrees to jobs, because the value gained is in developing critical thinking and writing skills. Would I say my undergrad education was worth the amount it cost? Maybe not, since it was around forty-five thousand a year.

After doing the math and realizing I could afford the HCDE master’s program, I decided to apply and make a decision to attend if I was accepted. This left me a few months to think about it, but after considering the extra opportunity it provided, it was an easy choice.

I’m always looking to connect with fellow designers and am open to speaking opportunities. Let’s grab a coffee and chat if you’re in Seattle!

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Two people standing on the outside deck of a Washington State Ferry.