Is Getting a Master's in HCDE Worth It?

I've been getting a lot more requests from people in the industry who are interested in getting a masters degree and want to know if it's worth it. The short answer is: I don't know. There's many factors that should go into making this decision, time and money being major ones. It's different for everyone. I can only share my experiences from my perspective as a designer that's been working in the product/design/engineering tech industry for over eight years.

As of writing this, I'm 37/48 credits into my master's degree at the University of Washington in the Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) program. This is a 48 credit program with classes mostly at night, the majority of the 4-credit ones being from 6-10pm. This makes it fairly doable for people who work during the day to attend classes part-time, though half of the people in this program are full-time students. Most of those full-time students are comprised of people right out of undergrad or people who got fed up with their degree taking so long and quit their jobs to speed up the process. HCDE also lists out the program demographics if you're interested.


My motivations for attending this program were to 1) gain leadership skills to bring my career to the next level, 2) fill the gaps in my knowledge gained from on-the-job training. I'd say most student's motivations for being in the program are to get a good job at a great company upon graduation. They're either people straight out of undergrad or people who are switching careers. I'm really not the norm as I don't want to switch careers and don't want to get a new job.

Leadership skills?

So far, I have switched jobs to a much higher leadership/decision-making role since I started this program. However, I do not think getting a master's degree had anything to do with that. I attribute this mostly to being held back from promotions in previous jobs due to discrimination. In one role, I was given feedback in my quarterly review that I should smile more and be more energetic (aka bubbly) in meetings. (I'm not this type of person and can't change to be that.) In another, I was told to look at the seniority chart where attributes for each position level were listed and identify where I could improve to get to the next level. I identified all the things I was doing at the senior level to management, was still denied a promotion, and was never informed on what I could do to reach that level. When I applied to grad school, I thought having a graduate degree would make me stand out and help me be promoted to a leadership role. It didn't; I just needed to join a team that believed in me,didn't hold me back, and didn't discriminated against me. I honestly believe even if I had completed my masters degree in those past roles, I still would've never been promoted.

Filling Knowledge Gaps

HCDE has definitely filled gaps in my knowledge, however. This is a very research-oriented program. If you're interested in gaining more knowledge about UX research, this is the one for you. I've used techniques I've learned in classes directly in my job. For instance, I started a qualitative research project surrounding what makes a good front-end dev community because of what I learned in my qualitative research class. I never thought that I'd be taking HCI theories and applying them to my work (I'm super mega practical), but I've done that too to help predict certain behaviors. I've also taken group exercises and conducted them with our whole team at CodePen, as was the case with our affinity mapping exercise last year at our team meetup in Bend. So, yeah, all of those things have really made me more confident in trying out different methods in my full-time job. It's 100% made me more well rounded from a different perspective than what I would've gotten with my industry-only training.

Time & Money

As for time commitments, I usually take 4-6 credits a quarter, which amounts to 1 to 1.5 classes a week. It's a fairly doable workload and definitely possible to manage. I equate it to being an expensive hobby. I have taken 9 credits in a previous quarter and am currently taking 10 credits this quarter. That's a lot. At that point, grad school and work are your life and it's hard to fit anything else in (sorry HOA board). If anything else major in your life comes up, it's going to be hard to balance everything. And something most likely will come up. Hopefully things won't literally catch on fire like they did the last time I took one of these high workloads. I highly recommend against taking 8-10 credits a quarter while working full-time unless you have to.

Which leads me to the big question: is it worth the money? So far I've spent about $24k of my own money in the past year and a half on grad school and still have about $9k left to spend. That's a lot of money. I could've outright bought a new car for that. Based on my previous experience working on student debt data at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I absolutely did not want to take out any student loans to pay for this. I had to do the math before even applying to see if I could afford to pay for it. This is mostly because I will never recoup any of the cost with a job promotion, like most masters degrees promise. I'm not planning on getting a new job or job promotion with a salary bump significant enough to offset this cost. This is mostly why I refer to my master's degree as an expensive hobby. I don't think of it as an investment.

Is it worth it?

IMO, it's only worth it if you 1) absolutely need the career boast and network to get into the industry, 2) if your employer is paying for all or part of your degree, or 3) you really want the opportunity to teach in a program which requires a masters (many don't). When I started, my employer paid for $4k a year (almost the equivalent of one 4-credit class). That was enough to offset the cost to justify me attending. It's still a significant amount to spend and sometimes I honestly wonder if it was worth it, but I'm in so far now that it makes more sense to just finish. Most people working in industry who have masters degrees (or even just undergrad degrees) don't even do anything related to their degrees. I would 100% approach this from the perspective that it's not an investment and you're getting this degree for you. Also people who like to say grad school is the best time and you have the most freedom to do anything are probably referring to Ph.D programs, not masters degrees. Somehow they all get lumped together.

That's not to say I haven't had any fun in the program (I definitely have!) or haven't meet some of the most dedicated and brilliant people (I also have!). I've really enjoyed the time I've spent in the HCDE program so far and it's been part of the success in getting me out of a burnout rut I was in prior to joining CodePen. There's been some very fun projects I've worked on that have led me to consider problems in different ways, learn new things, and advance my mentoring skills. While there are days I really wonder if I made the right choice spending this much money on something, there's others where I'm really proud of my accomplishments. Is it worth it? I still don't know, but I'm definitely in a better place now than when I started the program.

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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