Career change, grad school, debt, and you. I mean me.
May 6, 2010 2:58 PM   Subscribe

I am a web developer with decent abilities but a growing frustration with the work. I have identified an area that I would like to pursue - Human-Computer Interaction. I've been struggling with how to proceed with what seems like the inevitable next step in my working life and I'm hoping MeFi can be my surrogate mentor. I'd like to ask anon for employer-related reasons, which means more information than you may require inside.

I took a few HCI classes in my undergrad and I really liked it. It's something I'm interested in, passionate about, and actually feel confident in my ability to succeed. I don't often have an opportunity to flex those muscles, but when I do, I enjoy it and also receive positive feedback from others.

In addition, although I don't have professional web design experience, I'm not terrible. I'm pretty minimalist, so at the worst things I create just look unpolished. That's not to say I'm confident about it - there are people that are way better, of course, and I get easily discouraged. It takes me a while as I hem and haw over things before I'm even marginally satisfied. However, I've gotten better. I enjoy the design process but, again, I'm not that great at it and I am anxious about sharing my work.

A solid background, or at least decent understanding, in these fields seems like it would make me a good candidate for HCI stuff, at least in the web realm. I understand what goes into a site, the limitations of the technology, how things usually work, I have technical chops, etc.

I did some research to see what kinds of jobs are out there and what companies are looking for. It seems there are two types - the bigger orgs (and some smaller) that have separated HCI stuff into it's own job (separate from the designers who make it look nice or the developers who make it work) - so wire framing, rapid prototyping, etc. And then everyone else who seem to be looking for a kick-ass designer with at least the knowledge of what usability means.

I'm obviously more drawn to the first type of job, but these usually require a master's, which I suspected. So this is how I see the options:

Get a masters
The good: Would learn more about this field and feel more confident applying for the type of position that I want.
The bad: I have a large chunk of undergrad student loan debt and would feel frivolous potentially taking out more loans. However, I could perhaps offset the cost with scholarships, part-time work, and undergoing a major life change through the next year and live as cheaply as possible before attending. Although this would mean drastically altering my life and I might not even get accepted! Also, would likely mean leaving my current location, and I like where I live.

However, the twist is that there is an HCI program in a location that I would like to live in, at least for the duration of the program. That would be a double blessing of getting a master's and pursuing a life goal. But it would also be the double whammy of changing my entire life and coming up with funds.

Sell myself and work my way up
I'm not good at this, so that is already a strike against this option. But, in theory, I could try to either sell to my current work place (which, in my opinion, needs a usability person, though they might not be able to have one person dedicated to this) to let me take on some of these responsibilities and work on a portfolio or take some design classes to get better at design and try to sell myself as a designer. At least that way, I have more input in the usability, can build up a portfolio and hopefully work my way up to a dedicated user-experience position. Though I'm afraid that some of the more dream job type jobs would not be available to me without the master's. This is hard for me to get behind considering I don't really have anything to show to back up my "I would be good at this" spiel other than lots of enthusiasm and a website or two. Unless I took a class, but it would still not be actual work experience.

So, my question
For this field is it worth it/necessary to pack up my life, perhaps incur some more debt and get a master's to make the world a more usable place? Or is their hope in developing my middle-of-the-road design skills and hopping my way up the ladder, though potentially closing myself off from the top?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I assume from your post that when you say HCI, you're talking about web-based user experience work? The reason I seek clarification is that HCI, in a narrower sense, refers to the actualy physical interaction between a human and a physical device. Just want to make sure we're on the same page and what we're really talking about is UX work

I work for a Fortune 500 company doing the type of work you describe. I went to grad school, but most of what I do today I didn't learn in grad school.

The short of it, then some long-winded ramblings: you don't necessarily need a Master's to do this type of work. A graduate degree can be very helpful if you want to go deep in one area - taxonomy building or full-time usability research, for example - but if you're more interested in the interaction design portion of UX (wireframing, prototyping), then all you need is a good portfolio and a lot of drive. A master's can help jumpstart this, but again, is not a requirement.

That said, here's what I would do before making any big life changes:

1. Decide what avenue you most want to pursue. You can generally split the UX world into three categories: information architecture, interaction design, and usability work.

2. Read a few books on what interests you most. There are lots of lists that can get you started.

3. Get your hands dirty. Do work for your current employer; find non-profits to work for; build stuff for yourself. The key is to get a few stellar portfolio pieces.

Then take stock of where you're at. Are you spending your time doing it? Do you feel you know enough? Are you learning? If so, skip grad school. If there is information you can't find in a book, feel you need a more formal atmostphere, or if you're having trouble fitting this all into your busy life, then consider grad school.

If you skip grad school, concentrate on getting as much experience as possible. A wealth of experience means more to most employers than a graduate degree. Build a great online portfolio that shows your chops and provides context for the problems you're solving. Get involved with the IA Institue, UPA, and IXDA.

But most of all, have confidence in the things you design, and make sure to love what you're doing. PM me if you want to talk more.
posted by kables at 3:42 PM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

HCI is a really interesting field, and for much more than just the web.

FWIW, Georgia Tech has an excellent HCI graduate program. They do fascinating things. And then there's the MIT Media Lab.
posted by kjs3 at 4:43 PM on May 6, 2010

Memail me, I haVe some thoughts for you.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:30 PM on May 6, 2010

How many web developers do you know with a masters? My personal experience is that, unlike other sciences, higher degrees are sometimes looked down upon in CS.

Experience is always the best way to get a job. So find an interesting open source project, and work on that. Everyone knows that open source projects are generally the worse when it comes to usability, so depending on how good you are, it could be a great way to build your portfolio (which is what I suspect employers will want to see).
posted by razdrez at 7:57 PM on May 6, 2010

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