Image Credit: Patrick Leger
4 minute read

Deciding to earn a master’s degree is an exciting, life-changing, and expensive decision. It can quickly accelerate your career trajectory or saddle you with debt (or both). Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to earn both a Master’s in HCI and an MBA. Hopefully, with my story and your own research, you can decide what makes sense for you and your career.

Get a Master’s in Design/HCI to jumpstart your career.

If you’re already working in product design, gaining more years of experience is a better use of your time. But if you’re trying to break into the product design industry, I recommend getting a Master’s in Design/HCI. A good master’s program will help you develop a portfolio and will signal to employers that you’re committed to Design as a career. Even better, employers may directly recruit graduates from your program, which will further improve your chances of landing that first role.

I started my design career during the Great Recession. Like many college seniors at the time, my last year of undergrad was spent frantically trying to land a job. I had majored in the niche field of Human Factors and Ergonomics, and quickly discovered that most roles in the field required an advanced degree. Fortunately, my program offered a one-year master’s that I applied to and was accepted at. With this one year of extra schooling, I was able to fully tailor my studies towards getting job-ready. I built out my portfolio and focused my thesis on a topic that would be interesting to employers. Then, by graduation, I was able to land a graduate level internship which led to my first full-time role.

Get an MBA to level up as a leader.

If you’re already in design management, or if you want to switch to a different business or management discipline, an MBA might be right for you. Also, remember that MBAs can be pursued in many different formats. I did my MBA online and part-time. Doing a program full-time and in-person is an entirely different experience with its own pros and cons.

Increasingly, designers with no business training are being expected to solve business problems — that’s where I found myself in 2014 as a newly minted design manager. Day-to-day, I was being asked to solve general business problems like organizational planning and budgeting. However, in school and through my early career, I had almost no exposure to these topics. I didn’t know where to go for help or even what questions to ask.

However, as I looked around, I saw many of my peers earning MBAs. As I researched MBA programs, it became clear that I would learn important non-design, business skills and would be primed for advancement into senior design leadership or product management. Eventually, I settled on an online program that would allow me to not only keep my full-time job, but also have my employer foot the bill.

Immediately, my MBA was helpful for me as a leader. It formalized my management approach, it helped me collaborate with my cross-functional peers, and crucially, I better understood my company’s strategic business decisions.

The TL;DR

Deeply consider cost and opportunity cost. I was fortunate that I earned both of my degrees with almost no student loan debt. If you’re planning to finance your education with debt, first seriously consider what else you could do with two years and $200,000. Most importantly, make sure your post-graduation career goals justify and can support the expense.

With a master’s degree, just like designing, make sure you know what problem you’re trying to solve. A Design Masters will help you get a foot in the door. After that, your on-the-job experience is what matters. An MBA will help you level up and set yourself apart. As a designer, it’ll broaden your business horizons and help you meet and work with people outside of the design bubble. Overall, if you know where you want to go, it’ll be much easier to pick the degree, school, and experience you’ll need to get there.

Read more from Will Miner @wgminer