The Myth of the UX Degree
“Hmm, I know I don’t have a formal design background, but I think, um, my experience as an engineer and PM is certainly going to help…”
Here I was, at my first-ever UX job interview, trying to convince a total stranger that I can be a UX designer. I could hear the insecurity flying through my shivering body. I’ve never felt more exposed in my life. And at that moment, I wish I had a UX degree…
Written by Ran Liu, Senior UX designer at Amplitude Analytics and participant in the Design Writing Apprenticeship.
If you’ve been in the same situation, this article will help you challenge those assumptions.
Do I need a “UX degree” to land a job as a UX designer?
The short answer? No. Having a UX-related degree is certainly helpful, but it’s not necessary.
UX design is an interdisciplinary study and there isn’t a single academic area that covers everything that goes into the field. Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Information Architecture (IA), and Interaction Design (ID) are considered the closest disciplines to UX design. But each of them only focuses on a subset of UX. There is no one-size-fits-all program that teaches you every aspect of UX design.
Furthermore, your academic background is rarely a predictor of what you do in life. In fact, only 27% of college grads end up in a career related to their majors. This is even more true in the UX field: NNGroup reported that UX practitioners have extremely diverse backgrounds and only a small fraction have UX-related degrees.
Believe it or not, some of the most successful designers are not formally trained. The lead of Facebook Product design Julie Zhuo joined as a Software Engineer 10 years ago. President Emeritus of AIGA Debbie Millman was an English Literature major. You wouldn’t think Electrical Engineering or Mathematical Psychology relate to UX, but Don Norman is widely regarded for his expertise in design and usability.
What skills do you already possess?
Even if you don’t have a background in UX, you probably already possess some relevant skills to UX design.
Knowing how to learn new skills is arguably the most important skill you can have as a UX designer. The field of UX covers many sub-disciplines and is constantly evolving. This makes it almost impossible for anyone to know everything whether you have a “UX degree” or not. Are you a great learner? If the answer is yes, congratulations! You already have the most critical skill in becoming a UX designer.
Besides technical UX knowledge, you will also need soft skills to succeed in the real world. It is almost impossible to make your design happen without good communication, teamwork, and some persuasion. Often, these skills come from experience, not school.
Your unique background can also be your advantage. Can you write effectively? Can you juggle many projects at the same time and still deliver on time? Can you create beautiful graphics or photos? Or can you code up some prototypes? These skills you developed from your past experience can distinguish you from the other job candidates. So make sure to use those skills to make you a better UX designer.
When does it make sense to get a UX degree?
You can start a career in UX without a related degree. However, there are cases when getting a degree can be helpful.
Getting a Master’s degree can be expensive and it will require you to drop everything to go back to school for a year or two. But if you can afford it, getting a UX-related Master’s degree can accelerate your career quite a bit. Not only can you better market yourself, but you can also take advantage of being a “new grad” again. For example, most internship opportunities are only open for students or new grads. Also, many companies have a specialized recruiting team focused just on hiring new grads. Additionally, you can attend school career fairs and apply to companies without needing any prior experience in UX.
Going to school or not also depends on your goal. If your goal is to find a job in UX, getting a Master’s degree might not be necessary. But if your goal is to learn about the field in a systematic way and/or go deep in a specific area, getting a degree is a fantastic way to achieve that.
Certain industries and companies might require a Master’s degree, but this is starting to matter less and less. Most jobs require a degree, but it’s very rare that it requires a Master’s degree. If you have a dream company/industry in mind, do you homework and find out if a “UX degree” is a requirement.
Some alternatives to university degrees
There are other countless alternatives to getting a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in UX. Coursera has a great Interaction Design specialization which will introduce you to the field of interaction design systematically and grant a certification upon completion. NNGroup’s usability week is also a great way to learn about everything usability. They will issue a certification or even a “Master’s certificate” if you meet certain requirements.
UX trade schools like General Assembly or Tradecraft can also prep you for everything you need to know, from practical UX skills to interview skills. You will also have the chance to work with a real client and develop your portfolio. All of these alternatives are more affordable than getting a degree and can help you land your first UX job.
My goal with this article is not to convince you to skip school, but to show you that you might be closer to your dream UX career than you think. Having now gone from newbie to Senior UX designer, I’ve been in many job interviews. And guess what? The lack of a dedicated design degree has never been an issue for me. There are way more important things to your future employer than your degree.
What is the one thing you can do today to help you move one step closer to your UX career? Is there a book you can read? Can you find a project? Can you work on your portfolio? Nothing is too small. Comment below and let me know.