To Grad School or Not to Grad School: Part One

grad school cartoon via twenty-x.blogspot.com

Should I go back to school or continue gaining experience in the field? Most professionals will be faced with this question at some point in their lives. Graduate school is a time-consuming, costly commitment, but it could really jumpstart a flagging career? Designers: How do you know if you’re ready for more school?

To shed some light on these questions, I recently spoke with two design professionals about their thoughts on career opportunities, learning new skills and professional growth. The two designers, Zak and Taurean, both weighed in on their decisions to either work in the field or go back to school for a graduate degree.

In part one of this series, I’ll feature the conversation I had with Taurean about his decision to pursue a master’s degree in design development and user experience at Ohio State University, after several years of working as a graphic designer. Taurean got his undergraduate degree in graphic design as well, and he dishes out some useful tips and advice to those of you out there considering getting a master’s degree in design.

In part two, I will feature a Q&A with Zak, who came to graphic design via a non-traditional path. With an undergrad degree in writing, Zak worked as a marketer and SEO specialist for several years. He is a mostly self-taught designer and currently pursuing graphic and web design full time, working with more experienced designers to build up his portfolio and skills.

Without further ado, here’s part one of this feature, a talk with Taurean:

PsPrint: What factors made you decide to return to school?
Taurean: Around my second or third year of working, I realized that my growth potential in my current position had pretty much exceeded the position. There was a lot out in the field that I didn’t know and that I wanted to know, but the confines of the work place wouldn’t allow me to learn. I wanted to advance my career to a much higher level in the administrative structure, and it looked as though the easiest route to get there was to go back to school and get a master’s degree to give myself more diversified options as far as a career path.

PsPrint: Why did you choose to focus on design development and user experience?
Taurean: From looking at the different stats online and employment guides, I saw that interaction design and user experience design was on the rise in the marketplace. I was doing primarily print design at my last position, but I had a great deal of web experience before, which wasn’t being utilized heavily at my job. I also saw the rise in the salary for interaction design and user experience design; it was significantly higher than for work in print design and there were much more management positions.

Do you have advice for others on how to choose a school or program?
Taurean: You really have to look at what they’re teaching, the program, faculty and curriculum and see if this is really going to benefit your career direction. There are a lot of programs in graduate school that are very studio based, so it would almost be a continuation of what a lot of designers had in their undergraduate experience. If you feel that you are already a strong designer, you may not need more studio experience. Maybe you need something like a program at Ohio State or at North Carolina State, with a more research-based program, where they are going to teach you some methodology to build stronger design experiences for other people.

PsPrint: What are your career goals?
Taurean: My career goals are to hopefully one day run a user experience department in a corporate structure or company or at a design firm. Or, with an MFA in design development, I can teach design at a research institution, which is awesome — and that’s one of my goals as well, to maybe teach someday.

Do you think graduate school set you up with a network of important contacts who will be helpful later in your career?
Taurean: I really believe so. In our class there are 17 other students, and they come from very diverse experiences and backgrounds and they come from all over the world. You get to network with people and it helps prepare you for your career. It’s important to know stuff, but it’s not only what you know it’s who you know, so I think that graduate school helps with that.

What other advice do you have for designers out there considering graduate school?
Taurean: I think it’s a tough time right now because of the way the economy is, and I encourage most designers to try to gain some type of work experience before they pursue a master’s degree. The graduate experience is tremendously amplified if you have something to stand on. I have five years of work experience, and I think that really gave me an indicator of which direction I wanted to go in, and how I could build on my prior experiences. It is tough right now, [for undergraduates] especially when some people don’t have jobs, or they might be scared and want to go straight into school, but the graduate experience will be more rewarding if they’ve worked in the field.