Frequently asked questions about the Master of Science at the University of Washington from an MS HCDE Grad Ambassador.

Josh Nelson
Jul 12, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo by oakie on Unsplash

Hi! If you’re reading this article that means that you are probably considering or looking into the Masters of Science in Human Center Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. Well, hopefully, this brief FAQ can give you some insights about what it is like to be a student in the program.

First background on the author: My name is Josh Nelson, I’m a current student at the UW MS HCDE program. I started in 2018 and am slated for graduation in 2020. I am a full-time employee currently working as a Senior Product Designer at Facebook in Seattle. Prior to Facebook, I was a lead Marketing & UI Designer at a small creative web agency for about 7.5 years. In addition, I am a technology researcher part-time for Strategic Business Insights in Menlo Park, have owned a videography company for the past 5 years and am currently building an organization called Project Cobalt. Aside from that I’m a proud husband, father of two corgi’s and are in the process of raising my baby boy Apollo.

Okay, so knowing a bit about my background is important as I have arguably a very different experience in the program from some of my peers. Perhaps that will matter to you, perhaps it won't, but it’s good to know who you’re getting information from.

Q 1) Is the UW MS HCDE Program Good?

Okay, so I’ve been talking with prospective students for a year now in my official capacity as an MS Ambassador, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question out of the gate… the reality is yes.


That really doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day what matters is whether or not it’s “right” for you, and realistically no one can tell you but yourself.

Good is relative, subjective, and based on variables and context. For example, in my first two quarters, the program was absolutely excellent. Arguably my third quarter was a train wreck. But that was because the context that I was taking the program in changed dramatically through situations outside of class that affected my time there.

One last note: I specifically chose UW when considering my options because of how the school itself ranks in addition to the program itself which is commonly listed at the very top (you can and should Google this).

Q2) Will it help me get me a job?

Okay, so this actually isn’t a question that I get asked by 100% of the people I talk to. And in a sense, it’s a bit of a shame. This is really REALLY important.

Grad school is — — for lack of a better phrase — — “freaken expensive!”

If you’re just taking going because there’s nothing better to do with your time, just stop… ask yourself… why? There are so many better things that can be accomplished with your time than reading academic journals and staying up late with teams over coffee to pound out class work.

That stated, yes, it will help you get a job. But once again it’s so dang subjective. I’ve met people in the program who have graduated and who don’t have a ruddy clue what they are going to do, and frankly put, I’d wager about 80% of that is because they simply did a bad job realizing that at the end they should probably have a plan that they can follow.

The remaining 20% is because the program is so dang interdisciplinary it can be really really hard to actually figure out what you want to do with it - because you can do a whole hell of a lot. So you best be up to exploring and discovering what’s possible on your own because no one will hold you hand.

Perhaps then the best thing to say is that no it “will” not help you get a job, but “can” indeed help your odds and chances of acquiring one — should you so desire. Simple statistics alone will tell you that having a master’s degree is worth more than not, but once again it’s completely up to you.

Q3) So why should I come here?

Okay, so this is actually a bit of a trick question. Thankfully I’m not a sales person for the department so I have no obligation to sell you on the program. If you’re asking this question you need to stop… and really give some time to why you’re even bothering to ask this question.

Just saying… do your homework. This is a question that you should be able to answer by yourself.

Q4) What's the difference between the two & one year program?

Brilliant, now you’re talking. For those of you who are not aware, UW actually offers two different HCI “like” degrees… though technically they are similar in practice they are vastly different.

If you haven’t checked out their websites, go do that first.

Have you done it?


Now the thing to know about grad school is that the degree at the end of the day is worthless. It’s just a piece of paper. I really hope I’m not spoiling it for you, but frankly put I’m not going to hang my degree on my wall. It’s going to go in a box and hang out with all the other participation awards I’ve received over the years (particularly proud of my elementary school participation award for chess club). Because at the end of the day a degree is very much simply a participation award.

What I’m getting at is that these two different programs offer you a piece of paper at the end of the day. If you remove that from the equation you can start to understand the programs a little better based on everything else.

Now I’m no subject expert so I’ll leave that up to people who are actually within the programs. Which by the way, you should contact people in the actual program, and people that graduated from it (just expect to be ignored by about 30 people for every 1 who bothers to respond. It’s not that we hate you, but mostly just don’t have time to help everyone).

Everything above said, when I personally was considering the two programs I asked myself this question: “what am I going to do while I’m there?”

1) The one year course will keep you busy. That’s the reality of the program. You have 1 intense year to go and do everything you could ever want with your cohort. And then you go find a job.

2) The two-year program will keep you busy, but not quite as much as the 1 year. This means more time to do stuff — whatever that may be.

For me, that meant that I was going out and meeting with alumni, industry professionals, and more generally just network and try to meet everyone who would bother to respond to my inquiries.

I’ve never gotten a job through applying. It’s always because I met someone, and later they said: “Hey, you’re not a terrible human, come join me?”

The other thing to know about having more time is that there is actually time to digest and begin to understand what the hell you are learning. This is incredibly important if you’re switching careers. Not only that but this additional time can also help facilitate picking a direction so you know what way to go and how you want to focus your time.

The long short of it is that time is the biggest cost you have when it comes to grad school, so you better figure out how you understand it within your equation.

Q5) So would you recommend the program?

Like I’ve said before in answering Q3, this isn’t a question that I can answer which can really satisfy your thirst for an answer.

I described the program once as this: “I made the right decision”.

It was a hard decision. It required moving away from my family, my home friends, my home, my state and taking on a mountain of debt to do it. When I consider the other schools and the decisions I made to ultimately get to UW, I still believe that, I made the right decision.

But I think it would be inappropriate for me to recommend the program to you, you who I do not know and may never meet. There’s just not enough context for me to understand your background to tell you if the investment will actually matter.

Another way to think about this is the fact that the UX field doesn’t require a degree. Tech companies in many ways have become so desperate for hands on deck they’ve had to actually loosen the barriers of entry because it was so selective that they were actually missing the point of hiring good people.

Hell, at Facebook one of the most brilliant guys on my team doesn’t even have a bachelors. That’s the reality of the field.

Q6) What are the size of classes?

This would at first appear to be a good question. But it’s fundamentally flawed. This isn’t an undergrad degree. This isn’t baby sitting. The program is driven by you, and you are ultimately the one who will make the most out of it.

Yes, a good teacher can help. But the simple reality of the program is that it’s primarily driven by teams of students pursuing a solution to problem. Teachers are fairly hands off and work more to facilitate direction.

It’s not that you cannot get help. But that you should know how to, and when to seek it.

Q7) What’s Seattle like?

I’ve been flabbergasted by the select few who have bothered to ask this question.

Once again, a piece of paper is a piece of paper. You need to know people. Rub shoulders with them, and learn from them. If you don’t know anything about Seattle but are looking into the program, you should stop and examine the environment surrounding UW because it will push and pull the school and the provide the people that you will meet.

Here’s something simple to consider. Seattle is home to Amazon, and right across the pound within shouting distance is Microsoft. These two companies employee over 100,000 people in the area, and just so happen to be the most valuable companies in the world. This doesn’t even account for the thriving startup scene, the 150+ tech hubs from various companies, or even the fact that there is also Boeing surrounding the area with all of its unique challenges.

The school is therefore smack in the middle of industry, and as a program designed to get people to industry it will be defined by those players.

Q8) What are the programs strengths?

The MSHCDE program is broken into three tracks: 1) Research, 2) Design, 3) Engineering. Realistically from my experience so far, research is by and far the most dominant component of this degree. If you want a strong research background, come here.

Design is a bit weaker. There are no real design requirements for the program. So there are often people trying to make the switch from one career to design. This has it’s pro’s and con’s. Focusing specifically on the con’s this means the design portion of the department is design for people trying to learn from scratch and not really for people trying to go dive deep into it. Or at least from an artistic/visual perspective.

It’s not that you cannot get a job in design with this degree, it’s just that your portfolio needs to be stocked with a lot of stuff that this program will struggle to provide if you simply follow the pathway. What I’ve recommended to people is to take design courses, but make sure to take programs and opportunities outside of the department to augment your education and experience.

With regards to engineering, this is definitely a branch of the department that I do not quite understand. There are very few “engineering” courses provided, and even these are designed in such a way that you really really have to push yourself beyond to get anything out of it that will be worthwhile.

So there you have it. Research is KING.

This list will be updated as I continue to connect and chat with people asking questions. If you’ve got any questions about the program and my experience, please feel free to reach out through comment or connect with me on LinkedIn.


Josh Nelson

Written by

Product Designer @ Facebook || Founder of the Project Cobalt.

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