Textbooks on my desk, alongside artwork from my 6 year-old

Is a one-year master’s program worth it?

Before I started the Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction and Design (MHCID) program, I had a lot of questions and reached out to current MHCID students for more info. I’m answering quite a few of those now from prospective students. One recurring question is about the time investment. Here’s my take on how I manage my time and what I think about the length of the one-year program.

I recently spoke with a mom-friend as she picked up her child after a playdate with one of my kids at my house. We hadn’t seen each other in a while because, well, my schedule doesn’t leave me with much of a social life right now.

As we hunted for her child’s shoes, she politely asked about what I’d been up to. I told her about my career transition to a full-time UX role and an upcoming out-of-state trip for school.

“Wow, you must be so busy.”

Her response was typical, and it is usually followed up with concerns about my sanity, sleep schedule and, I suspect, unexpressed suspicions about my priorities. Instead of reacting to that touch of disbelief lurking in the accompanying head-shaking and long-exhalations, I often respond with a quick deflection, “Yeah, it’s crazy. Yup. Very busy,” and move on.

But this time, as I watched my friend usher her appropriately-shoed child into their minivan and bustle off to the next weekend errand, I was able to articulate why her reaction and my response didn’t sit well with me.

I don’t actually feel that busy. Instead, I’m focused.

When my third child was born, I was working part-time and was the primary caregiver. My husband was working on his Ph.D., teaching night classes and overburdening our bookshelves. When I think of “busy,” I think of the constant switching between roles that comes with being a working parent. I had so little time to complete a thought, let alone commit consistent hours to one project.

Now, between full-time work as a UX designer and my nights and weekends as a MHCID student, I’ve been putting in enough hours that I’ve found myself dealing with the unfortunate side-effect of dreaming about user flows and prototypes. I’ve never before taken the opportunity to selectively clear my plate (with immense support from my partner) and now spend so much time intentionally focusing on just a few big things. I’m still a parent, I’m still working, and now I’m in grad school, but there is very little else I let compete for my time right now. I’ve either taken a break, scaled back, delegated/relegated, or said “No, not today, Netflix!” in my stern mom voice.

This grad program reminds me of an undergraduate internship I did at a radio station in Italy one summer. Although I’d taken several semesters’ worth of Italian language courses and had even eaten many pastas at The Olive Garden, my fluency jumped dramatically once I was fully immersed within the Italian language.

Knowing that the graduate program is just a year has allowed me to commit to a consistently high level of focus. Although I have no intention of doing poorly, knowing there’s no time to retake a class in this grad program is additional motivation to keep on track. Just like being in an immersive language program, this focus has led to a greater retention of concepts than I anticipated for moving so quickly.

Because the end is in sight, I try to push myself above the minimum requirements on projects (something I rarely did when I was working on my bachelor’s degree a decade ago). I’ve found ways to grow and develop outside of assignments, as well; I’ve worked with my mentors, organized local networking events and help found a chapter of UXPA so that I have a way to keep learning from others after graduation. Strangely, it seems easier to make these other projects and extra efforts happen now, while I’m immersed, than previous attempts had been.

This immersive-language approach to going back to school isn’t for everybody, and the trade-offs aren’t sustainable. But this is the magic of a one-year program! After seeing firsthand the struggle to maintain momentum as my partner worked through a five year Ph.D. program, I wanted to pull the band-aid off fast. I can do anything for a year, right?

Now, when a friend tells me I’m busy, I explain that I’m not just squeezing in grad school. I’m using the year to focus on a simple goal: grow as much as I can as a UX professional.

And then I have to explain what UX is.