Or: Is it too late to run away and join the circus?
When I was 19 years old and living in Greenwich Village I met a 28-year-old grad student named Daphne who lived in my dorm. She was smart, thoughtful, had a great laugh, and a particularly great way of shutting up some of the more pompous students. But I didn’t understand why someone that old would want to be in college. After all, I was 19 and therefore thought that I already knew everything, and getting my BFA at Parsons was more like a formality. I had been in school all my life, and while I’d held a job since I was 14, my adolescence was not one of privilege or plenty; I yearned for a career of my own where money, or at least pesky annoyances like eating and paying bills, would no longer be a worry. But Daphne put it simply. She said, “well I don’t have kids or a husband yet, and there’s still more I want to learn and study, so if I don’t go now I maybe never will.”
How I found UX
I hadn’t thought much about Daphne in the past 10 years: we fell out of touch as we both eventually graduated, moved out of the dorm and into separate careers. But perhaps she was somewhere in the back of my head when I found myself, at 29, applying to grad school at the MHCI program at Carnegie Mellon. I discovered the program after spending over a year taking independent classes at places like the Cooper Union and General Assembly, going to workshops and UX meetups, and tackling new self started projects like I never had before. This was how I became introduced to the field of User Experience Design: the psychology of how people interact with technology and how to design better, more user-friendly systems. In other words, a lot of what I had been doing for years without knowing quite what I was doing.
At that point I had been working in my field of visual design for 8 years. What began as a career in advertising took a sharp left into editorial work and then veered right into a freelance business that blossomed from part-time to full-time for several years. I dabbled in designing for different industries, clients, media, and platforms, sampling each like I did my undergrad classes, not quite sure what I wanted to focus on but also not sure that I needed to pick a focus. This eventually led to a lot of dissatisfaction. While others picked a path and climbed the career ladder I had become a generalist: recruiters didn't know where to put me, and creative directors often thought I was both too senior and too unfocused for a regular designer role. As a result I felt like I was treading water rather than gaining ground.
When your career path needs a 'reset' button
I ended up getting into CMU but deferred for a year after landing a long term contract as a Digital Art Director for Starwood Hotels, working on the UX team or the redesign of SPG.com, their biggest online revenue source. This role introduced me to a lot of really wonderful people and taught me a ton: I learned Agile, worked closely with development on implementation, collaborated with and directed outside agencies like Domani and Code & Theory, we brainstormed, sketched, user tested, and prototyped. But after a year I felt like the job wasn’t going to turn into anything more for me, plus the 2+ hours commute each way from Brooklyn was taking a serious physical toll.
While I continued reading, taking online courses and freelancing during this time it simply became apparent that the role I really wanted didn’t exist at Starwood and that I couldn’t just to go and find it somewhere else, but that first I needed to be different. I didn’t want to spend my life and career making stuff pretty: that had simply ceased to be enough of a challenge. I needed to be the more evolved designer and person that are capable of being a leader, a thinker, a strategist, and an engaged and empathetic researcher of people. So I took up the CMU offer and began grad school at 30, leaving behind a stable well-paying career, and moved away from the city and the man that I love.
Grad school is amazing but also aggravating
Over the course of my graduate career I've been exposed to a lot, choosing to spend my time focusing on psychology & usability research as well as design leadership & business. The core classes here have both expanded and deepened my already broad T-shaped skill set beyond visual design and pixel perfect UI into ethnographic research, understanding business value, high fidelity prototyping, and design thinking.
I'm not going to lie, this hasn't been an easy process: I've had challenges both personally and academically at many points in the past year. There have been times I've felt frustrated and isolated by my peer group here, most of whom are 25 and under, and many who are taking design classes for the first time. While I've shipped more digital products, worked with more developers, presented to more clients, juggled more deadlines, and designed more stuff than I could easily count, this year has forced me to take a step back and put myself into a more empathetic mind. Instead of asking myself "how can I compete with my peers and move up onto cooler projects" I have to now ask "how can I be a leader? How can I set others up to succeed and build awesome stuff together? How can I create the space and opportunity for someone else to try something for the very first time?"
If you're going to work for another 40 years, try to enjoy it
Careers are like marathons, I think Sheryl Sandberg said that and probably lots of other people before her. I'm at like the 5k mark, but now I’m surrounded by classmates who have just started their own career races. But this smart and diverse group of students will be the ones who would have also surpassed and even lapped me on my race if I had chosen not to go back to school.
Many will tell you that you don’t need a Master’s degree, that there is no requirement for it in this field, you can be self-trained and build a portfolio on your own, and that’s all true. But through my research, experience and networking I’ve found that most self-trained people struggle more when there are layoffs and economic uncertainties, and that many people in the really enviable jobs happen to have at least one degree beyond a bachelors. This is not a coincidence. Everyone has a bachelor’s degree and it doesn’t impress anyone like it did 30 years ago. It’s like a general admission pass at a concert: it doesn’t always get you into the really good stuff.
Simply put, I didn’t go back to school to build a portfolio, transition into a new field, land my first design job, or to learn design tools and techniques that I’ve already mastered. I came to earn respect. I came to set myself apart as a designer with both years of practical experience and a rich academic understanding of the UX field. I came to prove a point to myself, as the daughter of a factory worker, that I was capable of being more than I was ever told I could be, and my only limits were the ones I set for myself.