General TLDR: This program acts as a cash cow for the university. For the price, and “reputation” it markets, the program does not live up to such an image.
Some of us want to share some critical thoughts on the MHCI program at Carnegie Mellon University, as students from this year’s graduating 2020 class. This program is touted to be the oldest and one of the best, if not the best graduate program for HCI. On the surface, it may seem so - online, this program receives a lot of positive praise from students or UX folks on reddit/medium, and school ranking sites. It is also backed by the reputation of it being within the School of Computer Science at CMU, which is a greatly respected department worldwide.
However, we would like to share some thoughts on why one should avoid this program. We recognize that there are people in our graduating class who love this program - but also know that there are many who share the same sentiments as ourselves, and these are the sentiments often left unsaid. Quite frankly, we regret choosing this program, especially when seeing the level of work that is produced by other competitor schools, and knowing that we are competing for the same jobs.
(Also note, the reason why we have to post this here is because our internal channels, such as alumni facebook/slack groups, are monitored by MHCI admin, so there is no “safe space” to voice opinions internally to future admits.)
Below is an aggregate of our thoughts with respect to various aspects of the program.
The program’s core courses do not provide a strong body of work to use in a portfolio.
- Interaction Design Studio (IxD): one of the core courses meant to teach design, and was pitched by our department head that it would give us multiple portfolio-worthy pieces. However, projects are never designed to be at the level or scope worthy of being marketable pieces, since these projects are only a few weeks in duration. You are often working with fictional, unrealistic clients and/or companies that were frankly uninviting (e.g. Markel Baking supply company, Construction Junction) or irrelevant medium (e.g. doing a control redesign out of foam core). Of the people I know who did use their IxD projects in their portfolios, they had to put in extra work after projects were submitted to pull it up to a level that was portfolio-worthy.
- User-Centered Research & Evaluation (UCRE): Extremely disorganized, very difficult to identify expectations of professor and deliverables. Did not teach anything with regards to user stories, user flow, or usability testing.
The program’s core courses are not unique/tailored to MHCI - we share our courses with undergraduates.
- When entering this program, I expected all the core courses to be graduate courses, where I would have the opportunity to learn from my peers. This is not the case - PUI, UCRE, IxD, all core courses, are open to undergraduate students as well, and sometimes have a 1:1 distribution between masters and undergraduate students. This means that there are multiple sections for these core courses, and your project groups may have undergraduates in them. I by no means discredit CMU undergraduates - I have had the privilege of working with exceptionally smart and skilled undergrads. However, I have also worked with undergraduates who are still exploring, are taking these classes to learn about what fields they wish to specialize in, or simply taking the class for easy credit. I, along with many others, chose to take this program because I wanted to have the opportunity to learn from my cohort, and to also receive a graduate level education. For a program that charges so much, I still cannot understand why we were taking courses that are used to fulfill an undergraduate major in HCI, when we are paying the price of a graduate education.
Lack of individual skill development and extremely heavy emphasis on teamwork
- In the first semester, there will be a point in time where you will have 3-4 group projects happening at the same time, all of which projects from the core courses. It comes to a point where you spend more time dealing with group dynamics and logistics rather than furthering your skills as a UX practitioner.
- In the second semester, this depends on what electives you take, but you will have at minimum 2 group projects, and will have also started your capstone, and that is an 8-month long group project extending into summer.
The “computer” in HCI is greatly undermined - reduced emphasis on developing programming ability, despite being in school of computer science
- Very much dumbed down level of CS in any elective from HCI dept, some assuming no background in programming at all, so no good balance between learning technical and non-technical side of things.
- This year they removed the technical component from the 8-month capstone project.
- From the design perspective, we are not taught how to communicate or build specifications ready for development or for developer hand-off.
- Technically is the replacement for being in an internship, but interning would be much more valuable work experience (and you get paid, unlike in this case, where you pay the program).
- Faculty is sub-par. Most seem to be consultants, or friends of the program head.
- False advertising of capstone clients - NASA and Bloomberg are the famous
high-profile “return” clients, but restricted to being assigned to students who are US citizens, students who have lived/have housing in New York, etc.
- Bureaucratic nature of project - a lot of time is spent in making agendas, faculty meetings, getting around red tape, rather than building a good product. Also in producing a lot of unnecessary deliverables that cannot even be used in a portfolio.
- You’re paying 80k for this program. Capstone clients are also paying 80k to the program but not to you (and you’re doing all the work). So where does all the money go?
- This capstone project drags on from January to August. Why the extra time in the summer? CMU makes an additional 25k from you.
3-hour pro-seminar is a waste of money and time. Its only purpose is to prepare you for capstone drama.
- Literally zero benefit.
- Basically forced to stay late to hear one of our MHCI admins rant about her messed up life and how she attacked someone at a gas station.
- Forced to sit through conflict (anger) management sessions.
- Learn what kind of conflict/workstyle you have by matching you to a spirit animal - this was done through buzzfeed-like questionnaires, and by an MHCI admin with no background in psychology.
Faculty and administration
- Lack of people of color, the entire MHCI administration and capstone faculty are caucasian.
- Did not have professors from the school of computer science for our capstone faculty, which was, quite frankly, the expectation going into this program. Majority were consultants, and seemingly acquaintances of our program head.
The program head
- Capable of talking for hours, yet maybe 1% of the content is actual content.
- Repeatedly touts that we “are the leaders in the industry”, when the cohort’s skill levels do not reflect that, and the work we produce is lesser than that of our competitor programs. Honestly unsure whether he is delusional, or simply wants to avoid the reality that we are not sufficiently trained to enter the workforce.
- Was unable to teach us how to perform well in design interviews (in the class where he was supposed to explain white board challenges, he explained the benefits of using a list. Like a bullet-point list.)
Does not prepare you for industry jobs
- They do not teach you that as a successful product designer having visual skills are vital. You have no idea how to do design challenges/whiteboard challenges.
- The extreme emphasis on capstone, which is where the program makes its money from, will consume all of your attention, leaving you no room to do your portfolio in the spring semester. Your classmates and capstone teammates are also just as clueless about the importance of job hunt in spring semester. Their expectation for you as a capstone teammate is to do capstone all day long. Thus when you graduate in August, your portfolio is not ready and you also missed the big spring hiring season for fall. This is extremely disappointing knowing 90% of the people who attend this program seek jobs. Just compare the graduates of this program with graduates from other programs and see where they all ended up