Critical thoughts on CMU's MHCI program

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 :slight_smile:

Hi there,

Thank you so much for sharing the insiders’ thoughts! I’m glad that you consider this forum a “safe space” to share honest opinions and I’m sure this will be a good reference point for people who are interested in the program!

I’d like to add some of my observations related to the points you brought up:

  1. I believe most of the criticisms in this post are not unique to the CMU MHCI program. They are widespread pain points for UX programs in general. For example, some of the cohorts from my program (MHCID@UW, 2015 - 2016) also voiced similar concerns in 2015 -2016, such as the subpar curriculum/teaching quality, not enough job search support, mismatched commitment of undergrads…etc.

  2. I think this is due to the fact that many programs were hastily put together to meet the current UX demand in the job market. We have to recognize that it’s inherently difficult to build a good curriculum from scratch and to assemble a strong teaching faculty (given that the financial incentive is not high in academia comparing to working in the tech industry).

  3. In my experience, the quality of a program depends on so many things – the director’s vision, the teaching members, the school’s infrastructure and resources…etc. Similarly, the quality of a course also highly depends on who’s teaching. Given the same course name, different teachers can deliver drastically different teaching experiences.

  4. Another difficult aspect is that students in UX/HCI programs usually have diverse backgrounds – meaning their starting points are very different. Some may already work in the industry as a designer/researcher/programmer for a few years. Others may just graduate from college without any hands-on training. This prevents most curriculum designs from going too deep to accommodate students of all levels. As a result, my general observation is that the more inexperienced students are, the more they can benefit from attending a UX/HCI program.

  5. We can also debate about the purpose of higher education in UX. Is the main purpose to prepare students for job searching (E.g. emphasize on portfolio building, interview tips…etc)? Or is it to teach foundational knowledge of UX (E.g. Psychology, Computer Science, Visual Design…etc.)?

  6. I believe one of the main reasons that make students so frustrated is the exorbitant cost to get the degree. This creates a much higher expectation of the job prospect post-graduation. Again, this issue is not unique to the CMU MHCI program, but to the for-profit higher education in the U.S. in general. (We can go on and on to debate about capitalism / education system here…)

  7. Besides, there’s an unspoken secret – the career outcome of students may not be directly related to the quality of the program. As long as the program can attract great talents in the first place, those talents will always find ways to excel in their career disregarding how much they actually learn from the program, which will keep maintaining a good “reputation” of the program.

  8. With that said, I’m still hopeful in terms of the whole UX education. For example, after receiving the criticism from my cohort in 2016, the UW MHCID faculty did put in effort in addressing the feedback in the coming years. For example, recruit teachers with industry experiences, establish a mentorship program with alumni, conduct more industry outreach…etc. As far as I know, the program is now in a much better shape comparing to 4 years ago when I attended.

  9. If you find out that the program of your choice doesn’t live up to your expectation, my recommendation is to accept the negative and double down on the positive. For example, students can always utilize the “connection” – reaching out to alumni in the industry disregarding if the program gives you the contact info or not. Another example is to take electives that you find useful in other faculties (e.g. if you crave more technical knowledge, just take electives from the CS faculty directly).

  10. Lastly, I’d encourage students to take ownership of your study goal/plan. For example, if your goal is to land a satisfying job post-graduation, then your focus should NOT be getting a high score in your capstone or sitting through a 3-hour seminar that drains you. Perhaps you can keep building on a student project, turning it into a real product, and throw in the App Store. Perhaps you can attend a hackathon, working on a “practical” issue with cross-functional peers. I’ve seen students adopt the above strategies which resulted in much more “job-ready” portfolios upon graduation.

Thanks again for putting these thoughts together! This type of in-depth review is what I was hoping to gather when I created this forum in the first place. Good luck to you all! :slight_smile:

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Thank you OP for posting this, and Kaiting for the thoughtful reply. I’m also a recent graduate of the MHCI program. I agree 100% with the OP’s experiences, especially with the faculty advisors’ questionable expertise and inherent institutional racism that deeply runs through the program.

Kaiting also raised so many important points. It also made me incredibly sad because while UW’s MHCID program listened to the students and made efforts to restructure the program, I doubt that the CMU MHCI program would do the same. I have so many things to say about my experiences, but I’ll start with this: the program structure is extremely rigid and outdated. There is no room for any achievements and growth, like taking our idea further or exploring new domains. (Alums, think of our IxD projects) Our director of student affairs repeatedly made it clear that no student spends time on side projects, volunteer work, or take extra classes. I think a few of us got yelled at for trying to do that.

The entire time, I got the impression that our faculty was belittling us and treating the students like children. After talking to my classmates, I learned that this was not just my experience. If the program refuses to listen and see the reality of how subpar the project outcomes have become compared to other programs, I truly believe the MHCI program will lose its reputation. And I say this with the deepest regret. No one wants the degree they spent so much money on to become irrelevant in the industry. But it’s the reality.

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Older MHCI alum here and I agree with a lot of your points. I will say that a few years out, I have started to see the value of the program and how my training has made me better than say, bootcamp alums (though I have also met amazing bootcamp alums). I also think you were also in a very unlucky situation with COVID taking away a lot of the in-person education benefits while still (I’m assuming) paying full-sticker price, and that must have been really frustrating.

Some of my peers and I are also undecided if the MHCI is a net positive, especially considering its tuition cost.

TLDR: Agreed with most of your sentiments. I was disappointed by the program especially given how much it costs. But the MHCI alum network is still incredibly valuable. If someone asked me today what I’d recommend, I’d say to look deeper into UW’s HCDE program before making a decision. I believe they’re still a fraction of the CMU tuition

I wanted to reply to your points with some perspective, having a bit of distance from the program.

The program’s core courses do not provide a strong body of work to use in a portfolio.
IxD and UCRE - I did learn a few things that I still use affinity diagramming, good survey design, good interview questions, basic design principles). I do think that overall they could be better. It seems like the staff is receptive to feedback every year, but I am unsure of how much they actually implement.

The program’s core courses are not unique/tailored to MHCI - we share our courses with undergraduates.
Exact same sentiments to the T. Nothiing to add here. May be a logistical challenge to have grad only courses, but then lower the tuition cost to reflect the level of service. I believe that the powers that determine tuition are not the same powers that determine curriculum. And though I empathize with this pain, it is not an excuse.

Lack of individual skill development and extremely heavy emphasis on teamwork
I don’t disagree but I did find some use out of the way it’s structured. With zero UX background, I was able to learn a mile wide about the various tools out there (part of it is from classmates as well). I agree that all those group projects really take time away from developing depth.

The “computer” in HCI is greatly undermined - reduced emphasis on developing programming ability, despite being in school of computer science
I was pretty disappointed with the summer programming precourse (which we also had to pay ~$800 for); the instructor was so bad (recent alum who had a full time job) we all banded together to complain to the MHCI admin. PUI labs were also pretty disappointing. TAs essentially created the programming HW ad-hoc and while I learned something, I wished it were better structured. I emailed the lead TA some feedback about improving it and was basically told that nothing would change (implied that they had no time to make it better). I’m unsure why they were reinventing the wheel on programming assignments.

I 1000% agree that Capstone is just a way to extract more money out of students. For those who don’t know, MHCI is a 3-semester program. But the third semester, although priced the same as the first two, offers no courses. It is 100% self-structured group work between you and your teammates, with a weekly faculty check-in. I only thought it was worth it because I was able to work on the NASA capstone and see cool things behind the scenes.

In this regard MHCI is a major disadvantage when compared against a 2-year program; many top tech companies hire entry UX designers through their internship programs, which understand that interns only have had about one semester’s worth of portfolios to show for. Because the structure of MHCI does not allow for internships (having a capstone instead), MHCI graduates have a slight disadvantage of not having actual company internship experience. There are always a handful alums each year who go to top tech companies, but rest assured this is more to do with individual skill/experience than program structure.

The capstone may have served its purpose back when companies didn’t really have UX internships, but this is outdated.

3-hour pro-seminar is a waste of money and time. Its only purpose is to prepare you for capstone drama.
Haha. Pro-sem. I agree with you. But I enjoyed it. It was entertaining. Ironically enough, the one who caused capstone drama in my team never went to pro-sem. So it’s a little self-selective that the ones who want to be collaborative actually attend, and the ones who think they are too good for it end up being obnoxiously entitled. I want to argue that this class is good for learning how to manage workplace dynamics too, but it wasn’t for me. Maybe for someone who needs a refresher on social skills.

I actually liked the spirit animal quiz and found it useful.

Faculty and administration
I don’t think lacking people of color is negative. While it would be good to have diversity, this doesn’t detract from the experience. There is a culture of open-mindedness and compassion (we are UX after all. There are women and men, those from religious minorities, etc.

Good point about the consultants but also not necessarily a negative. I had two capstone advisors (one professor, one consultant) and our team loved the consultant advisor way more. She had real-world experience dealing with timelines and compromises. I imagine industry sharpens your skills in a way academia sometimes lacks. The professor was smart, but not practically helpful.

The program head
Yeah, I know who you had as the program head. He’s a nice guy but definitely talks a lot. shrug

Does not prepare you for industry jobs
IxD somewhat prepares you for whiteboard, but I agree. I learned most of it through a book about UX interviews (still highly recommend:

The Good

  • Alumni network: Like some of my peers, I was laid off due to COVID. I applied to jobs through 1) online resume drops, 2) recruiting agencies and 3) the MHCI network, and got a lot more interview callbacks through the MHCI network. Even when I didn’t make the final round, the MHCI alum who interviewed me were more likely to provide interview feedback and help improve my portfolio. I ended up accepting a job through the alum network.

  • The brand: Even if I found the program a little wanting like you did, companies do take note of the CMU MHCI name. A lot of alums seem to have created a strong brand perception of the program. Maybe the past iterations were stronger.

  • The people: My cohort, for the most part, were an amazing group of people. There were some brilliant entitled assholes and some that were clearly questionable candidates, but overall I learned so much from them and still keep in touch with a handful of them. And also the undergrads were amazing. I went to a top undergrad school but was nowhere near the level of skill and dedication I saw from the majority of the undergrads.

  • The electives: MHCI allows you to take from a wide range of other disciplines. I had some interesting classes from public policy and data science.

  • Overall: MHCI taught me enough to know how to do my job competently, all I needed was more experience and confidence. I was able to get a 100k job right out of the gate, so ROI was there. But it still seemed overpriced given the quality I was expecting.

  • Would I recommend the program? Unsure. I would recommend looking into some of the alternative grad programs out there to compare. UW HCDE seems to have great job placement outcomes and is cheaper (when I checked) too.