10 questions about going to grad school, answered
A prospective NYU student reached out to me for advice regarding whether or not to go to NYU’s Integrated Design & Media MS program, so I sent them an email with some of my responses. I realized it’d be valuable to share this information with others. Several other folks have reached out to me over the years, but this was the first time I’d thought to compile my opinions into a shareable piece! Below is the Q&A from our digital conversation along with some extra questions I compiled from other prior exchanges about grad school (and, more specifically, NYU’s IDM program).
Why did you decide to go to grad school?
After barreling through pre-K to an undergrad degree, I spent four years in the workforce. That’s four years of shipping products, focusing on growth, and being metrics-driven. I eventually yearned for a space to create without worrying about business constraints. I also wanted the weight that a master’s degree might bestow upon me.
I didn’t go into IDM with the goal of getting a job, though many of my fellow students did. Some of my cohort were transitioning into design from other roles while other were fresh out of undergrad. The program definitely had classes to support those kinds of students, and I’ve seen some of them go on to be successful. However, I am not a person who specifically went to the program to learn to be a designer. I went to flex my skills as a creative individual.
I’m interested in design but am unsure if I should go to grad school. Do you think it’s possible to learn enough online to be decent at UX design?
If your learning style works well with self-teaching and freelancing, that might be the more affordable and equally beneficial route to take. I went to SVA for graphic design back in 2007 but learned most of what I know about UX and web development from self-teaching. Schools can be slow to adapt unless they have teachers who lead the industry. To this day, I read a lot of books, attend conferences, take online tutorials and workshops, try new skills on side projects, and focus on real work experience through my full-time job (plus I also used to freelance).
School is great for connections, so you can always decide to go when you are more established. Some prior practice can do you good! I was a better student because of my work experience because I already knew “the real world” professors talked about and was able to manage my time like a boss.
Grad school is a different beast. I didn’t treat it like undergrad or high school. It was a job and I worked hard to get the full value out of it. If you’re not sure you want to go yet, no one will judge you for not having a master’s degree OR for taking a few years to do the work.
How did you choose the school you went to?
It was part serendipity, part logic. NYU’s Integrated Design & Media department has an undergraduate and graduate program. IDM undergrad students were a big part of my friend group while I got my Bachelor’s degree at SVA thanks to a high school connection, so I knew the student body well. Their work was the perfect combination of art and tech I wanted to dive into, and the people were quirky, friendly, and kind. I am still friends with some former IDM undergrads to this day!
That being said, I did do my due diligence. I learned about other interactive studies at Parson’s, NYU Game Center, and ITP. All of them were quite expensive for the amount of credits and time required, and I didn’t have extra funds at the ready so I needed to be financially stringent.
Meanwhile, IDM’s financial aid office worked with me to make it affordable. They connected me to fellowships and potential scholarships. When it came to comparing NYU Game Center and ITP, I mostly looked at price and credits per class — IDM is 3, Game Center and ITP are 2. IDM being a part of NYU also meant I would have access to professors from other NYU schools (including Game Center).
How valuable were the career services provided by IDM and its professors?
IDM has tons of resources since they’re under the NYU umbrella and are a tech hub. To be honest, I didn’t use the career services much since I already had a job. But I do know that they hosted a lot of good networking events and job fairs for people who weren’t in my position. Grad students were also required to a weekly colloquium during which external presenters would speak about their career path and provide advice to students. Additionally, the IDM space is an events venue where external folks host hackathons and presentations — I’ve even hosted a few there — so you’ll get to be around and connect with lots of interesting people (when that’s a thing)!
Was IDM’s approach to projects practical enough to allow for a valuable portfolio — especially for folks newer to design?
Professors in the program were often flexible with projects in the classes I took, so I was able to create a consistent body of work without much issue. For example, I turned a lot of my projects into games. As I mentioned before, IDM also has career-focused courses for people who wanted to build a professional design portfolio. You certainly could get a lot of good-looking work done in class.
I’d also recommend trying to build up some real world experience while you’re in school, though. That will benefit you most because employers want to see case studies of work that involves realistic processes and constraints. You may even be able to leverage your grad school studies into a solid internship that could lead to a full-time offer!
How would you rate the quality of your peers, professors, facilities and the IDM program overall?
The classes were full of women, more specifically women of color. I never felt left out or singled out. There were a couple of unmotivated people, but you get those in every program so I’d consider this a high score.
Interesting subject matter, cool people, thoughtful classes, and interesting assignments. Professors are super supportive and guide you through the process of going from zero to hundred-page thesis paper. I still keep in touch with some of them to this day!
A+! Super beautiful, usable for brainstorming, well-lit, and well-conditioned. The school computers and printers were high quality and up-to-date. I was also able to rent expensive equipment when necessary for certain classes.
IDM tries to do a lot, which makes it very flexible. Not for everyone, but great for my use case since I wanted to make games and other interactive art. There are some required classes that cover topics such as copyright law and the history of experimental digital artists, but otherwise I focused on bettering my engineering and writing skills. Highly recommended if it aligns with what you’re looking to get out of the experience!
How did you pay for grad school?
Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t have to pay very much out-of-pocket. IDM was a 3 semester program full-time, which made it more affordable and approachable than 4+ semester programs. A large portion of my learning was funded by a paid teaching fellowship for my first two semesters. The fellowship was tough schedule-wise but perfect for me: I taught high school girls girls to program video games on the weekend.
The fellowship ended before my last semester, so I applied for scholarships. Thankfully, I received a Generation Google scholarship that helped cover my final semester. The scholarship included a multi-day retreat full of recruiting and networking, which was cool but unnecessary for me since I kept my full-time job.
How did you hold a full-time job AND make time for the grad school work?!
I am well-versed in working while going to school. As an undergrad, I took 5-7 classes per semester and had a job that required 20 hours of time per week. IDM only required approximately 30 credits to graduate. That was ten classes in total. My first semester was 3 classes, the second 4 (a STRETCH for sure), and the final one was 3 classes (including a thesis prep class).
My regular classes were about 3 hours each week, but I also requested one independent study class with a specific awesome teacher each semester. Independent study classes are much more intimate, but they’re also more infrequent. This helped me manage to build awesome projects like SweetXheart while also getting 1:1 time with a talented professor.
Most classes were at night, but there were a few required morning classes that went until noon each week. I was able to attend those by negotiating with my employer to devote 20% of my time to grad school classes. At the end of my grad school studies, I fulfilled my end of the bargain by presenting what I learned to folks at the company.
How did you avoid burnout during grad school?
I’ll be upfront with you: grad school is tough. You will constantly feel like quitting. Midterms and finals are deeply challenging, even in an arts program. You’re paying an arm and a leg to feel like you’re teetering on the edge of failure.
If you’re a planner, blocking out time on your calendar can help a lot — especially if you’re juggling work, school, and a social life. I’ve always been a planner, and grad school made that even more important. Several professors underscored the value of time management and taught students to manage their calendars. This can help you spot and avoid moments of overwork.
Since I was working while in school, I used calendaring as an opportunity to spot times of the year when I’d need to take paid time off to catch up with school. For example, I’d take a week off before exams of deadlines for final projects. If you can’t take PTO or find yourself overwhelmed for other reasons, switching to part-time or pausing your studies are very respectable options to consider.
How did grad school affect you?
I happened to be in the same field before and after my time in grad school, but I did grow as a designer and professional through my time at IDM. It mentally prepared me for taking on larger scales of work by enabling me to organize and manage my time even better. It also solidified my opinion that I did not want to enter the gaming industry full-time (at least for the time being — you can read more about my decision in this post). I enjoy making games for fun!
What advice would you give to someone entering grad school?
The best thing to do is define your goals and understand how a graduate degree can help you. Do you have digital media projects you’d like to work on? Do you want connections? Grad school can help you get a job, but you will also likely owe thousands of dollars to financial institutions. If you have little experience, I think you’ll benefit more from improving your skills before going in since most schools give merit and talent scholarships. Piling up debt for no reason sucks.
Finding Meaning In Design When Nothing Is Fine
We’re all aware: working while under duress is terrible! Especially as a designer. People often talk about design as a superpower because you can illustrate the future—and it often is quite magical. But when your skillset doesn’t feel immediately relevant to your survival, the magic evaporates. In this very personal and relatable talk, I will share my experience with navigating hard times and experiencing a career block. Attendees will learn techniques for overcoming the malaise and building a guided, sustainable design career.
Want to talk?
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