Carnegie Mellon – HCI Masters program

For people interested in the CMU MHCI (Masters of HCI) program, most of the information you need can be found on the CMU HCII website. The site UI is not attractive and looks out-of-date (I wonder why a lot of the universities’ HCI websites look so bad… When I was searching for schools to apply to, it made me wonder if they really knew what they were doing.) but anyways, compared to other schools, finding information on the program and the requirements for applying was so much easier for CMU. For most other schools, you need to look into the HCI website for information on their research, then go to the school’s graduate admissions page for information on applying. Application requirements from the school were to be found on the graduate admissions page, HCI dept requirements on the HCI dept website and sometimes additional requirements for international students hidden somewhere else and collecting all the information was a pain. But for CMU, all the required info was well organized and they even had a final checklist to make sure you weren’t missing anything to send to the school (a user-centered design!). For other schools, I had to create a big Excel spreadsheet with all the different requirements. But I see that CMU has switched to online application this year and I’m not sure how well that was designed.

One of the biggest differences of the CMU MHCI program compared to other HCI masters programs, and also a thing you should consider very carefully if you are applying, is that it is a professional degree program. Not much research and no thesis. Lots of classes, lots of practice and group projects including a 7-month capstone project with a client and tons and tons of meetings. The program is targeted for students looking for jobs as HCI practitioners after the program. If you’re a research-type person who wants to invent the next-generation input device or if you’re planning on getting a PhD afterwards, this is probably not the right program for you. But if you’re planning on a career as a user experience designer, usability researcher or anything like that, the practice you get in the program will probably be invaluable.

While some students in the program have found some of the group work and practice to be repetitive and sometimes frustrating, others, usually students with previous work experience, often say that it is very useful. Simply knowing the methods and actually understanding how and when to use them is totally different. There are several different HCI methods, the methods and process used greatly varies depending on company and also by the nature of the project. So learning the pros and cons of each method, experiencing how the methods work or don’t work in different situations and trying to find ways to make them work is very important to actually be able to use the methods in the real-world.

Another thing the program emphasizes is learning to work as a group. User experience/HCI work is usually done as a group process and is also more difficult since people in the same group tend to have different backgrounds – computer science, engineering, design, psychology and many more. Therefore, group work is a main part of many courses in the program including the capstone project so that the students get sufficient training to work as a group. And working as a group, especially when it involves things like design where people have strong opinions, can be pretty tough and stressful. Towards the end of the first semester, I’ve had weeks with more than 10 meetings and I’ve spent more than 30 hours – just meeting with groups!

The CMU MHCI program admits about 30 students each year. There’s also a joint MHCI program between CMU and the University of Madeira in Portugal which was started two years ago. There are about 16 students in the Madeira program who study at CMU in Pittsburgh for the first semester and then move to Madeira to complete the rest of the program. So the labs are pretty crowded with nearly 50 students in the first semester, but gets better in the Spring semester. Then we have about 7 students in the accelerated masters program, who continue their studies from undergrad and complete the masters program with one additional semester. As for this year, of the 30 students who are in the CMU MHCI program, about half are U.S. students, 1/4 from India and the rest mostly from Korea, China, Taiwan and a couple from European countries. There’s a good mix of males and females with slightly more males this year. As for the undergrad major for students, I’m not sure of the exact number and this probably differs from year to year, but this year, there are slightly more students from computer science and psychology followed by design and a few others from engineering, liberal arts and other majors. The admission board tries to make a good balance between the majors since at least one person from CS, psychology and design is required for each project group for the capstone project.

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3 Responses to “Carnegie Mellon – HCI Masters program”

  1. Sathya Says:

    Hello,
    This information is very useful to me..i would need some tips on preparing for getting in to CMU..How competetive is getting in to CMU ?
    I m basically from CS back ground..i m intersted in User interface design.
    can u giv me some tips for the preparation….

    Thank you

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