Annie Sanford is a MSc Human-Computer Interaction Design student.
What motivated you to pursue postgraduate study?
I was feeling somewhat unfulfilled in my previous job, so I began exploring potential new career directions. I knew I wanted to continue working in a collaborative environment, but I also wanted to find a role that was both creative and technical, and had a better work-life balance outlook, as well.
I’d worked with a lot of people involved in product research and decision-making and was interested in what they were doing, so I began researching roles in UX research, UX design, and product management.
I spoke to people in all three roles, took a few online LinkedIn Learning courses, and tried my hand at creating designs in Figma to see how I liked it. At this point, I felt pretty confident that I wanted to pursue a career in UX. The natural next step for me was to look at postgraduate programs in HCI.
I thrive in the kind of learning environment found in higher education institutions, much more than in an online bootcamp or self-taught course. I also knew that having a master’s degree would propel me forward in the industry like self-learning or bootcamps couldn’t, and it would give me the best preparation for switching into a new field.
Tangentially, it had always been a dream of mine to live in the UK, where my grandmother grew up. Pursuing a postgraduate degree here is one of the easiest ways for an American to live across the pond, so it just made sense to look for a master’s course in the UK.
What were you doing before applying for a postgraduate degree?
Prior to studying at City, I worked as a research project manager at a tech company in the US for close to three years. Before that, I did my undergrad at Furman University in South Carolina (USA), where I double-majored in sociology and communication studies.
Were there any challenges affecting your decision to study a postgraduate degree? If so, how did you overcome them?
The pandemic, of course, created a lot of unknowns. When I was applying for programs in the winter of 2020/2021, Covid-19 was very much still raging, with no clear end in sight. News of possible vaccine breakthroughs had only just begun picking up.
I wasn’t sure what the world would look like the following Autumn, when I was planning on starting a course. Would school be completely online? Would everything in the UK be closed? Would I even be able to move overseas?
I was very nervous about how Covid-19 might impact the program, as I knew I wouldn’t do as well in a completely online course, and one of the big reasons I was going to graduate school now was to live abroad.
On top of that, I also had a dog and a serious boyfriend that I was hoping to bring with me.
We weren’t sure whether or not he would be able to find a job that would pay well enough for him to be able to make the move. I also knew that getting my dog to the UK and finding dog-friendly housing would be very challenging, too.
Ultimately, I had to take a bit of a leap of faith that everything would work out alright in the end - and thankfully, it did. The vaccines were rolled out the summer before I started my program, allowing restrictions to ease up.
My boyfriend was able to find a great job that would sponsor his visa and allow him to relocate with me. I put in a lot of time, money, phone calls, emails, paperwork, vet visits, and prayers to get my dog over here.
I also was able to find pet-friendly housing within our budget in Zone 2, just a short four tube stops away from campus. A number of things could have gone wrong that would have completely derailed our plans, but by some miracle, all of it worked out in the end. Looking back, I’m so glad I took that leap of faith!
Why did you choose City?
I chose City for a number of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to live in London, and I knew a university in London would have the best industry connections, both in the UK and abroad.
I also saw that City had really high student satisfaction scores, and the tuition fees (even as an international student) were the most affordable. The HCID department, which my program is under, has a strong reputation and is one of the oldest HCI programs in the UK.
Masters students have the opportunity to participate in the Interaction Lab, which provides students with real, hands-on experience during the course. It’s also one of the few programs that doesn’t require incoming students to have a computer science undergraduate degree, which was important for me as I did not study computer science beforehand.
I compared the modules on City’s HCID program to the modules on other, similar programs in the UK, and I liked City’s the best. I also read online forums about City’s HCID program, where City’s course was compared very favorably to others. After attending a virtual Open Day for my program at City, I knew it was the right choice for me.
How are you funding your studies – did you secure any financial support?
I am self-funding my studies. I worked for several years to save up for graduate school.
How are you finding studying in the UK?
Studying in the UK has been a really exciting experience so far! I love living in London - even on its gray days, it’s such a vibrant city.
The pub culture here is so much better than bar culture back home, in my opinion. It’s nice to be able to meet up with friends in beer gardens and socialize casually over a pint. Beyond pubs, there’s so much to do here - from fun markets like Camden Market and Borough Market, to the myriad of (often free!) museums and historical buildings.
Each neighborhood here has a distinct personality - it’s like being in a completely different city when you journey to a new one. I also love all of the huge parks London has to offer - I live between Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath, which each offer one of the best views of the London city skyline.
My dog loves the parks, as well - people are very dog-friendly around here, even more so than in the states. I will never forget the first time I went to a nice Italian restaurant shortly after moving here and seeing a dog sitting at the table across from me!
As far as actually studying here goes, there are a lot of other Americans at City, which I didn’t expect. I also didn’t expect how different the education system would be here. Unlike in the US, each class only meets once a week in my program at City (but each session is 3 hours long, with breaks).
I have two classes per day, so I go to school twice a week - this frees up a lot of my week for personal studying and freetime. My master’s course is only a year long, compared to 2 years in the US.
Higher education is a lot more affordable here than in the US, too, which was a major draw for me to come study in the UK (and might explain why there are so many Americans).
There is not a lot of graded material throughout the course, unlike in the states. Here, my final grade in a class is determined by either one coursework only (we call them “projects” back home), a coursework and an exam, or (rarely) two courseworks.
The grading system here can take some getting used to. While I don’t have as strong a sense of how well I’m doing in a course throughout the term like I would in an American program, where we receive a steady stream of graded assignments, I am not burdened down with extra work and can therefore focus more on readings and my final courseworks.
All in all, studying in the UK is noticeably different from my experiences as a student in the US, but it’s been fun to experience something new and be a student all over again.
What does a typical week at university look like for you?
Typically, I go to school for class twice a week, for 7-8 hours each day. I often spend a few hours reading for class and working on my courseworks on the days I am not in lectures, including weekends.
This ramps up around the halfway point in the term, when coursework deadlines are quickly approaching. I do still have a good bit of freetime, though, which I usually spend at home with my boyfriend and dog or out in London with my friends from school.
Just yesterday I celebrated Holi with around ten people from my cohort - it was really fun! If you make an effort to make friends among your classmates, there will always be something to do.
What has been your favourite module or aspect of your course so far?
I really enjoyed my first lecture last term, interaction design. I felt that the content in it was the most useful for my future UX career.
I was also able to make great friends from my group coursework team, and the coursework provided a great learning experience that replicated what kinds of things I would do in a real job. I'm obviously biased, but I also think the design we created for our coursework provided an excellent project for my portfolio!
What knowledge and skills has your course helped you develop?
I came into this program knowing little about HCI or UX. In just a few short months, I have learned so much: from following a user-centered design process to create an effective product design, to conducting and analyzing user research; from creating prototypes in Figma, to coding my own website.
Aside from the core UX concepts, the program has also given me the opportunity to develop soft skills like effective time management, organization, prioritization, collaboration, leadership, communication, and planning.
We have also had a lot of guest speakers from the industry come in to tell us about the profession, many of whom are alumni of the program.
Just this week we had someone from a London design company come talk about what it's like to work in an agency, a group of HCI researchers showcase their design workbook, and a UX expert give a presentation on how to optmize our design portfolios.
I am amazed looking back at how far I've come along in half a year.
What opportunities and experiences has City offered you so far?
Thanks to my program at City, I've been able to create a lot of high-quality, tangible work that I can showcase on my portfolio and talk about in interviews.
My school within City also has an internship and career office that gives internship preparation talks, holds resume workshops, provides mock interviews, and posts internship listings specifically for City students.
My program also has strong connections to many people in the industry, several of whom have come to our classes to talk about their jobs and companies, give advice to current students, and even review our portfolios.
I've recently gotten the opportunity to conduct a mock usability test in City's Interaction Lab, which was particularly useful in helping me learn to plan effective user research sessions. The professors in my department are all really knowledgeable and seem to truly care about our learning.
Just being able to live in London and be a student again has been an incredibly enriching experience for me, and I'm happy I came to City.
What are your career plans and how has City prepared you for them?
When I joined this program, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do UX research, UX design, or product management. City's program has allowed me to work on projects involving every aspect of UX and develop the skills needed for all three of the roles I'm interested in.
I've also been able to hear from a variety of different people in industry thanks to City's connections, which has helped me refine my goals. I am still open-minded about my ideal career trajectory at this point, but I think I am leaning towards starting as a UX designer and then going into product management once I've gotten some design experience first.
Thanks to the courseworks I've completed at City that I've been able to showcase on my portfolio, I have gotten a head start on lining up my next steps. This summer I will be interning on a UX design team at London's JP Morgan Chase & Co office.
After I complete my dissertation in late September, I will start a 6-month UX design internship at Amazon. I also received a full-time job offer as an associate product manager at Spotify, but I unfortunately had to turn it down due to timing conflicts.
Nevertheless, I feel very confident that I am employable, thanks in large part to my degree from City.
What advice would you give to someone considering a postgraduate degree?
Do your research! There are a lot of programs in the same area of study that are completely different. Think about what your goals for going to grad school are, and where you want to end up afterwards.
Some programs are better for preparing you for a PhD, while some are better for getting you a job afterwards. I recommend looking at alumni of the school and program you're interested in on LinkedIn - what are they doing now?
Is that where you want to be, too? For me, I believe City's HCI program does the best job at putting people in industry, especially in UX design (although our UX research career results are strong, too!).
You will definitely be prepared for a PhD here as well, if that is your end goal; however, compared to some of the other HCI programs in the UK, I think City has the strongest direct-to-industry results.
That was important for me in making my decision, as I wanted a job, not an entry into another degree. So far, I think City has delivered in that regard.