The Question: Do people in the industry consider HCI a non-technical field? Do they expect me to have more design and social science skills than technical ones? Finally, does having a PhD in HCI hinder my chances to achieving my career goal (see below)? If so, I might better leaving the program and get back to industry, or am I?

My career goal is to end up in top notch software firms, as a software developer or data scientist. I also would like to start a business later on. Being a professor and/or researcher is not my ideal career.

The story: I am a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). I am in my early second year of my studies, and have more than two more years to go (it is a 3-4 year program). As a technically oriented person, with a strong interest in CS theory and software development, I tried to define my research plan with major technical aspects, with a focus on machine learning. Even though I just have basic skills in ML, I think I can become pretty good at it during the course of my studies.

But recently I stumbled upon a job listing with hundreds of HCI related ads, many of them in major companies, and most of them expecting the applicants to have skills in UX, design, performing user studies etc, which is not what I want to end up doing.

My background: I am 29, have been in the industry for 12 years (as a software developer and also hardware designer). Most part of my industry experience was in my home (a third world) country, which doesn't give me much recognition in developed countries. My main motivation of doing a PhD was that of credit, since the school is a world-wide top ten, and that of freedom in choosing the subject of my work. I also knew my supervisor from previous collaboration, and liked working with him. Also the offer (from a financial point of view, and for a PhD studentship) was quite attractive, equal to a junior-mid level industrial position.

  • While I don't necessarily think this is out of scope because of the specific focus on one topic, you might find better answers on the careers section of ux.stackexchange.com: ux.stackexchange.com/search?q=career – Suresh Feb 14 '14 at 18:07
  • What university grants a degree in HCI? Is this the title that will go on your diploma? – Scott Seidman Jun 3 '15 at 0:14
  • @ScottSeidman it's a newer degree often folded into Computer Science, but you can have a literal Doctor of Philosophy in Human Computer Interaction on your diploma at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, or University of Washington. – y3sh Nov 7 '16 at 19:19
  • @A.Lee some companies excited about HCI phd's that actually foster HCI research include Google (UX Researcher), Adobe Research, Microsoft Research, IBM Research, and AutoDesk Research. – y3sh Nov 7 '16 at 19:21
  • Consider game development as well, modern AAA titles can have more than 100 programmers and human computer interaction should be an important part, especially for innovative concepts. I don't think they use Machine Learning, however. – Konrad Höffner Jan 18 '18 at 11:39

I am a little puzzled by your career goal and perhaps, this is rather early for you to decide.

Your immediate goals are:

  1. Software Developer
  2. Data Scientist

Your future goal is:


As far as I am aware, you don't need a phd to be a software developer and certainly not for an entrepreneur. So, discussion about a PhD in HCI is moot there.

There are also excellent data science jobs available with a bachelors or masters degree pre-requisite but a PhD can certainly help there.

A PhD candidate in HCI usually goes towards one of three ways -

They can gravitate towards usability design/usability studies/usability analysis. This requires ~60% knowledge in social sciences (e.g. theory, experimental design) and ~40% knowledge in the computing sciences - basically in applications (e.g. applied ML, application development)

They can also gravitate towards data analysis i.e what industry calls data science (I am not a fan of that term). For that, ideally they should have ~70% data analysis knowledge (ML is not the only approach for analyzing data) and ~30% social science knowledge. (i.e. if you are in the Facebook data science team and studying rumor propagation then you better have a very good intuitive grasp of cascades, diffusions and homo/heterophily theory). Many data scientists have 0 knowledge of their domain - which is both a reflection of their demand as well as the inchoate state of what "data science" actually is.

Finally, there are those rare few who manage a zen-like balance between social and computing sciences. They are equally good in qualitative and quantitative methodologies and have appreciation for all spheres of knowledge. Generally, I find these folks in academia (which is not to say that you won't find such folks in industrial research - you will!)

Answers to your particular question:

1. Do people in the industry consider HCI a non-technical field?

No. This depends on what your specialization is and what you have done so far.

2. Do they expect me to have more design and social science skills than technical ones?

No. Not necessarily. Again, this depends on who you are and what you have done so far.

3. Finally, does having a PhD in HCI hinder my chances to achieving my career goal

Yes, but its not a function of HCI but the fact of being enrolled in any PhD program. As I pointed out, you don't need a PhD to do software development or to be an entrepreneur. There is some advantage in having a PhD if you want to go specifically into data science but you can also see many counterexamples in industry - those who enter the data science domain with a MS and do extremely well.

Therefore, your current plan of action depends on what you want to do immediately. I urge you to ponder and self-reflect whether spending a sizable chunk of your adult life in a PhD is really worth it for you if all you want to do is to write code or start a business or analyze data.

Most PhD candidates from my departments and other similar ones in the US (CMU, UDub, GaTech etc.) either go into academia or into industrial research. I know of a few examples of folks who dropped out of their PhD with a MS because they realized that they don't want to do research but they want to contribute to industry in other ways.

  • Thanks, very good answers indeed. Answer #3 puzzles me though: if that is the case, why many companies (e.g. google) have a 'PhD preferable' line in their job ads? May you reflect on that? Thank! – Ali Alavi Feb 14 '14 at 23:11
  • Many companies may have PhD preferable for certain job positions (especially if they are research-y) but for the vast majority of such positions, they make do with BS and MS applicants. Students in our MPS program regularly get jobs in industry in both development as well as analysis with good salaries. – Shion Feb 15 '14 at 3:45

If your goal is to be a software developer, they see your HCI background as a plus to their developer, because you'll understand tasks better and see things that they may not. If you don't have experience in things like UX, design, and user studies, don't apply for the jobs that need them, because they will test you on it. If you do want those jobs, good news! You have two years still to learn those things!

I have a BSc in CPSC with a concentration in HCI and a minor in Visual Studies and Art History. I took the minor because I wanted to learn how to express my ideas better. Eventually I'll go back and get a MSc in HCI. There are multiple HCI jobs open, but you usually do need that experience that you mentioned as you'll be doing things like designing the interfaces and doing research on what is good and what isn't. I am a Software Developer at my job, though a front end software developer. They loved the idea of a person who had HCI and design in their background and respect my opinions on it, but they have other people who do the designs. This sounds like the type of job you want. If that's the case, simply put your degree on your resume with detail on what you learned and excel in because of it, but only apply for software developer jobs. They will respect what you did for school and it can only help you.

To answer your first question, I have always had my HCI concentration be considered technical because I did work with HCI in school. In other words, I made the designs, coded it myself, and defended and tested to show that it was GOOD human computer interaction. So I guess for you, it's only technical if you've been doing work with your concentration in a technical way. If you have people creating the designs and user stories for you, and the low-, medium-, and high-fidelity mock-ups, and then you just implement them, that's not HCI technical, you're just coding while someone else does the hard HCI stuff.

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