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I often receive e-mails from people who want to know how to get a job in the UX field. This is usually preceded with "I saw your post on X about the your students who got a job at Y." It's true that UBalt's MS in IDIA places graduates at some really interesting places, like Google or eBay or Federal work. But our success hasn't been magical in any way. We follow a simple model to help students get the kinds of jobs they want: Skills, experience, and portfolios. I'm going to explain these three elements and why each one is important to potential employers.
Be aware that some skills come and go. Any skill that requires a computer should be considered fleeting as there will be new ways to do things in as short as 6 months and most definitely in 5 years. Other skills, like paper prototyping, storyboarding, and interviewing, are less temporary.
Once you have skills, you need to apply them. This is where experience comes in. The easiest way is to do projects that use your skills for a real client. You can apply your skills at work, or if that's not possible, you can volunteer your skills for a charitable cause. I've seen people do work for their local SPCA, house of worship, or neighborhood association. If you learned your skills in a class, then your class projects become the experience. (Hopefully, your classes are working with real clients!) If you are in class, you may want to find out what kinds of research local faculty are doing and see if you can work with them. Doing applied research is a great way to gain experience. Experience is the foundation for a career.
You need to keep lots of notes about your projects. The best kinds of projects require you to do lots of iterations and the final project may not reflect all the ins and outs you explored as you got there. Documenting your experiences with prototypes, photos of user tests, and a journal will be useful later in looking for new opportunities.
You have skills and you've used those skills gaining experience. The last step is to show off what you have done in a portfolio. The portfolio should not be pretty pictures of final projects. Instead, it should reflect each project's journey by showing the process, the inputs, the deliverables, and the user tests. It should also include a statement from you about each project of how you've become a better UX designer through this project. Did you implement a new technique? Did you learn the value of working with end-users? All of that kind of material needs to be in the portfolio. Your portfolio should be a living thing and you need to continue to add to it as you gain more experience. The portfolio is the embodiment of a career.
I have heard from multiple (really awesome) employers that seeing a portfolio with finished work is always disappointing. They want you to take them through your process and be ready to talk about the highs and lows of the project. They are interested in your skills but they are also interested in who you are and how you think. A well done portfolio that demonstrates skills through experiences is the key to doing interesting projects.
If you are interested in pursuing a Masters or post-undergrad certificate, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org