- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: PROs: Reputed University, good resources, 100% scholarship and a TA. CONs: mixed reviews about faculties and again a 3 year program instead of 2.
I graduated from UIUC’s undergrad a few years ago, so I can’t speak too much to their grad program, but I can address some of those pros and cons regarding their ID program in general.
When I was there (about four years ago), it seemed like the whole program was in a period of transition. What exactly it was in the process of transitioning to I can’t quite say for sure, but it was definitely in the midst of change. My impression was that some of the people in charge wanted the program to shift away from the sort of “hard science” of ID (manufacturing knowledge, model making etc.) and more towards the “soft science” (design research, human factors etc.), if that makes any sense. It seemed that the attitude was that skills like CAD, manufacturing, prototyping and shop skills were things you could teach yourself, and that the purpose of the program was to expand your thinking about design. For a grad student, this might be perfect, but for myself as a confused young design undergrad, it was quite frustrating.
When I started, they had just eliminated the manufacturing class, and I was in the last model-making class before they eliminated that as well. There was one Solidworks class, but it wasn’t required, and the teacher in charge of it taught in a manner that made it seem like they had drawn the short straw to get stuck with it. The only materials class they offered was an elective put on by the science college. On the other hand, they were offering more and more classes that had to do with things like human factors, disability research and the like. Being a grad student, you probably don’t need the basic skill courses, and a focus on the more “theoretical” aspects of design might be just what your looking for. It’s worth keeping in mind.
As far as the faculty is concerned, that also seemed to be in a period of flux. My graduating year in particular, the teaching staff seemed to be in a bit of a chaotic position. They were all brilliant in their respective disciplines, but seemed like their minds were elsewhere. Some of them had health problems that were keeping them from fully engaging in their work as professors, some had some pretty serious family problems that were (understandably) distracting them. Some were clearly planning on retiring soon and seemed a bit listless in class, and some were clearly being pressured towards retirement despite wanting more influence over the direction of the program. This left a lot of the work to the TAs, who handled the responsibility with mixed results. Some were clearly talented designers who tried to help as much as they could, but others clearly felt that they had been burdened with more than they had signed up for. One TA in particular had no previous background in design and was self described as “not-a-people-person”. Both of the professors in charge of our senior class during our thesis were often absent due to said aforementioned health problems, so she was often left entirely in charge of running our studios and critiques. It often didn’t go well.
As I was graduating, they were starting to hire on some new faculty who seemed more energetic than when I was there. Perhaps I had just attended during an “off” year or two, and the years before and after were more organized and lived up the reputation that UIUC seems to have. I kept in close contact with some of the younger students for a year or two after graduating, and it seemed like some of the things I mentioned were improving. The ID studios were moved from the main art building to a smaller building across the street. Some saw this as a step down and a sign that the university’s priorities were shifting away from ID, others saw it as an improvement and a recognition of ID as a separate discipline from things like painting and sculpture that really needed its own space. I didn’t experience life after the move, so I can’t speak to that specifically, but I figured it was worth mentioning.
Those are the problems I had with the program, but it had huge up sides as well.
UIUC is a big university, so it has a lot of resources you can draw on. Their library system is the third largest in the country (after Harvard and Yale). Their engineering school is also one of the biggest and most well appointed in the country, so if you make some friends in the engineering school, you can sneak access to some pretty high tech 3D printing technology. UIUC also gets involved in some pretty cool projects like the Solar House project, which is an awesome opportunity.
While the program at UIUC seemed kind of disorganized at the time, my fellow students were not. UIUC clearly attracted a lot of talent, and some of my fellow students were (and still are) some of the better designers I’ve ever met. I learned a lot about self motivation by working next to them. I think that is certainly worth something.
Urbana-Champaign is also a great town. I’m not sure where you’re from originally, but if you’re going to live in central Illinois, you could do a lot worse than CU. It’s a relatively small town (compared to some of the other places you’re considering moving to), but it certainly isn’t the boring midwestern town you would expect based on its location. Its restaurant and bar scene is way more hopping than a town that size deserves. Urbana is still one of the prettiest American towns I’ve ever lived in, and I miss hanging out in downtown Champaign to this day. I know one shouldn’t pick a grad school based on the night life, but I think quality of life outside of class is worth quite a bit, and the CU is a lot nicer than people from outside the Midwest ever seem to assume.
The key with a school like UIUC is self motivation. If you want something done, you really have to do it yourself. That was a lesson I learned too late. You can’t depend on the professors to give you interesting projects, you shouldn’t take all their feedback as gospel, and you shouldn’t wait for the system to tell you what it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’ll need to come up with your own ideas and take them as far as you can on your own.
Those are my many thoughts. Hopefully I’ve been helpful.