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HCI / Informatics PhD Decision


cranbarrier
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Hello, GradCafe,

I have 5 (holy moly) offers from various HCI (Human-Centered Computing, Information Science) programs around the country. I would love some feedback on making the decision. I love the cohort and students at each, so culture is not a huge factor for me. Although I am leaning towards two schools, in particular, I will post my top 3 and the situation at each:

  • UC Irvine (Informatics):
    When I applied initially, this was my top choice. However, I was not paired to be advised by the faculty I had applied to work with, and was assigned to a new junior faculty member who has not published much in the HCI space (ACM conferences and such). He seems very excited to work with me, but I am a bit nervous about establishing connections in the field and gaining internship and career help because this faculty member is very new and not well known. I have reached out a bit to other people I wished to work with and they are currently at capacity or on sabbatical. I also love the weather and the housing situation is great there, though the city of Irvine is stale.
     
  • UC Boulder (Information Science):
    I am paired with faculty who have very close research interests in mind and we seem to click really well. The program itself is junior, only 2 years old, but the two faculty are founding members and are well-known in the field. There are also some HCI heavy weights who are in the program already. I loved CU Boulder when I visited, because of the climate, proximity to both nature and Denver, and walkablility to restaurants. I am mostly nervous that there have been no PhD graduates yet, thus no internship or job data. Boulder's housing situation seems to be the most problematic of all the schools.
     
  • University of Michigan (Information):
    One of my faculty pairs in particular is a great research match and has ideas for my project I would love to do. There is another faculty member I am not paired with but really like as well. The funding package is also amazing here. Faculty also great really great research and job connections as it is an old program with a great track record. I like the walkability of Ann Arbor, as well. The only major downside is the weather and location. It is pretty far from the bigger cities and real nature (plus, it's flat). The snow in the winter is the worst part, though. And my partner has expressed really not wanting to move north.

I would love some insight from everyone here on these decisions. Thanks so much!

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Are you applying for an MA or PHD? What's your funding like at each school? Is it enough to live in the city? What are the employment prospects in each city for your partner? Does each program allow you to have flexibility in the person(s) you work with? Can you imagine yourself living in each city for several years? Do the faculty members you'd be working with have a prior placement record in previous schools they've worked at?

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4 minutes ago, Warelin said:

Are you applying for an MA or PHD? What's your funding like at each school? Is it enough to live in the city? What are the employment prospects in each city for your partner? Does each program allow you to have flexibility in the person(s) you work with? Can you imagine yourself living in each city for several years? Do the faculty members you'd be working with have a prior placement record in previous schools they've worked at?

Ah, it is a PhD. The funding for Michigan is very good. I am waiting on funding offers from Boulder and Irvine, but I know all students are living without loans fine. I also think I /could/ potentially switch advisers, but am nervous about better fits not being available if I do go there. I could definitely see myself living in Boulder. Irvine is okay, though I don't love it. Ann Arbor is okay, besides the cold and lack of outdoor activities. Also Michigan has a high placement record. Irvine seems to have a decent one. Boulder's Info Sci program is new so I have no idea but the Atlas program might be the closest thing. The most notable alum is probably Kate Starbird at UW. 

Also my partner does not have a degree, so would kind of be stuck with whatever odd jobs are available, as they already are.

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What are your career goals? Academia or industry? I work in HCI but I wasn't trained in it, so I have little knowledge of the reputation of most HCI programs. My browsings and the bit that I do know tell me that Michigan and UC-Irvine are both great places - Michigan probably better-reputed, but the two of them not so far apart in the HCI world that it's a huge difference.

CU Boulder also seems to have a lot of people publishing and conducting research in HCI despite the program being new - I presume that they were in other departments at Boulder, which isn't a bad thing. A new program isn't really a danger if the professors are established and if the university had strengths and resources in this area before and are just now bringing them together. Poking around on CU's website, it seems that they have several professors who have been honored by SIGCHI and ACM's CHI, and they've got lots of centers and institutes dedicated to HCI-type research. I also recognize Ben Shapiro! I do research in educational games (for a technology company) and have come across his work a lot. I also recognize Tom Yeh in a couple of other areas I've worked in.

So it seems like reputation-wise, you can't really go wrong. So I'd then pick by fit with the department, fit with your potential advisor and where you'd like to live for the next 5ish years.

-New junior faculty members aren't necessarily so bad. They tend to be 'hungry', and are usually publishing a lot and trying to get grants. They're going to be busy trying to make a name for themselves in their world, and if you are driven and savvy enough to grasp firmly to their coattails, you can do pretty well for yourself. The flip side, though, is that I think you need to be more self-assured and independent to successfully work with a junior faculty member. Some of them are REALLY good at the networking game and can help you create connections and internships pretty well; others are not so good at that, and some simply haven't had the time yet to build up those chains that more experienced professors have. The same is true of mentoring - some of them are naturally good at it or have practiced it in grad school through selected opportunities; others are going to be learning right along with you. If you are naturally a more independent person, this can be good for you, as you can kind of guide your professor to get exactly what you want out of the relationship. If you need a bit more guidance and support - especially if you are still figuring out your area of expertise or what you'd like to do after grad school - then this may not be adequate support.

The advice that I always have is that if you are going to be mentored by a junior faculty member, try finding a more senior faculty member who can serve as a secondary mentor (even informally).

-Don't worry so much about the university's housing issues; think about the broader picture of housing across the city and local area. There are lots of places where most doctoral students actually get off-campus apartments. Sometimes, they are less expensive than the on-campus ones; sometimes, they are better-maintained and have more amenities and features than the on-campus ones. Sometimes, the university simply doesn't have enough units. So I wouldn't let UC-Irvine's good housing sway you or Boulder's weird situation deter you. The PhD students who attend must live somewhere: ask them about the true housing situation, looking holistically at regular apartments on the market in addition to the university's resources.

-Again, even though CU may not have had this specific program before, they do have a long-standing strength in HCI. It's just that most of them appear to have graduated from the PhD program in computer sciences in the past (with maybe some from communication or media studies, based on the professors who participate in the program). Ask the professors in the program where they have placed students in the past and where they expect students to be able to go after graduating from the new program.

Honestly, it seems like you can't really go wrong as these are three excellent programs. CU-Boulder, from your perspective, seems to have the fewest cons in terms of who you will work with, your fit with the department and with the location, your partner's needs, a great location close to larger cities and a thriving small tech industry, and weather. The only downside from your perspective, IMO, seems to be mostly addressed by the long-standing reputation of the professors who were already in other departments and have placed lots of students in HCI before there was a formal information science program.

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22 hours ago, juilletmercredi said:

What are your career goals? Academia or industry? I work in HCI but I wasn't trained in it, so I have little knowledge of the reputation of most HCI programs. My browsings and the bit that I do know tell me that Michigan and UC-Irvine are both great places - Michigan probably better-reputed, but the two of them not so far apart in the HCI world that it's a huge difference.

CU Boulder also seems to have a lot of people publishing and conducting research in HCI despite the program being new - I presume that they were in other departments at Boulder, which isn't a bad thing. A new program isn't really a danger if the professors are established and if the university had strengths and resources in this area before and are just now bringing them together. Poking around on CU's website, it seems that they have several professors who have been honored by SIGCHI and ACM's CHI, and they've got lots of centers and institutes dedicated to HCI-type research. I also recognize Ben Shapiro! I do research in educational games (for a technology company) and have come across his work a lot. I also recognize Tom Yeh in a couple of other areas I've worked in.

So it seems like reputation-wise, you can't really go wrong. So I'd then pick by fit with the department, fit with your potential advisor and where you'd like to live for the next 5ish years.

-New junior faculty members aren't necessarily so bad. They tend to be 'hungry', and are usually publishing a lot and trying to get grants. They're going to be busy trying to make a name for themselves in their world, and if you are driven and savvy enough to grasp firmly to their coattails, you can do pretty well for yourself. The flip side, though, is that I think you need to be more self-assured and independent to successfully work with a junior faculty member. Some of them are REALLY good at the networking game and can help you create connections and internships pretty well; others are not so good at that, and some simply haven't had the time yet to build up those chains that more experienced professors have. The same is true of mentoring - some of them are naturally good at it or have practiced it in grad school through selected opportunities; others are going to be learning right along with you. If you are naturally a more independent person, this can be good for you, as you can kind of guide your professor to get exactly what you want out of the relationship. If you need a bit more guidance and support - especially if you are still figuring out your area of expertise or what you'd like to do after grad school - then this may not be adequate support.

The advice that I always have is that if you are going to be mentored by a junior faculty member, try finding a more senior faculty member who can serve as a secondary mentor (even informally).

-Don't worry so much about the university's housing issues; think about the broader picture of housing across the city and local area. There are lots of places where most doctoral students actually get off-campus apartments. Sometimes, they are less expensive than the on-campus ones; sometimes, they are better-maintained and have more amenities and features than the on-campus ones. Sometimes, the university simply doesn't have enough units. So I wouldn't let UC-Irvine's good housing sway you or Boulder's weird situation deter you. The PhD students who attend must live somewhere: ask them about the true housing situation, looking holistically at regular apartments on the market in addition to the university's resources.

-Again, even though CU may not have had this specific program before, they do have a long-standing strength in HCI. It's just that most of them appear to have graduated from the PhD program in computer sciences in the past (with maybe some from communication or media studies, based on the professors who participate in the program). Ask the professors in the program where they have placed students in the past and where they expect students to be able to go after graduating from the new program.

Honestly, it seems like you can't really go wrong as these are three excellent programs. CU-Boulder, from your perspective, seems to have the fewest cons in terms of who you will work with, your fit with the department and with the location, your partner's needs, a great location close to larger cities and a thriving small tech industry, and weather. The only downside from your perspective, IMO, seems to be mostly addressed by the long-standing reputation of the professors who were already in other departments and have placed lots of students in HCI before there was a formal information science program.

Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response! I am currently unsure of my career goals - which is why I also want to ensure that my adviser can supply good career advice and potential connections to industry research, so I can do internships in the field. That way I have a better feel of academia vs. industry.

I believe I have narrowed it down not to Michigan vs. Boulder.

Even in my current department, tenured faculty have said my adviser at Michigan would make me a really great researcher, because she is extremely dedicated, productive, and rigorous. I know she has connections with industry as well. So basically my conundrum is location here. Obviously funding package matters, of which Michigan's is superior again, but people make it even with little funding.

You make a good point that there are still great faculty in HCI at Boulder, even if it was in other programs. I guess I just wish I had more insurance regarding the Info Sci specific program.

Are the benefits of Michigan being older and more reputable more important than the love of Boulder as a city? Has anyone here chosen based on area over 100% certainty about program fit? Has anyone here chosen to go to a place they were not excited about living but preferred the program? Any and all anecdotes would be helpful!

Edited by cranbarrier
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Hmm, this is hard. 7-10 years ago, when I had just finished selecting and was in the thick of beginning my own doctoral program, I'd have said that location should be a secondary consideration and that the fit with the program and your future career prospects should take precedence over that altogether. Now that I'm actually finished with my PhD and reflect back on it, and have discussed this with other folks who've gotten one, I don't know...location is pretty important. It can affect your motivation while you're in the program and your motivation to actually stay in the program when you feel like you want to quit; being happy with your atmosphere, the social networks you've created, your personal life outside of the department - those things can all influence your happiness and connection with your program as well.

@rising_star also made a good point to me once - she said that if you are headed for academia, your graduate program may actually be the last time you can choose where you live.

Program fit, I would still say, is the most important factor. If you feel that Michigan is overall a better fit, then I'd choose that program.

But if they're an equally good fit for you and you have a level of confidence in the research expertise of your potential professors and advisor(s) at Boulder, then it sounds like CU's the choice for you.

You can also ask for more information before deciding. Talk to your potential advisor at CU-Boulder about your concerns - you can be polite but frank about your concern that the info sci program is brand new and doesn't have much of a placement record yet, so you're interesting in hearing where they think graduates might head after finishing and where graduates from the HCI concentration in CS and from other affiliated departments (media studies, journalism, communication) have ended up when they have an HCI emphasis.

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