Applying to PhD Programs to Study Technology and Society - Between Communication, Information Science, STS, and HCI
September 7, 2023
Context: I'm a 1st-year PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. I study the technologies behind the future of work, how people make sense of them, and how they are transforming conceptions of expertise and human flourishing.
PhD applications are hard to navigate. They are long processes that would often leave people confused and frustrated. They're even more complicated if you're trying to find a good home for interdisciplinary interests. This was a challenge I faced when I was applying to PhD programs. Am I a good "fit" for programs for Communication? Would I fit better in an Information Science Department? What about programs in STS or HCI? At some point, I also considered programs in Sociology, Management Studies, and Computer Science.
In the spirit of reducing barriers to success for others, I want to reflect on my experience applying to PhD programs. This blog post would be most useful for those who are applying to PhD programs in related fields, but there's also general advice that could be applicable to just anyone with diverse or interdisciplinary research interests. Speaking of which, J. Nathan Matias
has written a fabulous blog post on considering interdisciplinary PhD programs for those who want to study technology and society
. I found his piece extremely informative during my application process.
Table of Content
I. How do I choose what programs to apply to?
1. Consider the "flavor" of support you'll like to receive
Choosing a program is like choosing the nexus of your inquiries. While the type of research you want to pursue can exist in many different types of departments, not all of them will be good fits for you to work on your PhD. Before looking at specific programs, I suggest taking a step back to think about the ways of knowing that you gravitate toward:
- Qualitative-interpretive traditions in the social sciences - Are you considering interviewing people or doing an ethnography?
- Quantiative traditions in the social sciences - Are you thinking of developing theories through lab or field experiments?
- Humanistic Inquiries - Do you want to write critique our sociotechnical realities drawing from social, political, and critical theory?
- System-building - Do you want to build systems/technologies in this process?
- Participatory Research - Do you want to engage with communities in this process?
When looking at programs, ask yourself -- can you see yourself doing the type of work you want to do there
? You can likely pursue a very similar line of research in many of these interdisciplinary programs (comm, information science, STS, HCI etc.). However, the support you'll receive will look very different. Think about how your choice of program would shape your network and community for your PhD. A Communication department will likely have more people (both faculty and PhD students) who have a wealth of knowledge about sociological and psychological theories. An Information Science program will likely have more people that are designing and building systems. An STS program is likely to be a place where many people would attend and submit work to the 4S conference
(Society for Social Studies of Science).
Think about the aspects where you need more hand-holding and aspects that you're comfortable leading on your own. Quoting Nathan Matias, "when deciding to apply, think about which activities a given PhD program will embrace and where you’ll be more on your own
." I don't believe one can ever find a perfect
fit for their PhD, but it's helpful to reflect on what type of support you'd need and if a given program offers what you're looking for.
In my own experience, I figured that I was looking for a place that can nurture my thinking on social, political, and critical theory as well as my skills in qualitative-interpretive research. By contrast, I care less about being surrounded by technologists that are building the systems that I'm studying. This consideration played a huge factor in my decision on what programs to ultimately apply to.
2. Identify the network of people that you'd like to connect with
Now that you have a sense if a program has the flavor you're looking for, you can start thinking about who you'd like to work with over there. You might already have a professor in mind, but it's important that you identify multiple professors from the same program
with overlapped interests and similar ways of thinking. People move between institutions all the time, so it's more ideal if there'll still be people you'd like to work with should situations like this happen.
Besides professors, make sure to check out what the PhD students are doing, too. Does their work interest you? Do you see yourself learning from them and potentially collaborating with them? Do you think they can challenge you to think from different perspectives? If not, then you might feel like a lone wolf in such an environment. Your peers would be the people that you interact with the most on a daily basis.
They are the foundation of the intellectual environment you'll be part of. Make sure to think carefully about what kind of environment would help you thrive.
Besides professors and graduate students, check out the cross-departmental initiatives and centers at the university level, too. Some of these examples include Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center
, the Oxford Internet Institute
, Cornell's Artificial Intelligence, Policy, and Practice (AIPP)
, and Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy
. Groups like these are wonderful opportunities to meet others who are also passionate about similar topics like you. One additional thing to consider is -- do such groups have established systems for mentoring, cohort bonding, or funding? These systems could be extremely helpful in making you feel at home at a particular institution-- if you feel like not many people in your program share your interests, yet there's a center/institute at the university that speaks to your particular topics of study, I would argue that this will make the department a rather good fit. It's a good fit in the sense within the department, you'll be exposed to diverse ideas that can challenge you and help you grow, yet at these research groups, you can feel at home as you speak similar language and care about similar issues.
If you cannot really identify a critical mass of people to work with and learn from, it might not be the best idea to apply to this program in the first place. Ultimately, choosing a PhD program is a decision about choosing a network of people you'd like to connect with
, not just individuals.
3. Location matters. Consider places where you can thrive
Besides thinking about finding a "home" for your PhD research in an intellectual sense, I would strongly encourage everyone to put the geographic locations of these programs into serious consideration. A PhD is a long journey, and it's important that you find a place where you feel like you can thrive outside of research and work. For me, I know I'd thrive better if I live in a big city with a vibrant music scene, and I ended up only applying to schools in locations that fit this criteria.
II. How should I Go About Crafting My Application?
There already exists a wealth of resources on how to craft your application materials (especially your personal statement) for PhD admissions. I won't repeat many of the things that have been highlighted in these online resources (you'll find many of these simply by Googling "Phd statement tips"), but I want to talk about how to craft your application when you're applying to programs with interdisciplinary flavors.
When putting together statements for the different programs you're applying to, make sure to write your statement in the language that a given program speaks. Try to put yourself in their shoes to make it easier for them to understand your world. Make sure to avoid jargons that depart from their everyday lingua franca. For instance, if you're applying to a Communication PhD program, don't assume everyone on the admissions committee know what you mean by neural networks and deep learning. If these are concepts that are integral to your research, walk them through the concepts in your material so they can have a better grasp of your research vision.
III. Should I connect with professors beforehand?
I got asked this question a lot, and I unfortunately have to give you an answer that everyone hates -- it depends
This is especially the case when you're applying to programs where the faculty have vastly different disciplinary training and have varying expectations. One thing I would suggest everyone to do is to check their personal websites. Some professors would write a note on how to best proceed with this. Joshua Blumenstock
has written up a great example
of how he expects to communicate with prospective students. Some professors would very explicitly ask prospective students to reach out prior to applying, others would make it clear that applicants shouldn't reach out to them, and some others would say things like "if you write me an email, I'd make sure to flag your application to read it carefully, but I will likely not respond to your email."
And if this is no clear from their website and online presence, I would also suggest reaching out with the intention of asking if they plan to take students this year
. This is helpful when it's not clear if admissions decisions are centrally done by the committee or by individual faculty. If that's the case, I'd suggest reaching out to the Director of Graduate Studies to inquire about the nature of admissions before you proceed with individual outreach.
In the case that you reached out and never heard back from you, please don't take it personally. Professors are busy and may not always be available to talk when there are so many prospective students every year, so don't overthink if they didn't get back to you.
IV. I got in! How can I assess if a program is a good fit for me?
Congratulations! While it could be stressful to then start thinking about if you should commit to a particular program, make sure you find some time to celebrate :) Celebrations along the way are what carry me through my academic journey.
Now you get to pick! Before you commit to a program, I would suggest that you do the following:
- Chat with your potential advisors - Once you get in, reach out to the professors you want to work with for one-on-one chats. If there's a campus visit scheduled, this can happen before the visit, during the visit, or both times. Andrew Kuznetsov has wrote a brilliant piece on questions you can ask your potential advisor(s) prior to committing. I would also suggest chatting with more than one faculty member to get a better sense of their difference in mentoring style.
- Read their lab manuals - Some professors have published handbooks/guides for their PhD students. Read these closely as this will give you a sense of the type of advising/mentoring that they gravitate toward. Check out Ken Holstein's very extensive handbook for his PhD students (See also Eric Gilbert's Lab Syllabus and Mor Naaman's Guide for PhD students working in my group).
- Talk to the students in the program- It's helpful to have one-on-one chats with them about their overall experience in the program, their experience interacting with their cohort, and their experience working with their advisors. They're the ones that have been through the PhD program, so there's so much to learn from their lived experience. PhD students are busy and may not always be available to talk, so don't it personally if they didn't get back to you or decline to chat.
- Visit if you can - Some programs offer you a free trip to visit their campus. These are great opportunities to really get the "vibes" of the programs. While it might be harder to get a hold of faculty and grad students if you're requesting a Zoom call, during the visit, you get to hang out with the faculty, the current students, and the prospective students for a few days, which will give you a really good sense of what to expect should you choose to go there. Even if you didn't end up committing to a program, the people you met during the visit would still be part of your network that you can keep in touch with -- whether just as friends or as potential collaborators.
IV. I Still Have Questions. Can I Reach out to You?
Yes! Please get in touch. I'm more than happy to answer any questions you may have. I'm also happy to share my application materials with you if you're coming from marginalized backgrounds (BIPOC, first-gen, low-income, with disabilities, etc.). Just make sure you don’t circulate or plagiarize them, and I do consider doing something similar in the future to make the research world less opaque and exclusionary.