Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students

There is tons of advice on the Internet (e.g., on the academic blogs I read) for prospective doctoral students. I am very happy with my own graduate school choices but I feel that I basically got lucky. Few people are saying the two things I really wish someone had told me before I made the decision to get a PhD:

  • Most people getting doctorates would probably be better off doing something else.
  • Evaluating potential programs can basically be done by looking at and talking with a program’s recent graduates.

Most People Getting Doctorates Probably Shouldn’t

In most fields, the only thing you need a PhD for is to become a professor — and even this requirement can be flexible. You can have almost any job in any company or non-profit without a PhD. You can teach without a PhD. You can write books without a PhD. You can do research and work in thinktanks without a PhD. You don’t even always need a PhD to grant PhDs to other people: two of my advisors at the Media Lab supervised PhD work but did not have doctorates themselves! Becoming a tenured professor is more difficult without a doctorate, but it is not impossible. There are grants and jobs outside of universities that require doctorates, but not nearly as many as most people applying for PhDs programs think.

Getting a doctorate can even hurt: If you want to work in a company or non-profit, you are usually better off with 4-6 years of experience doing the kind of work you want to do than with the doctorate and the less relevant experience of getting one. Starting salaries for people with doctorates are often higher than for people with masters degrees. But salaries for people with masters degrees and 5 years of experience are even higher — and that’s before you take into account the opportunity costs of working for relatively low graduate student wages for half a decade.

PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very few people read. These are skills you’ll need to be a successful professor. They are useful skills for other jobs too, but not as useful as the experience of actually doing those other jobs for the time it takes to get the degree.

Evaluating Graduate Programs

If you are still convinced you need a doctorate, or any graduate degree for that matter, you will need to pick a program. Plenty of people will offer advice on how to pick the right program and trying to balance all the complicated and contradictory advice can be difficult. Although I love my program and advisors, I’ve known many less happy students. Toward that end, there are two pieces of meta-advice that I wish everybody was told before they applied:

  1. Find recent graduates of the program you are considering, and the faculty advisor(s) you are planning on working with, and look at where they are now. Are these ex-students doing the kind of work that you want to do? Are they at great programs at great universities?

    Chances are good that a PhD program and its faculty will prepare future students to be like, and do work like, the students they have trained in the past. Programs that consistently make good placements are preparing their students well, supporting them, making sure they have the resources necessary to do good work, and helping their students when they are on the job market. A program whose students do poorly, or just end doing work that isn’t like the kind you want to do, will probably fail you too.

  2. If recent graduates seem to be generally successful and doing the kind of work you want to do, find one who looks most like the kind of academic you want to become and talk to them about their experience. Chances are, your faculty advisors will overlap with theirs and your experience will be similar. Ex-students can tell you the strengths of weaknesses of the program you are considering and what to watch out for. If they had a horrible experience, there’s a decent chance you will too, and they will tell you so.

Doing these two things means you don’t have to worry about trying to think of all the axes on which you want to evaluate a program or pour through admissions material which is only tangentially connected to the reality you’ll live for a long time. What matters most is the outcomes, of course, because you’re be living the rest of your life for a lot longer than you’ll be in the PhD program.

Science as Dance

The following selected bibliography showcases only a small portion of the academics who have demonstrated that while it may take two to tango, it only takes one to give a scholarly paper a silly cliche title:

Briganti, G. 2006. “It Takes Two to Tango-The CH-53K is arguably the first serious US attempt to open the defense cooperation NATO has been seeking.Rotor and Wing 40(7):60–63.

Coehran, J. 2006. “It Takes Two to Tango: Problems with Community Property Ownership of Copyrights and Patents in Texas.Baylor L. Rev. 58:407.

Diamond, M.J. 1984. “It takes two to tango: Some thoughts on the neglected importance of the hypnotist in an interactive hypnotherapeutic relationship.American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 27(1):3–13.

Kraack, A. 1999. “It takes two to tango: The place of women in the construction of hegemonic masculinity in a student pub.Masculinities in Aotearoa/New Zealand 153–165.

Lackey, J. 2006. “It takes two to tango: beyond reductionism and non-reductionism in the epistemology of testimony.The Epistemology of testimony 160–89.

Miller, C.A. 1998. “It takes two to tango: understanding and acquiring symmetrical verbs.Journal of psycholinguistic research 27(3):385–411.

Modiano, N. 1984. “It Takes Two to Tango, or… Transmission is a Two-Way Street.Anthropology & Education Quarterly 15(4):326–330.

Ott, M.A. 2008. “It Takes Two to Tango: Ethical Issues Raised by the Study of Topical Microbicides with Adolescent Dyads.The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine 42(6):541.

Rubenstein, J.H. 2009. “It takes two to tango: dance steps for diagnosing Barrett’s esophagus.Respiratory Care Clinics of North America 69(6):1011–1013.

Settersten Jr, R.A. 2009. “It takes two to tango: the (un) easy dance between life-course sociology and life-span psychology.Advances in Life Course Research 14(1-2):74–81.

Skaerbaek, E. 2004. “It takes two to tango–on knowledge production and intersubjectivity.NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies 12(2):93–101.

Spencer, M. 2005. “It takes two to tango.Journal of Business Strategy 26(5):62–68.

Vanaerschot, G. 2004. “It Takes Two to Tango: On Empathy With Fragile Processes.Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 41(2):112.

Viskochil, D.H. 2003. “It takes two to tango: mast cell and Schwann cell interactions in neurofibromas.Journal of Clinical Investigation 112(12):1791–1792.

Weiner, A. 2001. “It Takes Two to Tango:: Information, Metabolism, and the Origins of Life.Cell 105(3):307–308.

Wittman, M.L. 1990. It Takes Two to Tango: Your Simplistic System for Self-survival. Witmark Pub. Co.

There are also a few hundred groups who have demonstrated that larger groups can so as well.

Berkman Fellowship

Last week, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society announced it’s 2011-2012 list of fellows. I’m honored and excited that they elected to include me in a pretty incredible list of fellows, faculty associates, and other affiliates. It seems I’ll be at Harvard next year.

In my first year as an undergraduate — when fights over Napster were raging — I took a class taught by a Berkman Fellow on the political and social implications of Internet technology. The next year, I worked part-time as a teaching assistant for Harvard Law professor (and Berkman director) Jonathan Zittrain. These experiences had a enormous influence on my life and work. Before, my goal was to study and teach English literature.

I’ve hung around on the fringes of the center for much of the last decade and I’ve grown immeasurably from the experience. Most recently, I’ve been working closely with Berkman director Yochai Benkler and current fellow Aaron Shaw on research in online cooperation. The new crop of fellows includes a pretty great group of people working on similar stuff and I’m looking forward to expanding the online cooperation research at the center and to a year of fascinating talks and discussions. I also hope that, after all these, years, I’ll be able to give a bit back to an organization that has given me so much.

AcaMako

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been writing summaries of academic articles I read over on AcaWiki. You should join me and write summaries of academic articles you read or help improve the summaries other folks have shared!

Of course, you can also just read AcaWiki summaries. But while reading summaries takes less time that reading the full articles and books, a 500-1000 word summary is still too much for some very busy people. That’s why I created a new microblog on Identica where I post summaries of the summaries I post to AcaWiki. You can subscribe to AcaMako to follow along.

On Feminism and Microcontrollers

A month or so ago, I published a paper with Leah Buechley that is mostly an analysis of how the LilyPad Arduino has been used. I read an earlier draft last year and loved it so, when the opportunity arose, I was honored to help out as the paper evolved.

LilyPad is a microcontroller platform that Leah created a few years back and that is specifically designed to be more useful than other microcontroller platforms (like normal Arduino) in the context of crafting practices like textiles or painting. Leah’s design goal with LilyPad was to create a sewable microcontroller that could be useful for making things that were qualitatively different from what most people made with microcontrollers and that, she hoped, would be of interest to women and girls.

Our paper tries to measure the breadth of LilyPad’s appeal and the degree to which it accomplished her goals. We used sales data from SparkFun (the largest retail source for both Arduino and LilyPad in the US) and a crowd-sourced dataset of high-visibility microcontroller projects. Our goal was to get a better sense of who it is that is using the two platforms and how these groups and their projects differ.

We found evidence to support the suggestion that LilyPad is disproportionally appealing to women, as compared to Arduino (we estimated that about 9% of Arduino purchasers were female while 35% of LilyPad purchasers were). We found evidence that suggests that a very large proportion of people making high-visibility projects using LilyPad are female as compared to Arduino (65% for LilyPad, versus 2% for Arduino).

Digging deeper, qualitative evidence suggests a reason. LilyPad users aren’t just different. The projects they are making are different too. Although LilyPad and Arduino are the same chips and the same code, we suggest that LilyPad’s design, and the way the platform is framed, leads to different types of projects that appeal to different types of people. For example, Arduino seems likely to find its way into an interaction design project or a fighting robot. LilyPad seems more likely to find its way into a smart and responsive textile. Very often, different types of people want to make these projects.

Leah and I believe that there’s a more general lesson to be learned about designing technologies for communities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and for women in particular.

The dominant metaphor in the discussion on women in computer science is Margolis and Fisher’s idea of "unlocking the clubhouse." The phrase provides a good description of the path that most projects aimed at broadening participation of women in computing projects seem to take. The metaphor is based around the idea that computing culture is a boys’ club that is unfriendly to women. The solution is finding ways to make this club more accessible to those locked outside.

It should go without saying that we share Margolis and Fisher’s goal of increasing participation of women in STEM. That’s LilyPad’s point, after all. It it hopefully also clear that we’re supportive of, and involved in, projects working to remove systematic barriers to participation by women and other groups. That work must continue. But I also think that Leah’s work with LilyPad suggests another way forward based on addressing issues of self-selection that will affect even the most welcoming technological communities. Here’s what we say in our paper:

Our experience suggests a different approach, one we call Building New Clubhouses. Instead of trying to fit people into existing engineering cultures, it may be more constructive to try to spark and support new cultures, to build new clubhouses. Our experiences have led us to believe that the problem is not so much that communities are prejudiced or exclusive but that they’re limited in breadth–both intellectually and culturally. Some of the most revealing research in diversity in STEM found that women and other minorities don’t join STEM communities not because they are intimidated or unqualified but rather because they’re simply uninterested in these disciplines.

One of our current research goals is thus to question traditional disciplinary boundaries and to expand disciplines to make room for more diverse interests and passions. To show, for example, that it is possible to build complex, innovative, technological artifacts that are colorful, soft, and beautiful. We want to provide alternative pathways to the rich intellectual possibilities of computation and engineering. We hope that our research shows that disciplines can grow both technically and culturally when we re-envision and re-contextualize them. When we build new clubhouses, new, surprising, and valuable things happen. As our findings on shared LilyPad projects seem to support, a new female-dominated electrical engineering/computer science community may emerge.

I have a strong belief that computing can be an empowering tool and that expanding users’ control over technology is a critically important issue. Our paper argues that we should attempt to expand participation in computing by broadening the possibilities of computing, rather than only by broadening participation in extant, computing organizations, projects, and genres.

Even if computing and electrical engineering communities were perfectly welcoming (which they are not) most people (both male and female, but disproportionately female) will choose not to participate. Building new clubhouses requires creativity of its proponents and risks charges of reinforcing stereotypes and existing status hierarchies. But, executed carefully and well (as I believe LilyPad has been), it suggests ways to reach the majority of people that no "unlocking" project will ever seem relevant to.

Contribute to AcaWiki

In the process of studying for my PhD general examinations this year, I ended up writing summaries about 200 academic books and articles.

AcaWiki is a wiki designed to host summaries of academic articles so it seemed like a great place to host these things. Over the last few months, I’ve uploaded all these summaries. Since I’ve finished, I’ve continued to add summaries of other articles as I read them.

My summaries tend to be rough. I write them, run them through a spellchecker, and then post them. I don’t even reread them before publishing. I hope to improve them as I reread them over time. Of course, because I’ve uploaded them to wiki, I hope others will add to and improve the summaries as well.

AcaWiki uses Semantic Mediawiki and provides nice platform for publishing, editing, and collaboration. Although there are still ways in which the platform can be better, what is needed now is, quite simply, more contributors. I am sad to see that my summaries make up a big chunk of all summaries on the site.

So if you are a student, an academic, or anyone else who writes or has written summaries of articles or books or if you might want to do so, you should consider contributing your summaries, in whatever form, to AcaWiki. I’ve done a little work to help integrate AcaWiki and Zotero which might make things easier.

Doctoral students reading for qualifying or general examinations in particular should should consider taking notes and studying with AcaWiki. From the student’s perspective, writing summaries can be one of the best way to reflect on and learn a literature. In the process, one can create a great resource for the rest of the world. If a single doctoral student from each of twenty diverse fields of study published summaries of the 200 key articles in their area, AcaWiki would have the critical core of what is most relevant in academia. Help us build it!

FLOSS Wins

Very often, folks want to refer to both the free and open source software communities in a way that is inclusive of and respectful of groups who identify with either term. Saying "free and open source software" is a mouthful. That said, there was no been consensus on what we should do instead.

The Wikipedia article on alternative terms for free software suggests that FOSS, F/OSS, FLOSS, and "software libre" are contenders. I’ve heard all. Of course, the choice of 4+ competing alternative terms is probably worse than the problem we were seeking to solve.

In academic circles, the big debate seems to be between FOSS and FLOSS. I was always a FOSS partisan. But I’ve seen increased momentum on the FLOSS side and I’m ready to declare that FLOSS has won.

I know it makes you think of dental hygiene and I agree that it is unfortunate. It wasn’t my first choice either. But I can see where things are going. FLOSS Manuals and the folks at the FLOSS Research Group at Syracuse who launched the FLOSSHub and the associated FLOSS Papers deserve some of the credit.

If we can get over the irony of having spent so much time arguing over what was intended to be compromise terminology in the first place, lets see if we actually start talking to each other.

Principles, Social Science, and Free Software

Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post on taking a principled position on software freedom where I argued that advocates of free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) should take a principled position because the pragmatic benefits associated with open source — "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost" in OSI’s words — are simply not always present. More often than not, FLOSS projects fail. When they survive, they are often not as good as their proprietary competitors.

Over the last year, I’ve been back at MIT taking classes, reading extensively, and otherwise learning how to act like a social scientist. My research goals, which I’m now beginning to focus on, are to help build a stronger understanding of the social dynamics in free software and free culture communities.

With a slightly skeptical view toward my involvement with groups like the FSF and my work in the FLOSS community, at least one academic tried to suggest that taking a principled position in favor of software freedom might compromise the positivist social science research program in which I am engaged. "An advocate is too biased," they said. After many months of thinking seriously about this warning, I believe that this criticism can be addressed.

After all, a principled position in favor of software freedom is a statement of how things should be, not a description of how they are. OSI will argue that open source leads to inherently better software. This statement, of course, is one that can be empirically tested and, in fact, there seems to be plenty of evidence that it is often wrong. On the other hand, the FSF’s position that software should be free is ethical in nature. One can disagree with it, just like one can disagree with any other ethical position, but it can not be proved either right or wrong — only convincing or unconvincing, logical or illogical in the context a certain set of other values that others might or might not share.

Research has shown that the vast majority of FLOSS projects fizzle. A advocate who argues that FLOSS is inherently better is left trying to explain this fact and make excuses. As a result, OSI-style beliefs can certainly be a source of problematic bias in a social scientist. However, a person who believes that software should be free is welcome to recognize that it both fails and succeeds and to ask why. A principled idealist can argue in favor of behaviors that may be disruptive, difficult, or inefficient. Indeed, Stallman has never suggested that free software will be easier or better. Indeed, he routinely asks people to sacrifice their convenience for freedom.

My goal, as a social scientist, is to understand why some FLOSS and free culture projects succeed and why many fail. I never take FLOSS’s success for granted and, in fact, believe that proprietary software may often leads to better software in OSI’s terms. Unlike an advocate who tows the OSI line, embracing evidence of the effectiveness of proprietary software is no way in conflict with my belief that software should be free. In fact, my desire to see software freedom grow becomes the driving force between trying to understand FLOSS’s shortcomings!

I am no more biased — which is not to say completely unbiased — than the person who both thinks that crime is wrong and who wants to study criminal behavior. In an analogous sense, starting out with the belief that all people are naturally law-abiding may be a problem in a way that beginning with the belief that people should be law-abiding is not. Starting from the fomer assumption, one has to explain away evidence to the contrary. Starting from the latter assumption, one can build an understanding of what drives people to obey or violate laws which, in turn, can help build a stronger society.

To me, the question is not why FLOSS will succeed. Indeed, I believe its success is an empirical matter that remains very much up in the air. For me, the question is how it might. Embracing a principled position lets us face the facts and puts advocates and practitioners in a position to devise laws, social structures, and technologies to insure that it does.