Advising FAQ

Read This Part First

This is an FAQ for prospective students and visitors who are interested in joining my lab. Most of it is intended for prospective PhD students; if you are seeking a summer position, an MS degree, undergraduate research, or a visiting postdoc position, then you should focus on the Non-PhD section.

Important preliminary notes:

  1. Don't be intimidated by the length of this document: I've organized the questions into sections to make it easier to navigate. You probably don't need to read all of it, although you're welcome to if you wish.
  2. IST maintains a page about our PhD program. The policies of the college and the university take priority over any information in this FAQ.
  3. This FAQ is intended to answer questions about working with me. Applicability beyond its intended purpose may vary.

Finally, regardless of your interest in joining my lab, if you find this FAQ useful then please email me (see "Contacting Me" instructions) or let me know on Twitter.



What is IST? How does it differ from computer science?

IST (Information Sciences and Technology) is the study of problems at the intersection of information, people, and technology. At Penn State, the College of IST is an "iSchool" and a member of the iCaucus. IST is interdisciplinary by nature, and our college has no departments: all faculty are part of the same academic unit. Our doctoral students earn a PhD in informatics.

IST has a greater focus on the human and social implications of technology than a typical computer science program, although computer science programs (and iSchools) vary widely. There are more similarities than differences. Prospective PhD students with a computer science background and an interest in my research areas should feel at home in IST, and choosing between IST or computer science will not limit your career options. Since completing my PhD, I have worked in a School of Computer Science (Carnegie Mellon University), a School of Informatics (essentially an iSchool, at the University of Edinburgh), an EECS Department (University of Cincinnati), and IST (at Penn State). I have had no difficulty transitioning between them.

How is being a PhD student different from being an undergraduate?

Although you will take classes during your first few semesters, those will diminish in importance. Instead you will concentrate on work toward a dissertation, which will be your unique contribution toward human knowledge. PhD study is much more self-directed than undergraduate study, although feedback from your advisor and milestones set by the PhD program help you to stay on track and to make steady progress.

Will my tuition be covered? Will I receive a stipend while I am a PhD student?

If you are admitted to our PhD program, it is nearly certain that you will receive free tuition and a stipend (i.e., a fixed regular sum of money to cover living expenses). Most students in IST receive funding from the college, from faculty research grants, from fellowships that they (the students) apply for and win, or from some combination of these sources. Note you may be required to perform research duties and/or teaching duties as a condition of your funding.

I strongly recommend that domestic applicants also apply for the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). It is a great source of funding for your PhD and it comes with some excellent benefits. Also, the application process is a valuable exercise in thinking about your research trajectory. However, having your application declined is not a bar to success: I applied when I was a graduate student and I did not receive it.

How do I know if I should get a PhD?

Only you can answer this question, but here are some positive signs. Not all of them may apply to you, but most should.

Here are some inappropriate reasons for pursuing a PhD:

Finally, the finances of earning a PhD are often misunderstood. In some subjects, including most of the liberal arts, PhD students pay tuition. However, most PhD programs in STEM subject areas (this includes IST) will cover your tuition and pay you a modest stipend that is sufficient for your living expenses. In other words, you will not have to pay the university for your PhD; instead, the university will pay you as you work toward it, because your activities will support your advisor's lab or your academic unit.

How do I know whether a source of advice on graduate school is good or not?

Look for two things:

  1. Specificity to your discipline: Some of the basic parameters of graduate school depend on what you are studying and what degree you seek. For example, PhD students in information science and computer science (my disciplines) should generally expect to receive stipends and tuition coverage, either from the university or from a fellowship they apply for and win. Meanwhile, it's not uncommon for PhD students in the humanities to have to pay their way through.
  2. A nuanced perspective: If a source of advice is unrelentingly negative or positive about graduate school, it should be disregarded. There are enormous variations in students' experiences, motivations, and personal circumstances. If you are talking with a professor or other professional in your field, they should ask you questions to get to know you and your goals.
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How do I apply to work on a PhD with you?

You will need to apply through Penn State's Graduate School, since individual faculty do not accept applications directly. You can find instructions to apply on IST's website. When you apply, make sure to list me as one of the faculty whom you are interested in working with.

Is an undergraduate degree in IST, computer science, or a related field necessary to work with you on a PhD?

No. I encourage students from any undergraduate background to apply, as long as they satisfy most of the items in the list of things that I look for in applicants.

Do I need an MS degree before applying to work with you on a PhD?


Can you tell me whether my application to the PhD program is likely to be accepted?

My ability to gauge admissions decisions is limited. However, if you are interested in my research then we can discuss your suitability for my lab. Applicants who have a potential advisor interested in bringing them onboard are more likely to be admitted.

What if I can't afford the application fee?

See IST's note about this.

How can I make sure that you read my application?

The graduate school application allows you to enter names of faculty whom you are particularly interested in working with. Include my name and I will notice. You can also contact me directly via email to provide a heads-up. Remember to include "read your recruiting note" in the subject line, and attach your CV.

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Adivsor-Advisee Fit

What do you look for in prospective PhD students?

These things:

An implicit priority in the above list is compatibility with my own style as a researcher. To the extent that I have been successful, I believe the above qualities have enabled me.

What is your advising style?

I am pragmatic in the amount of direction that I provide to students: some require more detailed supervision than others. However, I expect students to be self-driven and I tend to let them manage their day-to-day activities.

I prefer to schedule weekly half-hour one-on-one meetings with each of my PhD students, though some circumstances (such as submission deadlines) require more time. I also may ask students to attend lab meetings and project meetings with collaborators. Students should come to meetings prepared to present their results, typically with slides. I encourage students to take lots of notes during meetings, and in one-on-one discussions I am always willing to pause to let them catch up.

Finally, I value effective communication: often I observe that a well-expressed good idea has more value than a brilliant idea expressed in a way that people struggle to understand. I expect students to continuously improve upon their writing and presentation skills, using feedback from me and from outside sources. (There is no apex to these skills, and I also continue to improve.)

How do I know if you are the right advisor for me?

Read this FAQ and my research page, and browse some of my recent publications. You should be able to identify two or three papers that interest you and provoke you to speculate on future work. If you are still uncertain about fit but you sense a possibility, you are welcome to contact me. Remember to put "read your recruiting note" in the subject line of your email, and attach your CV.

I'm not interested in anything you are working on. Can you still advise me?

Maybe. It depends on two factors: your funding source and my ability to provide adequate supervision. Sometimes I can give substantial leeway to students that bring their own funding (e.g., from a graduate fellowship that they won), but a PhD student should have a supervisor who is qualified to guide their work. Natural language processing and privacy are two wide-ranging areas that I can generally provide supervision in, and I expect advisees to work on projects that are connected to one of them.

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Preparing to Apply

I'm an undergraduate. How can I put myself on a path to work with you?

Check IST's website for the PhD program requirements. Satisfy as many items as you can in the list of things that I look for in applicants. Get involved in undergraduate research starting in your sophomore or junior year, and continue working with a lab for at least one academic year. If you have an option to write a senior thesis, take it.

I'm applying from industry or from another graduate program. How can I make myself a compelling applicant to work with you?

Check IST's website for the PhD program requirements. Satisfy as many items as you can in the list of things that I look for in applicants. If you can, ask your supervisor or thesis advisor to write you a letter of recommendation. Otherwise, find someone who knows your work well and can write a strong letter in support fo your application. If you are in industry, at least one of your letters should be from a faculty member at a college or university.

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Do you have openings for students visiting over the summer?

Typically, no. I have openings for students visiting over the summer only if I explicitly advertise summer openings on my website. (This includes "internships": unless I advertise them, they do not exist.)

Can I join your lab as an undergraduate researcher?

Possibly. The best time to approach me about this is at the end of your freshman or sophomore year, to start at the beginning of the following academic year. It tends to be too late to start working on undergraduate research in your senior year, though I am sometimes supportive of students who wish to complete senior theses with me, especially if they are interested in continuing to work with me as PhD students.

I'm aiming for an MS, not a PhD. Can I join your lab?

Possibly. I can supervise MS theses and scholarly papers, but I cannot cover MS students' tuition. Occasionally I have hourly wage openings for MS students, but this varies depending on available funds.

I have a PhD already and I would like to be a visiting scholar with your lab. Can you host me?

Possibly, if (1) you will not require funding from me, (2) you can stay for longer than a summer or one semester, and (3) you possess the qualities I look for in PhD applicants. I consider these requests on a case-by-case basis.

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Why do you ask applicants to put "read your recruiting note" in the subject line when contacting you?

I search for that phrase in my email archive when I'm looking for prospective students to fill openings. If you do not use that phrase, your email might not be in my search results at a crucial moment.

Why did you write this FAQ?

I want to give prospective students lots of information to help them make their decisions. Also, knowledge of how graduate school works is unevenly distributed. I've written this FAQ for a wide audience that includes prospective students who may be unfamiliar with some of the common expectations.

Will I get to travel during graduate school?

Probably. (Applicants who have browsed my website may have noticed my accumulation of travel related to professional activities.) Graduate students in IST are generally reimbursed by their advisor's research funds or by the college to travel to conferences where they have papers accepted. I am also supportive of PhD students spending a summer at an internship where they can acquire new skills that will contribute to their dissertation research.

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