Guide for Joining My Lab


This guide is part of my Advice for Students.

Read This Part First

This is guide for prospective students and visitors who are interested in joining my lab. I've written it as an FAQ. Most of it is intended for prospective PhD students; if you are seeking a summer position, an MS degree, undergraduate research, or a visiting position, then you should focus on the Non-PhD section after reading the rest of this introductory 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. If you decide to email me about advising, remember to put "read your recruiting note" in the subject line and attach your CV.
  3. IST maintains a page about our PhD program. The policies of the college and the university take priority over any information in this guide.
  4. This guide 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 guide useful then please email me (see "Contacting Me" instructions) or let me know on Twitter.

The Guide


Brussels cityscape through tall windows
City skyline of Brussels, Belgium. I visited in 2018 to attend EMNLP.

Basics

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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Silhouettes of people against a river lit brightly by the sun
Parc Jean-Drapeau in Montreal, Canada. In 2016 I attended the World Wide Web Conference there.

Applying

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?

No.

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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Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House at night.
Sydney Harbour at night. As a graduate student, I spent 10 weeks as a visiting researcher at Macquarie University, in the Sydney area.

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?

This answer applies to my advisees at all levels: undergraduates, MS students, PhD students, and visitors.

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 periodic meetings with each of my advisees, either every week or every two weeks, though some circumstances (such as submission deadlines) require greater frequency. 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.

I expect all advisees to aim for research results that they can publish. PhD students should aim to have several first-author publications before they graduate; the exact number depends on factors such as their research direction and their career goals. MS students should aim to have at least one first-author paper submitted for publication, and undergraduates should aim to be a co-author on at least one submission. I discuss expectations with other lab members, such as postdocs and visitors, on a case-by-case basis.

Regarding physical presence in the lab, my guidelines for advisees' work locations are flexible within limits. I encourage advisees to work in one place consistently, such as the lab, as part of developing effective work habits. Being physically in the lab is generally not a requirement, though I may require it for special projects or for students who need help establishing work routines. With regard to travel, advisees should let me know if their absence will interrupt their work or if they will be gone for a week or longer, since unexpected things can happen in research and we may need to meet. Also, advisees should always let me know if they will need to miss a scheduled meeting. A week's notice is preferable.

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 guide 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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Swiss mountains from up high
Swiss landscape from partway up Mount Titlis. I visited Zurich, Switzerland in 2013 for Ubicomp.

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. 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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A red bicycle in a palm forest
Palm forest on Pulau Ubin, off the coast of the main island of Singapore. As a graduate student, I spent 10 weeks as a visiting researcher at the National University of Singpaore.

Non-PhD

After reading this section, all prospective non-PhD advisees should also read about my advising style.

Do you have openings for undergraduates visiting from other universities?

Typically, no. I have openings for undergraduates visiting from other universities only when I explicitly advertise these openings on my website, which happens very rarely. (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 graduate 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.

You should also look at the Advisor-Advisee Fit part of this guide. Although it is written primarily for prospective PhD students, it gives you an idea of my graduate advising style in general.

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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A van on a dirt road in a mountain pass
A mountain pass in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. I visited in 2012 after attending ACL in Jeju, South Korea.

Miscellany

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 guide?

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 guide 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.

What's the purpose of the pictures in this guide?

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.

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Sunrise out the window of an airport terminal
Early morning at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. I took this picture on my way back from SOUPS 2017 in San Jose, California.