Prospective PhD Students FAQ
Why join GroupLens?
A leading research group. GroupLens is one of the most well-regarded human-computer interaction (HCI) research groups in the world. Our work regularly appears at top-tier research venues spanning fields like computer science, psychology, sociology, and medicine. As a PhD student here, you will learn to produce high-quality, original research by working closely with one or more of our faculty advisors, all of whom are widely recognized as top scholars in HCI and their respective subfields. We also have a strong network of alumni in research positions at top academic institutions, industry firms, non-profit research labs, and government agencies.
Access to multiple faculty members. First and foremost, you should consider joining GroupLens if you want to work with one or more of our faculty advisors. (See the “What’s an advisor, and how do I choose one?” section below.) However, it’s important to note that in a traditional lab model, one faculty member supervises a small number of PhD students and post-docs. GroupLens, on the other hand, currently has 5 faculty advisors, 16 full-time PhD students, and a fluctuating number of Master’s and undergraduate student researchers. This gives you access to multiple faculty members who can participate in your research development and means we are flexible to advisor switches, co-advising, and/or collaborative work across multiple faculty as your research interests evolve.
Access to a network of peers. Though GroupLens students don’t all have the same advisor, we occupy the same lively lab space and meet together as a cohesive group, so we get to know each other quite well. This gives you a built-in community and support network of peers who can, among other things, provide guidance and advice as you progress through the various milestones of your PhD career. This also creates many opportunities to collaborate with others on research projects you might be interested in, even if they don’t fit into your primary advisor’s research area. GroupLens uses a mentorship model where new students work with senior students on their research projects, so you will immediately have a chance to learn from one or more of your peers by collaborating with them.
A Computer Science department that values HCI. As a GroupLens student, you will also be part of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering. The department is very HCI-friendly, and many of our faculty see value in applying HCI to their domains. Therefore, some of our students do research at the intersections of HCI and other fields like VR, information visualization, NLP, etc. Others are co-advised by Computer Science faculty inside and outside of GroupLens. You can read more about the benefits of joining our department (and living in Minneapolis) here.
How do I pay for a PhD?
You don’t, and you shouldn’t.
PhD students are almost always funded (and in our opinion, should be funded). The standard funding package set by our department includes full tuition, health insurance benefits, and a stipend for living expenses. For the 2021-2022 academic year, the stipend amount was $27,040 for a full 12-month term. If we admit you, we are confident in being able to find sources of funding for you throughout your PhD (typically 5-6 years).
Funding sources vary. Ideally, funding comes from part of a research grant your advisor can use to hire you as a Research Assistant (RA). This allows you to spend most of your time doing research that can double as work toward your dissertation. Research funding is not always guaranteed though, so you may be required to work part-time as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for some semesters to obtain funding from the department. Historically, most of our students have gotten through their PhDs with a mix of RA and TA appointments.
Research fellowships are another option that allows you to obtain your own funding, and therefore grant you more liberty to set your own research agenda. Fellowships are highly sought-after and competitive. Your advisor can discuss potential fellowship opportunities with you and, if you both decide it’s a worthwhile route, can work with you to develop a strong application.
Why get a PhD?
The primary goal of a PhD is to train you to be an independent researcher and scholar in your field. A PhD is unlike most other degrees in that research––not classes––is its central aspect. The three most common professions for which a PhD prepares you are: teaching at the college level, research in an academic institution (as a faculty member), and research or development in an industry or government lab. If your goals include one of these, you should consider getting a PhD.
What is research?
In simple terms, research is work undertaken to create new knowledge in a domain. Research often looks quite different in different fields though; if you’re curious about what research contributions in HCI look like, this short article provides a great summary.
A successful research project should result in a publication at a peer-reviewed conference or journal. Publications are a primary “currency” in academia. The quantity and, more importantly, quality of your published work demonstrates your ability to contribute meaningful and impactful new knowledge to the field. For examples of research projects done by our current and former PhD students, you can check out the GroupLens blog. (Each blog post typically links to its associated publication.)
What else is involved in getting a PhD?
You will be expected to fulfill the department’s coursework requirements during your first two years. Classes are one of the least important parts of a PhD, but they provide a good opportunity to learn new skills that may be useful for your research.
You will also be expected to complete written and oral preliminary examinations (WPE and OPE). These exams are meant to evaluate your ability to perform original research and take place around the end of your second year. By this time, most of our students have completed an original research paper that can double as their WPE submission. The OPE then involves presenting and defending your work to a committee of faculty members. If you are making reasonable research progress, we expect you will be amply prepared for these exams by the end of your second year.
By the end of your third or fourth year, you should have a reasonably clear idea of your overarching research direction. At this point, you will submit a thesis proposal, which outlines the work you have already done and the work you propose to “wrap up” your dissertation. The dissertation and defense are your final PhD milestones. Your dissertation will combine much of the research you have done throughout your PhD into a single cohesive work that tackles an important and novel set of research questions. Your defense involves presenting and defending your work in front of a committee of faculty members and other attendees. A successful PhD defense is the culmination of years of consistent work so, once again, we expect you will be amply prepared by the time you schedule your defense.
What’s an advisor, and how do I choose one?
The advisor-advisee relationship is a critical component of a PhD program. Your advisor is, first and foremost, a mentor who guides you toward becoming a strong independent researcher. Switching advisors partway through your PhD is possible, but rare. (As mentioned above, however, GroupLens supports advisor switches and co-advising far more often than is typical.) Moreover, your advisor often serves as your primary source of research assistantship funding, and they get the final say in determining whether you are making adequate degree progress (and consequently, whether and when you can graduate). Suffice it to say, your choice of advisor is very important and should be undertaken carefully.
You will want to make sure your advisor is a good match in terms of both research interests and advising style. You can gauge the advisor’s research interests by looking at their recent publications (on their personal website or by looking them up on Google Scholar). In HCI, the last author listed is usually the supervising author (i.e., the main advisor for the project). Advising style is more difficult to gauge. If you find that an advisor’s research interests line up closely with yours, you should make an attempt to meet with them and their current students before you decide to apply. Current students can also advise you on the types of questions you should ask when meeting with the advisor.
How do I reach out to an advisor?
Emailing a potential advisor is a great way to get in touch. That said, faculty often receive multiple emails from prospective students in a single day, so a canned email will realistically end up in the trash. Make yourself stand out by engaging with the faculty member’s work. A potential advisor wants to know that you have taken the time to familiarize yourself with their work, you can clearly articulate why you’re interested in what they do, and you have the ability to think critically about their research even if you aren’t an expert in the field or the broader literature yet.
What qualities do you look for in applicants?
Different advisors look for different qualities. Many advisors are going to value “fit” highly, which is going to look different based on advising style. However, there are some broad attributes that can make a PhD student successful. Demonstrating to an advisor that you have one or more of these qualities can go a long way:
- Academic ability. Having a strong academic record is somewhat of a prerequisite, though not enough for admission by itself. A potential advisor will want to be confident that you won’t have trouble maintaining the required GPA for your program.
- Critical thinking. Thinking critically about research is central to doing research. A potential advisor will want to know that you are able to engage thoughtfully with existing work. Again, a great way to demonstrate this is by engaging with their work.
- Self-sufficiency. Many PhD students are expected to make research progress with little supervision from their advisor. A successful PhD student should be able to set their own schedule and execute on it. This means being able to manage your time well and work consistently. (You can’t write a good research paper the night before the deadline!)
- Communicativeness. Because some PhD advisors are very hands-off, it will be up to you to communicate what you need from them and when. Advisors have busy schedules, so they appreciate knowing ahead of time when you will need involvement from them in your research. Moreover, when you lead a research project, it will likely involve other collaborators as well. It will be up to you to proactively set expectations and communicate updates about the project with everyone to ensure deadlines are met.
- Motivation and passion. Doing a PhD can be extremely difficult if you’re not excited about the work you’re doing. A potential advisor will want to know that you are motivated and passionate about research (especially their research).