Monday, November 17, 2008

Grad School is Phunny?

Back in my good old high school physics class, where I met my husband (who's now a doctoral student in physics), our teacher's motto was that "Physics is Phun." The truth was, physics isn't fun in a whole lot of ways, but we had a humorous teacher, a great class ambiance, and plenty of interesting application-type activities to carry us through. And with a handsome guy sitting behind you, how could it be bad? ;)

Is grad school fun? Well, no, it's really not. But it's funny. Colin and I are frequent visitors of PhD Comics, a web comic that, in an uncomfortably realistic way, pokes fun at graduate school woes. We also enjoy our Dilbert. While this comic focuses not on academia, but the corporate world, its characterization of bureaucracy, work environments, and hierarchical/team relationships applies in many ways to our daily experiences. This is one of my favorite Dilberts of all time:

I may or may not have discovered it during IST 590 last fall semester. But, that's neither here nor there. Here's an brief potpourri of what makes grad school hilarious:

1. Disconnect from society. Just last week, I was talking with a couple of friends about people do for fun in State College during the winter months. "I wouldn't know," I said, "because the only winter I've lived here so far, I was in graduate school." The sad part of the story: one of these friends is currently APPLYING to graduate school. Poor lass! It's all still ahead of her!

2. Feelings of intense inadequacy. If we were untalented, lazy people without an ounce of ingenuity, would we be here? Then why do we feel like that now?

3. Disconnect from campus life. I guess this goes along with #1, but I felt it merited its own entry on the list. Case in point: last spring, I was talking with an undergrad who was taking the class I TA'd, and he asked me if I was going to the "Blue and White Game" that weekend. "Oh, no, I didn't even know that was this weekend," I replied. He was shocked and horrified. And you know what? To this day, I don't even know what the "Blue and White Game" is, except that it's obviously a game, and it results in lots of Creamery Ice Cream sales (thank you, article in The Daily Collegian that I happened to read). Yep.

There are more, but phrankly, the more I think about them, the less phunny I phind them and the more phorlorn I pheel.


I have to admit: I don't have an iPhone. I don't want an iPhone. I'm perfectly happy with my bright pink Motorola RAZR, which I don't even use to text message.

However, I also have to admit that when I saw the commercial for iPhone's Shazam application, which identifies a song just by "listening" to a few second snippet of it, I was totally blown away.

That's awesome. For years I've been wanting to search on "sound." For me, this is the most awesome thing iPhone can do. Interestingly, my second favorite iPhone innovation is Visual Voicemail. It seems I'm attracted to features that allow sound to be represented visually?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Some Good Advice

This week, Andrea was kind enough to direct us to three excellent sources for advice on succeeding in graduate school:

So Long, and Thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald T. Azuma,
Grad School Survival by Alice Domurat Drager, and
How to be a Good Graduate Student by Marie desJardins.
These are all excellent resources for incoming (or even second-year or advanced) graduate students, especially those who are pursuing doctorates.

The piece of advice that I found to be the most important was present in all three pieces: be certain that you want this. Be passionate about it. But if you don't believe me, listen to them:

"The most basic question every Ph.D. student must know the answer to is: 'Why the hell am I doing this?'...If you do not have an acceptable answer to this question, then don't get a Ph.D. I repeat: if you do not have a rock-solid reason for getting the Ph.D., then it is better that you leave with a Master's." - Ronald T. Azuma

"Finally, if you wake up every day hating what you’re doing, get out of it now. Don’t become one of those tragic people who finds herself or himself years into an academic life struggling every day to make a career of something s/he hates. Academia is a lifestyle choice. If you hate that life in graduate school, you’re probably going to hate it long term." - Alice Domurat Dreger

"First, why go to graduate school at all? The usual reasons given are that a Ph.D. is required or preferred for some jobs, especially research and academic positions; that it gives you a chance to learn a great deal about a specific area; and that it provides an opportunity to develop ideas and perform original research. Wanting to delay your job hunt is probably not a good enough reason. Graduate school is a lot of work and requires strong motivation and focus. You have to really want to be there to make it through." - Marie desJardins
Convinced? I hope so. Because from where I sit, this is the most fundamental piece of advice that any of us could take to heart. And I don't think it takes too many weeks of graduate school to realize its merit!

As far as what I personally find most helpful: as graduate students, we all have a LOT of work, and often are managing quite a few projects at once, especially when we have classes AND research to do. Frequently, the projects are long-term and formidable. That's what I'm facing right now, and even though most of what I have to do isn't due until close to the end of the semester, I set daily goals for myself so that, in smaller pieces, the work gets done. As I mentioned in class, I find that my best time to work is in the morning. I don't particularly relish getting up early, but I think much more clearly and can produce higher-quality work during the morning than even the afternoon (and definitely at night). I try to front-load my days so that by the time evening is nigh, I either stop working or only work on tasks that don't require a heavy cognitive load.

An item of interest: I was most surprised and intrigued by Dr. Dreger's warning against hypochondria. Apparently, based upon her own observations as the wife of an internist, it seems a lot of the "brainiest" people notice their bodies acting up. Aside from an obvious lack of sleep, I haven't really noticed these sorts of issues among my colleagues. Anyone want to jump in and disagree?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Women of Grace

As a devoted Catholic, my main activities outside of schoolwork are church-related. My husband and I are members of Our Lady of Victory parish on Westerly Parkway, which has a wonderful faith community. On campus, I have participated in a study called Women of Grace for two semesters now. In the spring, I was a member of the group; this fall, I am co-facilitating a group with another graduate student.

Women of Grace is an intensive, challenging course in spiritual reflection, designed by Johnnette Benkovic. It is centered around Church teaching and Sacred Scripture. In the study, we explore the nature of our femininity and God's call to each of us women to aid humanity. We learn about woman saints and discuss how to actively live our faith daily. We also discuss the struggles we face, both spiritually and emotionally.

I have found this to be a very enriching and supporting group. We come together realizing that we are all sinners in great need of God's help, but filled with an ardent desire to live more fully in the light of God's love. We pray for each other and gather strength to combat our daily challenges, no matter how big or small. Sara, the student with whom I am co-facilitating this semester, suggested that she and I could provide supper to the group each meeting (there are about 8 of us). Beginning each meeting with a meal adds a great amount of comfort to the atmostphere. It is a "safe place" where we can openly talk about our hopes, dreams, fears, troubles, and concerns.

The presentation on campus groups this week was very interesting. I think that in the future I would like to join the Ballroom Dancing club. I have several friends from back home who really enjoy dancing, and their enthusiasm has piqued my interest. Last weekend, I went to a Halloween dance in a town near Columbus with three of my best friends, one of whom lives in that area and takes lessons at the studio where it was held. It was a blast, even though I barely can dance (although I'm better than this guy below ;).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dr. Jennifer J. Preece

Today I would like to introduce Dr. Jennifer J. Preece, Dean of the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. I first became aware of Dr. Preece's work when writing my candidacy paper on online communities for parents of children with disabilities. I will continue to develop that paper for my master's thesis.

According to her web site, Dr. Preece's research interests include computer-mediated communication, human-computer interaction, management of online communities of practice, health, education, and knowledge. I share these interests, and I find her work to be both compelling and relevant. In 2000, she published a book entitled Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, a resource that I am consulting quite a bit as I work on my thesis. I admire Dr. Preece's commitment to what she describes as her three main research areas: (1) knowledge exchange, cross-cultural communication, empathy, trust, and etiquette online; (2) why and how people do or do not participate; and (3) heuristics and methods for developing, maintaining, and evaluating online communities.

Online communication is the main reason that I developed an interest in IST in the first place. Dr. Preece's incorporation of design strategies into her study of online communities is inspiring for me as I work to incorporate HCI theories into my work.

As I look over a history of Dr. Preece's employment, I notice that she did not quickly rack up her baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral degrees. Although her accomplishments are impressive even going back to the beginning of her career, I still see a trend of slowly building up to where she is now. Additionally, I notice that her bachelor's degree was in biology, which seems completely unrelated to computing -- it appears that her foray into the IS world occured several years after she graduated, when she joined the Computers in the Curriculum Project (which sought to develop computer-based curricula for teaching science at the high school and college level). I admire this gradual career path, with twists and turns along the way.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Publish or Perish?

As graduate students, we're often reminded that in order to survive (never mind thrive!) in academia, we absolutely must publish. And, if you look at the CV of any assistant professor at a major research university, you'll likely see a firm confirmation of this maxim. Publishing is the primary method of "getting your name out there" -- and, of course, sharing the work you're doing with other scholars.

Of course I think it's great (and necessary) that the research we do is shared with the world. At the same time, I think the necessity of publishing in great quantity varies by what field you are in, what degree you seek, and what your career goals are.

I have decided that pursuing a master's degree is the best fit for me. I do not desire a career in research or in academia (at least not academia in the strict sense). My career aspirations instead focus around community outreach (which certainly may and likely will involve universities) and teaching in the context of a community college or technical school.

Given my academic and career aspirations, publishing is not as high a priority for me as it would be if I were a doctoral student. However, I still hope to publish work related to my research assistantship (community informatics/wireless) and/or my master's thesis (online communities for parents of children with autism). Here are three places I might publish:

1) Once again, CHI. As I mentioned a couple posts ago, my name is on two submissions this year. I am hopeful that one or both of these submissions will be accepted. I would love the opportunity to share my work and ideas with CHI community, and learn about the work that others are doing in HCI.

2) IJHCS: The International Journal of Human-Computer Studies concentrates (of course) on HCI. A special call for papers is seeking submissions related to medicine and health care (HCI4MED). Jack, my advisor, has suggested that I might submit a paper related to my thesis for this special issue.

3) Journal of Community Informatics: This is a venue that has interested our wireless team, since the project is considered to be under the community informatics umbrella. It would be great to be able to publish a paper in this journal based on the work we have done. Jack and Mary Beth have published articles in the JCI before, based upon earlier work.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Technology and Music

So much of our discussion of technology revolves around utility. How can such-and-such artifact help me perform more efficiently and effectively as I complete such-and-such task? Important stuff, no doubt, but every now and then I like to reflect on how technology can bear art.

The other day I had iTunes playing on shuffle as I did some work. A stellar recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing Puccini's Nessun Dorma began to play:

I'm not going to philosophize on why music is beautiful and why it evokes emotion. Suffice is to say that this is a shining example of art. And when I listen to it on iTunes, or watch it on YouTube, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I am able to do so.