On Getting Into Grad School, Part 1

This blog is probably one that would have been better written in the moment rather than as a retrospective, but as you will see from the timeline I was too overwhelmed with everything else going on to think about writing a blog.

When I was looking to apply to grad school I scoured the internet for information from other grad students and professors looking for anything that would give me the best possible chance at a) knowing if this grad school thing was what I wanted to do and b) giving me the best possible chance of getting into the grad school that was going to be best for me. Now that I’m on the other side of the application process and I’m feeling great about the outcome, I thought I would attempt to share my experience for the next generation of applicants looking for more information.

DISCLAIMER: This is a completely personal experience and should in no way be treated as a how-to guide. Everyone is going to be different, coming from a variety of backgrounds and going into a multitude of different fields of study. Please don’t read this as the perfect way to get into the grad school of your choice; I’m sure there are much easier ways of doing it.

I think the best way to do this is write this out as a timeline of events, with links and info about each of the events. If this gets to be too long, I’ll break this into multiple parts and if something needs more attention than everything else, I’ll break that into its own blog article.

October 2011: Grace Hopper 2011

I went to Grace Hopper in Portland, OR as a student volunteer. It was the first time I got a real good look at what someone could really do with a computer science background. I met a lot of students who were in grad school working towards their PhD. I heard about some cool research being done that I learned was in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Up until this point, I thought a computer science degree was good for getting a job at a software company writing code. The seed of the idea of grad school is planted.

January 2012: Industry Job Interviews

Between Grace Hopper and early 2012, I subjected myself to several really uncomfortable industry interviews. Let’s just say coding on the fly, in a high pressure situation and recalling complex algorithms and data structure optimization is *not* my strongest skill. It’s at this point I really start to question what I am doing and why I am trying to push myself into something that clearly isn’t working out.

February 2012: DREU Internship Application

At the very last minute, I decided to apply to the CRA-W’s DREU internship. It’s also around this time that I started working with a professor at my campus on his smart grid research. He had asked for volunteers, so I decided that it was worth the experience.

It was also around this time I decided that I wanted to pursue a career more in the area of HCI. I was taking the elective “Intro to HCI” offered by my school (which turns out was that great of an intro) and thought my interdisciplinary studies in Psychology and Computer Science were a good fit for this area. I applied for a scholarship to attend CHI 2012 in Austin, TX through the ACM-W.

March 2012: DREU Acceptance and Matching Results

At the beginning of March I received an email saying that I had been accepted to the DREU program for the summer. I was really excited and very worried at the same time. I hadn’t done any extensive traveling and never really on my own. They said they would email me soon with my matched mentor and the location I would be traveling to for the summer. I looked at all the past mentors and their universities. Where would I be living that summer? Who would I have to work with? The only things I had heard from friends that had completed REUs was how awful it was. The mentors just give you some project and are too busy to actually mentor you. The projects aren’t of much consequence or the results end up being something you can’t get a publishable paper out of… I started wondering if I had done the right thing.

I was up all night worrying I would be shipped off to some strange place I couldn’t survive and have a mentor I wouldn’t be able to work with. However, I was not in agony long. It was at school the next day when I got my match-up. The rest, as they say, is history. You can read plenty about my DREU internship on my blog space. Dr. Amy Hurst was the best mentor a person could ask for. She was exactly what I needed at a time when I didn’t even know what I needed or what I was doing with my life.

April 2012: CHI 2012 in Austin, TX

My first real research conference was CHI. Talk about amazingly overwhelming. It’s a lot of people. And I had never been to Texas before. And it was my first time on a plane in years. I really enjoyed it, nonetheless. I think my overall impression was excitement that so many people from so many different places were all passionate about the same thing. There were more computer-oriented people and there were more psychology-oriented people, but they all meshed together to make something pretty exhilarating.

People ask me what my favorite talk was and I don’t even remember. I think if I went back to the program notes and see what I went to, I would probably recall. I have learned a lot since I was there though. How to go to conferences and pick what talks you want to see is an important skill.

CHI is also where I met Dr. Amy Hurst for the first time and some of her students. All in all, it was a good first experience into a world I was soon to submerge myself in.

The saga continues next time in PART 2…

Because It’s a FAQ…

I just wanted to write a short blog entry about this whole “grad school” thing because I’ve been getting some questions about what exactly it is I’ll be doing in the next few months.

This fall I’ll start towards my PhD in Informatics from the University of California Irvine. My research area is in Assistive Technology and I think I’ll be doing my work in the area of tech helping kids with Autism and chronic illness. I really won’t know my research space until I get into the work and get a feel for what I’m doing.

The way grad school works, at least in the field of tech and computer science, is that when a school offers you acceptance there is usually some sort of funding package that comes along with it. For instance, a lot of schools will offer 3 years of funding, which usually covers tuition and then gives you a monthly stipend. In order to earn that monthly stipend, depending on the school, of course, you work 20 hours a week doing research or TAing. In my case, I’ll be expected to TA one year and then do research projects for the remaining time in the program. After you second year or so, you have usually settled on an advisor and a research path and can start getting grants for the work you are doing. This will be in lieu of “working” for the department. I have been getting some questions as to how I’m going to live while getting my PhD and there is the answer: I’ll be getting paid to do it. Yes, it won’t be as much money as I could be making as a programmer straight out of my bachelor’s degree, but if I wanted to be a programmer, I wouldn’t be going to grad school. I’ll still be making way more money than I’m currently earning, and I guess that’s the perspective I’m going in with. I’ll be quite comfortable with what I have.

I’m going to grad school because I love doing the research. This is what I learned from completing my DREU at UMBC last summer. That really was the one of the best experiences I have ever had in terms of my own personal growth. At this point in time, I haven’t really thought PAST earning my PhD; it’s be a long road just to get this far. I’m sure that in due course, it will become apparent where I want to pursue my career, whether it is in industry or academia.

Do feel free to email me if this didn’t clear things up for you. I’m quite happy to talk about all the in’s an out’s! =D

ASSETS 2012 Conference

To be honest, I started this blog immediately after I returned from the ASSETS 2012 conference, but everything else in this semester got away from me and I didn’t post it. I’m on winter break now, so I am finally able to catch up on things.

I have finally returned home from my journey to Boulder, Colorado. Firstly, we drove. We should have realized what a crazy idea this was when we stood in a room full of Ringlands, told them our plan to drive down to Boulder and back in a week, and no one even batted an eye.

Family eating lutefisk dinner.
Some of the Ringlands eating at the lutefisk dinner in Poulsbo.

With a belly full of lutefisk (because nothing says the start to a great road trip than unending plates of lefse and lutefisk) we left Poulsbo, WA to arrive 36 hours later in Boulder, CO. I’m going to admit upfront that I missed the keynote Monday morning.  We rolled into the hotel as the address was about half-way over.  If only we hadn’t stopped for that 2 hours of sleep in Rawlins, Wyoming!

First impressions:

*ASSETS is much, MUCH smaller than any other conference I have attended (less than 100 people versus a couple thousand plus).  This allowed me to get to know a lot of the people there.

*ASSETS is a single-track deal.  This was great!  I didn’t have to choose between two awesome papers.  Everything is in one room.  With the exception of the keynote, I didn’t have to miss any of the conference.

*It’s really nice having such a close-knit, small community.  People were super enthusiastic not only about their own projects, but other people’s work and were very willing to get in there and give each other ideas.

There was a lot of really fantastic work presented at the conference.  It ranged from web accessibility to assistive tech hardware to biofeedback interfaces. The populations being worked with were quite varied from physically disabled to the elderly to the visually impaired and so on. I think the most heartening thing about the conference was to see how much great work is being done to help people.

The grad student I worked with on my DREU project, Michele A. Burton, gave her presentation on the accessible fashion we had been working on. She did a fantastic job. I very much wish to follow in her footsteps.

Boulder itself was absolutely beautiful. I had the opportunity to visit the campus and see the Human-Centered Computing Lab there. It was great to meet some of the students and see what projects they are working on. This is definitely one of my top choices for graduate schools.

We got 5 inches of snow just as the conference was ending. It forced us to stay an extra day, but it was worth it.

Snowy creek and trees.
A creek near our hotel in Boulder, CO.

Week 10

In a whirlwind of getting everything done, the summer is over!  This past week I created a video showcasing all of the tagging systems I put into clothes.  I also wrote a presentation, which I gave at the Summer Undergraduate Research Festival on Wednesday, August 8th.  This was the same festival that I  created and presented a poster at.

Here are the slides from my presentation.  The video I created followed these slides.

Tagging Systems to Assist Visually Impaired Users Identify Visual Data in Clothing.

And here is the video I created:

 

All in all, I’m really sad to be going home and leaving this project behind.  I had a lot of fun working on it and learned a LOT.  It was wonderful working with so many great people.  I’m super excited to be continuing on with school and working on graduate school applications this fall!

Week 3

I spent a lot of this week playing with my arduino kit and researching the things we might use with it.  I began compiling lists of shields that will attach to the arduino to add functioning.  I also looked up tutorials for putting together an LCD kit from Sparkfun.

In my researching, I found a pretty cool blog: Fashioning Tech.  It’s fun to go through the articles and see what interesting other people around the world have been doing with fashion and tech.  Some of the projects are really quite beautiful.  For instance, this article about lace that reads poetry is fascinating.

I think the highlight of the week was learning how to solder from Amy.  I’m going to be using it to put circuits and wiring together, but it’s one of those things that is just good to know for life.  (My dad is very excited that I can now help him with home repairs.)

Soldered Wire
My very first soldered wire.

This coming week, Michele will be back from her conferences in the UK and we will be sitting down on Monday to narrow my project down for the summer.  I’m really looking forward to hearing about everything she learned at the conferences!

Week 2

I can’t believe another week has already gone by!  I guess that’s what happens when you keep yourself busy.  Monday we had our first “Fashion Project” meeting.  We discussed what each of us is working on and plans for the future.  I am working on this project with Michele, the PhD student, Amy, my advisor, and Jeffrey, another undergraduate.

My main task this week was to study up on the arduino and when the kit arrived to start playing with it.  Below are some pictures of the unveiling of my arduino kit when it arrived.

Arduino Kit

Unwrapped Arduino Kit
So many pieces.
Packaging of Arduino "We Love Open Source"
I love the packaging that says “We Love Open Source”.
The Arduino Uno
It’s so little!

 

Tuesday was an all-hands meeting.  It was nice to be able to meet everyone else in the lab and see what projects they are working on.  It’s also a nice place to get help and coordinate on skills.

Wednesday I volunteered at the NCIL Conference in Washington, D.C. at the Grand Hyatt.  I was there to help assist in the e-voting that was taking place for NCIL’s board.  The e-voting system was being run by a group from Clemson and is meant to be accessible to everyone.  There is an article about it on Clemson’s website, if you’re interested in learning more about it.

This coming week I plan on taking the plunge and getting my arduino to run with my laptop.  I have all the software installed, I just need to load the sketches and go.  Hopefully, I’ll have some success to report on that front next week.

Week 0

This is just a short post to get this weekly blog started.  I arrived safely in Baltimore over the weekend and successfully moved into the student housing on campus.

My goals for this week are to get an idea of the project I’ll be working on over the summer, to explore the campus and area a little bit, and to get my website functioning.  After meeting with my mentor, Amy, yesterday, it sounds like there are lots of cool projects going on in the Human-Centered Computing department here.  Now my big job is to narrow down my focus to just one thing I would like to work on!

I’ll have more to report this coming weekend when I do my Week 1 blog post.  Until then!