Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.

Midterm … ish … update

We’re currently in Week 7 of 10 of Spring Term, and the only good thing I can say about this state of affairs is THANK GOD the administration moved fall term registration, and advising, to the summer, because if I had to meet with all of my advisees on top of everything else going on this week, I would probably run away to join the circus.

No one is ever at their best at this point in our academic year. Every other institution in the universe (it seems) is out for summer, and we’re all sick of each other and exhausted and cursing our calendar. This year those feelings are amplified. I poll my class every Wednesday (anonymously and when I remember) to see how they’re doing, and this week over half the class responded with some level of “not great”. A good number of my students are dealing with some pretty serious stuff. The other day one of my colleagues said “I wish we could just give everyone an A and send them home at this point.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an excellent strategy.

I have to say that I’ve mostly struggled through the term, too. Work continues to be a firehose, and I continue to work more hours on weekends than I’d like. There are difficult growing pains connected to my leadership role. My course grader went MIA for a good chunk of the term. Both kiddos are really struggling. I’m dealing with a level of exhaustion I haven’t experienced since I-don’t-know-when.

And yet.

I’m fully vaccinated, as is my partner, as are many of my close friends here. I’ve hugged people I don’t live with, for the first time in over a year! And one of my kids is now vaccine-eligible, and is hounding us to schedule their appointment ASAP.

I’ll be hosting students IN MY RESEARCH LAB, PHYSICALLY in a few short weeks.

My Software Design students are awesome and a lot of fun to teach. I am having a blast.

I submitted an article to a journal earlier this month! Something I’d been thinking about writing for a while and then struggling to complete for months. I convinced one of my favorite staff people to coauthor, and writing with her was one of the high points of this academic year. And I’m currently working on another paper, on work I did with students a couple of years ago, which I hope to get out for review by mid-summer.

I was elected to the college’s tenure-and-promotion committee, a 3-year stint. This is super important (and hard!) work, particularly as we figure out what faculty reviews and evaluation look like post-COVID. I’m humbled that my colleagues trust me to be a thoughtful voice in these discussions and deliberations.

Most importantly, despite everything else going on, I feel a rare sense of … calm. A sense that all of the important stuff will get done, maybe not quite on the timeline I’d like, but still, done. That the stuff that doesn’t get done wasn’t really important in the first place. That the current state of affairs, no matter how frustrating or difficult, is temporary. This is a rare state for me in normal circumstances, but especially during the spring, where my depression and anxiety are typically at their worst. Perhaps all that hard work in therapy is starting to pay off.

I hope this week, despite whatever else is on your plate, that you are able to find some small bit of calm among the chaos.

What a difference a year makes

This morning, I took a deep dive into my research notebooks from last fall to the present. I am trying to finish up a particular article by the end of the year, and wanted to remind myself where I left off with it at the end of the summer. (I worked with students this past term and prioritized projects that involved them over this particular paper.) I knew I’d started brainstorming and sketching out ideas sometime last fall, but I couldn’t remember exactly when.

I found those notes….and a whole set of notes on a whole bunch of other projects / articles in progress that I’d completely forgotten about.

My first reaction, of course, was to beat myself up over my lack of productivity and what I took as proof of what a lousy hack of a researcher I am. Because of course I did. With the exception of our 2019 CHI Work in Progress poster, I’ve been in a publishing slump for a few years. Which, in my better moments, I recognize as part of the normal cycle of research. More often, though, this becomes proof that I Do Not Know What I Am Doing and that It Was A Mistake Awarding Me Tenure and, my personal favorite, I Am A Deadbeat Professor.

(My head is a fun place, sometimes.)

But then I reflected back to November, 2019, and everything that’s happened since. The mental health crisis we faced with one of the kiddos, which took almost a year to properly get a handle on. The increased struggles helping the neurodiverse kiddo navigate daily life and school — which leveled up once the pandemic hit and have really leveled up this school year. The overly scheduled Winter Term 2020, for which my mantra for survival became “Spring will be more manageable.” (Ha!) And of course, the pandemic, with its ever-present firehose of work that hasn’t let up since March. Not to mention all of the chaos and stress and worry involved in managing the day-to-day, and the news cycle, and the election, and and and…

And that’s when I decided to reframe my thinking:

  • I managed to make forward progress on several different projects in a year filled with chaos.
  • I managed to launch a new line of inquiry.
  • I managed to collaborate with 4 brand-new-to-research students this year.
  • I have several articles in progress that I can, with some work, get out into the world in the next 6 months. Particularly since I am only teaching sections of our capstone course in the Winter.
  • I have a number of projects in progress. If some of them fail, that’s ok, because I have plenty of other ideas to pursue.
  • I could make more progress on some of these projects if I bring in collaborators, so perhaps that should be a goal in 2021.

As we head into the final part of 2020 (motto: The Gift That Keeps On Giving), let’s all remember to extend ourselves some grace, maybe even the same grace we regularly extend others. We’re all doing the best we can, with the resources and energy we have available. And that is more than enough.

My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Kicking off a virtual research summer

Before everything in the world changed, I hired two amazing student researchers for the summer. Both rising juniors, both amazingly talented, both with skill sets and interests perfectly fit to my summer project. Both completely new to research.

I fantasized about poring over new datasets together, teasing insights out of troubleshooting comments. Sketching out schema and models on a shared whiteboard in the lab. Daily check-in meetings and random coffee/cookie breaks. Puzzling over what research questions we could feasibly start to answer in 7 weeks. Watching my student collaborators learn and grow and become independent problem solvers. In short, all of the reasons I so very much enjoy mentoring students in research.

Instead, we have Virtual Summer Research, with the three of us in different cities spread across 2 time zones. Much like the spring, all of us confined to small Zoom boxes, Slack messages, and git commits.

We’re now in Week 2 of the Great Virtual Summer Research Experiment, and things are….going. Actually, that’s not at all fair. They are going quite well, all things considered. My students are learning just how much they don’t know about programming in Python. As am I. 🙂 They’re playing with BigData queries and figuring out more complex SQL than they used in Software Design with me this year. We’re all learning how to write web scrapers and use NLTK. I think we’re pretty close to settling on a specific set of research questions.

So, how do you mentor brand new research students, students who’ve never done research before and were hoping to learn what computer science research is, when you’re all online?

Well, honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. But here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Drastically modify my expectations. I’m usually pretty laid back about setting super specific deliverables, because there are so many unknowns when pursuing a research question and I find that following my students’ lead usually yields excellent results. We’re all exhausted after spring term and unsure about fall and beyond. Because of that, my goal for my students this summer is: let’s play with some datasets and new-to-us tools and learn something we didn’t know at the start of the summer. Any progress is forward progress.
  2. Daily short morning check-in meetings via Zoom. Daily morning meetings are the norm in my research lab in any year, in-person or virtual. Everyone reports out on what they’ve been working on, where they’re stuck, and what they want to work on that day. With our CDT/PDT split, meetings happen a bit later (11 am) than in an in-person summer (usually 9 or 10 am). On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to get some of my own work done, run/workout, and wrangle/feed my night owl kiddos before the daily check-in.
  3. Building community. I make sure to start our daily check-ins by checking in with everyone — how are you feeling, what fun things are you up to, etc. Yesterday I found a site of 200 getting-to-know-you questions, and you can bet that I will abuse the heck out of those questions this summer.
  4. Asynchronous updates over Slack. We use Slack throughout the day as a low-key way to keep each other updated. We all post questions or issues we’ve run into. So far it’s just me answering the questions, but I suspect as the students become more comfortable with each other and with the research, they will chime in.
  5. Modeling question asking and help seeking. Based on lessons learned teaching online in the spring, I’ve tried to be more explicit than normal in modeling question asking and help seeking. I share my own mistakes throughout the day. I walk students through how I found bugs in my code/queries and through how I’m debugging the code/queries. When I learn something new, I post that, too. I want students to know that it’s ok to mess up and ok to ask for help — and that in fact messing up is par for the course when doing research.
  6. More specific how-tos. I didn’t realize just how much time I spend physically showing students how to do something (install a script, use a module, debug code) until now. When students struggle, I can’t just sit down with them in pair programming mode, with them driving and me directing (or vice versa), as I normally do. So I’m writing a lot more sample scripts than usual, and creating very specific step-by-step documentation. (I probably could create some videos, too, but I haven’t done that yet.) As a bonus, I’ll definitely use this documentation in the future to orient new students to the research.

In a normal summer, we build community among our students within Computer Science and within the broader STEM at Carleton community. Students work side-by-side in the same lab as the other CS research students. STEM professors talk about their research at weekly Tea Talks. This virtual summer features a weekly virtual professional development seminar for STEM students, run by our STEM Program Manager, with topics such as how to read a scientific paper, how to use library resources effectively, STEM careers/grad school, and how to build a relationship with your research mentor. In CS, we’re working on ways to re-create Cookie Hour, and we have a (so far lightly utilized) Slack workspace for everyone doing summer research as a way to try and re-create “computer lab culture”. Only about half of our summer students in CS have started, so we’ll see if traffic picks up when more people are researching.

Here are a couple of other things I’d like to try:

  • Co-working time. My dismal office hours failure this spring has me thinking about ways to encourage office hours attendance. One idea: rebrand some number of office hours as “drop-in co-work time”. Open up Zoom or Google Hangouts, and work “side-by-side” as we’d do in my office or in the computer lab. This mode of working would be especially ideal as we dive into new datasets — staring at the same data and thinking aloud as we’d do in an in-person summer.
  • Presenting results virtually. We do a lot of informal show-and-tell at daily check-ins during in-person summers. We haven’t done this yet, virtually. I want to get into the habit of frequent, low-stakes presentations, as a way to share work in progress. Bonus: this will help hone our Zoom skills, preparing us all for another term or year of at least partial online learning (which seems likely at this point).

If you’re working virtually with research students this summer, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. How are you building community? What’s worked and what’s failed? What tools have you found most and least useful? Comment here, and/or tweet and @ me (@drcsiz). Let’s continue the conversation.

Week 7: Research….?

The end of the term rapidly approaches, and while I’m way far behind in grading and checking in on student engagement (I just cannot spend another minute staring at Moodle logs, ugh!), I’m actually slightly ahead in course prep. This is good, because the other parts of my job demand my attention this week (let’s just say there are some deadlines I’m coming right up against, a bit uncomfortably). This also means I have a bit more time to think about…

…research.

On the one hand, it seems completely ludicrous to worry about scholarship at a time like this. With all the uncertainty, the death, the sickness, the despair — the very real, troubling issues and impossible decisions facing us — pursuing scholarship seems downright frivolous some days. For those of us dealing with anxiety and depression, there are simply some days where doing anything beyond the bare minimum is nigh impossible, too. Apply sustained focus to messy problems? No thank you.

But for me, research is a regulating force, a welcome intellectual escape of sorts. I get my best teaching ideas when I’m steeped in my research, as odd as that sounds. I’ve found a community of writers in the NCFDD forums that I enjoy engaging with. I’m working on several diverse projects that excite me, that I really want to move forward. I’m currently writing up one, with a goal to publish it by the end of the calendar year. Bolstered by my NaNoWriMo experience last fall, I’m also working towards publishing (for some definition of “publishing”) my work for non-academic audiences.

And, of course, I committed to working with students this spring and summer…so I need to keep up with them!

In short, I had some good momentum going before the world fell apart in March. And while some days I just can’t muster the energy to do just. one. more. thing., most days I find myself making time for scholarship.

Now, granted, this is scholarship with a lighter touch. I know I don’t have the energy or attention span to tackle the toughest research problems on my plate. When the pandemic hit in March, I actually took writing up that project I mentioned above off my plate temporarily, because I knew sustained writing was not happening. Instead, I did some lower stakes work, playing around with BigQuery on Kaggle and exploring alternate datasets for our summer project. I did a lot of reading, a lot of list-making, and a lot of free-writing. I explored the proceedings of new-to-me conferences and the table of contents of new-to-me journals, to identify possible publishing venues. Only within the past few weeks have I felt energized enough to go back and tackle the writeup.

My goals are smaller, my expectations lower. And that’s ok. I may be moving forward more slowly, but I’m moving forward. That’s more than enough for now.

My perspective of the reach and scope of my research morphed in the past few months. I recognize that my academic civic engagement work with our capstone is, actually, part of my scholarship now. With that realization, I now treat my work in that space as serious academic work, worthy of my research time and attention. I also recognize that my other work also has a public scholarship angle that I should and can pursue. Recognizing this opens up more paths and possibilities — and an opportunity for my capital-R-Research to cross paths with my curricular civic engagement work in the fall. In addition to clarifying my priorities in life more generally, I guess the pandemic clarified my priorities in my work life.

I’m dealing with some more practical aspects of my research, too. The dataset I counted on for this summer’s project might not be ready and available for us by the summer. I have ideas, outlines, and drafts of IRB proposal documents for two studies I could conduct — but I hesitate to commit to either, struggling with the ethics of asking people to devote time to my research when they’re already stretched thin in so many other areas. I need to resolve these ASAP, since summer’s fast approaching (my students start on June 15, officially!), but answering these questions is…not easy.

Research-wise, though, I’m fortunate in many aspects. My work does not require physical lab space or specialized equipment and materials. I can work anywhere, as can my students. I did not have to cancel my students’ research experience, because I can mentor them remotely. I have tenure, so I don’t have to worry about productivity hits or hiccups.

(I spend a lot of time thinking/worrying about our junior faculty: how best to support them and mentor them, and more importantly how best to advocate for them when they go up for tenure. This is one place I can use my power and my position to be a strong voice for fairness and compassion in the tenure process, and maybe make a real difference in the tenure experience for my junior colleagues.)

It will be interesting to see what a summer of remote research looks like. Schedules, I think, will be more important than ever, to provide some sense of normalcy and certainty. Schedules for me, of course, but also for my students — how can I help them figure out what works for them? This is a hard skill to master, so how do I facilitate this skill-building remotely? All but one of my kids’ camps have been canceled for the summer, so what does a summer without child care look like? And how will I juggle my research work and childcare responsibilities with what’s likely to be heavier time commitments to course prep (and possibly moving an entire elective online)? Without a chunk of vacation in August, how will I give myself time to truly unplug, something that’s necessary for me to thrive and survive the academic year?

I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Week 6: Engagement

We’re firmly in the second half of our abbreviated Spring Term now, and everyone is….looking ahead, anxiously. Looking ahead to the end of the term, yes, but also, increasingly, looking ahead to the summer and to next year.

I’ve spend much of my time this week getting a handle on the research funding situation for the student grants programs I oversee. Who’s still doing research? Who lost their opportunity? Who’s eligible to defer funding to next year? What might that process look like? And who, without that experience, finds themselves in a precarious financial situation, now that the summer income they banked on no longer exists?

In a similar vein, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how to train and mentor new undergraduate researchers in the art and science of research….remotely. So much of that first research experience (and beyond, too!) relies on ready access to your research mentor — popping down the hall to ask questions, working side-by-side in the lab, impromptu whiteboard sketching sessions. How do I replicate that when we’re all just boxes on a screen? How do I encourage students to “bug” me with their questions? How do I mimic the side-by-side work sessions in a way that feels natural? In short, how do I make sure students don’t fall through the cracks?

This last bit was one of the main points of discussion earlier this week in a meeting of the research cohort program I direct. I asked the students, “who feels comfortable going to a professor’s office hours to ask for help?” (they all were), then pointed out that seeking help from your research mentor is largely the same thing, except it’s like your research mentor has office hours all day long, just for you. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.

I’m thinking about engagement in my course, too — how to reach those who are not engaging with the material/their classmates, and how to incentivize engagement generally. I spent some time earlier this week creating Moodle badges, which seems like a small gesture but one that I’m willing to try. I have a badge each week that’s automatically awarded if they check off all of that week’s activities by Sunday night (of the following week). I have a badge for “attendance” (awarded to those who show up to EVERYTHING), badges for asking good questions and making astute observations, a teamwork badge, and a “helper” badge for anyone who helps out a classmate on Slack. These roughly correspond to the engagement I’d like to see in the class. We’ll see if that moves the needle at all.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is “what happens in the fall?” (And beyond, because to think we’ll be back to any sort of “normal” anytime soon is…wishful thinking.) To that end, I’m already thinking ahead to what the elective I’m teaching, Computer Networks, should look like. How do I replicate the hands-on, exploration-heavy nature of that course if we’re partially or completely online? How do I best engage students in such a complex subject under still-unfamiliar-to-us learning conditions? I’ve already decided to forgo my usual tried-and-true textbook in favor of a freely-available, open-sourced, online textbook, which, because of the way it’s organized, forces me to radically redesign the course. I’ll have to think hard about what’s really fundamental content, and be comfortable with scrapping the rest. And I’m excited to try out a set of assignments that I first heard about at SIGCSE a few years back, which never quite fit into the way I taught the course — but is a much better fit with this other textbook.

As the term winds down, and as we head exhaustedly into summer, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep engagement — of those around me and of myself — alive and sustained. I’ll continue to encourage self-care to those around me — and to remind myself to do so, too. And I’ll do whatever I can to end this term on as much of a high note as possible.

What my PhD Taught Me

This past December, I quietly marked a milestone: my 20th anniversary of earning my PhD.

Earning my PhD was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever undertaken. It was intellectually difficult, of course, but it was also difficult in other, unexpected ways: navigating the tenure denial, reinstatement, and then departure of my thesis advisor; negotiating a change in advisor and research topics between the MS and the PhD; coping with undiagnosed anxiety and depression; dealing with sexism and harassment.

I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the past 20 years, post-PhD, and specifically what key lessons I’ve taken with me from the experience. Here, I’ll share the top 3 lessons from that time, and how they’ve served me in my career.

Lesson 1: Earning my PhD taught me as much about how to “learn” a subfield as it did about the process and history of inquiry in my specific thesis subfield.

I haven’t done a single bit of research on my thesis topic (other than getting articles out from the diss) since defending. I transitioned to other research projects in related areas in my postdoc, continuing one of those when I arrived at Carleton, and have continued to branch out to other areas since. I’m in the process of learning an entire subfield in which I was not trained (HCI), and for the moment, primarily publishing in that space.

It’s true that I learned enough to make me the “world expert” on my thesis topic at the time. But those skills are useful for picking up any subarea in any subfield. Skills like knowing how to do a literature search and review. How to learn, develop, and practice the common research methodologies in an area. How to learn the predominant writing style, and develop and tweak it to your own writing style. How to review and critique your own ideas and the ideas of others. How to figure out how the questions that inspire you, fit into the discourse of the field/subfield. How to frame an argument. How to discuss and contextualize results.

And, as it turns out, a number of those skills translate well to learning new topics and areas enough to teach them — a skill that’s vital when you teach at a small liberal arts school, where more often than not you’re teaching “outside your area”.

Lesson 2: Perseverance and consistency are underrated keys to success.

Inspiration gets way more credit than it should in terms of conditions for success. We like to think the most successful researchers are the ones with the best ideas. And that’s true, to a point. But the best ideas often start out as messy ideas — “quarter baked, not even half-baked” ideas as one of my post-doc colleagues called them. You need time and patience to wade through the muck of an idea or question to find the core nugget. And you need to be willing to play the long game, because sometimes you have to wade through A LOT of muck to get anything useful, and sometimes you wade through a lot of muck only to realize that it’s all muck, and you need to start over. Or, you think you’ve found the nugget, but those reviewing your work disagree and think it’s still muck.

Research is deeply unsexy, when you think about it.

My PhD trained me to show up and put in the time every day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I got some workable results or found a bug that meant I had to throw out all the code I wrote over the last month. It taught me to deal with the inevitable rejections of conference and journal papers and grant proposals, to dust myself off, identify the key points of valid criticism, and try again. It helped me grow a thicker skin. (Which, as it turns out, is also helpful when you work with undergrads at a teaching-focused institution and teaching evaluations play a large role in your tenure case.) At the same time, it helped me develop confidence in my ideas and in my work, which has also helped me persist when a line of research seems to be heading nowhere.

I’ve since used this perseverance to good purpose in my personal life, from training for marathons to earning my black belt to recovering from injuries to navigating the world of international adoption. Consistency and perseverence yields results.

Lesson 3: Your network is your lifeline.

Grad school was not a shiny happy experience for me, as I alluded to above. It was hard. As one of the few women in the program, it was isolating. It could have been lonely — if I hadn’t found my people.

The connections I made with the women in my department were my lifeline. My roommate, a fellow EE major from my undergrad institution, with whom I navigated those early years and classes. The woman who started in my lab at the same time, who took almost every class with me, studied for months with me for the quals, suffered through our respective dissertations together, and became a close friend. The women in other labs, both older and younger, who became friends and allies and fellow advocates for change. The (painfully few) women professors, who modeled how to deal with everyday sexism with grace and strength and modeled how to change the system from within the system — and that leaving a toxic situation instead of attempting to change it is sometimes the best choice.

I also learned how to identify male allies, and how to cultivate those connections, with both peers and professors. I’m grateful to the male professors who helped me figure out ways I could foster change in the department, and who willingly went to bat for me. I still use those lessons to this day. And to my peers, who helped provide pockets of acceptance and safety in an environment that often felt unwelcoming.

At the time I was in grad school, the idea of a “mentor network” was not in vogue — but that’s exactly what I was developing. I’ve continued to do this post-PhD. My network was vital to my earning tenure, and navigating my department as the only woman professor. It continues to be vital as I explore moving into administration full time in the next phase of my career. And it continues to grow.

And of course, as a senior woman in my field and department (and academia generally), I work to improve my mentoring skills, so that I can be a valuable resource, sounding board, and advocate for those coming up behind me.


I wish, in retrospect, I’d written down my reflections at my other PhD anniversaries. How did I view the PhD 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out? How did my recollections, and what I deemed important, change over time? Hopefully, when the 25th anniversary rolls around, I’ll remember to jot down my thoughts.

However, one thing was true then, is true now, and will be true in the future, I’m sure of it: I will not mark the anniversary by re-reading my dissertation. No. Thank. You.

CHI: A newcomer’s perspective

Last week I attended my very first CHI. CHI is the big ACM conference on human-computer interaction, and although my research is half in this area, I’d never attended, much less submitted a paper, before. But this year, our research progress aligned with the late-breaking work deadline, so we submitted it and it was accepted. So, off to “HCI Disneyland” it was for me!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference, as I alluded to in my previous post, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In some ways, CHI was exactly what I expected, but in other ways, it was vastly different. So here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from my first CHI experience.

Cliques and shadow programs and lingo, oh my!

The biggest surprise? CHI is very, very cliquey. As someone new to CHI and who didn’t study HCI as part of my PhD, I felt very much like an outsider. I found it extremely difficult to strike up conversations with people I didn’t already know, unless I was introduced to them by someone I did know. CHI seemed very much to be about reuniting with who you know and reinforcing those ties, and less about forging new connections. Because of this, I am super grateful for the colleagues from other schools who saw me floundering and made sure to introduce me around and check in on me. If not for them, I might have been tempted to hide in my hotel room for more of the conference.

The second biggest surprise: the shadow program. I found it odd that there were so few things scheduled in the evenings…until someone clued me in to the concept of “CHI parties”. CHI has (early) receptions on two of the conference nights, but most of the post-session socializing exists in smaller parties sponsored by different organizations or collections of people. To be fair, CHI does now put these on their website, but I still found the idea odd. And again, I did not feel comfortable just showing up at a random place in the evening in an unfamiliar city, and then finding my way back to my hotel afterwards, so I skipped out on this aspect of the conference — and probably lost some valuable opportunities to make new connections.

Visuals are key

I guess it’s no surprise that at a conference concerned with designing tech for humans, the slides would be well-designed, too. (Interestingly, this did not always extend to the posters, which overall still seemed text-heavy, but perhaps not as much as at other CS conferences.) In the same vein, all of the talks I attended were interesting and clear. I’m not sure if I just got really lucky with my choices or if CHI talks are generally pretty solid, but it was a welcome change from talks at other conferences I’ve attended in the past.

I tried to be cognizant of the amount of text on my poster. Designing good posters is hard!

It’s also no surprise that a design-focused conference should be demo-heavy, and as a newbie this was the most fun and interesting part of the CHI experience. I didn’t try out as many things as I’d like due to the crowds, but it was fascinating walking around and seeing all the creative, tangible things other researchers were working on.

Things I did right

  • Attend an alt.chi session. The best way to describe alt.chi is that these are the papers that don’t neatly fit into the normal academic paper box. I saw 2 alt.chi presentations, one on deciding not to design, and one on lying to your devices, and both were fascinating. I wish I’d had room (or made room) in my schedule to see more.
  • Sign up for a lunch@CHI group. I signed up to eat lunch with several complete strangers on the first day of the conference. Finding people to eat lunch with at conferences is one of the most stressful parts of a conference for me, so I jumped at the chance to not have to think about this for one of the conference days. CHI matched people up and made reservations at nearby restaurants, so all I had to do was show up (and pay for my lunch). I wish more conferences I went to had this option!
  • Realize when I’d reached my limit. I presented my poster on Wednesday, during the 2 coffee breaks. After the first break, I realized that I needed to do some major recharging before the second break to engage with people on my research. So even though it was raining and even though there were a bunch of sessions/papers I wanted to see, I skipped out for a few hours to go mural hunting in City Centre. Bonus: I did a ton of walking and found a tiny vegan place for lunch…and returned to the conference refreshed and reinvigorated.

Newbie mistakes

  • Failure to pace myself. I failed to take any breaks on the first day, and did lunch@chi on top of that. There were just so many new things to see and do and learn! By halfway through the reception, I found myself wandering around like a zombie, looking for desserts to give my brain a quick sugar hit. I ended up leaving the reception early and crawling directly into bed as soon as I got back to my hotel room.
  • Not attending the Sunday night Newcomer’s Reception. In my defense, I’d spent the entire day wandering the city and was still somewhat jet lagged, so I skipped out on this. In retrospect, this probably would have been a gentler introduction to CHI.
  • Planning meetups in advance. I ended up running into people I knew serendipitously, but I also ran into people I did not expect to see. But if I’d sat down before the conference and sent out some targeted emails, I probably would have known that, say, one of our somewhat recent alums was there and schedule a coffee meet-up.
  • Plan out which posters to visit. The poster sessions were larger than I expected, and were crowded and noisy affairs. I’m sure I missed a lot of excellent posters as a result. In the future, I’ll be a bit more intentional about which posters to visit.
  • Not engaging with more demos. Really, this was just sheer laziness more than anything else, but I regret not trying out some things (like the VR swings, for instance).

Final thoughts

Despite some of the hiccups along the way, I am really glad I was able to attend CHI this year. Frankly, it’s been some time since I’ve attended a pure research conference (I’ve been on the GHC/Tapia/NCWIT/SIGCSE circuit primarily, lately), and it was fun to engage with ideas in this realm. I have several notebook pages filled with new ideas for projects, papers, and other fun things (and not enough time to pursue them all!), and several more pages filled with reflections on what I could be doing differently in my research and in my academic civic engagement work more generally. I did make a couple of connections that may very well bear fruit at some point. And, of course, it was nice to return to Glasgow and actually remember some of what I experienced this time.

Preparing to conference

In a little over a week, I’ll be heading to Glasgow for CHI, one of the big conferences on human-computer interaction.

This is my first ever CHI, and I am excited for all sorts of reasons. I’m excited to present the troubleshooting language work my students and I have been working on, in the late breaking work track. I’m eager to get feedback on how we can make our next experiment (slated for this spring, eek!) even better and more informative. (The reviewer feedback on our submission has already been super helpful in that regard.) I can’t wait to see how our poster looks printed on fabric, and to wear my poster as a scarf when I’m not presenting it. And I’m looking forward to attending talks that touch every aspect of human-computer interaction just for the sake of learning something new. It’s like HCI Disneyland!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference. When you go to the same conferences year after year, you get into its rhythms and into your own conference habits. You’re familiar with the culture of that conference (and every conference has its own unique culture), so you don’t have to spend so much energy navigating the social aspects and “flow” of the conference. You get kind of lazy with attending talks and spend more time in the “hallway” track, catching up with colleagues new and old. You can look at the schedule and make a good guess as to which talks/tracks will be worth attending and which are skippable or are likely to be train wrecks.

This familiarity is comforting to an introvert like me. I love conferences, but they are energy vampires, and I have to be careful to not overdo it so that I can maintain my energy over the length of the conference. The more familiar I am with a conference, the easier it is to make decisions about when to engage and when to remove myself from the fray to recharge. But I still do a lot of advance prep work to plan out my conferences: which sessions are can’t-miss ones for me? what are my obligations and where do those fall in the schedule? is there anyone that I want to make sure to connect with while I’m there? I prioritize and schedule these in so that I know I’ll have the energy for them. For everything else, I have a loose plan (sessions that look interesting, etc) that I can jettison if I feel my energy reserves rapidly depleting. I also study maps of the area around the conference venue, so that if I need to take a break to recharge, I have some idea of walkable routes that get me outside by myself.

With a new conference, I don’t have as good information to vet the “must sees” from the “could skips”, and there are so! many! more! new! people! to! meet! For the latter, I signed up for as many conference lunches as I could, to remove the taxing mental calculus of deciding who to meet up with for lunch (and where to eat in an unfamiliar city) and to make it easier to meet new people. For the former, I’m going to have to spend some quality time with the conference schedule to get a sense of what happens when (and when exactly my poster session is!), and then pick out a small handful of things I really want to see and get those on my calendar. I also have to figure out an efficient way to skim the author list, to see if I may know anyone that’s presenting and make plans to meet up with them.

Photo of my 7 week old daughter and me in Glasgow, 2007.
Photo proof that I was actually in Scotland in 2007. With the benevolent dictator that ruled our trip.

This is actually not my first time in Glasgow, so theoretically I should already be a bit familiar with the city. I was last in Glasgow for ICC in 2007…with a 7 week old infant. I was overwhelmed with the whole new parent thing, and already sleep deprived from parenting a newborn and then jet-lagged on top of that. Needless to say, I remember very little from that conference. The things I do remember: realizing when I got dressed the day of my talk that the only halfway decent pants that fit my post-partum body at that point, that I’d packed to wear to look somewhat professional, were too short, making me a fashion don’t; trying desperately to carry on normal adult conversations about research through the sleep deprivation fog; the newborn developing a fear of bagpipes that persists to this day. (I did nail my talk, though!) This time, I won’t have a newborn (or any kids) in tow, so I look forward to exploring the city for real this time around.

If you’re reading this and are going to CHI, or have been to CHI, I’d love to hear your tips. What should I make sure to do? What’s a must-see? If you’re reading this and have tips for what I should see and do in Glasgow (I have one full day to explore before the conference starts), I’d love to hear that too. And if you’re going to CHI and want to meet up, I’ll be sure to reserve some of my introvert energy for you!