PhD Research

As an HCI PhD student, what areas should I focus on learning?

This is an ever-evolving complex question. The answer will depend largely on who you ask and when you ask. The question is complex both because of the interdisciplinary nature of HCI as well as the different threads of research within it (e.g., from more usability-leaning research to more design-oriented research). Skills/areas that I consider core to HCI can be broken down into seven interconnected areas (in no particular order):

  1. Theory (e.g., psychology, cognitive science, sociology, anthropometrics)
  2. Design (e.g., visual design, interaction design, software design, industrial design)
  3. Critical thinking (e.g., comfort/experience with brainstorming/ideating, providing/receiving critique)
  4. Implementation abilities (e.g., programming skills, rapid prototyping, working with materials, physical computing)
  5. Evaluation (e.g., study/experimental design, qualitative methods/analysis, quantitative methods/analysis, statistics)
  6. Communication (as HCI is fundamentally about communication, students should be strong oral and written communicators)
  7. Technical skills (HCI—at least the HCI that I do—is increasingly technical relying on machine learning, data analysis, computer vision, embedded systems, etc.)

Note: the list above is not comprehensive.

If you are a CS graduate student, I would try to take as many machine learning, statistics, and computer vision courses as possible. Whether CSE, HCDE, or iSchool, I would try to take at least an "Intro to HCI" course (if you have not as an undergrad), a graphic design or interaction design (IxD) course, and a research methods course (the more, the better). I'll close my answer by emphasizing that I truly believe that the best way to learn is by doing. So, get out there and try!

I'm considering applying to UW for a PhD in HCI, should I apply to CSE, HCDE, or the iSchool?

This is a good question. The answer, really, is that it depends on your skills/background, your research interests and goals, and who you want to work with.

Should I get an MS before applying to PhD programs?

This is completely up to you but it is not necessary and somewhat atypical.

You may want to apply to MS programs first to get a taste of research and to help decide if you want to pursue a research-oriented career and get a PhD. This is what I did. I enrolled at the University of California, Irvine as an MS student and worked with Professor Paul Dourish before applying to PhD programs and eventually attending the University of Washington. Note: most MS programs are professionally oriented rather than research oriented. So, be sure to investigate each program closely. No matter what university you attend, if you have ambitions to earn your doctorate, the most important thing is the kind of research you do during your MS, your research productivity during that time, and who you work with (e.g., your MS advisor).

Undergraduate Research

I'm an undergrad at UW, how do I apply to the Makeability Lab?

The students who perform best in our group tend to be 'Makers' and self-starters unafraid of learning new technology and using it to build new, novel interactive experiences. Our research is heavily design/engineering but is also interdisciplinary. In particular, we encourage students in computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering to apply as well as those with art, design, and social science backgrounds.

We have a three-stage application process, which we have carefully refined over the years:

  1. First, fill out this application form. Note that because it takes time and effort to onboard and mentor students into research, we ask for a minimum two-quarter commitment.
  2. Second, for qualified candidates, we will request a letter of recommendation. This letter can be brief—one or two paragraphs is fine—but should speak to your creativity, responsibility and maturity, drive, and technical skills. The letter should also identify key improvement areas.
  3. Finally, we will schedule a ~20-30 min interview to help assess your communication, problem solving, and technical skills/experiences.

Top candidates will be offered a position on an active research project (typically led by a PhD student) —which will be based on the candidate's interests, skillsets, and the needs of our research. Candidates with less experience (e.g., first year ugrads, those without previous technical internships) may work with me on a side project first before joining a research team in earnest.

Regardless, all new ugrad members will entire an initial 'trial period' of 5-10 weeks where we setup a mutually agreed upon set of initial tasks and milestones. At the end of the trial period, we will have an in-person meeting where we assess whether the student has met their commitments and is a good fit for our lab. Just as importantly, the student also reflects on whether they want to continue working with us.

After the trial period ends, successful students become core members of the Makeability Lab—get increased levels of responsibility, get added to the ML webpage, get a t-shirt :), etc.

What are some characteristics of a successful undergrad researcher?

If you're an undergrad reading this website, you might be thinking to yourself: "Do I have what it takes?"

Characteristics of highly successful ugrad researchers include: tenacity and persistence, the ability to work through ambiguity and solve problems independently, a sense of creativity and wonder, a willingness to take risks, a strong and dependable work ethic, good communication skills (both oral and written), and a passion for endless learning and working on a team to solve difficult, never-before-solved problems.

You also have to have time. Time to work, time to think, time to make mistakes and recover, and time to prototype, code, test, and iterate over and over again. I have seen many undergraduate students fail at research simply because they vastly underestimated the amount of time and effort required to be successful. Research is hard. You will not succeed without a few long nights in the lab hacking on your software/hardware project trying to make a deadline.

If this intrigues you. If you want to be part of something bigger than yourself. If you want to be involved in solving high-impact research problems using HCI and computer science, then please apply here.

Oh, and if you're not in computer science. That's totally fine! While *most* of our ugrad research positions require technical expertise, we often work on massive, multi-disciplinary problems that benefit from additional skillsets (particularly in art and design but in other areas as well). We have successfully worked with undergraduate students in mechanical engineering, psychology, chemical engineering, design, math, physics, and others.

What do undergrad researchers do in the Makeability Lab?

Great question. The short answer: it depends. It depends on your interests and skills, on the projects we're working on, on the other undergraduates in the lab, and on the availability of graduate student mentors. Generally, all of my undergrads work on teams comprised of other students and faculty (in a range of disciplines), and are also mentored by one or two graduate students.

In any case, I truly believe—and have observed firsthand—that undergraduate students can significantly and positively impact a research project.

I would like to earn course credit for research, what do I need to do?

CSE 498A, CSE 498B, and CSE 499 can be used to earn academic credit towards your degree requirement for doing research. Please consult the official CSE webpage for more details. (link). Taking these courses is a great way to free up your schedule for research (by reducing your lecture-based courseload) while also earning credit.

While the number of credits taken for CSE 498/499 varies, the average is 3-4 quarterly credits. Expect the workload to be approximately 3-4 hours per week per credit.

If you sign up for research credit, you will need to prepare a report and a final talk at the end of the quarter (given to the Makeability Lab) summarizing your key accomplishments and research findings.

I'm an undergraduate student at a university outside the US, can I intern in the Makeability Lab this summer?

I receive 50+ emails a year inquiring about summer research internships in my group from undergraduate students outside the US. The emails are often formatted very similarly and mass emailed to CS professors across the country (with little customization), such as:

Dear Professor Froehlich,

I am writing to you after having read through your research. I am particularly fascinated by <project X> and <project Y> and share your interest in developing interactive technology that is valuable to society on the whole.

I am an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in <some tech field> at <some university>, the top <department/university/institution> in my country. I would like to apply to work as a summer intern at your lab for the summer of 2015 (June and July), if possible.

<more paragraphs about candidate's background and an attached resume>

While I am grateful to be in a position to receive such interest, it is simply not tenable to thoroughly vet each of these applications. Moreover, many of these students want to come to the US for only a short period (2 - 3 months). It would be challenging for even a 2nd or 3rd year graduate student with research experience to accomplish publishable research in that time (especially starting from zero) much less an undergraduate student with little research experience (not to mention the transactional costs of acclimating to a new lab, working with new people, adapting to a new culture). So, in short, I either do not respond to these requests directly (my apologies, I simply receive too many emails) or respond with a polite "No."

I realize this means that I am likely missing out on working with and learning from some truly talented and exceptional students but the time and effort required to take such a risk outweighs the benefits for me (at least at this stage in my career).

There has been only one exception to the above and that was for an extraordinary student whom I had previously met at a conference, had already first-authored a research paper published at a top venue, had incredible letters of recommendation, and was attending and excelling at one of his country's top universities.

High School Research

I'm a high school student, how do I apply to the Makeability Lab?

We have been fortunate to work with many talented high school students over the years, including those that have gone on to top CS undergrad programs like MIT, Michigan, CMU, UW, UCLA, and UMD and many who have received top scholarships (e.g., the Bannaker/Key Scholarship, which is the University of Maryland's most prestigious academic award for undergraduates). Typically, high school research assistantships occur over the summer (we prefer a minimum ~8-10 week commitment) but other options are also available.

We are delighted to work with passionate, responsible, and technically skilled high school students in research. While we do not expect you to have the same skillset as our ugrad researchers, we do expect that you will be competent and comfortable in at least one programming language (e.g., Python, Java, C/C++, JavaScript, etc.), that you love solving hard technical challenges, and that you can learn quickly and independently.

Applying to the Makeability Lab as a high school student is similar to our ugrad process (indeed, we use the same application form):

  1. First, fill out this application form. Note that because it takes time and effort to onboard and mentor students into research, we ask for a minimum two-quarter commitment.
  2. Second, for qualified candidates, we will request a letter of recommendation. This letter can be brief—one or two paragraphs is fine—but should speak to your creativity, responsibility and maturity, drive, and technical skills. The letter should also identify key improvement areas.
  3. Finally, we will schedule a ~20-30 min interview to help assess your communication, problem solving, and technical skills/experiences. This can be done over Skype or Google Hangouts.


Would you write me a letter of recommendation?

Writing letters of recommendation is one of the most important aspects of my job as a professor, and I gain a lot of satisfaction from helping students seek out and reach new opportunities in their careers. With that said, writing a quality, thoughtful recommendation letter takes time. When you ask for a recommendation letter, it's important that you consider the effort that's required. You want to make the process as easy as possible for me so that I can focus on the intellectual effort of writing a good letter rather than the administrative effort of gathering all the resources I need to write the letter, keeping track of where to send the letters, and dealing with the idiosyncrasies of web-forms. So, to help us both, when requesting a letter please...
  1. Importantly, when you first ask if I would write you a letter, you should provide well-thought out rationale for why you're asking me and what you think I can speak about that may differentiate my letter from others. Note that I, of course, reserve the right to disagree with your rationale if I do not think that I would be a good choice for your rec letter. And that's fine--you need to find the best letter writers for you! It's your career and your life.
  2. Ask for the letter in advance--a month beforehand would be nice. While I certainly do not need a month to write the letter, this lead time allows me to work around travel, big deadlines, etc., so that I can block out a free, quiet time to write a thoughtful and substantive letter. Please check with me a week before the recommendation letter deadline to ensure everything is going smoothly.
  3. If I agree to write you a letter, please send one email that contains all the information required for the letter, including:
    • Summarize your work in my research group and/or class(es). Include a particular example (or two or three) where you demonstrated creativity, determination, or excellent performance, or recognition. You need not write in lengthy prose--a bulleted list is fine.
    • Include an abbreviated list of your major (recent) accomplishments in life with descriptions--including scholastically, in research, in service (e.g., president of ACM-W on-campus group, started CS high school tutoring program), and in life (e.g., won university ballroom dance competition, marathon race finisher).
    • Attach your transcript, your CV/resume, and, if applicable, a draft of your personal statement (doesn't need to be final).
  4. Ask your TA(s) for courses and/or your PhD mentor (for research) to send me an email describing the work that you did. When you do, summarize your work for them and highlight your accomplishments to jog their memory.
  5. Lastly, if I write you a letter, I'd love for you to stay in touch: let me know where you ended up and give me status updates from time-to-time. I really enjoy hearing from former students. If you encounter things in your career that you think I should be teaching in my classes, let me know!
This entry is inspired by and derived from a similar post by UCSD Professor Scott Klemmer.

I sent Professor Froehlich an email and he did not respond, what's the deal?!

My apologies! Thank you for your email—I look forward to talking with you! I really try to respond to nearly every email I receive (except for template emails from prospective students). However, sometimes my responses are delayed (by multiple days) or sometimes I simply miss your email.

If you don't hear from me within two days, please don't hesitate to send me a follow-up email (or even two) that contains your original email plus a "ping" note or something similar (so that I realize this is an additional attempt to contact me). I know this is less than ideal (and, perhaps, even sounds a bit pretentious) but I have recently crossed the email inbox threshold where I am literally drowning in email. I've found that it's not possible for me to process all of these emails and get my other work done each day. Hence, I suggest simply pinging me again with a friendly follow-up if I don't respond to your original message. :)