During his presentation at the CIFellows Research Meeting & Career Mentoring Workshop in December1, Microsoft’s Peter Lee shared his motivations for creating the program. Beyond giving recent PhDs an opportunity to remain in academia during a time when obtaining an academic job is more difficult than usual, he saw the program as a way to “create a cadre of highly independent computing researchers.”
I am currently a first-year CIFellow in Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Department, and I describe how this program is helping me to achieve what Peter intended—to be an “independent computing researcher.”2
I conduct research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), a subfield in computer science that broadly focuses on studying, planning and designing interactions between people and computers. My current research addresses two frequently cited problems in HCI: 1) how to integrate design thinking into computer science, and 2) how to identify and break out of the Western values embedded in technology design.
To address these problems I am first conducting human-centered research examining how technology supports communication, economic exchange and connectedness between African immigrants in the U.S. and their families, friends and co-workers living in sub-Saharan Africa. Based on this research, and in collaboration with design and computer science students, I then will build technology interventions grounded in my empirical findings.
Virginia Tech is an ideal place to carry out this project because there is an established HCI program in the university’s computer science department, a strong industrial design program, faculty whose interests mesh with mine, and a campus environment that values and supports interdisciplinary collaboration. The CIFellows Project gives me freedom to take advantage of what Virginia Tech has to offer, carry out my own research, and engage in other activities that will make me more competitive when the time comes to seek permanent employment.
For example, I have always felt comfortable pursuing my own research—but I am fortunate that this fellowship also provides formal experience in a less-well-charted territory for me: teaching. This semester I am co-teaching a short course on “Introduction to Human Computer Interaction” in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies. I’ve enjoyed introducing students, who may not typically see connections between their disciplines and topics in computer science, to the field of HCI. In the fall, I will co-teach a new course focused on developing technology for users in developing countries. The course will bring together students from various disciplines who are interested in designing computational devices and applications for people in sub-Saharan Africa and India. Virginia Tech’s Office of International, Research, Education and Development awarded me a grant to support the development of this new course. These experiences are exposing me to challenges that accompany creating courses that span multiple disciplines at a large university. Further, and more importantly, I have a newfound appreciation for the time and skill required to effectively teach undergraduates.
What I most value about the CIFellows Project is the freedom and set of resources the fellowship affords me. I have been able to explore a new research area that is largely separate from my dissertation work, a move that might have been risky if I were in a tenure-track position. Indeed, the freedom that accompanies the fellowship makes change in research directions possible. I have time to become acquainted with a new body of literature, and to write and think about a new set of problems I want to solve. Further, I’ve been able to familiarize myself with what developing a NSF proposal entails. I used my CIFellows proposal as a starting point for creating a larger grant proposal. Being able to control how I spend my time is a key luxury of being a CIFellow and is something that differentiates my postdoc from more traditional positions.
The generous financial resources that accompany the fellowship also make changing research topics possible. I’ve used these resources to compensate study participants, travel, purchase materials to develop prototypes, and fund an upcoming six-week deployment study in Kenya. In contrast to a more conventional postdoc I am not beholden to an advisor and I have taken advantage of this to work independently. In turn, this has given me the confidence necessary to continue to develop my own research agenda.
In addition to teaching and pursuing new research directions, I have time to engage in other activities that will help me reach my long-term goal of becoming an assistant professor at a research university. These activities include mentoring students, giving talks, serving on committees, and figuring out how to balance the various demands on my time. I feel incredibly fortunate to have two years, with no tenure clock ticking, to begin figuring these things out.
Like anyone transitioning from being a graduate student to something else, there are challenges. For example, I am working in a new institution with new ways and old histories that I don’t understand. I am figuring out how to collaborate with individuals with different working styles than my own. I miss living in a major metropolitan area and wonder if I could stay in small college town for a longer period of time. Again, these are challenges many people face after completing a PhD and transitioning to a new position. At the end of the day, being a CIFellow means I don’t have to devote time and energy worrying about things I cannot control; instead it allows me to entirely focus on what I can control; that is, becoming a better researcher.
Susan P. Wyche received her Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2010 under the direction of Dr. Rebecca E. Grinter. She is now a CIFellow at Virginia Tech where she works with Prof. Steve Harrison. Susan is part of the 2010 cohort of CIFellows.
2 For more details about the CIFellows Project, visit http://cifellows.org/.