On starting a PhD

Last night, I officially accepted an offer to enter a PhD program at the University of Calgary. So, it’s a thing, now. Starting in Fall 2016, I will be a PhD student in the Computational Media Design program. CMD is an absolutely amazing interdisciplinary program. From the About blurb:

At the University of Calgary, we formed the Computational Media Design Program to enable students to conduct research at the intersection of art, music, dance, drama, design and computer science.
The Computational Media Design (CMD) graduate program is composed of the Faculty of Science: Department of Computer Science, the Faculty of Environmental Design and the Faculty of Arts: School of Creative and Performing Arts and Department of Art. Students can earn graduate degrees, both Master of Science and PhD. The research-based graduate degrees explore the relationships between and among art, design, science and technology.

Basically, put a bunch of people from radically different fields together in one program and let them play. Computer scientists. Hardware designers. Artists. Performers. And let them explore issues in an intentionally inter- and cross-disciplinary way. Things like the Giant Walkthrough Brain came out of this program. And they do things like designing and building robots to explore telepresence – but not just in a Silicon Valley “I bet we could sell this crap” way – this is “what does this stuff really mean? what does it change about how we think/work/play/communicate/etc.?” There are a few of their major projects listed on the program website, but many others under development that aren’t listed yet.

I’m extremely fortunate to be working with 2 amazing supervisors – Dr. Ehud Sharlin and Dr. Patrick Finn.

Dr. Sharlin works on human-computer interaction through the utouch research group. Robots. Tangible computer interfaces. Virtual and mixed reality.

Dr. Finn works on technology and artistic performance – “creative and collaborative exploration and the use of performance studies in everyday life” through the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Many people have asked me questions at various stages of the application process (I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the support of amazing people, both personally and professionally). In no particular order:

Are you INSANE? Why would you DO this to yourself?

Maybe? I don’t think I’m necessarily insane to be doing this. I know it’s a huge commitment, and I’m already in way over my head, but that’s the point. I need to push myself so I don’t just hunker down and become complacent.

Why do this? Not sure there’s a simple answer to that. Basically:

  1. When I finished my MSc, I didn’t feel like I was done. I still wanted to keep going. I’m fortunate to be in a position where that could have easily meant just doing my job and exploring with others through that role, but I felt like I needed to be doing my own research. So, I’ll get to do both – working with researchers on campus through The Day Job, and working on my own research as well. Hopefully, I’ll make a tiny dent somewhere.
  2. Through the Day Job, we’ll be working closely on research projects from many disciplines. While I could learn much through just paying attention as we work on those projects, I think I need to have a firmer grounding in research – designing, implementing, analyzing and disseminating findings. The best way to do that is to jump in and be a researcher.
  3. I don’t want to be a faculty member. I don’t think the prof thing is for me. But, I want to make sure doors aren’t closed to me because I don’t have a piece of paper. I’m not looking for career advancement or anything like that – I have the best job I’ve ever had – but who knows what opportunities might pop up a decade or 2 down the road. I wouldn’t have my current job if I hadn’t finished my MSc (which happened literally months before I needed it to apply for this job).

I know that I’m going to have to work extremely hard to maintain a sense of balance between my family/work/research lives. Normally, a PhD student is working on their program full time. I won’t be quitting my day job to do this, which means it will take me a little longer to complete, but also means that I will have access to some pretty incredible resources through the Taylor Institute. Kind of an ideal scenario.

What is your PhD going to be on?

Hey. Slow down. I just got into the program. I don’t actually start until Fall 2016. Waaaay too early to be locking down what I’ll be researching. I have some ideas, but want to stay open because that’s the whole point (to me). I have a few broad areas that interest me. Maybe some way to connect them?

  1. Making sense of an individual’s context in (learning) communities. Much of the data about a person’s connections, and the things their friends/colleagues/neighbours are doing, is already out there. But only Big Companies get access to it. What if individuals could access and make use of their own data? What would that look like? What could they do with it?
  2. Exploring physical learning spaces. How does the design of a space change the learning (or teaching) experience? What kinds of activities are possible in a flexible/adaptive/technology-rich learning space? (This is where the Day Job kicks in, since we’re now less than 2 weeks away from moving into a pretty amazing technology-rich facility with incredible learning spaces designed to explore this…)
  3. Exploring how physical and digital learning spaces blend and overlap. How does the design and implementation of technology (from physical architecture to online environments) allow people to stretch and distort space and time? And what does that mean for the learning (and teaching) experience? And, how do individuals (students and instructors) maintain a sense of self and autonomy in such an environment?
  4. Lots of other ideas bouncing around. So, maybe something tangentially related. Or completely separate.

Do you realize how much work a PhD will be?

I think so. Maybe not. I know it’s going to suck up basically every second of free time for the next few years. I already feel like I’m in way over my head – being accepted into a program with people 10-20 years younger than myself, who are literally the best in their fields. I haven’t written actual code in many years (aside from hacking some PHP for WordPress plugins and themes – not exactly Computer Science). I have so much to learn before even getting started. And, because I’m doing this at the UofC, there is some pretty spectacular pressure (from myself) to do well. This is home turf. This is where my professional life is. Failure at this PhD thing would kind of suck, so that’s basically not an option. I can’t just withdraw and pretend it never happened. Colleagues have vouched for me, and I need to nail this. No pressure.

So, there it is. I’ll be easing into the program this summer, meeting with my supervisors to design the course portion of my program, and meeting the other students and researchers in the CMD program.

4 thoughts on “On starting a PhD”

  1. Sounds like you are in a great position to be able to balance your day to day work with the PhD work, so that makes the choice not so crazy in my books. Actually one that makes a heck of a lot of sense. You’d be crazy not to do it. Congratulations, (soon to be) Dr. Norman.

  2. …and that interdisciplinary program sounds incredible. Regardless the outcome of your journey , I think you are going to be exposed to amazing work by amazing people in the next few years.

  3. Yes a Ph.D. Is a lot of work but the trick is to play with your work and that is some fun.
    Enjoy

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