Help me decide if, where, and how to get a PhD
January 10, 2010 3:51 AM   Subscribe

Edumacate me! PhD in information science, computer science... or what? Masters at the MIT Media Lab (or similar)? Help!

I'm doing a Masters in an area related to technology and society. I'm extremely interested in issues that relate to how people adapt to new information technologies. I'm fascinated by the privacy, psychological, sociological, legal, etc. issues involved. My undergraduate degree is interdisciplinary with a strong computer science focus. I have attended elite universities in the US and UK and have published in this field. I'm not a CS genius, but I can function in that world.

I'm thinking of applying for a PhD, but am not sure exactly which area I want to focus on: computer science, information science, HCI, etc. I am also considering another Masters in a related area, such as at the MIT Media Lab, New York University's ITP program, etc. I have a background as an entrepreneur, and have considered applying for a PhD in business at a place that has a technology focus, such as MIT's STS program, Oxford Said's STS program, etc. (Btw, I already looked at this post, so I know about ischools.)

I have dual US/EU citizenship, and no particular ties to any country. I speak Spanish and English. I'd definitely be interested in living/working somewhere interesting. I like the idea of the shorter PhDs in Europe or Australia -- US PhDs seem more arduous.

I have heard terrible things about academic job markets so I'm not sure if that's where I ultimately want to go with this degree -- which makes me unsure if a PhD is right for me. I've also read a lot of the "help me get out of this PhD" posts here on AskMeFi. Basically, I want to continue to study technology and society issues, to make a reasonable living, to have a flexible schedule, and to have the chance to travel.

I missed this year's PhD deadlines, so I'll need to take a year off before starting a program, which is a whole 'nother story.

So, my question is:
- Should I try to do a PhD in Computer Science as opposed to Information Science? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

- Should I try to do a PhD in Business with a technology and society focus? What are the advantages and disadvantages? I know that business school professors get paid more, but how do I know if I need a business school PhD to become one?

- I have the opportunity to do a PhD in Computer Science with a great researcher who is at a not very prestigious university in the UK. Would this be a good idea? What are the consequences of going to a not very prestigious university for a (funded) PhD?

- Where should I go?

- What kind of jobs would be suitable once I graduate? Do I need to get a PhD to get them?

Any other help you could give me would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Throwaway email:
posted by metametababe to Education (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Just a very small piece of information, universities in the UK take in science PhD students year-round. The programs are shorter because they are usually have no taught classes to take and no TAing, etc. You go straight into working on a specific project for a specific supervisor.

Most UK science PhDs are advertised on Find A PhD. Although you have EU citizenship, some funding may depend on your current country of residence as well - I'm not very clear on the particulars, however.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 5:18 AM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd say a PhD in Business with a technology and society focus.

The internet and the software industry are still fairly new, and e-commerce is really new. Even after several decades, business people and economists still have trouble understanding them. Rules of thumb and common sense built up over centuries of experience with a physical good don't always apply here (at least not exactly in the way economic conventional wisdom says they should). New rules of thumb seem based on limited experience and may be a bit dubious, eg. "micro-payment systems don't work" (mmm, do really know that?), or "people on the internet won't pay for stuff" (really? so, how is Magnatune, for instance, making money again?) Successful business models differ from traditional ones, and are sometimes stumbled on by there creators by accident, and aren't always even business models (what makes a successful open source project work?).

Business students would really benefit from having a professor who can understand how new sectors of the economy work, and help them get their heads around it. It sounds like your interests and background put you in a position to understand and teach that.

(Keep in mind, of course, I'm just some dumb guy with a computer. This is just how things look from here.)
posted by nangar at 5:26 AM on January 10, 2010

The casual attitude with regards to starting Ph.D. program makes me think that you might want to strongly consider doing something else. These programs are designed to take advantage of your labor before convincing you to quit in disgust and self-loathing -- the high failure rates helps the department look good. If you're not willing to engage in protracted trench warfare with your professors and department in order to get the degree, you might want to think about doing something other than trying to get a doctorate.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:18 AM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Given the nature of what you're interested in (social/psych/legal effects of new tech) I would strongly suggest information studies over business, and certainly over CS. But I would also say that you should consider widening your scope, as this kind of study takes place in a variety of academic departments today, such as communication, sociology, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and various interdisciplinary departments such as STS. I do work that falls broadly under "social effects of new technology and I have a Ph.D in Communication Studies.

You might be well-served to check out the Association of Internet Researchers and their listserv. AoIR is an international interdisciplinary group of academic and non-academic researchers all interested in new technology, and would be a good place to get a sense of the range of research and job opportunities in this area. The academic job market is very tight right now, but I do think there are opportunities for corporate research (look at danah boyd for example) or for consulting. But before choosing a specific doctoral program you might want to think more about the types of questions you're intersted in and then look at some research on those topics. Who is doing that work, and what discipline/department are they in?

Also FWIW, my grad school experince was nothing at all like LastOfHisKind's. Doctoral programs are hard to be sure, but not everyone is necessarily out to get you, at least not in my corner of the academic world. YMMV.

(Sorry no links, I'm writing this on my phone. Feel free to memail me if you'd like more info.)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:40 AM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm doing a Masters in an area related to technology and society. I'm extremely interested in issues that relate to how people adapt to new information technologies. I'm fascinated by the privacy, psychological, sociological, legal, etc. issues involved. My undergraduate degree is interdisciplinary with a strong computer science focus. I have attended elite universities in the US and UK and have published in this field. I'm not a CS genius, but I can function in that world.

That's not really computer science, unless you're fascinated in perhaps ways to implement systems that allow access to large sets of personal data while ensuring certain privacy restraints around any given piece of that data. I don't really see anything in this question that makes me think computer science, but the question seems really vague. When you say you've published in this field, what field are you referring to? What journals did you publish in?
posted by ch1x0r at 9:08 AM on January 10, 2010

I'm extremely interested in issues that relate to how people adapt to new information technologies. My undergraduate degree is interdisciplinary with a strong computer science focus.

In the US, you should check out the universities in the iSchool consortium. They do this sort of thing.

You probably need to be a bit clearer between your need for intellectual engagement and future rewards ... not that the two are not connected, but interesting social/qualitative stuff (like the ideas you mention) might not necessarily be as well paid as CS, biz school etc.
posted by carter at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2010

All the earlier advice is spot on - you need to figure out 1) if a PhD is going to open up opportunities that would be closed otherwise, and 2) what disciplinary approach is most attractive to you.

The Media Lab is a different question entirely. I'm a PhD student at the lab, and the program is radically different (for better and for worse) than most other disciplinary programs. The key component that sets most groups in the labs apart from their academic siblings is a constant pressure to make stuff. In general, we don't study existing systems, we design our own and use that design process as a tool for understanding some larger question. The extent to which this is an effective way to do research is something that we wrestle with quite a bit, but if being more a designer-researcher than just a pure researcher is attractive, the lab might be a good fit for you.

We tend not to send people to academia - I'd say maybe a quarter of our PhD grads go to pure academic jobs. The majority go to industrial research or startups.

The other potential issue for you is that unlike most programs, we don't accept people directly into the PhD program. In the vast majority of cases, you have to do a masters and reapply to the PhD program, which is the source of significant drama in some people's cases - mine included.

Anyway, if you're still interested, feel free to shoot me an email. I came into the lab with a similar-ish set of interests, so I might be able to provide some useful context. Good luck!
posted by heresiarch at 9:30 AM on January 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

A computer science PhD will in general be more technical. Every program and every advisor is different, but in general you will be expected to be able to build software (leaving off theory, which doesn't seem to apply to you), and analyze it either mathematically or experimentally. Especially if you do a US PhD, you will typically have core classes in algorithms, etc.

As for US/UK: I did a US PhD, and I found the coursework to be incredibly valuable in having a broader knowledge of the field. The lack of coursework in a UK program is to be honest still a bit troubling to me. I don't really have enough experience to understand the full effects of that difference, but I worry that it would have the danger of making students too narrow. And at the risk of sounding incredibly parochial, it's probably easier to get a faculty job in the UK with a US PhD than vice versa.

Although they have other benefits, keep in mind that PhDs are primarily training in how to do academic research. Frankly, you'd know more than I about whether a PhD is useful for the entrepreneurship route. I have spoken to entrepreneurs who have PhDs, and they seemed pleased by the usefulness of their degrees.

I didn't know what kind of job I wanted when I graduated, but I did my PhD because I was absolutely certain that I wanted to learn how to do research.

Quality of institution: I can't comment on industrial jobs, because I didn't go that route. But in general, for academic jobs, people care about what work you've done and who your advisor was, not what institution you went to. "Name recognition" is at the advisorship level. Basically, about where you are in the academic "social" network.

Hope this helps.
posted by sesquipedalian at 10:06 AM on January 10, 2010

I'm a PhD candidate in Communication and I study technology and society. Maybe I'm jaded right now, but I want to warn you that the current market for PhD grads is just terrible. I'm in a top ranked program and none of my classmates (and I) are getting jobs. In past years nearly all of our grads got jobs at other top ranked programs and they had similar publication records as we do. The people getting jobs this year are absolutely stellar (multiple pubs in top journals, possibly already established own theory, prestigious post-docs.)

If a friend were to ask me if it was a good idea to go get a PhD right now I'd say HELL NO. Lots of debt for few job possibilities. I heard the humanities folks saying this before and I naively thought "Ha ha! I am a social scientist. That won't happen to me." Now it is happening to me.
posted by k8t at 11:25 AM on January 10, 2010

But, with that aside. The deal with a PhD is that you're really looking for an advisor that is studying a phenomenon similar to the one that you want to study or at least uses the same methodology and theoretical orientation that you want to use.

Look at the stuff that you've read in your MA program. Compile a list of your favorite scholars. Go read other works by those scholars. Read their most cited stuff and their most recent works.

When something pops up that you think "OMG. This is awesome. I'd love to see if this theory extends into social networking sites, twitter, blogs, whatever..." that is the direction that you might want to go into.

You'd probably want to make sure that there are enough other people in that department that you're fond of so that you could work with them as well if it doesn't work out with that advisor and/or have people for your committee.

So start reading and thinking about people rather than programs.

Also, applyingtograd on LiveJournal is an excellent community.
posted by k8t at 11:26 AM on January 10, 2010

PS, Euro versus American PhDs. It is quite tough to get a job in a market where you aren't networked through your advisor/department reputation and conference participation. If you want to end up in one market or the other, do a PhD in that market.
posted by k8t at 11:29 AM on January 10, 2010

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