Information for Ph.D. Applicants

Tell me about Penn.

Penn is an excellent place for research in human-computer interaction (HCI). You would be joining the Penn HCI group, co-founded and co-led by Danaë Metaxa and myself. I strongly encourage you to apply.

You would be able to work alongside terrific colleagues in the Computer and Information Science department, in research groups like the PLClub (programming languages), Penn NLP (natural language processing), and the Warren Center (data science, networking). There are also opportunities to collaborate on research with other centers across the university such as the Graduate School of Education.

What kinds of research do you do?

My group focuses on, broadly, programming tools, learning tools, and scholarly reading. We publish our research mainly in human-computer interaction conferences like CHI and UIST, as well as other conferences related to our interests (e.g., ICSE, Learning@Scale). My list of publications provides a good overview of my recent research interests.

What are your active projects?

My team is currently working on a few main projects.

  • Intelligent interfaces for scholarly reading
  • Redesigning the computational notebook
  • Interactive programming tutorials

Incoming students do not need to work on these projects, though we might try to find you an initial project to work on in one of these areas while you establish on your primary research direction.

What does research in your group look like?

Our group broadly follows a user-centered design process for most of our research. A project often begins with formative studies (interviews, observations), leading to the design of innovative interfaces (sketching, prototyping), the implementation of real, working systems, and then rigorously evaluating them, often with usability studies.

The systems we build often incorporate both innovative interaction design together with novel technical approaches from the fields of programming languages and artificial intelligence.

In addition to writing papers, we also create videos and interactive demos of our systems that can serve as widely-accessible, engaging documentation of powerful design ideas.

How can I prepare for this kind of research?

There are many places where skills for this flavor of HCI research can be cultivated. Some of the best learning opportunities reside in introductory HCI and design courses, design clubs (e.g., for UI design, product design, game design), summer internships, community projects, and hackathons.

How can I get my application noticed?

I look at all applications where applicants state an interest in human-computer interaction in their application form. Beyond this, there is a lot you can do to help me notice the strengths in your application.

First, in your personal statement, paint a picture of the kind of work you want to do in human-computer interaction. If the themes of your envisioned research overlap with some of the work from my group, try to highlight where those themes overlap.

Second, in your personal statement and CV, highlight the past experiences you have had that can hint at your readiness to undertake human-computer interaction research (see the question “What does research in your group look like?”).
This can include research, yes, but it can also include courses, professional work, clubs, and personal projects.

Third, send me a brief email (head@seas.upenn.edu) introducing yourself question). I may not be able to respond to your message, though I do read every email I receive.

Finally, if you do not have an undergraduate degree in computer science or a related field, you may want to think about how you can demonstrate your readiness to engage with the program requirements of my department, which includes advanced technical coursework in computer and information systems.

Is the Ph.D. program funded?

Yes. In your first year, you receive funding from the department. After the first year, your funding comes from either grant funding from your research advisor, a fellowship you have applied for (see this list of fellowships you may want to consider applying for), or a teaching assistantship.

Do you co-advise students?

Yes.

Tell me more about your current group.

I am currently mentoring Nathaniel Weinman, Tal August, and Raymond Fok. We have weekly meetings to discuss research. While students lead their research, I often have an active hand in design, programming, and study design, as I like to be deeply intellectually engaged in the generative aspects of a project as much as I can.

We have regularly scheduled “non-work” one-on-one’s to discuss the many aspects of life that happen during grad school but that don’t usually come up during work meetings. In these one-on-one’s we discuss long-term goals, obstacles, workplace challenges, making professional connections, and more.

Can we meet?

If you would like to meet to discuss potential research opportunities in my group, send me a message at head@seas.upenn.edu. I am sometimes able to meet if it seems like I could be a good advisor for the type of Ph.D. that you want. If I do not reply to you, you should still apply! I receive a rather large volume of messages, and may have not had the time available to consider meeting at the time that you sent me a message.