Common questions I receive
Updated on 2021-01-03
Feel free to send me emails about anything. But here are a few categories of emails that I get that might help you frame your message (or save you the time of sending an email in the first place). If I don't get back to you within a week hours and a response is needed, I've either flagged your email because I want to think about it some more, or occasionally I will have missed it by mistake. Feel free to follow up to check.
Can you be my advisor?
I do several types of advising: first-year or second-year advising, concentration advising, honors thesis advising, Masters student advising, and Ph.D. student advising.
Each year, different faculty rotate in as first-year, second-year, or concentration advisors. If I'm doing first-year or second-year advising that year, usually I'll have 5-6 first-year and/or second-year students who are considering pursuing computer science. I also usually have about 30 concentration advisees. If I'm on the list that year, you can just choose me as an advisor and send me a note. If I'm not on the list, I am usually happy to serve as your advisor if there is a particularly good reason, like you're specifically looking for someone to talk to about UI/UX, human-computer interaction (HCI) research, or launching a startup. Otherwise, you're better off picking someone who is openly taking advisees that year. By default, I would generally recommend Tom Doeppner or Kathi Fisler who are most knowledgable about degree requirements and policies. For honors thesis advising, I'm happy to advise projects related to HCI research, and I aim to do one per year.
For honors theses, Masters projects, and independent studies, I prefer that you join my research group and work on an existing project. If you wish to do your own project instead, then you are welcome to make a case for it, and if we both agree on it, you should prepare a timeline for the semester, and a plan of what you will do. If you want to join my research group, see the question at the bottom of this page about exactly that. Masters students and Ph.D. students are typically assigned advisors when they arrive in one way or another. You're welcome to ask to switch to me if you're interested in doing HCI research, but we should talk first. I will also very rarely serve as the advisor for RISD Masters students if they're doing work closely related to one of my research topics.
Ph.D. Applicants: If you're interested in applying for a Computer Science Ph.D. at Brown and having me as your advisor, feel free to email me about your interests and background for a short conversation. Generally, I welcome emails and will respond within a couple of days unless I feel like you're just copy-pasting the same message to many other faculty (these are pretty obvious because they look like email templates, and it's unlikely you would be sending one of these if you're reading this). If you are emailing me, I'd suggest that you take a look at the research projects on our research group website. Emails are not a necessary condition for applying to my group: you can mention me in your application or select Human-Computer Interaction as a field of interest, and I'll find it if it's relevant. I don't evaluate partial application materials or do phone/video calls until after the application deadline as a general policy, as I noticed over the years a growing number of requests. I don't personally mind doing it, but I feel like it sends the message that this kind of pre-application process before applying is essential, so I don't want to normalize that as a secret extra step.
I have admitted Ph.D. students every year so far, but there may be future years where I might not admit any. But either way, I will review relevant applications and consider Ph.D. students for admission every year even on sabbatical years, so it's not really necessary to ask me. But one thing I recommend to someone applying to any university, before or after the application deadline, is to consider speaking with Ph.D. students in the research group (including graduated students) just for informational purposes and hear what it's like in the group. All our Ph.D. positions are fully funded.
Roughly, the Ph.D. application materials I personally consider important from most to least (but none of these are unimportant):
1) items in your CV with your skillset and experience; note for CVs: what is often missing is the complete title, type of work or track it was in, and full author list including yourself so please include those things,
2) tangible research output like papers, research prototype apps, a thesis, workshop or poster papers, or other writing you have about research you did (and note your role if it's not clear),
3) your statement about your vision for what research you'd like to do and your ideas of how to approach it,
4) your website if included, showcasing your work which doesn't have to be purely research but could include software or creative work you've made; in fact, I also look for evidence that you've shipped something like an app, tool, website, demo, video, game, etc. (bonus points if it's been maintained for a while),
5) recommendation letters from at last two people who can describe examples of your character and judge your performance relative to your peer group,
6) transcript showing good performance in courses under areas that are relevant to what you want to do, or extracurriculars in your research area; if your transcript has some bad grades please include a short note in your statement to explain it,
7) test scores related to verbal/writing,
8) everything else like GPA, unrelated awards, unrelated extracurriculars
As of 2020, there are three research areas I am particularly interested in growing, and two areas I am not as interested in. I am especially keen on working with students who have demonstrated interest in studying a combination of 1) computational ways to assess and support mental health, especially reducing isolation, 2) livestreaming, particularly in testing new formats beyond the typical video stream with chronological text chat, and 3) productivity, particularly in developing data-driven systems where people can use to improve their own productivity. I am currently less interested in 1) mobile sensing, especially where the sensing data is used to classify some user action as the end goal, or 2) supervised/unsupervised machine learning on user data without an immediate user-facing product built on it.
Can you write me a recommendation letter?
I'm happy to write recommendation letters for students I can write a detailed letter about. If I know you personally (like you have visited me in my office, or worked with me on research or as a TA), then send me 1) your other application materials, 2) some bullet points of things you'd like me to include for that particular application, ideally noteworthy examples or accomplishments that are specific to you (and if there are accomplishments you feel like someone else in your place would not have been able to do, point those out), along with 3) where to submit it and 4) the deadline(s). Please give me at least one week lead time before your deadline so I can write a thoughtful letter. You may even consider my suggested recommendation letter protocol for a more relaxed timeline if you want a less stressful recommendation letter experience. All I ask for in return is if you can let me know the outcome (positive of negative) so I can calibrate my letters in the future. When you do hear the outcome, I'm usually willing to send you a copy of the letter, if you'd like. I find that sometimes it helps to see what others write about you as a form of feedback.
Can I take your class?
For CSCI 1300 that I teach in the Fall, if you enrolled during pre-registration period (which I highly encourage), you're all set. If you're enrolling at the start of the semester and the course is already at its enrollment cap (in the years where there is a cap), there will be an online application form for extra open spots that you can fill out. Take a look at the course website for details. If you're a RISD student, you're welcome to take my courses; take a look at the FAQ on the course website, but note any prerequisites if there are any listed. For my smaller seminar course that I teach in the spring, usually there's an online application form that you fill out for a spot. I'm planning to be on sabbatical for Fall 2021 - Spring 2022 so won't be teaching during that year, but it's always possible that another instructor takes over one of my courses. There's no auditing or sitting in for my classes, but for CSCI 1300, if you did not enroll and just quietly sat in, I probably won't notice.
Can I meet with you?
Take a quick look at my busy/free times (I try to keep it up to date) to find some times between 11am and 6pm that fit with your schedule, and are adjacent to my other busy times. The best ways to meet with me is to send me an email with a couple of times where we're both free, and a sentence about what you want to talk about. Or you can come by during my office hours if they are listed on my website (not always available). No appointment is needed for office hours. My office is 245 on the second floor of the CIT. You're also welcome to drop in whenever I'm in my office with my door open (how wide open my door is, is somewhat proportional to how open I am to being interrupted).
Can I join your research group?
Brown University students: I'm always looking for the right students to help with my group's research projects. I've written a detailed account of the research experience and expectations, which you are highly encouraged to read. Take a look at our HCI research group website to see what projects are currently active, and let me know which ones you're particularly interested in. Each project requires a different skillset, so try to find ones that match yours, and fill out this form.
Non-Brown University students: If you're a student at another university, it's quite hard for us to work together. I get requests from students outside the United States to travel here and join my research group, or do an "internship". I will consider these only if there is a perfect match in research interests and you have some unique skillset that can benefit one of our existing research projects. I try to get to as many of these emails as I can, but am more likely to reply if your email doesn't use of a template (i.e. without copy and paste) and cover those two things. If you want to apply to Brown, please see the note above about me being your advisor.