Category Archives: Universities

Exploring the options at City

This afternoon I had a wonderful long talk with George Buchanan, who will be my primary supervisor at City University if I end up going there. Although I don’t know George as well as I know two of the people at Northumbria, I met him a couple of years ago and he also participated in the talks when I went to visit City, back in October. And he wrote the chapter on mobile for the book I co-edited on usability in government systems (which is due out in three weeks, hint hint :-).

I had been somewhat concerned that since City’s program is in the School of Informatics it wouldn’t be as æsthetically exciting or as design-focused as Northumbria’s, which is in the School of Design. I had been concerned that it would be closer to hard-core human-computer interaction (which would have appealed to me 25 years ago; and in fact I’ve long thought that if I had discovered human-computer interaction before I had become accustomed to having a full-time salary I would have gone for a PhD in experimental psychology) and would have less of the touchy-feely that I’m looking for. And it is true that they don’t have Northumbria’s sound design lab or furniture design facility to surround their program with an overall design focus. But City’s HCI program is in what they call the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, and George also added that he grew up in a design environment, his father having studied design. Further, City has a research program on creativity enhancement, and my topic might fit well with that.

George also stressed how much the London UX and HCI communities would benefit from having me there (that was really nice to hear) — but the best thing about what he said (other than our rapport) is that he truly wants me to do what will be best for me and for my research.

Other advantages of London from the perspective of my research include a total of 42 (!) universities and other schools, as well a richly diverse population on which to draw for participants in my interviews and product testing (without having to travel to reach them). Not to mention the ease of access to national and international transportation, the rich cultural life (which carries with it the possibility of finding another Renaissance group to sing with — not much chance of that in Newcastle, I’m afraid), and much greater opportunities for paying work to supplement my stipend (not that I’ll have a whole lot of time for that).

There is bad news in what came out of the conversation: It makes my decision more difficult, because it greatly increases City’s appeal and weakens my resolve to go to Northumbria if they offer me funding. The good news is that it means I can’t possibly make a bad decision: Either university would be an outstanding place for me to do a PhD.

Sometimes I think I may end up doing the coin-toss trick — you don’t go by how the coin comes down, but by what you realize you’re hoping it will be when the coin is still in the air. But right now I don’t think I could identify what I’m hoping.

I may have to do another matrix along the lines of the one I did last October, after I had just visited my four candidate universities. That may help me identify what I’m hoping.

I accepted the studentship offer from City

This doesn’t mean I won’t be going to Northumbria, though.

This morning I spoke with someone at City to explain my dilemma, which is that I have to give City an answer before I hear from Northumbria. She thanked me for being upfront about it and said that every year they do have a few people who accept studentships and then change their minds. She also said it would be foolish for me to reject their offer just because I haven’t heard from Northumbria yet. We agreed that if I decide to go to Northumbria I will let her know as soon as I know, so that they can give the studentship to someone who is on the waiting list.

We also talked about some aspects of the PhD work and my topic and my supervisors and what they especially liked about my proposal and my background. I’ll write more about that at another time, when it’s not so late and I’m not so tired.

In any case, I sent City an email accepting the studentship. I have to confess that living in London still has strong appeal for me.

One more thing: I learned this week that starting this coming year the Northumbria studentships waive only the “home fees” part of the tuition — the amount of the tuition fees paid by UK and EU residents. This would mean that even if Northumbria gave me a studentship I’d have to make up the difference between that and international student tuition, which for 2012-2013 is £6700 (and will probably only increase). City’s tuition fee waiver is for the full amount. So getting studentships from both places would put them at par, financially, because the extra tuition I’d have to pay Northumbria would roughly cancel out the lower cost of living in Newcastle.

Application to Northumbria submitted

Two weeks before the deadline. It’s nice not to have to be stressing out over making the deadline.

Studentship offer!

This morning I received an email from City University, offering me a studentship. I hadn’t expected to hear from them for another 2-3 weeks, but…

Our procedures allow us to fast-track top quality candidates to offer studentships to those with particularly strong proposals and backgrounds who we feel would make an excellent contribution to the University and this has been applied in your case.


The downside is that I have to reply by this coming Monday (April 16), which is at least a month sooner than I expected. That’s even before my application to Northumbria is due (although methinks this means I should aim to get that in beforehand).

I truly don’t know what to do. But I feel great knowing what a compliment this is and knowing that I will be funded for my PhD.

Ready to resume the other application

I made some changes in my draft proposal to Northumbria and sent it off for review by my tentative supervisor. He returns this Monday from three weeks’ paternity leave, and I’m ready to get this thing moving!

That “very interesting message” I mentioned in my last post essentially conveyed the news that Northumbria will offer additional funded PhDs beyond the four that are currently showing on the site — up to eight per School (for me that would be the Design School) — so there *is* a chance for me in that regard. Unfortunately, I won’t have their decision until late June, and I was hoping to have applied for my student visa by then.

Patience and persistence are the words of the day.

First application submitted!

Well, I got my application and research proposal to City University submitted, just inside the deadline. We had some technical difficulties involving a full email inbox on their end and Dropbox difficulties (Dropbox was necessary because the scans of my transcripts add up to 110MB), but everything finally got resolved in time, and I’m all set. I got up at 5am today, though, to be able to help if the difficulties hadn’t been resolved by then. Time zones can be a bear. :)

I had to take more time than I expected on the application form itself, because I was urged to emphasize my professional activities, such as those with the CHI conferences (e.g., being Case Studies co-chair for CHI 2012), and make myself look impressive to the studentship committee. :)

I wish I had had another week — or even two more days — to prepare the research proposal. My biggest challenge was not in describing how my work was new but in expressing my ideas about how others could build on it. I’m OK with what I wrote but I would have liked to have had just a little more time.

I’m not worried about whether I’ll be accepted, really; it’s whether they’ll consider my research worthy of funding.

(And I still have my proposal and application to Northumbria to complete; that’ll happen sometime next month.)

Stay tuned.

Almost to the first application

Well, after much tugging and pulling and cutting, I finally got my proposal to City University London down to the required three pages. I hope I get to submit it as a separate document and don’t have to paste it into the box contained in the application! If it’s the latter (and I’ve asked) I’ll have to cut a little more. If I get feedback from the department I’ll have more work to do, but for now I’m satisfied. All I have left to do for that application is scan to a PDF my corrected transcript from NCSU (the first one they sent had listed my BS in math as a BA) and write a 400-word nontechnical summary of my proposed research for the committee that evaluates applications for studentships (i.e., funding).

The application is due this Friday (March 9) and because they’re five hours ahead of me, timezone-wise, that means Thursdasy night, practically speaking.

Slowly but surely, the proposals emerge

I finished a draft of my proposal to Northumbria on Tuesday and sent it off to my potential supervisor. We had a wonderful Skype chat yesterday, in which he gave me feedback with comments and suggestions. He said that on the whole he thinks it’s very strong and he’s very excited about it. His comments were to the point and immensely helpful. I love that place.

There’s one thing, however. I have learned that there is NO possibility for me to get university funding from Northumbria. <sad face> This means that I will apply to City as well, after all, given that the deadline is March 9 rather than the end of January as I had thought and that they are offering far more graduate studentships for people starting in 2012. However, I won’t have time to get any feedback from the department, I don’t think — unless I can finish it by the end of the weekend. City limits proposals to three pages, AND they require a comment on why I want to study my proposed topic and what I would bring to the research. THAT is a real challenge! (Northumbria’s “4 to 6 pages” suits me perfectly.)

A friend has mentioned a couple of other funding opportunities to me, though, and I’m going to follow them up (after he emails me with info on where to look.)

Well, making this post any longer isn’t getting my proposals written. Later!

Time to prepare my draft proposals

I am devoting today (Monday, 20 February) to preparing draft research proposals to send off for feedback. I’ve decided to apply to both City and Northumbria, so I have to prepare two (they have different page requirements). I will phone NCSU tomorrow to ask for a corrected transcript (they listed my BS as a BA) and then I should have everything.

Continuing the proposal / application preparation

I had a longish (90 minutes) Skype call with my prospective supervisor at Northumbria (Mark Blythe) last week — and I forgot to blog about it! So now I’m writing a short post about how it went.

He said that one of the first things I should do is settle on a title. We talked about the word “spiritual” and how, although it captures my sense of the feeling, tends to convey to most people a theme of religion (which is not what I mean), and he suggested “numinous” — but in my view that probably won’t be understood by the general public and would make it harder for me to recruit people for interviews. I later talked to a friend about it, and we kind of came up with “deep connection”, so I’m thinking of going with that. But I’ll probably add some better description before I start recruiting. I might use “numinous” or “transcendent” in the title even if I use more plain-language wording in my recruitment. I will be speaking on an aspect of this topic at the Interaction 12 conference, so I have to settle on something within the next six weeks.

Mark also said I shouldn’t be too specific about what I hope to use this sort of user experience for, and suggested that I look at helping elderly people improve their mood. Depression in older people is known to be an issue, and I’m thinking that it might be a practical application that could help me get funding.

I had thought of using this feeling of transcendence to facilitate behavior change, and I still might do that. I’ve just signed up to take B.J. Fogg’s week-long mini-workshop called “3 Tiny Habits“, where the participants practice a method of developing small habits (ones that take less than 30 seconds) and Fogg improves his approach to teaching the development of habits. I think this might be useful in my personal life and it might also give me some ideas for my research. Who knows what the connection might be — or whether there is one at all? But at the least, it should be interesting. Stay tuned.

I also continued reading the papers I downloaded. Gotta start writing stuff up. Oh — I’ve decided it would be too much of a distraction to consider yet another university at this point. So I’m going to focus on Northumbria but look into working with Sue Thomas at De Montfort when I get ready to develop an application to investigate the concepts.

Finally, I obtained transcripts from my previous degrees. The one from N.C. State said I had a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, so of course I had to call and ask them to correct it to Bachelor of Science. They responded very quickly, and I expect to have my replacement paper copies in a few days.

Finally, I’m making further progress toward emptying the house of stuff I don’t need. A friend helped me disassemble a decrepit bookcase and I took that outside for the County to pick up as bulk trash, and I’ve brought a bunch of old cans of paint, stain, and paint thinner upstairs in prep for taking them to the hazmat collection at the dump (probably tomorrow). I’m still gathering stuff to take to the NAMI thrift store (and that will probably go on for months :).