Should I Apply?

Are you considering applying to the PhD program at the HCII? Are you interested in joining my research lab? If so, read on!

How do I know if I should apply?

You should be able to answer three questions:

  • Do you want to do the work?
  • Why do you want to get this particular degree at this particular school?
  • What areas of excellence do you bring to the table?

If you want to do the work, if you have a purpose for your choice, and if you have at least one area of excellence, you should definitely apply.

You should also check out my research interests and values, my expectations for graduate students, and what you can expect from me to see if we would be a good fit.

But I can’t afford graduate school.

You should still apply. Doctoral students receive full tuition and a stipend, and the cost of living in Pittsburgh is low.

But I have a family / an active creative practice / other commitments I cannot drop.

You should still apply. Graduate school is difficult and time-consuming, but I will actively work to support parents, caregivers, creative practitioners, and other students with prior commitments. Getting a doctorate is a marathon, not a sprint! However, it is also a full-time job. You should expect to join the program full-time.

But I’ve never made a game before.

You should still apply. CMU has great game design classes and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment in the lab. Expect to make and play a lot of games!

But I’m not a programmer.

You should still apply. While programming skills may help you do certain kinds of research and prototyping, you can also choose projects that play to other strengths. Some technical courses are required by the department, but they are geared to students with a wide variety of backgrounds.

But I want to work on non-digital games.

You should still apply. Digital games aren’t the only games with important lessons to teach, and technology can enable face-to-face play in all kinds of interesting ways. That said, if there’s no technology component to your interests, you might want to think twice about whether this program is a good fit for you.

But my focus isn’t games for health / education / social change.

You should still apply. I take a broad approach to game impact, including questions of aesthetic and social impact. I also expect students to pursue game-related questions that matter to them, in addition to working on lab projects.

But my interests are broader than games.
You should still apply. Both the HCII and my lab support interdisciplinary work. The core fields of the program are social science, learning sciences, computer science, and design, but other fields are welcome. Be prepared to make the case for how those other interests connect to your work; you will also need to take a leadership role in finding mentors and colleagues in those fields.

But I don’t have research experience.

You should still apply. Graduate school is an apprenticeship in the craft of research! That said, if you have no prior experience, your application should show that you understand what graduate research is really like, and should use evidence from non-research projects to demonstrate relevant skills.

But I don’t know exactly what I want to do research on.

If you have a general idea, you should still apply. You might have an idea about a topic area (“games and mental health”), a type of game you want to investigate (“location-based games”), a target audience (“parents playing with young children”), a theoretical approach (“inquiry learning”), a technology you want to work with (“Twine”), or something else entirely. On the other hand, if you can’t be that specific, or if you can’t articulate why the topic you care about is of scholarly interest, you may want to take a year to do additional reading and thinking before you apply.

But I don’t know whether this degree will help me achieve my goals.
Do you know what those goals are? If so, you can do some research before applying. For example, you can check out the alumni section on the HCII site to see where graduates end up. However, if you don’t know what your goals are, you should not apply. It is not a good idea to begin a doctorate because you’re not sure what else to do with your life.

How can I improve my chances of getting in?

The HCII doctoral program is extremely competitive, and I cannot help you get admitted. That said, there are several things you can do that will improve your chances.

  • Don’t screw up the basics. Get your application in on time; make sure you get a friend to proofread it; follow the guidelines in the departmental FAQ.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the department’s scholarly commitments and goals. It’s about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.
  • Use evidence to support your claims about why you are a good candidate. Anyone can say they are passionate about a subject; not everyone can talk about their experience organizing conferences, developing games, or publishing their writing.
  • Check out Jason Hong’s collection of links about graduate school.

Can I guarantee that you will be my adviser?

Unfortunately not. The HCII admits doctoral students by committee, and then students approach the faculty they want to work with. That said, you can look at my expectations for graduate students (and what I have to offer) to see whether you think we would be a good fit.

Should I get in touch with you about my application?

Only if you have a specific and brief question about my work or my lab. I cannot help with your applications, and I have no input into the admissions process.