So you want to study technology, democracy, and social change?

A guide to interdisciplinary PhD programs

Ways of Knowing And Doing

As you think about the issues and questions you care about, think about your strengths and any ways of knowing and doing you want to further develop in a PhD. When deciding to apply, think about which activities a given PhD program will embrace and where you’ll be more on your own:

  • Observing & Analyzing: Ethnography, Computational Social Science
  • Context and Questions: Criticism, History, Philosophy
  • Testing Systems & Theories: Lab/Field Experiments and Audits
  • Making: System Design, UX, Algorithm Design, Critical Design
  • Community Engagement: Action Research, Co-design
  • Public Awareness and Policy: Public Writing, Policy Articles, Advocacy
  • Media-making: Documentary, Art, Data Visualization

What Kind of Program Should You Apply To?

It’s not always obvious where to do a PhD on technology and society. Here are the interdisciplinary programs I often bring up with people who are considering PhDs.

  • Do they have two or more faculty who study the intersections you’re interested in, and is at least one of them senior faculty?
  • Does their university have structures that encourage and reward interdisciplinary research, and are they used frequently?
  • Do their universities have centers that convene people across disciplines on the issues you want to study? (examples: Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, the Oxford Internet Institute, and Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy) If so, is the center designed to provide mentorship, a cohort, and funding?

Doing a PhD is a leap of faith to shape the future of our world as much as understand it. But it’s also a leap we make together with others.

Imagining the Future

Deciding to do a PhD can feel overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine who you will become and what knowledge you will create. It’s not easy to choose among the world’s still-being-understood needs.

  • Identify people who you admire and read their CV / job history, along with their writings. For example, Safiya Noble (author of Algorithms of Oppression) came up through Communication before landing in Information Studies and Gender Studies, while Timnit Gebru (founder of DAIR) studied Computer Science and Rumman Chowdhury (director of Machine Learning Ethics at Twitter) did a PhD in Political Science.
  • Look at the course requirements for the PhD programs you’re interested in, read the syllabi, and if you have time, glance over some of the introductory materials. Then ask yourself some questions: would you enjoy learning those skills? Would these courses overlap with what you hope to achieve with a PhD? Or do you think you would have to fight to convince people that your passions are relevant/important?

Managing Application Workload & Stress

Applying to gradschool is stressful for everyone. It’s hard to imagine, research, and communicate possible futures. Interdisciplinary applicants can get stuck in a hall of mirrors, tempted to create new materials for every single program. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years:

  • Ask yourself what you really care about and be as clear as possible in your applications. While it might seem helpful to completely re-imagine yourself for each program, you risk losing hold of what matters most to you
  • That said, different fields have different language. Since your personal statement will still need some tailoring, save yourself time and hassle by grouping the departments you apply to and sending similar applications to similar departments
  • Postpone as many questions and decisions as possible until after applying. After you apply, you’ll have more time to think about the community and support you need. And when you get interviews and offers, you’ll be able to ask those detailed questions with a smaller number of universities

Questions

  • I was asked on Facebook why I don’t include more detail about Computer Science programs. This is a fair question. While I thought about writing more about CS, I realized that it’s probably its own whole post (the debates over whether CS should be a field, a discipline, or even science, and whether it should include any social sciences). Also, most of the potential applicants who have reached out to me already know that CS is a place where they can study these questions. In contrast, many have never heard of Communication, Information Science, STS, and many are unaware that they can study technology and society at business schools.

Further Resources

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J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American