I recently had the occasion to spend some time in a NICU and found some funny signs.
1. Prepare your materials and apply
- Take the GRE. Most programs will require your GRE scores. You’ll want to do this early, in case you need to take it again. You can and should study for the GRE – no matter what people tell you, studying affects scores. Why is a good GRE so important? It is not only about getting admitted. GRE scores are often used in allocating fellowships, RAs, and TAs. A bonus fellowship could mean as much as a 30% increase in your funding offer.
- Select at least 3 people to write letters of reference on your behalf. They should be faculty who know you well and can speak about your ability to succeed in graduate school.
Do not include letter writers such as family, friends, pastors, or other “character references.” They hold little to no weight and may count against you if the review committee assumes you couldn’t find academic references.
- When selecting letter writers, ask them if they can write, “a positive recommendation” instead of just “a recommendation.” You want an honest answer. A recommendation from a class instructor that just says “This person was in my class. They seemed interested. They received X grade” doesn’t mean much to the review committee. You should alert letter-writers ahead of the first deadline, at least a month preferably two.
- Even for professors you know well, it never hurts to remind them of all the research activities you’ve had and what you learned from them. A page with a bulleted list will help jog the memory of your letter writer to help them write a detailed and personal letter.
- You’ll probably hear in February about acceptance, but it may be as late as the end of March. If you were put on a waitlist, you might not know until just before the April 15th deadline. This is because schools may have put out offers and are waiting to hear if they are accepted before making an offer to you. There is no shame in coming from the waitlist – even the waitlists are very competitive for PhD programs.
The article “The Human Factor” in Vanity Fair is two years old, but since I can’t believe I missed posting it — here it is! It’s a riveting read with details of the Air France Flight 447 accident and intelligent discussion of the impact automation has on human performance. Dr. Nadine Sarter is interviewed and I learned of a list of flight-specific “laws” developed by Dr. Earl Wiener, a past-president of HFES.
“Wiener’s Laws,” from the article and from Aviation Week:
- Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
- Exotic devices create exotic problems.
- Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
- Invention is the mother of necessity.
- Some problems have no solution.
- It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
- Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
- You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).
- Complacency? Don’t worry about it.
- In aviation, there is no problem so great or so complex that it cannot be blamed on the pilot.
- There is no simple solution out there waiting to be discovered, so don’t waste your time searching for it.
- If at first you don’t succeed… try a new system or a different approach.
- In God we trust. Everything else must be brought into your scan.
- It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
- Any pilot who can be replaced by a computer should be.
- Today’s nifty, voluntary system is tomorrow’s F.A.R.
Kudos to the author, William Langewiesche, for a well researched and well written piece.
Your initial email communication is your first impression and should be managed carefully. Address all communications formally and you may want someone to proof-read before you send it. That means:
1. Address everyone by their proper title
- Bad: “Hi Rich…” or, “Hey” or just launching into the message
- Good: “Dr. McLaughlin,” or “Professor McLaughlin,”
2. Be specific.
- Bad: “I am very interested in your research on X. It is very interesting. The more I read about it, the more I am interested in it. It seems very interesting and important.”
- Good: “I recently read a collection of your papers on X. It was very interesting to me as I saw connections with the topics I have been studying, such as Y.”
3. Be succinct! Omit needless words.
4. Stay on topic/avoid excessive personal anecdotes:
- Bad: “After my house burned down and I lost everything, I sat back and thought about what I really wanted in life and discovered it was to work in your lab.”
- Bad: writing a wall of text (e.g., one giant paragraph with no line breaks)
- Good: “I was fortunate to learn about the field of human factors when we had a special topics course in Ergonomics at my university. For that class, I did [describe project] which lead me to your work on X.”
5. Avoid inadvertently selfish language
- Bad: “Your lab would help me in my interests and my career. It would be the best thing for me.”
- Good: “I have experience in multiple statistical programs, including SPSS and MATlab. As a research assistant in Dr. X’s lab, I have experience with data entry, cleaning data, and analysis. Although I have not yet gotten to run participants through a study protocol, I have been allowed to observe the graduate students in that task.”
6. Proofread for grammar and typos
- Bad: your vs you’re, any misspelled words, and so on.
7. Avoid carelessness: Sending an email to Dr. A but writing your emails addressed to Dr. B.
Below is a sample “approach email” to the professor you are considering as an advisor. Yours will differ, but this is an example of the level of formality and what to include.
Dear Dr. FutureAdvisor,
I am a senior psychology major at My University and interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology after graduation. I came across your research when I was collecting articles for a literature review on user trust in automated systems and am interested in applying to your lab to work on similar topics.
In the past two years, I have worked as a research assistant in a lab here at My University and spent a summer in an NSF REU program at Bigger University. In the MU1 lab, I worked with Dr. So Andso on research into motivation changes across the lifespan. I learned to enter and clean data for analysis with SPSS and SAS, follow a research protocol to run participants, and write SPSS syntax. One specific project I worked on was investigating whether people over 65 reported different motivations for performance and whether they responded differently than younger adults to reinforcement schedules on an implicit learning task. This gave me an interest in aging but more generally an interest in individual differences.
I am excited by the prospect of continuing in a research program after graduation and believe I would be a good fit for your lab. Please let me know if you will be accepting applications this year.
Thank you for your time,
The optimal time for sending this email is the fall semester of your senior year. This gives you time to communicate, perhaps plan a visit, and let the faculty member know you’ll be applying to their program.
You all know I love podcasts. One of my favorites, Big Picture Science, held an interview with Nicholas Carr (a journalist) on over-reliance in automation. The entire podcast, What the Hack, also covers computer security. To skip to the HF portion, click here.
- +points for mentioning human factors by name
- +points for clearly having read much of the trust in automation literature
- -points for falling back on the “we automate because we’re lazy” claim, rather than acknowledging that the complexity of many modern systems requires automation for a human to be able to succeed. Do you want to have that flight to NY on the day you want it? Then we have to have automation to help that happen – the task has moved beyond human ability to accomplish it alone.
- -points for the tired argument that things are different now. Google is making us dumber. Essentially the same argument that happens with every introduction of technology, including the printing press. We aren’t any different than the humans that painted caves 17,300 years ago.
For more podcasts on humans and automation, check out this recent Planet Money: The Big Red Button. You’ll never look at an elevator the same way.
*While looking up support for the claim that people have always thought their era was worse than the previous, I found this blog post. Looks like I’m not the first to have this exact thought.
In this post, we discuss a general to-do list for those considering graduate school in Human Factors. Comments from other faculty welcome!
1. Get Involved in Research as Early as Possible
- This can be through a senior project, a class at your university where students do a research project, or (optimally) by working as a research assistant in a lab.
- If your university does not have these opportunities, look around (nearby universities). Many professors will take volunteer research assistants, including in the summer, and train you in their lab. This gives you both experience and a potential reference letter.
2. Start Looking for Departments/Mentors and Evaluate Fit
- Many programs or labs have information on their alumni. Do they have the kinds of jobs you want? Do their alumni work at places you would like to work?
- You will work mainly with a single advisor in an apprenticeship model. However, it’s a good idea to consider programs where you match more than one professor.
- Check out the research interests of potential advisors by reading some of their recent publications or look at their curriculum vitae (the academic term for resume; often found online). We often have an area of expertise but work in other areas as well. You don’t want to choose an advisor based on work from 20 years ago that isn’t being continued today.
- It is highly unlikely that a potential advisor will initiate a new research area to fit your interests–be flexible in your interests.
- Create a spreadsheet listing department, contact information/web address to apply, potential faculty (and their major research areas), application fee, deadline, required materials, and your rating of fit.
3. Contact Prospective Mentors
- When you have identified some potential programs, check their website to see which faculty are affiliated with the program and taking students.
- Not all faculty take students every year. Some faculty list on their website whether they are taking students. If unsure, a short, formal email to the professor asking if they are accepting new students is appropriate.
- Just because they are on a departmental website does not mean that they are affiliated with the HF program (that department may have other graduate programs) or that they are taking students that year. If it is unclear, email and ask. It isn’t helpful if, for example, you are applying to a psychology program but list an industrial engineering professor as your preferred mentor.
- If you would like to evaluate potential fit between you and your potential mentor, you can ask if they are willing to meet with you in-person. Opinions vary, but Skype/video conference meetings may work.
Our next post will give an example of the kind of formality expected in contacting a prospective advisor.
Edited because it’s even more awesome than I first thought…
A recent Buzzfeed article listed the “8 Awesome Jobs That Will Convince You To Be A Psychology Major.” I clicked, despite my oath not to read articles that have either numbers in the title or include the word “actually.”
Turns out… three (edit: FOUR) of the eight jobs are held by human factors psychologists.* Of course, if you want any of these jobs you’ll need a Ph.D, not just a psych major.
Dr. David Strayer – expert on the effects of distraction on driving
Dr. Tim Nichols – video game user experience (UX) expert
Dr. Ed Salas – expert on team communication in high performance situations
Dr. Dawn Shaikh – expert in cultural UX at Google
Get your graduate applications ready for next year, folks. (And use our handy guide to give yourself a leg up).
*One is officially I/O, but I think HF can claim him since he’s been President of HFES, an HFES Fellow, and Editor of the journal Human Factors.
This is the first post in an upcoming series about human factors graduate school.
If you have decided that you might want to further your education in human factors and ergonomics by going to graduate school, here is some useful information that Anne and I have collected over the years. While there are many sources of similar information, this one is tailored to potential HF students and answers questions that we’ve received.
First, graduate school will be very different from undergraduate. Yes, you take classes, but the most important experience is in conducting research–that is how you will be evaluated and ultimately what determines whether you are successful.
Most prospective students in HF are interested in the topic because they are interested in design or usability. It is important to realize that graduate school will not be like working in a design studio. Instead, it will be more like being in an experimental psychology program where you take courses in statistics, research methods, cognition, perception, etc.
You will also take specialized courses in usability or other evaluation methods but it will be one of many. The goal is to educate you on the fundamentals of human capabilities and limitations so that you can then use this knowledge in the design or evaluation of artifacts (for those going into applied fields).
In the rest of this series, we’ll discuss researching programs, contacting faculty, and various dos and don’ts.
I became interested in using “big data” for A/B testing after a speaker from RedHat gave a talk to our area about it a couple of years ago. It’s a tantalizing idea: come up with a change, send it out on some small percent of your users, and pull it back immediately if it doesn’t work or isn’t better than the original. Even more amazing when you consider a “small percent” can be thousands and thousands of people – a dream for any researcher. Certainly, this connects to last year’s news on the controversy over Facebook’s A/B testing adventures.
The only con I can think of is that if something works or doesn’t work, you may not know why. We are always fumbling toward success, but maybe it’s not good to encourage fumbling over development of theory.
NPR’s Planet Money did a great show recently on A/B testing their podcast and the surprising results. They were also willing to think further about how it could be taken to an extreme, audience testing every segment of the show. Certainly worth a listen.
I enjoyed this article by Matt Gallivan, Experience Research Manager at AirBnB, about the tendency of experts to overgeneralize their knowledge. I try to watch out for it in my own life: When you’re an expert at one thing, it’s so easy to think you know more than you do about other areas.
Because if you’re a UX researcher, you do yourself and your field no favors when you claim to have all of the answers. In the current digital product landscape, UX research’s real value is in helping to reduce uncertainty. And while that’s not as sexy as knowing everything about everything, there’s great value in it. In fact, it’s critical. It also has the added bonus of being honest.
Somewhat related, here is a fun page analyzing where and why AirBnB succeeds at usability.