This is Post 4 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2 & Post 3)
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.
This is Post 3 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2)
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.
This is Post 2 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1)
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.
My previouspostson using the iPad have become some of the most popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would give you an update on my evolving use of the iPad.
My history of use of the iPad started with great skepticism, moved into curious and active experimentation, and has settled into routine usage. Now, it’s an integrated part of my work and play. I’ve even done what was once unthinkable: nearly wrote a entire manuscript on the iPad without a hardware keyboard! (read on).
With great skepticism I got the original iPad a few months after it was released in 2010. While I could see the theoretical benefits of such a lightweight device, there was not yet much software that was specialized to do any work. In terms of usage, there were probably days that I did not use the iPad. It was primarily relegated to recreational web surfing or curious novelty.
After the release of the iPad 2, however, my usage increased dramatically. The reduction in weight and size, as well as the release of high quality productivity software meant that I not only carried it along with my then-laptop (Fujitsu P1620 ultraportable tablet), I could start to envision how I might start replacing my laptop. Usage was probably split 20 (iPad)/80 (laptop) in terms of mobile computing. It also helped that it was at this time that I switched my desktop computer and laptop to Mac. This made it much more seamless to use Keynote and Pages as replacements for Powerpoint and Word. I’ve kicked Powerpoint but I can’t yet kick Word to the curb.
The iPad 3 again increased usage mainly because of the high resolution display and dramatic speed increase made everything better, especially reading PDFs.
Now, I have an iPad mini and all the software that I’ve mentioned in previous posts are still usable but the form factor has now truly made it even more my primary mobile device of choice over the laptop. The effects of an always-on, super-ultra lightweight device seems to encourage frequent use in places where even a laptop is clunky (e.g., in bed, passenger in a car). I’m currently working on a manuscript and I would estimate that I’ve written more than 50% of it on the iPad mini (using the software keyboard and Pages). Probably another 10% on the iPhone (reading what I wrote, light editing) and the rest on the desktop or laptop computer.
Keynote is an especially capable presentation app. I’ve worked on full presentations created on the iPad (but presented on a laptop). They are whisked silently through the cloud and are on my laptop/desktop waiting for me.
But there are other things that are making the iPad work especially well for me. One feature that isn’t discussed a great deal in reviews is iCloud. iCloud, in contrast to Dropbox, invisibly keeps my Keynote (class lectures, professional presentations) and Pages (manuscripts) in sync on all my devices (desktop, laptop, iPad mini, and iPhone). I still use Dropbox but iCloud is simpler model with less thinking about spatial file organization (the file is just in the app). I still use Dropbox but treat it like an archive; a folder with many levels of folders. While I treat iCloud as an active area for current work, a work space. iCloud = short term memory, dropbox = long term memory. This setup works quite well for me.
Uses will be different for different people but for me (someone who values portability above all else and is a tinkerer) the Mini is a winner (it replaced my iPad 3). I also did not set unrealistic expectations of the device which may be why I’m so surprised how much of my daily computing can be addressed with such a relatively low-powered device. The size/weight of the Mini simply overwhelms any other benefit of the larger iPads. When I travel, I am now more likely to be carrying just the iPad (with no laptop unless I know i’ll need to program or do statistical analysis). In the end, it allows me to do a small amount of things in more places than at my desk.
To conclude, my most frequently used apps lately are:
Keynote (lecture and presentation creation & editing)
Keynote and Papers are truly exceptional apps that have nearly the full functionality of their desktop counterparts without replicating the same interaction style (i.e., they are optimized for tablets). I actually prefer doing lit searches in the iOS version of papers than using the desktop version!
This list is short because everything else is for fun!
In the newest post, Dr. Jeff Lawley discusses the usability of a DSM Reference app from Kitty CAT Psych. For those who didn’t take intro psych in college, the DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which classifies symptoms into disorders. It’s interesting to read an expert take on this app – he considers attributes I would not have thought of, such as whether the app retains information (privacy issues).
As Dr. Lawley notes on his “about” page, there are few apps designed for mental health professionals and even fewer evaluations of these apps. Hopefully his blog can fill that niche and inspire designers to create more mobile tools for these professionals.
I recently came across an impressive collection of Human Factors related safety stories, mostly concerning aviation, from a the System Safety Services group in Canada. The summaries are written in an accessible way, so I recommend this site for good classroom examples. I was already thinking of a classroom activity, perhaps for an undergraduate course:
Please read the following excerpt (abridged) from Aviation Human Factors Industry News Volume VII. Issue 17. Provide a list of the pros and cons of allowing ATCs to take scheduled naps during their shifts. Put an * by each pro or con that is safety related. The full article is available via the link above.
…the FAA and the controllers union — with assistance from NASA and the Mitre Corp., among others — has come up with 12 recommendations for tackling sleep-inducing fatigue among controllers. Among those recommendations is that the FAA change its policies to give controllers on midnight shifts as much as two hours to sleep plus a half-hour to wake up. That would mark a profound change from current regulations that can make sleeping controllers subject to suspension or dismissal. Yet, at most air traffic facilities, it’s common for two controllers working together at night to engage in unsanctioned sleeping swaps whereby one controller works two jobs while the other controller naps and then they switch off…
More than two decades ago, NASA scientists concluded that airline pilots were more alert and performed better during landings when they were allowed to take turns napping during the cruise phase of flights. The FAA chose to ignore recommendations that U.S. pilots be allowed “controlled napping.” But other countries, using NASA’s research, have adopted such policies for their pilots. Several countries — including France, Germany, Canada and Australia — also permit napping by controllers during breaks in their work shifts, said Peter Gimbrere, who heads the controllers association’s fatigue mitigation effort. Germany even provides controllers sleep rooms with cots, he said. …fatigue affects human behavior much like alcohol, slowing reaction times and eroding judgment. People suffering from fatigue sometimes focus on a single task while ignoring other, more urgent needs.
One of the working group’s findings was that the level of fatigue created by several of the shift schedules worked by 70 percent of the FAA’s 15,700 controllers can have an impact on behavior equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of .04, Gimbrere said. That’s half the legal driving limit of .08. “There is a lot of acute fatigue in the controller work force,” he said. Controllers are often scheduled for a week of midnight shifts followed by a week of morning shifts and then a week swing shifts, a pattern that sleep scientists say interrupts the body’s natural sleep cycles.
Your homework assignment is to identify another work domain with similar characteristics where you believe fatigue is a safety concern. Write an argument for requiring rest during work hours or other solutions for fatigue. Again, specifically call out the pros and cons of your solution.
A list of all articles, in newsletter form, can be found here.