Jon Froehlich
Assistant Professor
University of Maryland, College Park

twitter: @jonfroehlich

CS Office:
3137 AV Williams
Department of Computer Science
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

HCIL Office:
2117F Hornbake Library, South


Getting a PhD in HCI at UMD
General Grad Student Advice
Undergraduate Research

Getting a PhD in HCI at UMD
I'm considering HCI at UMD as a graduate student, should I apply to CS or the iSchool?
This is a good question. The answer, really, is that it depends on your skills/background and on your future goals. If you are considering them both, I suggest applying to both. More info below.

What is the UMD HCIM (HCI Masters) program?
The interdisciplinary Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction (HCIM) program is offered through the iSchool (College of Information Studies) and not the Computer Science department. The HCIM has two objectives: (i) to prepare students to become HCI leaders in industry and government and/or (ii) to prepare students to be successful in HCI-related PhD programs. Thus, HCIM enrollees can choose either a capstone project (aimed more at the former) or the MS thesis track (aimed more at the latter). As a CS professor, I am not involved in organizing or directing the HCIM; however, HCIM students can take my courses (e.g., CMSC838). Note: to be clear, you do not need a MS degree (or an HCIM degree) to enroll in the CS PhD program. The HCIM and CS degrees are completely independent.

Should I get a MS degree before applying for a PhD?
This is completely up to you. It's not necessary. You may want to apply to MS programs first to get a taste of research and to help decide if you want to pursue a research-oriented career and get a PhD. This is what I did. I enrolled at the University of California, Irvine as an MS student and worked with Professor Paul Dourish before applying to PhD programs and eventually attending the University of Washington. Note: most MS programs are professionally oriented rather than research oriented. So, be sure to investigate each program closely. No matter what university you attend, if you have ambitions to earn your doctorate, the most important thing is the kind of research you do during your MS, your research productivity during that time, and who you work with (e.g., your MS advisor).

What are the CS grad course requirements?
For an MS degree, you must complete at least 30 credit hours of approved course work with a B average. At least 21 credits must be in computer science. Most classes are 3 credits, so this results in ~10 courses. For more info, see the official MS Degree Requirements page. Note: I generally prefer that all graduate students working with me take (or audit) CMSC434 "Intro to HCI" (e.g., Spring 2012 offering, Spring 2013 offering, Fall 2013 offering, Fall 2014 offering) unless they have previously taken an intro HCI course. CMSC434 can be counted towards an MS but 400 level classes do not count towards the PhD.

For a PhD degree, you must take seven 600-800 level courses spread over at least five breadth areas, with no more than three in any one area. You must obtain at least five A's and two B's. Why? Because rather than have a one-day or two-day long qualifying exam at the end of the coursework requirement (like some other universities), we give "qualifying exams" at the end of each semester for the content you learned in that course. The University of Washington had a similar approach when I was there as a graduate student. The goal is to provide all of our graduate students with a strong understanding of many of the core disciplines in CS. This can be truly beneficial, see below. In addition, to the seven 600-800 courses, you must take two additional 3-credit 600-800 level courses, which can be in CS or in some other discipline (e.g., psychology, sociology, environmental science). This simply requires advisor approval. For more info, see the official PhD Degree Requirements page.

I looked through the CS grad course catalog, and I didn't see a lot of HCI courses...
A keen observation! I recently received the following email from a potential grad student interested in our CS grad program:
The list of courses states that "you must take 7 600-800 level courses spread over at least 5 areas, with no more than 3 in any one area". So, considering this rule, there is just one course available in the group "Software Engineering/Programming Languages/HCI" that is from the HCI area, which is CMSC734 - Information Visualization.
Yes, this is currently true. Is it a bug or is it a feature? Let's discuss. :) First, a bit of context: I arrived in January 2012 so my new grad course, CMSC838f 'Tangible Interactive Computing' (e.g., Fall 2012 offering), is not yet a qualifying course. I plan to make it one in the future. You can also take CMSC434 'Intro to HCI' and use this towards your MS coursework requirement (though not your PhD, see above).

Second, I realize that some HCI graduate students may worry about taking so many core CS classes but if you are a "technical" HCI researcher (that is, you build systems), then I think that computer vision, machine learning, computer graphics, and other sub-disciplines of CS are extremely important to your education. Even if you are not a "technical" HCI researcher, you could still benefit from taking machine learning and statistics classes as these are integral to analysis (and we do a lot of data analysis in HCI).

When I asked some HCIL graduate students about their thoughts on this issue, I received a range of responses (though most were positive). I lightly edited the quotes below for anonymity and clarity. Let's go through some of them one-by-one. The first student emphasized the importance of a strong CS foundation to many HCI problems:
I don't see it as much of a problem. You just have to plan ahead and be a little careful unless you want to take extra classes. It would be nice if HCI wasn't lumped with SE & PL, but having that breadth helps ensure that you're doing relevant HCI work that solves real problems using core CS principles.

For example, another HCI student and I did a streaming database clustering and visualization tool for medical records as part of the 724 database course, which leveraged state-of-the-art DB work and novel visualizations to solve a real problem. Taking 711 on computer networks also helped prepare me for the first publication I got as part of Ben's 734 InfoVis course, which was on visualizing computer network traffic.

Another relevant HCI course is 634 on empirical research methods. Depending on who's teaching it it can have different flavors, but still quite relevant.

Despite this, you can take or audit any classes in other areas to supplement the CS courses. I audited one in sociology and part of one in art & design. You just can't count them for the core PhD requirements, only as electives. I did my required courses in four semesters, so there was plenty of time to take others if I wanted to.

Similarly, another CS graduate student in the HCIL said:
First of all, I had exactly the same concern during my first year of PhD. I finished my undergrad and master program in industrial design, so the CS requirements were intimidating and seemed irrelevant to me. I had seriously considered other programs having more HCI-focused courses. But now, I am confident that I made the right decision.

Introductory CS grad courses seem to be beneficial to HCI researchers. Ironically, to me the most inspiring courses were 'Computational Geometry', 'Socio-Technical Graph Theory' and 'Machine Learning', which are 7-800 level theory courses taught only in CS programs. Although I might not create a novel convex hull algorithm in future, understanding the Duality concept taught in computational geometry changed the way I approached problems and thought about underlying interaction models. In the socio-technical graph theory course as well, we spent months attempting to understand why various graph random walk techniques (such as Google's PageRank) could solve many network problems, and it changed my understanding of the Internet. In my opinion, one can acquire inspirational power only when it reaches a certain theoretical depth.
So, to summarize the sentiments above, our CS courses can complement and augment your HCI PhD--this is the ideal, really. And, I think, for many of you, it's the right approach especially if you are interested in more technically-oriented HCI problems that require design, engineering, and programming (which is how, for the most part, I've built my career).

With that said, I certainly am interested in problems that don't require building new HCI systems/artifacts, for example, my CHI2010 paper The Design of Eco-Feedback Technology or my more recent CHI2013 paper Mind the Theoretical Gap: Interpreting, Using, and Developing Behavioral Theory in HCI Research. These papers do not offer new, novel HCI artifacts or interactions and are, instead, more reflective essays on the HCI design and evaluation process, especially for behavior-change technology (another topic I'm interested in). So, if you are less interested in building systems and more interested in design, the design process, or in studying existing systems (e.g., Twitter, Facebook), the iSchool path may be more appropriate (and I carry an affiliate appointment in the iSchool so I can still advise you). I think if you considering one path or another, you should email and talk to various HCI faculty in CS and the iSchool so we can discuss the various tradeoffs of each path and personalize our advice to your particular situation. Indeed, one student emphasizes that he found the iSchool HCI path more appropriate for him:
I started at UMD as CS Ph.D. student but switched to the HCIM program because I couldn't participate in HCI to the extent that I wanted, in the way that I wanted while in the CS program. The program was very rigid and didn't provide much freedom to take the classes about HCI that I was hoping to find. It didn't cover much of the breadth that I feel are an important part of HCI. It's very CS, which makes perfect sense, since it's an advanced program for CS. That's great, but I was looking for HCI, not CS. It was hard for me to find that in the CS department. I felt it was hard to do much beyond the particular flavor of CS HCI that's achievable while satisfying the Ph.D. requirements (without taking additional courses).

The core classes in CS I took were computational linguistics (CL) and computational geometry (CG) classes (pretty standard fare for CS HCI folks, it seems). These were good classes, but mostly I feel that I didn't gain as much from them as I could have elsewhere. I had taken a handful of machine learning and artificial intelligence courses as an undergrad, so I found limited value in the CL course. I liked CG mostly for the ways of thinking it required (e.g., duality), but didn't take much beyond that. I also feel that an important point of consideration is not just if HCI classes are available, but which HCI classes are available. I feel it's important to consider how one conceptualizes "HCI class". For example, I don't have a very strong interest to take Information Visualization, even though it falls within the UMD rubric of HCI classes, and I'm sure it's a great class. But it's not quite what I'm looking for in an HCI class, myself. When I was a CS student, I assumed I should take it because it's one of the few HCI class available, and I want to be an HCI researcher.

I must say that despite my strong, particular feelings that the CS Ph.D. program was too rigid, I feel that the HCI folks I have and continue to communicate with that are affiliated with CS are utterly wonderful.
I think this quote reflects a totally legitimate experience of an HCI grad student not finding the right fit in CS. This, of course, could happen anywhere but the nice thing is, the student was able to switch over to the iSchool's HCIM program and stay at UMD where, I think, the student is more satisfied (I doubly hope so because I'm working with him!).

Other students emphasize that it's not just what you learn in the classroom that affects your HCI educational experience:
In my case, I appreciated the fact that I had to take courses that are not related to HCI. It helped me to figure out what part of CS I like and what I don't like. For example, this system helped me to figure out I am totally not an algorithms guy (I don't really care about running time of the code.) And like others said, you learn things you can apply to HCI research.

In terms of learning how to conduct HCI research, it is not the types of courses offered that matters, but the number of courses you have to take... You learn what you need for HCI research through doing research (reading papers, reading books, coding and writing papers.) Even InfoVis, one of the few HCI courses, that I took wasn't that helpful for conducting HCI research since it's so unrelated to what I currently do. However, I believe number of courses you have to take matters and 9 + 1 courses are a little bit too much for doing research.
I wish I could have taken more seminars (usually 800 level) like Future of HCI, I think I learned more about how to be a PhD from those, than from the 600 levels I took. Finally on the electives, I tried taking courses from other departments, but after talking about it with my advisor, he recommended that I not do it. In conclusion, I think that the current coursework requirements are too restrictive and that the offering in CS for an HCI student is not that broad.

On the flip side, the good thing about our coursework requirements is that we don't have to do quals. I'm immensely grateful for that, because I think it makes way more sense to take exams at the end of each course (the Maryland way), than having to study for several months for an exam that I would have probably failed.

Despite these inconveniences, the best things I learned in my PhD weren't taught in a classroom, I learned them working with the great people at the HCIL, and being able to join this multidisciplinary team of awesome people is a more than good enough reason to join UMD. ;)
I hope this helps you think through your own grad school experience for an HCI PhD. If you want to chat with me about this (whether you are a prospective student or already a UMD grad), please email me.

I just received an email that said you are my "temporary" advisor, what does this mean?
As you might imagine, a "temporary" advisor is exactly that: temporary. It allows you to have direct interaction with a faculty member at UMD until you settle on a real advisor (which could end up being me as well!). Know that we're thrilled you're coming, and that I look forward to seeing you in the Fall. My door (email door, I suppose) is open if you have any questions or concerns or if you just want to talk at some point. I'm probably not going to be helpful in helping you find places to live (I live in DC and commute via the green line), etc., but I can point you to current students who could probably help out if you need. Please note that I get a lot of email and that it may take me a day or two to respond to you.

I'm a first year PhD, what should I be doing?
The point of a Ph.D. program is to do research. Period. When you graduate, no one will really care what classes you took but they will care about what you know and what you have done. Your research record, and secondarily your social network, are what will make your career. Classes are there to give you breadth (which is of course valuable) and background in your area of choice (and to help you find your area of choice).

Therefore, your goal should be to start doing research (even if it's not what's going to end up being your thesis) as soon as possible. You should aim to submit a conference paper some time during your first year. However, that doesn't give much time: conference deadlines are right around the corner, so you need to be very self-motivated and work quickly! By your third year, you should be set to publish two-to-three good papers a year (not all first-authored), which should continue until graduation. Obviously, these are just general heuristics and not steadfast rules; I appreciate quality over quantity but, at the same time, this general guideline should give you a sense of what it takes to be a successful graduate student.

Do you have any other tips for first years?
Faculty members are all busy. We love working with students: otherwise we wouldn't be in academia! But we also have a significant number of responsibilities. This means that you'll need to quickly get in the mode of figuring out a lot of stuff on your own, or by talking to other students.

Go to as many seminars as possible, even if you don't understand everything. In fact, not understanding everything is going to be the name of the game from here on out, so get used to it :). Meet with visitors in your area. I mentioned networking before: don't underestimate its importance.

To help with the previous points, you should get on relevant mailing lists. Talk to individual faculty about what might be relevant. If you're interested in HCI, I suggest signing up for the hcil mailing list ( See also:

Similarly, do not go overboard trying to get all your required courses out of the way as quickly as possible. Two courses per semester, plus a TA (if you have a TA-ship) is enough to take a huge amount of time. Two courses + a seminar is also reasonable. Three courses will leave you little to no time to get any real work done.

I would suggest spending your first year of courses taking things that will help you in and around your research area, and getting breadth in your second year (i.e., taking all those "other" courses that you really don't want to take).

I'm mentioning courses so much because that's what I always get asked about, not because it's important. You should do well in things that matter and learn to not waste time on things that don't. (Here, "matter" means either "is relevant" or "is just plain interesting to you." Eg., if you want to do computer architecture, then surely a computer architecture course matters... but an AI course might also matter if you just plain find it interesting.)

The best two ways I know to get involved in research are to take classes with course projects and to just talk to faculty members. (Often it works well to do these two simultaneously, with some faculty member who is teaching a project-based course that you're taking.) Also, don't forget that faculty members TALK to each other. So if you want to work with faculty member X and there's a reasonable chance that X is friends with Y, then don't completely blow off Y's class. If I get an email from a student asking about research opportunities, I almost always talk to faculty who have interacted with them. But of course everything in moderation.

Get to be friends with current students. They know a lot more about many things than faculty members. In particular, if you want to know if X is a good teacher, I probably either don't know or don't want to say... but your fellow students will be happy to tell you :).

General Grad Student Advice
Books on Getting Through (and Excelling in) Graduate School
Here is a collection of books about getting through (and excelling in) graduate school. This list will likely grow over time.

Online Advice Pages for Getting a PhD in CS
The following links offer far more comprehensive advice pages than this one written by, for the most part, far more experienced academics.
  • CMU Professor Jason Hong's fairly exhaustive advice page. Jason is a professor at CMU in Computer Science (and the HCII) specializing in HCI. He's also my academic brother via James Landay.
  • UW Professor Michael Ernst's Advice for Researchers and Students. Michael is a professor at UW in Computer Science specializing in software engineering.
  • UW (the other one) Professor Michael Gleicher's Graduate School FAQ. Michael is a professor at UW-Madison in Computer Science specializing in graphics.
  • Rochester Professor Philip Guo's "Writings" page Philip is a professor at the University of Rochester in Computer Science specializing in HCI, educational technology, and software engineering.
  • .

Undergraduate Research
I'm an undergrad and I think I'd like to get involved in undergraduate research...
So glad to hear it! You should go for it. Though challenging, undergraduate research will expose you to new technologies, new problem areas, and new people. You will learn new technical and design skills while solving difficult but fun problems. In addition, undergraduate research is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from your peers and move beyond the experiences of your everyday undergraduate education. So, if you're passionate, self-disciplined, self-motivated, and like working on teams, you should give undergraduate research a try!

If you're interested in working with me in particular, the first thing you need to do is email me with a personal statement of interest (e.g.,What are you passionate about? Why do you want to do research? Why are you emailing me in particular?) along with a resume and an unofficial transcript. If you have a personal website or a portfolio of materials online, please point me to those as well. I will look everything over and get back to you (likely within one-to-three days--if you haven't heard from me after three days, email me again!). After I review your materials, I may ask for one or two professional references that I can contact as well (these could be a professor, a lecturer, or even a former high school teacher--the latter only seems to make sense if you're a freshman/sophomore).

Generally, my group is most interested in students that can work with us over multiple semesters (to amortize startup/ramp-up costs). However, we certainly have had success working with some students for only one semester or one summer (if your time is limited, summers are preferable because of fewer distractions on your time). Moreover, I generally do not offer paid undergrad RAships until the student has demonstrated their potential by either completing a CMSC499 (or equivalant) with me or volunteering in my lab for ~one semester.

What do undergrad researchers do in your lab?
Great question. The short answer: it depends. It depends on your interests and skills, on the projects we're working on, on the other undergraduates in the lab, and on the availability of graduate student mentors. Generally, all of my undergrads work on teams, which are comprised of other undergraduate students (in a range of disciplines), and mentored by one or two graduate students.

In any case, I truly believe--and have observed firsthand--that undergraduate students can significantly and positively impact a research project. In my academic career, I have worked with approximately 20 undergraduate students and published with 14 of them.

What are some of the characteristics of a successful undergrad researcher?
If you're reading this website, it's likely that you are a successful student--someone that has largely excelled in school. That's awesome. That speaks to your intelligence, time management skills, and self-discipline. These are important to research as well. More than that, though, you have to be highly motivated, creative, willing to take risks, assertive, dependable, and hard working. You also have to have time. Time to work, time to think, time to make mistakes and recover, and time to prototype, code, test, and iterate over and over again.

I have seen many undergraduate students fail at research simply because they vastly underestimated the amount of time and effort required to be successful. Research is hard. You will not succeed without a few long nights in the lab hacking on your software/hardware project trying to make a deadline. If this intrigues you. If you want to be part of something bigger than yourself. If you want to be involved in solving high-impact research problems using HCI and computer science, then please contact me! (And by the way, these are many of the same characteristics of a successful graduate student). :)

Oh, and if you're not in computer science. That's totally fine! I have successfully worked with undergraduate students in mechanical engineering, psychology, chemical engineering, design, math, physics, and others.

I would like to do an independent research project (CMSC499) with you, what do I need to do?
The CS department has two ways undergraduate students can get credit for working with faculty (like me!): an Independent Study (CMSC498A) and an Independent Research Project (CMSC499). For CMSC498A, students work with a faculty member on a subject study in a tutorial fashion. For research, however, you would sign up for CMSC499. To take CMSC499, you must write a preliminary proposal explaining what you expect to accomplish during the course of their research project. I can help you with this. In most cases, in order to take CMSC499 with me, you must have already started working on a project with me or one of my graduate students. Generally, I reserve CMSC499s for students that I know can accomplish good work.

To learn more about CMSC499 and CMSC498A, see

How can I get involved in the HCIL?
If you're a student (undergraduate or graduate), faculty member, or research scientist at the University of Maryland and interested in HCI, we'd love to have you join our HCIL community. The HCIL stands for the Human-Computer Interaction Lab and is one of the longest running academic laboratories dedicated to HCI in the world. Started in 1983 by Ben Shneiderman, the HCIL has grown to include faculty, students, and staff from a diverse set of disciplines intersecting with HCI from CS and the iSchool to design and psychology.

If you'd like to become more involved, consider joining our HCIL mailing list, attending our Thursday "Brown Bag Lunches" from 12:30-1:30 in the lab, or even joining our "HCIL Play" mailing list for fun activities that HCIL members participate in (e.g., going to movies, concerts, or trips downtown to DC). For example, students recently organized a DC cherry blossom cruise.

I sent you an email and you did not respond, what's the deal?!
My apologies! I thank you for your email--I look forward to talking with you! I really try to respond to nearly every email I receive. However, sometimes my responses are delayed (by multiple days) or sometimes I simply miss your email.

If you don't hear from me within two days, please don't hesitate to send me a follow-up email (or even two) that contains your original email plus a "ping" note or something similar (so that I realize this is an additional attempt to contact me). I know this is less than ideal (and, perhaps, even sounds a bit pretentious) but I have recently crossed the email inbox threshold where I am literally drowning in email. According to my March 2013 GMail Meter statistics, I receive between 140-280 emails a day (avg=~160). I've found that it's not possible for me to process all of these emails and get my other work done each day. Hence, I suggest simply pinging me again with a friendly follow-up if I don't respond to your original message. :)

Would you write me a letter of recommendation?
Writing letters of recommendation is one of the most important aspects of my job as a professor, and I gain a lot of satisfaction from helping students seek out and reach new opportunities in their careers. With that said, writing a quality, thoughtful recommendation letter takes time. When you ask for a recommendation letter, it's important that you consider the effort that's required. You want to make the process as easy as possible for me so that I can focus on the intellectual effort of writing a good letter rather than the administrative effort of gathering all the resources I need to write the letter, keeping track of where to send the letters, and dealing with the idiosyncrasies of web-forms. So, to help us both, when requesting a letter please...
  1. Importantly, when you first ask if I would write you a letter, you should provide well-thought out rationale for why you're asking me and what you think I can speak about that may differentiate my letter from others. Note that I, of course, reserve the right to disagree with your rationale if I do not think that I would be a good choice for your rec letter. And that's fine--you need to find the best letter writers for you! It's your career and your life.
  2. Ask for the letter in advance--a month beforehand would be nice. While I certainly do not need a month to write the letter, this lead time allows me to work around travel, big deadlines, etc., so that I can block out a free, quiet time to write a thoughtful and substantive letter. Please check with me a week before the recommendation letter deadline to ensure everything is going smoothly.
  3. If I agree to write you a letter, please send one email that contains all the information required for the letter, including:
    • Summarize your work in my research group and/or class(es). Include a particular example (or two or three) where you demonstrated creativity, determination, or excellent performance, or recognition. You need not write in lengthy prose--a bulleted list is fine.
    • Include an abbreviated list of your major (recent) accomplishments in life with descriptions--including scholastically, in research, in service (e.g., president of ACM-W on-campus group, started CS high school tutoring program), and in life (e.g., won university ballroom dance competition, marathon race finisher).
    • Attach your transcript, your CV/resume, and, if applicable, a draft of your personal statement (doesn't need to be final).
  4. Ask your TA(s) for courses and/or your PhD mentor (for research) to send me an email describing the work that you did. When you do, summarize your work for them and highlight your accomplishments to jog their memory.
  5. Lastly, if I write you a letter, I'd love for you to stay in touch: let me know where you ended up and give me status updates from time-to-time. I really enjoy hearing from former students. If you encounter things in your career that you think I should be teaching in my classes, let me know!
This entry is inspired by and derived from a similar post by UCSD Professor Scott Klemmer.

I'm a UMD student & I would like to work with you as a funded research assistant, what should I do?
Generally, I do not fund undergraduate or graduate students without working with them first and observing their passion, abilities, and diligence firsthand. There are lots of ways to "work with me" including via one of my courses (e.g., Tangible Interactive Computing, Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction), by volunteering in my lab, or by successfully completing an indepedent study for credit. Choosing students is one of the most important things I do as a professor. As a highly collaborative group, you will be working with me and with other students (ugrad, grad, and even high school). As such, each student has the ability to make a significant impact on a research topic as well as on our group culture. Thus, my decision to work with you is multi-faceted. I want to work with students that help make our group better.

To become funded, you must demonstrate a serious commitment and passion for research, critical thinking and brainstorming skills, and a high degree of independence and responsibility. I am also attracted to students who have unique skills, who have taken different paths in life, and who could generally enrich my group with new perspectives/experiences. My group is extremeley design-oriented--we invent, explore, iterate, and evaluate--so design/implementation skills are appreciated.

I'm an undergraduate student at a university outside the US, can I intern at your lab this summer?
I receive somewhere between 100-150 emails a year inquiring about summer research internships in my group from undergraduate students outside the US. The emails are often formatted very similarly and mass emailed to CS professors across the country (with little customization), such as:

Dear Professor Froehlich,

I am writing to you after having read through your research. I am particularly fascinated by <some project> and <some project> and share your interest in developing interactive technology that is valuable to society on the whole.

I am an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in <some tech field> at <some university>, the top <department/university/institution> in my country. I would like to apply to work as a summer intern at your lab for the summer of 2015 (June and July), if possible.

<more paragraphs about candidate's background and an attached resume>

While I am grateful to be in a position to receive such interest, it is simply not tenable to thoroughly vet each of these applications. Moreover, many of these students want to come to the US for only a short period (2 - 3 months). It would be incredibly challenging for even a 2nd or 3rd year graduate student with research experience to accomplish publishable research in that time (especially starting from zero) much less an undergraduate student with little research experience (not to mention the transactional costs of acclimating to a new lab, working with new people, adapting to a new culture). So, in short, I either do not respond to these requests directly (my apologies, I simply receive too many emails) or respond with a polite "No."

I realize this means that I am likely missing out on working with and learning from some truly talented and exceptional students but the time and effort required to take such a risk outweighs the benefits for me (at least at this stage in my career).

There has been only one exception to the above and that was for an extraordinary student whom I had previously met at a conference, had already first-authored a research paper published at a top venue, had incredible letters of recommendation, and was attending and excelling at one of his country's top universities. He is now a grad student at MIT.

As an HCI PhD student, what areas should I focus on?
This is an ever-evolving complex question. The answer will depend largely on who you ask and when you ask. The question is complex both because of the interdisciplinary nature of HCI as well as the different threads of research within it (e.g., from more usability-leaning research to more design-oriented research). Skills/areas that I consider core to HCI can be broken down into seven interconnected areas (in no particular order) :
  1. Theory (e.g., psychology, cognitive science, sociology, anthropometrics)
  2. Design (e.g., visual design, interaction design, software design, industrial design)
  3. Critical thinking (e.g., comfort/experience with brainstorming/ideating, providing/receiving critique)
  4. Implementation abilities (e.g., programming skills, rapid prototyping, working with materials, physical computing)
  5. Evaluation (e.g., study/experimental design, qualitative methods/analysis, quantitative methods/analysis, statistics)
  6. Communication (as HCI is fundamentally about communication, students should be strong oral and written communicators)
  7. Technical abilities (HCI--at least the HCI that I do--is increasingly technical relying on machine learning, big data analysis, computer vision, embedded systems, etc.)
Note: the list above is not comprehensive.

If you are a CS graduate student, I would try to take as many machine learning, statistics, and computer vision courses as possible. Whether iSchool or CS, I would try to take at least an "Intro to HCI" course (if you have not as an undergrad), a graphic design or interaction design (IxD) course, and a research methods course (the more, the better). I'll close my answer by emphasizing that I truly believe that the best way to learn is by doing. So, get out there and try!

A number of people have kindly helped me with this list of questions and answers including UMD Professor Hal Daume III, UCSD Professor Scott Klemmer, and HCIL graduate students Cody Dunne, Kotaro Hara, Alex Quinn, John Alexis Guerra Gomez, Michael Gubbels, and Tak Yeon Lee.

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