Life and HCI PhD @ Lancaster (3 months reflection)

It’s been three months since I began my PhD at Lancaster University (UK). Here, a PhD is usually between three to four years (my current funding is for three years), so I am about 8% into my PhD, which is like 10%, woah. I feel like I have a lot of self-reflection that I want to write down and archive.

It’s really hard to begin formulate or arrange thoughts, like how should I start this article, or come up with a simple and effective opening sentence to never-ending questions such as “What do you do?”, “What’s your research?”, or “Why do you do this?”

Life is a struggle.

Most days when I come to sit at my desk at work, I have no idea what I am doing, so in the moment I make up some plans for the day. I just don’t know. I do some work, and the next day I go back to the same loop. It’s very hard to see where the whole research is going within one day, one week, one month, or one year. This is probably not the optimal way to do research, but I think it’s working for me. I like to believe that ideas will come to me (they have), and I can refine these ideas over time. After three months of pivoting, I am finally working towards my first project, and I like where it’s taking me. Through the words of my colleagues and supervisor, I guess I am actually doing really well.

Or I am doing just fine, because what do I know? I am just a PhD student who does systems research, who doesn’t know any HCI or understand human values, because what do systems people know about these things? And I didn’t even have anything to submit to UIST.

I have developed an approach to dealing with imposter syndrome and life is to not take anyone or myself too seriously. Academia is luck. Life is luck. Just ignore all that. Don’t take anything for granted. I try to believe in myself and believe that something good will happen, that what I do is meaningful. I want to be myself, to follow my purpose and values, to become a better person, and to know that in trying to achieve my goals, I am not blind by my own experience (“In order to determine whether we can know anything with certainty, we first have to doubt everything we know.” — Decartes).

I like this quote from Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist,

Presence isn’t about pretending to be competent; it’s about believing in & revealing the abilities you truly have. It’s about shedding whatever is blocking you from expressing who you are. It’s about tricking yourself into accepting that you are indeed capable.

I try to read and think a lot, in the midst of watching depressed PhD students, through my window, taking a stroll to freshen their mind with a cigarette in their hand. On really bad days, some go for a walk every hour. This is when I find the joy of research and peace within me. Listening and thinking about the dialogue I have with myself. It is these moments that little sparks of ideas connect and flow. But also talking to other people, having fun, and all that. It’s a wonderful experience when the first question from my supervisor and non-HCI friends when they hear my new idea is exactly the same.

And perhaps only just a few days later, I will say to myself, “This is shit. I give up.” Maybe it is shit, and I will end up writing a paper that distinguished professors in the field, those who go to CHI and find “the-state-of-the-art” irrelevant, will see no value. Nonetheless, I always feel I am hanging onto something new and beautiful, an interaction concept, an interaction model, or a paradigm shift. It’s just I don’t know what it is in details, but I can feel it, see it, and touch it, deep in my heart, in my mind, in the electrical and chemical signals. I know somehow in the end they will all come together, connect, and mean something.

I recently watched the movie A Beautiful Mind, in which the protagonist John Nash said,

Find a truly original idea. That’s the only way I’ll ever distinguish myself. It’s the only way that I’ll ever matter.

What this quote failed to captured is, we already matter, perhaps not to the entire the world, but at least on the micro-level, to ourselves and the people around us. Last year, I was in a bad place spiritually, although I had some of the best memories in my life. I saw that good people aren’t really good people, bad people aren’t really bad people, and in various situations, we jump the rope without realizing it. How we think about ourselves and others (e.g., stigma and prejudice discussed by Goffman) have huge impacts. I have learned to be more empathetic, and I am constantly inspired by people who show this quality. I hope one day I will know how to incorporate values such as empathy in my own work. I want to bring in ideas from art, design, psychology…

I think a lot about philosophical questions. What is the meaning of life? What it means to be a person? (I want to read Rogers’ On Becoming A Person soon.) If considering something like the Personal Iceberg Metaphor of The Satir Model, how is HCI helping us find ourselves or become better persons? I think I may have good answers.

I like this line of lyrics from Three by Lily Allen, and I would like to think that it is one role of HCI,

When things feel black and white, we’ll do some colouring in.

Life is good.

Chi-Jui Wu 吳啟瑞

Written by

I read, write, and reflect on human lives. Previously HCI Researcher @ Lancaster, UCL, and St Andrews. Website: https://chijuiwu.space/

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