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

A guide to interdisciplinary PhD programs

J. Nathan Matias
Oct 13 · 7 min read

Maybe your community has been affected by technology and you want to understand and reshape those impacts. Or you’re in the tech industry and know how few problems can be solved with engineering alone. Maybe you studied the social sciences and want to understand digital environments. Above all, you are looking for a way to create usable knowledge that matters in people’s lives.

In this post, I’m sharing what I’ve learned over 8 years of answering questions about PhD programs in technology, democracy, and social change. And now as faculty at the Cornell University Department of Communication, I’m in a department that’s recruiting PhD students for 2020 (Deadline Dec 1st).

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

(PS: we work in all of these ways at Cornell in the Communication Department! You can read about our faculty concentrations here)

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.

Communication Departments: The field of communication has been studying media, technology, and social behavior in democracy since the beginning. Comm has a strong public-interest alignment, a commitment to creating useful scientific/scholarly knowledge, and often a culture of creative making.

Apply to Cornell and find out for yourself! At Cornell’s Department of Communication, our faculty includes ethnographers, social psychologists, computational social scientists, computer scientists, media studies scholars, media-makers, public health scholars, and science/technology studies researchers (to name a few).

Cornell takes its motto of “any person… any study” seriously. The Communication Department supports PhD students to develop work across the range of faculty expertise. As my colleague Neil Lewis Jr. likes to point out, Cornell has developed the culture and resources to “take research beyond the ivory tower.” And as a Guatemalan-American, Cornell is a place where I feel fully supported to bring my full self to my work. Read more about why I chose to come to Cornell.

Information Science: Information Science departments (like Communication), offer interdisciplinary PhD programs that often have a public-interest leaning. While every program has its own flavor, I get the sense that IS programs lean slightly more towards thinking about systems while Communication leans slightly more towards studying people and media. Both are excellent environments to study people, systems, and democracy.

Cornell’s Information Science program has PhD programs based in Ithaca and at Cornell Tech in New York City. The Comm Department co-teaches many classes with IS. Communication faculty also serve as PhD advisors to Information Science PhD students.

Science and Technology Studies: STS scholars ask questions about the basic assumptions behind science and technology and the structures of power they have in the world. Along the way, they often think about the ethics, impacts, and governance of technology.

Cornell’s STS department has a strong relationship with Communication and Information Science; Comm faculty are often on STS dissertation committees.

Business / Management Schools: If your want to have a scientific audience and a business audience, then a business/management school might be right for you. Business schools have social scientist and policy experts as faculty, and they have recently begun hiring computer scientists too. If you take this route, you may gain unique access and opportunities for influential work. You should expect to get good at explaining the value of your work to business leaders, funders, and the MBA students who plan to work for them. Depending on the values and focus of your work, this can be an advantage.

Interdisciplinary Research In Disciplinary Departments: When considering disciplinary departments (Computer Science, Law, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Statistics, etc), here are a few questions to ask:

  • 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?

MIT Media Lab: I’m getting this question a lot this year, for understandable reasons. The lab’s future and direction aren’t yet clear and applicants likely have legitimate concerns. If you see groups at the Media Lab that you’re interested in, I still think you should consider applying. Don’t wait for MIT’s independent report. Then, if you get accepted, think hard about what the Media Lab would need to do/be for you to attend. As a student with an offer, you will then have the power to make those expectations clear and make the decision that’s best for you.

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.

Doing a PhD is 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.

How can anyone make such a decision under so much uncertainty? It helps to believe in the importance of answers and have a commitment to seek them. For example, I came to Cornell as faculty because I think it’s the best place for me to make progress on three societal needs that I am committed to:

  • ongoing, sustainable progress toward a flourishing internet (and tech industry) depends on actionable research about the social effects of tech products and the outcomes of our collective ideas for managing online behavior (I’ve written about this here and here)
  • unless we remake the tools of research for democracy, our best efforts will create and entrench authoritarian power (see here)
  • we need to grow an ecosystem of researchers, managers, policymakers, and advocates who can create new roles and build new institutions to advance the public interest

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

Finally, look for ways to enjoy the process and grow as a person along the way. At their best, PhD applications are an opportunity to reflect on what you care about– to talk about your future with friends, colleagues, and mentors who respect and support you.

Good luck this fall, and I hope to see your application at Cornell!

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

J. Nathan Matias

Written by

Public-interest research for a safer, understanding Internet. Asst Prof Cornell. CivilServant.io. Prev:@BKCharvard @CivicMIT @PrincetonCITP. Guatemalan-American

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade