Learning to think II: Designing the functional PhD student experience

Alannah Oleson
May 19 · 7 min read
That blank page is me as a first year student. [Alt: A palette of watercolor paints and a collection of paintbrushes, next to a sketchbook open to a blank page sitting on a wooden table.] Credit: , Pixabay.

Design has been on my brain lately. What is design? Where does it happen? How does it happen best? How can we teach others to design well? These are the questions I’ve been considering as I wrap up my first year of graduate school at the .

In December I took a step back and tried to think critically about . I used a learning science model of competence to break down the journey toward competence and highlighted a few of the more salient barriers facing new students. But, of course, there are many ways to skin the metaphorical cat. What might it look like if we treated the graduate student experience not as a learning progression, but as a design problem?

We might start by defining the problem statement: Create an experience such that by the end of grad school, I (or you, or your grad school friend) am a functional, successful, PhD student, prepared to take the post-grad world by storm. This phrasing immediately suggests that PhD life is a — an ill-structured, complex issue not easily solved through traditional problem-solving methods. Wicked problems also tend to have seemingly contradictory constraints (e.g., wanting to excel in your research, but also trying to maintain some semblance of work-life balance) and no optimal solutions (e.g., each student’s definition of success will differ).

Wicked problems lend themselves well to design processes. Designers often have to balance constraints in their work as well as facing situations in which there is no “right” answer. In turn, this has led to a growing body of work around wicked problem design, such as , , and the trendy notion of taught as a lightweight, portable version of the design process. (Design thinking has , but that debate is outside both the scope of this piece and of my concerns.)

The five stage model of design thinking. [Alt: Five rainbow-colored hexagons arranged in a line, each containing one word: Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.]

To start designing the PhD student experience, I’ll leverage the s model of design thinking. This model structures the design process as made of five stages — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These stages help scaffold creative process, scoping from a nebulous “just come up with something good” to more actionable stages and concepts. Below, I’ll try to fit my thoughts and experiences into the stages of this model, emphasizing what’s worked so far and how I can use this framing to become even more of a functional student.

Empathize

The Empathize stage involves trying to understand the bigger picture. Who are the stakeholders in your graduate school experience? In the case of designing PhD life, you are the obvious expert in the area, but you aren’t the only one playing a part in the story. Who else is involved, and what sorts of goals, needs, and requirements do they bring to the table? In this stage, you’re trying to set aside your own preconceived notions about people and truly understand their perspectives. Consider empathizing with:

  • Yourself. Cheesy for sure, but in this case very necessary. You have the fullest understanding of your own PhD experience and will have the best insight into what will and won’t work for you. Be aware that biases like can cloud that view, though, and take negative perceptions with a grain of salt.
  • Your adviser/manager. Arguably the most important person in your academic life other than yourself. Understanding their perspective — their expectations and goals for your especially — will inform the larger picture.
  • More senior students/labmates. What do they know that you don’t? Leverage these perspectives to prepare for the years to come.
  • Your support network. Family, friends, pets, or otherwise. These people help you persist. Understanding how they see you as a grad student can also shape your own needs, goals, and constraints.

Define

During the Define stage, you’ll try to identify pressing problems that are preventing you from functioning at your peak grad-student-ness. The fodder for this comes from the Empathize stage. What challenges you? What is lacking? How do others see your PhD experience, and does this align with your view? As part of this stage, it’d be helpful to define:

  • Your goals. What do you want out of this degree? Where are you going afterward, or even where are you going next month? Defining these will help you start to identify barriers in the way of achieving them. I know that I am particularly (especially for the far future), so that’ll come up as one of my own barriers.
  • Others’ goals for you (and how much you value targeting them). Perhaps your adviser wants you to graduate in three years. Perhaps your family wants to spend time with you in the evening. Stakeholders you identified in the Empathize stage will have targets they want you to hit, and you need to understand where your priorities lie.
  • Your deficits. What do you feel is missing in your grad life? Maybe it’s enough time in the day to finish everything. Maybe it’s interest in the project you’re working on. Maybe it’s financial or social resources. Whatever it is, identifying deficits is one way to define the problem.
  • Your resources. What are you working with? Some people have they can dedicate to grad school. Others might be working part-time jobs to afford groceries in high cost-of-living cities. Know what you have and what you can use.

Ideate

In the Ideate stage, you start answering “How might I…?” questions about your chosen problem from Define. For instance, I might ask “How might I ensure I’m using my time productively, so that I can have time off on evenings and weekends to relax?” Based on the specific facet of grad life you’re tackling, your questions will vary. Now, start thinking about ways to address that question. Some things to keep in mind at this stage:

  • It doesn’t have to be a physical thing. You’re designing the PhD experience here, so the ideas you have here might take the form of an action, a change in thought patterns, or anything else. For instance, one idea I might come up with is that I need to become more cognizant of how I’m spending my time.
  • It doesn’t have to make sense. The goal here is not to come up with a single bulletproof idea (that comes later), but to generate many possible ideas. Some of those ideas will be terrible. That’s okay. Keep ideating.

Prototype

After a healthy amount of , you’ll have many possible answers to your question. Pick one or two to more forward with, but keep in mind you can always come back and choose another should it not fit.

During the Prototype stage, you’ll begin to envision what one of those crazy ideas will look like in real life. Don’t put a whole lot of time into these concepts yet — just enough so that you start to get a feel for whether they’d work or not. As part of Prototype, remember to consider:

  • The ripple effects. Change is not a one-and-done kind of action. For instance, I might decide that to be more productive in the office, I need to better understand how I spend my time. I might consider a or an automated time tracker program. Either of these choices will impact my daily routine in some way, so I need to ensure that change is sustainable.
  • The original problem. Sure, it’s neat to try out fancy new apps that claim to improve your exercise habits in 10 easy steps. But if your chosen goal was to cut back on monthly spending, is that really useful for this specific case? Filter your prototyping through the lens of the original problem.

Test

In the fifth stage of the design thinking model, you get to Test your prototypes. Here’s where all this planning gets put into action. Try it and see what happens. This part is fairly self-explanatory, but some things to keep in mind include:

  • It’s okay if it doesn’t work the first time, or the fifth, or the tenth. Designing is hard. It’s an iterative process of refinement, not a linear path to an optimal solution. If your solution doesn’t seem to be working, take a step back, decompose it, tweak the the components, and try it again.
  • It’s okay to throw it out entirely. If after some tweaking it’s still not working, you have full license to scrap the solution and start over with another concept. Simply by trying a certain path of action you’ve learned more about the problem space itself, and that’ll inform future attempts to become a functional grad student.
Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. [Alt: A depiction of the Design Thinking process. Arrows connect the five stages linearly, but there are also arrows indicating backtracking, jumping between stages, and starting over.]

In all of this design thinking, it’s important to remember that this model is iterative, not linear. Work in later stages of the model might spark some cool new idea that you hadn’t considered before. Your PhD experience is always changing and so should your design-based response to it.


Treating the grad student experience as a design problem allows for a new perspective on what it means to become a functional PhD student. It affords agency and helps scaffold action. Instead of situating students as passive members of the grad school grind, it reframes us as designers in control of what we are doing and what we are becoming. At the risk of sounding like a cheesy self-help book, I think this shifting of agency perceptions is quite powerful. After all, who is better situated to change your experience for the better than yourself?

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Alannah Oleson

Written by

Untangling design and computing education since 2018. PhD Student @UW_iSchool. www.alannaholeson.com

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.