Recently I received two interviews from my department (School of Interactive Arts and Technology, SIAT). I post my responses so that to make my recent thoughts tangible. When I formulate the text, I am greatly influenced by self-determination theory1. Thanks to my persistent trial-and-error in the past decade, fortunately, I seem to approximate my intrinsic interests starting from my Ph.D. thesis. Now although I am no longer young enough and my career has just started, I already enjoy the vitality and creativity during my thesis research process. When facing my projects, my co-workers, and my family, I also feel less anxious and more peaceful.

What motivated you to pursue graduate school?

My original motivation to pursue graduate school is that I wanted to dramatically change my career, and to spend time in the field of technology and design that I am interested in. Four years ago at my admission, I was expecting to earn a degree and some new skills so that I can find a good job after graduation. But after consistent learning, discovering, trying and failing, I am lucky enough to find myself on the path toward discovering and pursuing my intrinsic interest, which brings me more enjoyment and satisfaction than the extrinsic motivations such as degree or job. For me, that’s the serendipity of being at graduate school.

Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology over other programs?

SIAT is a very unique place in that it is an interdisciplinary and research-oriented program. Although the disciplines in SIAT vary from humanities, arts, design, to computer science, engineering, psychology, neuroscience, healthcare, ect., there is a common theme across the various disciplines in SIAT, and such common theme is human. We are engaged in understanding the human beings and their existence with respect to the arts, technology, society. Technology, design or arts are ways or probes to understand the human beings.

Creating new algorithms is hard, but the people problem is even harder. Unlike the traditional technology-oriented programs that focus on the algorithm problem and reduce the complexity of the problem by ignoring the people problem, in SIAT we face the two hard problems simultaneously, which makes the research even more challenging. To tackle the complex problem of people + technology, doing interdisciplinary research is not a goal itself, but a mean to its goal. In SIAT, the discipline boundaries or barriers are blurry, and we are used to be surrounded by researchers with multiple backgrounds. However, that comes with costs. It means one needs to spend more time on different subjects, and be familiar with different research communities and methods. It’s a very time-consuming process. And one has to bear the risks of not being recognized by neither communities, or the research is merely on the surface of some disciplines. But such pursuit in itself is rewarding, because by doing so, the research problem is no longer fragmented through a single discipline lens. We see the bigger picture, and do not need to bear the alienation and inauthenticity due to ignoring the human variable in the problem.

What advice would you give to those who are deciding if graduate school is right for them?

The top two beneficial things I obtain from graduate school are:

  1. the support for pursuing personal development and intrinsic interests;
  2. the problem-solving ability acquired by conducting scientific research.

The former is the generator of my self-esteem, vitality, happiness, and well-being, while the latter is the thinking strategy that I can transfer to other problems.

To get most out of the graduate school and make it a push for your career, ask yourself these questions when deciding if graduate school is right for you:

  1. Do I feel autonomy when doing such choices, without any control or being largely influenced by external motives (others’ expectation, degree, money, good job).

  2. Can I feel relatedness in the research lab? Is it a supportive environment for my pursuit of interest, for my enhancement of skills, for me to have freedom in my research decisions?

[Note: this relates to the three psychological needs in self-determination theory: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.]

How did you cope with the transition into grad school?

Soon after I entered SIAT, I was so excited and embracing the new environment. For a while, I got pretty busy fulfilling short-term goals, such as course assignments, conference deadlines, project presentations, scholarship applications, etc. But gradually, I realize I had lost my original interest when replacing some extrinsic goals (such as publications) as my ultimate goals. So when it is the time to decide my thesis research, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then my supervisor Professor Diane Gromala encouraged me to keep a diary on things I am interested in and try to distill the common attributes. I did so, and although it was very slow and difficult (took me almost a year to reach my thesis topic), but in this self-introspective process, I get to approximate my intrinsic interest. I can keep my own pace and goal, thus feel less anxious about the inevitable competition and comparison while I’m in grad school.

What are your future aspirations?

Before joining SIAT, I received my Doctor of Medicine (MD) in Neurology and had worked in both the hospital, the pharmaceutical and technological companies. After experiencing different jobs, I discover that being a researcher in developing AI and HCI (human-computer interaction) technologies for healthcare is the best route for me. Conducting research is a creative activity. Publications to a researcher, is like artworks to an artist, albums to a musician, buildings to an architect, and fictions to a novelist. The inspiration and enlightening I get from reading a great publication, is no less than from reading a fabulous novel, or listening to a remarkable piece of music.

Doing research in the interdisciplinary field of AI, HCI and medicine also meets my interests pretty well. I enjoy the problem-solving process which is a common attribute in research, medicine and programming. I love the human focus in medicine and HCI. For example, my PhD thesis deals with how doctors use AI, and how to design AI for doctor-AI collaboration. I am also very interested in the human mind, that’s why I chose Neurology in the first place as my specialty in medical training. And AI is another approach by reverse engineering the neural network. My thesis is engaged in understanding the decision-making process for both natural intelligence (the doctors) and artificial intelligence, and how can both AI and doctors learn better by explaining.

  1. Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am. Psychol. 55, 68–78 (2000).