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Thinking deep thoughts, helping others, and traveling the world: The perks of a career in research

Oliver Haimson, 2011 i3 Scholar

Oliver Haimson is emblematic of just how full-circle the i3 program can get. In 2011, Haimson was part of the first i3 cohort. Today, he is researching human-computer interaction, completing a PhD at the iSchool at UC Irvine, and traveling the world to present papers at conferences. This year he advised one of the 2014 i3 research teams and oversaw the team’s poster presentation at iConference 2016.

But go back in time, and you’ll see a different Haimson – one who was unsure about his future in academia, and in which career he might even wind up. A student at Carnegie Mellon University, Haimson was studying economics – a degree he chose out of what he saw as “a combination of humanities and business.” What he didn’t realize was that it was a foundation that would almost certainly lead to a future in finance or banking – a future that Haimson had no interest in. Equally without interest was the research being done in the field – Haimson saw many of his colleagues completing research that didn’t incite passion or excitement in him. He began to consider a PhD in the same field, but those futures were equally unappealing.

“I knew some of the PhD students who were in economics at CMU,” says Haimson, “and they didn’t seem particularly content. They seemed very overwhelmed, and it also seemed like there weren't too many jobs in the area. It didn't feel like the best option – and an economics PhD is all about math and proofs. Not the most exciting thing for me. It just didn't seem like a life that I wanted. So really it wasn't until i3 that I was seriously considering grad school, and figuring out what the application process was like, what the different schools were, where I wanted to apply.”

Oliver’s summer at i3 began widening his perspectives. He grew more curious when his research team at i3 was formed, and they were given the opportunity to start asking questions about what they, themselves, were interested in – specifically, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and how social movements happen on social media. Haimson had to wonder if the researchers he knew at CMU found the topic as compelling as the researchers he was meeting through i3.

“In economics at least, people are really interested in the problems that involve the most money. There's certain issues that are considered more ‘worthy’ of research because they involve a lot of people, or a lot of different countries’ economies; and the type of research I was interested in really applied to much fewer people, or people who had less money. It just wasn't thought of as valid. But at i3, the project that my group ended up doing was about Occupy Wall Street and social movements on social media – that's the kind of project that if I had brought that up to some of the Economics faculty they probably would responded with, ‘Well, I don't know if that's an important problem to look at.’ Someone actually did tell me that Occupy Wall Street is not worth studying – but it’s an economic issue! It's Wall Street! But at i3, that was seen as an important thing to study, as a valid thing to study – and especially to study it from the information practices around it rather than the economic practices around it.”

With the validation that his ideas and passions were worth researching, Haimson began to seriously research the potential for a PhD. He remarks back on how impactful i3 was on inspiring this decision, saying how “There was this real attitude of, You can do this! No one had really said that to me before. Yeah, you can get a PhD. You can be a researcher. I knew it was an option, because my partner at the time was doing a PhD at the time in humanities – a very different kind of PhD – but I didn't really know that it was an option for me. I was in this field of economics that just wasn't the best fit for me, and I just didn't really know what I wanted to do.”

As he entered his PhD program, his entire view on academia began to change scope. “It’s so exciting to see the breadth of different research topics,” Haimson remarks. “There are lots of people who are working on really interesting things that are all tied together by this idea of information and how to manage it, and how to use technology to address issues.”

Haimson has also begun to see how his work can begin to genuinely help people, not just in his personal research, but in his field of human-computer interaction and information science at large.

“I think that is a big focus of information science – at least the part of it that is interesting to me – and which I think a lot of people at i3 tend to care about. That's just in contrast, again, to economics to that idea of Where's the money? I really get a sense that in information science, people care about helping people. There's a lot of focus on accessibility and digital divide and these types of things.”

Today, Haimson spends his time reading, writing, and teaching. “I'm done with coursework at this point, so I no longer need to be in class at certain times. But the first few years, your schedule is just determined by when you have class. Now, I don't have class but I have a lot of weekly meetings – my advisor, my research groups, and then a couple of undergrads who work with me on research projects, and then I have teaching.”

He does note that a PhD leaves little time for a healthy work/life balance – something he thinks every graduate student needs to take seriously. “Writing generally doesn't happen until evening though, which is one of the issues with work/life balance – I would love to just be done with things at a certain point in the evening and just relax. Lately, that hasn't happened much because I have a lot of deadlines for papers and other things.”

With his coursework now completed for his PhD, Haimson is also a wealth of information for students who are both currently in their program, as well as those who are seeking a graduate program to call their own.

“One of the best pieces of advice that I got was to choose programs based on a potential advisor, or someone you'd want to work with in a particular program, rather than just the reputation of the school or its location. That's probably the most important piece of why I'm here, is because I have an amazing advisor who is a really good fit,” Haimson suggests.

“For people who are applying now, they should make sure that there's not just one person but at least a couple people who they'd want to work with – people always can, and do, end up leaving or moving to different universities. I really think an important part is the people who are at a particular program, and that goes for the students, too. When deciding where to go to grad school, making campus visits is really important – not only do you get a sense of what the environment is like, but you really get a sense of what the faculty are like there, what the students are like, if they're happy. What your physical working space would be like – all of these things that will wind up being pretty important.”

Haimson also sees writing as one of the most powerful tools in the graduate student’s powerhouse. “I was able to start writing research papers right away – I was able to publish in my first year. I would really urge people to start writing, even if you don't think that you're ready to be a published author yet, at least start a project and try to get some sort of paper written in your first year. It might not get published – it's very difficult to actually get things accepted – but I think at least conducting a research project right away, writing something up, it's all just such a learning experience. I think that's something people should get started on sooner rather than later so that they can learn and grow as researchers.”

With 5 years of experience under his belt since i3, Haimson is now giving back to the community which started it all for him. He advised a team from the 2014 cohort, helping them with their research and paper – as well as seeing them accepted to iConference. He remembers the experience as both challenging and immensely rewarding.

“It's hard – you want to just trust that they're going to get stuff done, but these are undergrads! Sometimes they're not the most self-motivated,” he says fondly. “I was probably pushing them too hard sometimes, but I was so pleased with what came out of their project. They really pulled it together, and did a really cool project. Their presentation was awesome – and just to see these people who started out at the beginning of the year not being researchers at all, just being students. To see them through a year's time become researchers is just such an incredible experience.”

Haimson has brought this same level of mentorship to UC Irvine, too. “I just think about all the people who helped me out when I didn't know anything about research, and I just like to give that back. And for newer graduate students, I'm trying to start a few projects with some of the newer PhD students in our program. When I first came here, I had someone who was a more senior student and who wrote my first few papers with me, and so now I'm at the point where I'm a little more senior and I am trying to give back some of what I got before.”

And conferences? "I am going to all the conferences this year," he says with a laugh. "There are three main ones that I try to go to every year – one of them is iConference. This year I was a student-volunteer co-chair, so I'm helped to organize all the student volunteers for the conference. It was a lot of work but such a great learning experience. I'm also going to the CHI conference, the human-computer interaction conference, in San Jose. And then there's another one called CSCW which is in San Francisco this year. Those are the three that I really try to target every year."

Haimson has also been pleasantly surprised at some of the perks he’s received with being a PhD in his field. All the writing he’s completed has earned him several papers, which have been published by a number of conferences.

“That's one of the things that I didn't realize when I first came to grad school, I had no idea that I'd get to travel to the extent that I do. A lot of the venues that I publish at are conferences instead of journals, so they still count as publications but you actually get to go and present your paper in person. I've gotten to go to Seoul, South Korea to present a paper, to Vancouver, to iConference in Germany. I had no idea that I would get to go to all these places.”

But if a few years of research, a complicated work/life balance, tremendous amounts of writing, teaching, and an amazingly diverse field sounds ambiguous to you, then let Haimson sell it one last time.

“Before grad school I had been to Canada and that was it. If I had known that this was what grad school would be like, I would have been like, Sign me up.”