Our diverse COSMOS team consists of members from different programs and backgrounds. Some of them are undergraduate students. Others are about getting ready to defend their Ph.D. dissertation. Some live in Little Rock, others take advantage of the UA Little Rock online programs. Because we can learn from one another, we decided to create a new feature called “Team Insights.” Here, we feature student blog posts describing their experiences. The goal is to pass their knowledge on to others. Some of our readers may even be inspired to follow in the tracks of our graduate students.
If there is a topic that you would like to know more about, please let us know. We will gladly post about it.
- Changing Fields: From religious studies to information science
Moving from a humanities discipline as an undergraduate into a STEM field for graduate school was not exactly easy. I am hesitant to recommend this academic trajectory generally, but have found that my undergraduate training in the humanities has been a great source of help, even in a field that seems completely unrelated.
When I first started college, I had no idea what subject I wanted to major in. I had just decided to switch from an out-of-state school, where I had been accepted into their music composition program, to a smaller in-state school after deciding against music composition. In my first semester, I took World Religions, which satisfied a general education requirement I would need regardless of my eventual major. Having grown up in a religiously homogeneous area, I found it exciting to learn about the various religious traditions of the world. One day after class, I asked the instructor about choosing religious studies as a major. His pessimistic response was to pick up a second major in accounting.
In the second semester, I had the opportunity to take another religious studies course for a general education requirement that focused on various religious attitudes on sexuality and violence. The course, titled “Exploring Religion,” was taught by an engaging lecturer who challenged my beliefs and assumptions about the world. The excitement I felt after each lecture motivated me to take another religious studies course the following semester. This pattern continued until I ended up with religious studies as my major and English as my minor.
During my senior year, I had begun a relationship with my future spouse, was playing drums in a band that had recently been signed to a label, and knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was conflicted about what to study. My advisor, the lecturer who got me hooked on religious studies in my second semester, gently suggested that religious studies might not be a prudent choice for graduate school. This was in 2010 when the Great Recession was in full swing, and I was losing my appetite to take the dismal odds on a tenure-track position in a humanities department.
Unsure of what exactly to do, but wanting to do something meaningful, I applied for an AmeriCorps program, City Year, and was accepted. As a result, I spent the next year tutoring students and helping to facilitate an after-school program in a low-income elementary school. My time with AmeriCorps made it apparent to me that there are few, if any, professions more important than being an educator.
At the same time, I was becoming more and more interested in the new technologies that I was hearing about from magazines like Wired. An important topic in religious studies is ethics, and the last course paper I wrote in college dealt with technology and ethics. I felt confident that there would be a growing need for ethicists focused on technology and that my undergraduate training in religious studies lent itself to this direction. Of course, I didn’t know anything about technology. I figured that learning to program would be a good step and started learning a few basics from Codecademy. Trying to combine my interests in religious studies with something vaguely related to technology also helped quell some of my financial anxiety: even if pursuing something related to ethics didn’t work out, at least I would know how to earn a living as a programmer.
By the end of the AmeriCorps program, I was engaged to be married, but I had no clear idea on how I wanted to earn a living. I was lucky enough to find an entry-level position at a health insurance company that offered tuition reimbursement for any undergraduate-level course, including student fees and textbook costs. I got married, worked in a cubicle during the day, and took undergraduate classes in computer science at UA Little Rock in the afternoons and evenings. This arrangement–working full-time and taking classes part-time–lasted for five years, during which I changed jobs several times, from being a programmer at the same health insurance company, to an environmental consulting firm, and to UA Little Rock’s Office of Institutional Research. During this time, I completed the core course requirements that made up the computer science BS, and then started working on a MS.
At some point along the way, I met Dr. Nitin Agarwal after a former computer science faculty suggested that his research interests might align with my own. I agonized about whether to get a MS and try teaching high school computer science (after going through the certification process), or to go for a PhD and try finding a university position. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for the PhD. Starting in Fall 2017, I traded in my salary and benefits for a graduate assistant stipend and haven’t looked back. Despite being in a seemingly unrelated field, I am constantly surprised by how useful my humanities background has been in a computational field.
How my humanities degree has helped me in a STEM field
The greatest strength of a humanities education is the emphasis on critical thinking: questioning ideas and being aware of the contextual nature of most forms of knowledge. In every religious studies or English course I took, students were expected to understand some set of ideas given in readings. Instead of just repeating those ideas and arguments on tests, we were expected to provide our own critiques and interpretations of them, and to offer our own (hopefully) well-reasoned arguments. This kind of critical thinking is not as necessary in computer or information science classes, which instead require more mathematical thinking (though I don’t think these are mutually exclusive). For example, in a computer science class, you do not need to exercise ample critical thinking to understand some algorithm like bubble sort: there is nothing to interpret and nothing to critique; you either understand how bubble sort works, or you don’t. This is because the fundamental objects of study in computational fields are, well, computational, and thus lack ambiguity (I think it’s safe to say that ambiguity is an important ingredient for critical thinking). While an algorithm may be unambiguous, how it’s best applied to answer some research question might be extremely ambiguous, making critical thinking extremely important in a scientific context, where incessant questioning of ideas and interpretations of results is crucial for high quality research.
Importantly, all of this critical thinking work was carried out solely through reading, writing, and discussion. In my humanities courses, I was assigned so much reading that I thought it was unlikely anybody had enough time to stay caught up on it. All of our assignments were in the form of writing. I felt like I was writing essays constantly throughout the entire semester. Final exams always took the form of much larger essays requiring research. As a PhD student, reading and writing are the two most important activities I perform, so having a lot of practice as an undergrad has been a huge help.
Advice for anyone considering changing fields for graduate school
So far, I’ve highlighted the positive side of switching fields between my undergraduate and graduate education. However, there is also a cost to all of this. In my case, I feel the costs have been outweighed by the gains, but this will certainly vary from person to person. Probably the biggest cost will be the additional time it takes you to go from one field to another. While your undergraduate classes in something like philosophy will serve as adequate preparation for the study of law, more drastic changes will likely mean you have a lot to learn before entering your new field. For me, that was four years of post-baccalaureate coursework in computer science and math prior to enrolling in a MS program. If I had studied computer science instead of religious studies earlier on, I could have started graduate school a lot sooner (and thus be further along the career path). Additionally, if you majored in X, but are applying to graduate school in Y, you will have to convince admissions committees that you are not just extremely indecisive; that there is a good reason for your switching fields and that there is some continuity between your past experiences and your future goals.
Some costs may not be as big of a deal if you are interested in finishing your education with a master’s degree. The stakes are generally higher if you are going to pursue a PhD, so any possible costs associated with switching fields should probably be weighted more heavily. For example, given the time a PhD program takes to complete, the time costs of switching fields may end up being fairly substantial: I started college 12 years ago, was only unenrolled for two of those years, and will likely have at least three more years until I finish.
If you are considering a PhD, regardless of whether or not you are switching fields, it is critical that you know exactly why you want a PhD. A PhD program is training in a very specific vocational activity: research. If you think you may want to do something other than research, a PhD is a horrible life choice, given the time and effort required. If your goal is to work at a university, it’s worth knowing that the academic job market is highly competitive. Universities are increasingly relying on underpaid adjunct instructors and state spending on higher education is pretty poor with funding still below pre-recession levels in most cases. If you’re in a field like computer and information sciences, the upshot is that you can probably bail on research and academia altogether and still find a decent job, though you will have wasted several years that could have been spent earning an income.
But if you’re determined to go for it, then having a broad range of prior experience and knowledge will be helpful. Even if you were in a STEM field as an undergraduate and will remain in a STEM field in graduate school, you should have taken lots of humanities courses for your general education requirements, giving you the critical thinking, reading, and writing skills I mentioned previously. Some schools are limiting the general education requirements for certain students, and that is something to be aware of. For example, if you are in a STEM major, your school may have fewer humanities courses required for your degree. However, this is not really a good thing. Try to take as many humanities courses as you can without delaying graduation. It may even be worth considering a minor in a humanities subject to complement your STEM education more substantially. Also be aware of taking courses that, while traditionally offered in humanities departments, are increasingly being offered in non-humanities departments. For example, business colleges are a great place for learning about business, but I would feel much better taking an ethics class from a philosophy department.
Finally, I highly recommend reading books about writing or academia in general. Two of my favorites thus far are The Scientist’s Guide to Writing by Stephen Heard and The Professor is In by Karen Kelsky.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Zach is a Ph.D. student in the information science track of the computer and information sciences program. He completed a BA with a major in religious studies and a minor in English from the University of Central Arkansas in 2010. Since then, he has worked at a health insurance company, an environmental consulting firm, and at UA Little Rock’s Office of Institutional Research before becoming a graduate research assistant in the Fall of 2017. His research interests include complex systems, natural language processing, network science, and information theory. He also has a smaller interest in the philosophy of science. His goal after graduation is to become a professor.
- From Master’s to PhD: When A Research Interest Gets You Hooked
When I began my studies at UA Little Rock, pursuing a PhD degree was not even on my radar. During the last year of my master’s studies, I joined Dr. Agarwal‘s team and started learning about malicious social bots and the dangers they pose to society. Believe it or not, I truly enjoyed exploring this area of research. Dr. Agarwal advised me to explore the PhD program. I spoke to my family about my decision to pursue a higher degree and they couldn’t be more proud. My mother said, “You will be the first PhD in our family and you have my full support. It is a huge commitment and I hope you are successful. Your father would have been very proud!”
By now, I am a second-year doctoral student who has published two papers. A common challenge that people might face during their studies is frustration. Sometimes, you may feel down when you don’t think you are progressing as quickly as you think you should. It is a long term commitment and there might be times when you may second guess your career choice. The key is to stay positive and work hard. Explore your options, choose one or two specific research interests and work your way up. Dr. Agarwal was always been there for me whenever I worried about not being productive. He would always advise me to use my time wisely and think about it as a learning experience. It helped me immensely!
COSMOS is one of the best teams I have been a part of. Everyone is highly focused, intelligent and extremely kind. I have collaborated with my team members on projects and other activities. No one is a slacker. We also get together outside of work and have lots of fun playing sports, working out, and having barbecues on holidays.
The PhD program is a path I chose to learn and sharpen my skills so that I am ready to face anything without fear after I graduate. Networking is part of it. When our research is accepted and presented at social media conferences, we are not only able to showcase our work, but also interact with renowned researchers and social scientists. These contacts will benefit us in the future. I think it is great to be able to find a field you really enjoy and be fortunate enough to pursue a career in it.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
After graduating with her master’s degree from UA Little Rock in December of 2017, Tuja decided to continue her education and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree.
Tuja began her education at UA Little Rock as an exchange student in the Fall of 2013 and became a full-time student a year later. She graduated in May of 2015.
Her research interests include social media data mining and bots.
- The Road to becoming a PhD: Advice from a doctoral candidate
Briefly, introducing myself here. I am Kiran Kumar Bandeli, a doctoral candidate in Information Science and work with COSMOS as a Graduate Research Assistant. I am part of several research and development projects. I am in a phase where I am working on my dissertation proposal. I am hopeful that I can graduate at the end of spring or summer 2019.
So, what do I do in the COSMOS lab? I can definitely say, I wear several hats as part of my work schedule. One such role is Teaching Assistant (TA) for Dr. Agarwal’s courses, where I switch gears from being a student to being a teaching assistant.
As part of the TA role, my responsibilities are to either to teach a topic to students or to grade their assignments. I have always enjoyed teaching and along the same lines I aspire to become a professor upon completion of my PhD program. I always felt I belong in the teaching world. It gives me immense pleasure to introduce students to new topics and clarify any doubts that the students might have. I feel that the duties of a TA is a two way learning street. I, too, have gained a deeper understanding of the topics that I have taught. Discussions on various topics with the class has also helped me grow intellectually. Overall, TA duties have helped me learn concepts related to a subject and then be able to quickly deliver the knowledge gained to the students.
Talking about the COSMOS group, it has always helped me in learning and sharing the knowledge about research in the social network analysis field. I personally feel that the experience at COSMOS has been a key to improving my technical skills and using them to solve research problems in projects we work. Also, particularly a mentor like Dr. Agarwal, with the immense knowledge in social media research has helped me become better with time in understanding research itself and what it takes to become a good PhD. I still remember the first article that I wrote with Dr. Agarwal on fake news research. It was only his help and motivation that led to the publication in the NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence publication. Working on my first paper, I was exposed to so many tools and the expertise of Dr. Agarwal helped tackle research questions at hand.
If I were to give suggestions on pursuing a PhD, here is some advice:
- Read, read and read more. I hope I can copy this sentence from my advisor. It’s a key skill for a good PhD.
- Early awareness. Talk to your seniors and mentor. This is key in knowing the expectations for a PhD and helps you sort any confusions you might have which could be ranging from “what topic to work on” to “skills needed to achieve the set goal”.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Kiran is a Ph.D. candidate in Information Science department currently working on narrative analysis. He joined the COSMOS team the summer of 2017 as a research student. His interests include social computing and network analysis. He aspires to become a professor after he graduates.
Kiran enjoys playing cricket, and whenever he gets a chance he enjoys spending time with his family especially with his newborn. His hobbies include going to the gym, swimming and soccer.
- Hackathons: A fun and challenging learning experience
My name is Michael DiCicco. I’m a junior here at UA Little Rock majoring in Information Science, a Technical Assistant at the UA Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, and a Research Assistant at COSMOS. What little spare time I have is spent traveling around the country participating in 24-hour long competitions called “hackathons”. Not that kind of hack, think lifehack + marathon.
The hackathons I participate in are generally sponsored by the company Major League Hacking, and their current schedules are posted on their website https://mlh.io. MLH hackathons are really great because they accommodate participants of all skill levels. They are catered offering delicious food and caffeine, some offer travel reimbursement, and best of all there are no entry fees. MLH hackathons use a service called Devpost to submit projects to judgment categories, and to track teams.
These hackathons are simultaneously the most fun and most stressful events I’ve ever participated in. The main idea of a hackathon is that you come with an idea for an application and then you have 24 hours to build and demonstrate a prototype. The first hackathon I participated in was Crimson Hacks 2017 at the University of Alabama. Fellow Cosmographer Karen Watts and I drove the seven hours to Tuscaloosa with no ideas for what to build and no real idea how to even build an application. Once we got there we decided that we would just take advantage of the classes they were offering to newbies and be satisfied with that; however, what ended up happening was that we met two students named Mcclain and Andrew who had an idea for an application. The four of us learned so much in that span of 24 hours it was unreal. By the time the dust settled, our application “Atrocious Apartments” had won best use of Amazon Web Services.
Whenever I tell someone about going to a hackathon their response is invariably “I don’t know how to build an application”, well neither did we. Karen and I had some basic programming, basic web design, and in my case intermediate Linux skill. With that we were able to take crime data and apartment listings from a public repository and feed it into a website that displayed the information on a map for students looking for safe housing. One of the lessons we learned is not to get bogged down in the details at the start, just break everything down into bite-sized chunks and it will fall into place.
If you are thinking of participating in a hackathon, you really should. They have classes to build skills, they submit your resume to their sponsors, the judges are often headhunting talent for their companies, and they have various prize categories ranging from best domain name to best application for social good. The best part is that you learn so much more during those 24 hours because of the competitive aspect than you would any other way and that new knowledge, experience, and confidence is absolutely priceless.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Michael represented UA Little Rock at CrimsonHacks 2017 and 2018 at the University of Alabama and won for best use of AWS. His team has represented the UA Little Rock Information Science department at the JOLT! Hackathon, Shell on the Border 2018 and HackHLTH in Las Vegas in May 2018.
- Determination: A Return Ticket to UA Little Rock
As the Fall semester has reached its third week, we thought it is time to introduce you to one of our newest additions. He has been reintroduced to UA Little Rock after graduating and returning to France.
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I often get asked why I chose to leave France, my home country, and move to Little Rock. It seems strange to some people. Why move away from the “European dream” and a less stressful way of life? Not to forget the rich history and beautiful sights! Turns out, these don’t mean much if you don’t feel fulfilled and believe you are not living the life you really want to live.
Before graduating with a Master’s degree from UA Little Rock, I did not have a plan. At that time, I was an exchange student here in Arkansas. The idea was to stay in Little Rock for one semester and then to return to France in order to finish my undergraduate degree at the Université d’Orléans. I had never expected to enjoy my time here as much as I did. The experience motivated me to stay longer. So, after much negotiation, I was allowed to extend my stay for one whole year. Even crazier was getting to go back two more years for my Masters. It was no easy task, but I had made up my mind to return to pursue my studies at UA Little Rock.
It marked the beginning of my most hectic summer. I had enrolled in the program past the due date, was reaching out to every possible faculty member on campus for help and guidance. Nevertheless, I received my visa barely a week before my scheduled flight to the USA from France. Thankfully, I was accepted into the program which would not have been possible without the help from efficient people helping international students at UA Little Rock.
Fast-forward, with my Master’s degree in hand, confident that I was done with school, I did what seemed safe and took a plane back home to look for the ideal job. I was taught that was the whole point of education, after all. Many emails and applications later, I utilized my skills working on accounting software. It was an unfulfilling 9-to-5 job. I wanted to pursue a different path. I don’t regret the experience one bit. I was very happy with the company and the community and have met many great people who taught me a lot. But still, something didn’t feel right. It helped me realize I still had work ahead of me to build the life I truly wanted.
As I shared the idea of coming back to UA Little Rock with the friends I met during my time on campus, they encouraged me to apply to become part of COSMOS and come back as a graduate assistant. After a flight to Little Rock and meeting with Dr. Agarwal, I was in. I still remember how happy and relieved I was just walking out of my interview and receiving my offer letter a few days later. I could actually come back.
As a PhD student at COSMOS, I get to work on cutting-edge technology with people from all over the world and all walks of life while having the freedom to make my own schedule and dedicate time to my education and personal development.
Today, I feel grateful every day simply being here. Even just walking to work. I feel grateful for the opportunity I was given at COSMOS and always look forward to giving back and contributing to the growth of the lab. I often think back on the efforts it took me to get here and I appreciate the simple fact that I was able to do it.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Thomas graduated from UA Little Rock with an MS degree and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in Information Science. His interests include machine learning and information visualization.
- Stand out!
Please allow me to introduce myself to you; I am Rita Chowdhury a full-time, second-year MBA student at the UA Little Rock College of Business and a Graduate Research Assistant at COSMOS – a research team in the Department of Information Science. Apart from that I am currently a student member of the Joe T. Ford Investment Fund at the College of Business. Many a time the introduction makes way for numerous questions. Much like why am I in an Information Science research team? What might I be doing? How did I make it to the team? Do I have an engineering undergraduate degree?
If truth be told, I enjoy fielding such questions. It allows me to share my journey and reinforce the importance of working in a different department altogether.
It also confirms my belief in diversity and inclusion. However, I should warn you that ‘diversity’ in this context is not limited to race, color or ethnicity but extends to students who have a diverse educational background like myself who has an undergraduate degree in Political Science (Honors) and a master’s degree in Communications. The only relationship that I might have with Information Science or the technology industry is that I worked for several years in an agency managing technology clients in the South Asian markets.
My journey to COSMOS started in the Fall of 2017 when I read several articles which highlighted some of the amazing research work Team COSMOS was pursuing in the social media arena. It tickled me to write to Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Director of COSMOS, and express my enthusiasm to join his team. Little did I know that I had set the ball in motion with my email to Dr. Agarwal. A few months later, I was called for an interview and the rest, as they say, is history. I formally joined the team in December 2017.
It has been a fantastic run so far. Let me share with you the two most important characteristics that got me here:
Always stay curious: It was my curiosity to learn and to collaborate that lead me to the graduate research assistantship at COSMOS. The universe acts in a very wonderful way when you stay curious. Curiosity to learn manifests opportunities.
Challenge yourself with a new industry: It’s always very comforting to be able to work with people who share similar backgrounds with you. They understand your skill sets, understand your role in the team; in short, these people get you and there is no denying we all crave for such kind of work environment. Joining COSMOS was definitely a new domain for me. Students who came from a different educational background and most pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the field of Information Science, but at this point I would like to applaud the vision of our director Dr. Nitin Agarwal who was willing to expand the team beyond just information science. Through this opportunity I have opened up myself to new learning possibilities and also allowed others to learn a little bit about myself. Today I understand what goes on behind our modern, sassy technology and perhaps understand the disposition of the people working in this field a little better than I did earlier.
Like Dr. Suess says “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Rita is an MBA student at the UA Little Rock – College of Business.
She juggles her time as Graduate Research Assistant with COSMOS,
a full-time student, and a mom.
- Student Blogs: A Tool to Keep You on Track
Several years ago, I heard of UA Little Rock for the first time. My husband was working closely with Dr. Agarwal on social network analysis research. The work caught my interest and the possibility of earning my doctoral degree through UA Little Rock’s online program got me hooked. Yes, it took some time to get all my ducks in a row by preparing for the GRE, getting all required documents and then actually applying for my PhD, but when the acceptance email arrived, I was thrilled.
Fast forward a few months: I am ready to start my second semester. A few more are down the road. Knowing how busy my life is and how many commitments I have, I knew that I needed something to keep me on track. This is where the blog came in. You see, I at least try to be as organized as possible. I juggle. I wear many hats. There is the hat of a student, the sparkly one of a wife, the colorful one with polka dots and some crumbs of a mom and the heart-shaped hat of a volunteer. These are just some. Finding balance and staying on track can sometimes be challenging, so when Dr. Agarwal suggested creating a blog, I first thought: Something else to keep track of, but I then thought about it some more.
A blog will allow me to track my progress. When I feel that my battery is running a little low, I can always go back to it, review my progress and use it as motivation to keep on going. I have to admit, right now, my blog does not feature many posts – at least not yet, but my PhD studies journey is still in its youth. In order to keep you focused and on track, I highly recommend to create one as well.
There are many blog services you may take advantage of:
Here is a link to various options: https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/how-to-choose-the-best-blogging-platform
Many blog platforms are also free:
Personal Blog Platform Choice
My blog is a WordPress site hosted by BlueHost. A domain name was included in the fees I paid, but you can always chose a different hosting company. There are some free options (Wix, Weebly). You can also purchase a domain with GoDaddy and use their hosting, but you don’t even have to have your own domain. The options are almost endless.
Because of my interest in social media and social cyber security, I decided to create a Facebook page as well. The Facebook page features links to my blog posts. You can use various social media platforms to promote your blog content on. Some students may prefer to create a seperate social media presence for their work instead of using their personal accounts. It is a personal preference.
About our COSMOS student blogger:
Katrin Galeano is a PhD student at UA Little Rock. She majors in Computers and Information Science with a research interests in support of the US Army OPSEC program. Her background is in strategic communications for non-profit and government organizations.
You can find her blog at www.ThePhDBalance.com.