Introduction to Graduate Research (Fall 2023)

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Introduction to Graduate Research (in TSB and MTS)
Media, Technology & Society (MTS) 501
Wednesdays 2-4:50pm CT
Frances Searle Building, Room 3-417
Fall 2023
Northwestern University
Course websites
Canvas for announcements, submitting assignments, and some files.
Zoom for any remote, synchronous course events, including remote guest speaker visits.
This wiki page for nearly everything else.
Instructor: Aaron Shaw (
Office Hours: M/F 2-3:30pm CT and/or by appointment
Please signup for office hours appointments (and check that page for details).
Taking a broad view on research careers (Image: NASA, 1968, Public domain)

Course information[edit]

Overview and learning objectives[edit]

The goal of this seminar is to introduce first-year students in the MTS and TSB Ph.D. programs to (1) foundational and current research in these fields, and (2) key challenges involved in pursuing an impactful, responsible, and fulfilling research career.

Throughout the quarter, participants in the seminar will:

  • Engage with program faculty and their research (influences).
  • Discuss and assess various aspects of research career practices and strategies.
  • Develop and apply your own effective research career development strategies.

We will do this through a combination of readings, writings, activities, in-class discussions, and guest visits from TSB and MTS program faculty.

Structure, topics, and themes[edit]

The course has two main components that will be woven together in weekly class sessions: a survey of research involving TSB and MTS program faculty and an instructional seminar focused on challenges related to professional development. The course will proceed through weekly in-person seminar meetings and activities/assignments conducted outside of class time.

The class sessions will be structured around one research domain and one professional development challenge. Every week, we will host 1-2 faculty guest speakers working in the research domain and engage with their recent research as well as some of the work that has influenced them. We will also pursue readings, discussions, and written assignments related to the professional development challenge.

For our guest speakers, we might open with the following questions/prompts:

  • Please tell us your "concise" (academic?) biography" (3 minutes or less?).
  • Could you share something important to you or about you that we might not know or expect?
  • What stands out in your memory of your first year as a Ph.D. student?
  • What do you work on these days?
  • How does the piece of research you shared fit into your career and/or a broader research agenda?
  • Please tell us about the relationship of your research to the work that influenced you that you shared with us.
  • Please tell us about your approach to the professional development challenge we are discussing today.

In addition to the professional development challenges that we will discuss each week, there will also be some major themes throughout the course, including:

  • Ethics (especially of research and design).
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and their opposites.
  • "The two cultures" and other ways of knowing
  • Research institutions and institutional legacies
  • Windows of opportunity. Career leverage points, strategy, tactics.
  • Interdisciplinarity (or maybe anti-disciplinarity?) as a way of life.


Assignments fall into two categories: weekly and final. Details about both categories appear below. In general, I ask that you submit any written work as a PDF via Canvas. There are no specific style guidelines or formatting requirements for written work. I recommend a clear, professional, and conversational tone in your writing. I also recommend you familiarize yourself with salient principles on academic integrity, including the appropriate attribution of sources. Please submit written work in a readable (size 11 or greater) font. Please include your name somewhere (prominent) in the document that you submit as well as your last name at the beginning of the filename (e.g., "Shaw-mts501-week1-assignment.pdf").

Weekly assignments[edit]

The course schedule (below) provides details of weekly assignments as well as links to materials and Canvas pages required to complete them. In general, weekly assignments are due Mondays at 6pm U.S. central time in order to allow time for review of (and sometimes feedback on) your submitted materials ahead of our class session. Weekly assignments include readings, activities, written work, and discussion provocations.

Readings: I expect you to read all of the items under the readings subheading for each week. This includes recent publications shared by our faculty guest speakers. The Files page of our Canvas site also contains copies of faculty guest speakers' CVs and you should read these as well. In many weeks, there are additional recommended reading materials provided (these are not required). Finally, many (all?) of our faculty guests will share a key influential text with us ahead of their visit. These influential texts are further recommended (not required) reading.

Activities and written work will consist of...writing and related activities. For activities that involve collaboration or conversation with colleagues, it is up to you to coordinate any meeting times, places, or communication channels as needed. For written work, please submit a PDF via Canvas and please use a readable (size 11 or greater) font. There are no specific style guidelines or formatting requirements for written work. Please include your name somewhere (prominent) in the document that you submit as well as your last name at the beginning of the filename (e.g., "Shaw-mts501-week1-assignment.pdf"). In general, please submit written assignments via the corresponding Canvas assignment by 6pm U.S. central time Monday ahead of class (i.e., submit assignments on Monday 9/25 for the Wednesday 9/27 class session).

Discussion provocations are your chance to draw our collective attention to topics of your choosing each week and influence the content of our class sessions. In addition to the weekly readings and assignments listed below, I ask everyone to submit a discussion provocation every week we have a class meeting (with the exception of Week 1). Please take this as an invitation and opportunity to shape our conversation in class! Maybe there's something that excites, enrages, or confuses you in something we read. Maybe you really want to ask one of our faculty guests about something you discover in the publication they circulate or their CV. Whatever the case, please limit your provocations to about 250 words (or so) and submit them via the corresponding Canvas Discussion by 6pm U.S. central time each Monday (i.e., submit provocations on Monday 9/25 for the Wednesday 9/27 class session).

Final project[edit]

Detailed description of final projects

Final projects are due via Canvas at 12pm (Central time) on December 4, 2023. The final project for the course will be a 5,000 word (approximately) written document consisting of two parts: (1) a strategic plan for your graduate school career and (2) a research plan for an empirical and/or design project you aim to conduct in the coming year+. Additional details here.

Grading and assessment[edit]

I will assign grades (usually a numeric integer between 0-10) for each of the following aspects of your performance in the course. For each aspect, grades start with the maximum possible value (10) and only decrease in the event of a specific failure to complete assignment(s) or meet some element of the relevant assessment rubric (more on those below). Weekly assignments are graded on a complete/incomplete basis. The percentage values are weights that will be applied to calculate your overall grade for the course.

  • Weekly participation: 35%
  • Weekly assignments: 40%
  • Final assignment: 25%

For detailed assessment rubrics that I use to derive grades for all assignments, please see my page on assessment.


General course policies[edit]

General policies on a wide variety of topics including classroom equity, attendance, academic integrity, accommodations, late assignments, and more are provided on Aaron's class policies page. Northwestern also provides a raft of current/official syllabus policy statements (and in the event that Aaron's personal/course policies diverge from these, the Northwestern ones generally take precedence, so please review them). Below are some policy statements specific to this course and quarter.

Expectations for class sessions[edit]

I ask that everyone participating in the class endeavor to help create: a supportive, welcoming, inclusive, and respectful environment for teaching and learning. We can talk about what this means in our first session.

Our classes are long and we will aim to take a 10-15 minute break after the first hour(ish), during which time you are very much encouraged to leave the room, stretch your legs, walk around outside, etc. Please return a few minutes prior to 3:30pm as we will host guest speakers during the second half of class and it's important that we respect their time.

Remote participation[edit]

In the event that you find yourself participating in class remotely for any reason, here are suggested protocols for any video/audio participation:

  • Please mute your microphone whenever you're not speaking and learn to use "push-to-talk" if/when possible.
  • Video is optional for all students at all times, although if you're willing/able to keep an instructor/visitor company in the video channel that is appreciated.
  • If you need to excuse yourself at any time and for any reason you may do so.
  • Children, family, pets, roommates, and others with whom you may share your home/workspace are welcome to join your video as needed, but please do your best to minimize distractions and disruptions to the course.

Syllabus revisions[edit]

This syllabus will be a dynamic document that will evolve throughout the quarter. Although the core expectations are fixed, the details will shift. As a result, please keep in mind the following:

  1. Assignments and readings are frozen 1 week before they are due. I will not add readings or assignments less than one week before they are due. If I forget to add something or fill in a "To Be Determined" less than one week before it's due, it is dropped. If you plan to read or work more than one week ahead, contact me first.
  2. Substantial changes to the syllabus or course materials will be announced. Please monitor your email for Canvas messages about changes. Also, whenever I make changes, these changes will be recorded in the edit history of this page so that you can track what has changed.
  3. The course design may adapt throughout the quarter. As usual (for me at least), I may iterate and prototype course design elements rapidly along the way. To this end, I will ask you for voluntary feedback — especially toward the beginning of the quarter. Please let me know what is working and what can be improved. In the past, I have made many adjustments based on this feedback and I expect to do so again.

Additional resources/readings[edit]

Throughout the quarter, we will undoubtedly generate a long list of related topics, readings, videos, memes, etc.

Please add things to that list here

Schedule (with all the details)[edit]

Week 1: 9.20[edit]

Session plan

Challenge: What is a Ph.D. program (or a university for that matter) and what do I do with it?

Bonus challenge: How to read in graduate school

Guests: TSB and MTS Directors of Graduate Studies

  • Claudio Benzecry (CV)
  • Nick Diakopoulos (CV)


Recommended readings[edit]

Week 2: 9.27[edit]

Session plan

Challenge: What do you work on? Finding and framing research questions, puzzles, problems, and challenges


  • Duri Long (CV)
  • Jeremy Birnholtz (CV)


Recommended readings[edit]

Written work and activities[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation via Canvas (by 6pm on Monday 9/25).

2. Research puzzle: Draft a paragraph that presents a research idea, project, or interest of yours as a puzzle. Submit it via Canvas (by 6pm on Monday 9/25) and please also print a copy of it and bring it with you to class.

Week 3: 10.04[edit]

Session plan

Challenge: Who do you work with? Cultivating effective mentoring relationships and collaborations


  • Nathan Walter (CV)


Written work and activities[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation.

2. Advising reflection: Write a brief (~500-800 word?) reflection on your advising relationship thus far. Be sure to address the following:

  • What elements of a positive advising/mentoring relationship (identified in the readings or not) strike you as particularly important to cultivate with your faculty advisor?
  • Assess your current advising relationship with respect to the elements you identify as most important (and others, if you wish).
  • Articulate a plan for how you propose to improve and/or sustain a positive advising/mentoring relationship with your faculty advisor.
  • Identify other potential sources of mentoring and support that can complement this plan.

3. Collaboration interview + reflection: Find a more advanced graduate student who has published at least one paper with at least one coauthor (may be their advisor or not). Conduct a short (30 minutes or so?) open-ended interview using the questions below as a guide. Make sure to take notes (or record the conversation with permission). Write up the key findings from your interview in about 500-800 words. Be sure to emphasize any key takeaways or insights that you found especially new, surprising, or confusing.

  • How were responsibilities divided in this collaboration (who was responsible for what)?
  • How were decisions made about who would be responsible for what?
  • How did you and your collaborator(s) manage your work across different stages of the project (from research design through data collection, analysis, writing up, reference management, peer review, and publication/dissemination)?
  • What social/technical systems did you use to manage your work across different stages of the project?
  • What went well in this collaboration?
  • What would you change next time you collaborate (with the same coauthor(s) or others)?

4. Submit both written texts via Canvas. (Due Monday, October 2 6pm CT)

5. Exchange and discuss written submissions with a partner (to-be assigned in class on September 27). Note that you should exchange writings and meet outside class to discuss each others' perspectives before we meet this week. Please also note that our class discussion in class will begin with report-outs from the small group discussions. If you would like discussion prompts, here are some ideas:

  • What did you notice about each other's reflections on advising and collaboration?
  • Were there any common threads? Any (surprising) divergences?
  • What takeaways do you have about advising/mentoring and collaboration based on these exercises?
  • What questions do you have about advising/mentoring and collaboration based on these exercises?

Recommended readings[edit]

Week 4: 10.11[edit]

Session plan

Challenge: Where does the money come from? Finding funding and support for your work


  • Yingdan Lu (CV)


Recommended readings[edit]

Written work and activities[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation.

2. Fellowship (Grant) applications: Develop a draft fellowship application research statement modeled on the requirements and criteria for the U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (more commonly known as the NSF GRFP). We will then conduct a round of peer feedback on these statements.

  • Draft a Graduate Research Plan Statement consistent with the NSF requirements and recommendations for GRFP applicants.
    • The maximum length of the Graduate Research Plan Statement is two (2) pages. These page limits include all references, citations, charts, figures, images, and lists of publications and presentations. Times New Roman font for all text, Cambria Math font for equations, Symbol font for non-alphabetic characters (it is recommended that equations and symbols be inserted as an image), no smaller than 11-point, except text that is part of an image. Note that the NSF asks statements be no more than 2 pages, size 11 font.
    • Submit your statement via Canvas.
  • Conduct a round of peer feedback with at least one other person in the class. I'll randomly assign pairings to facilitate this, but you are welcome to seek additional feedback (and I recommend you do whenever you plan to develop an actual fellowship or grant application!). It is often helpful to get input from people with some overlapping expertise/interests as well as people who know nearly nothing about your proposed area of research.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 5: 10.18[edit]

Challenge: How do you get things done? Creating and practicing sustainable work routines


  • Erik Nisbet (CV)


Recommended readings[edit]

Written work and activities[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation

2. Time diary exercise:

  • Keep a time diary for two work days prior to this week's class. Your time diary should record information about what you do when (including non-work things). Format/record the information however you like (here's one example and a short overview).
  • Write a ~300-500 word reflection on what you learn (or not?) from your time diary. How did you spend your time? How much of it was work-related? How would you categorize how you spent your work time (e.g., faculty might categorize their work in terms of teaching, research, service)? What research and workflow tools do you use to perform your work? How typical were these days for you? What changes do you anticipate/plan in the future? What challenges or problems can you identify in your existing work habits/workflow and how will you address them?
  • Upload your reflection to Canvas.
  • In the small groups below, swap reflections (swapping time diaries is not required!), and hold a meeting in which you discuss each other's work habits, workflow, time use, tool use, and just about anything else that comes up.
    • Aidan Fitzsimmons + Jessi Zier
    • Sara Abdulla + Haohan Shi + Lizzie Li
    • Yanling Zhao + Molly de Blanc
    • Annie Chu + Savanna Kerstiens
    • Sky E + Charlotte Li
    • Matt Gaughan + Redd Roseboro

Additional resources[edit]

Week 6: 10.25[edit]

Challenge: What field(s) are you in? Building professional communities and (support) networks

Session plan


  • T.J. Billard (CV)


Recommended readings[edit]

Written work and activities[edit]

  • Identify 1 senior faculty/researcher and 2 junior faculty/researchers working in your (best approximation of) your current field of interest. Ideally, the senior person should be at least 5 years post-doctoral degree and the junior people should have completed doctoral degrees within the past 3-5 years.
  • Find their CVs (likely online). If you can't find someone's CV, try to choose another person.
  • Identify relevant (to you and your field(s) of interest) conferences, professional associations, workshops, and other evidence of open professional networks (or events) from the CVs. Collect these in a written list somewhere (that you can bring with you to class).
  • Figure out how many and what kinds of publications, creative works, or other research products the people had generated (1) while they were doctoral students; and (2) by the time they (seem to have) finished their doctoral degrees. Compare the quantities, qualities, venues, coauthorship patterns, or other salient attributes of these research products across the people you chose.
  • In about 500 words, reflect on the results of this exercise and the readings about professional networks/mentoring. What do you notice in the CVs you reviewed? What stands out from the readings? What concrete goals, strategies, and next steps will you pursue to develop your own research portfolios and networks? How will you assess your progress towards these goals and the implementation of these strategies?
  • Upload your reflection to Canvas and come to class prepared to discuss it.

Week 7: 11.01[edit]

Challenge: How do you communicate your work? (Part I) Writing, publishing, and reviewing

Session plan


  • Larissa Buchholz (CV)
  • James Schwoch (CV)


Suggested readings[edit]

Written work and activities:[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation.

2. Draft an extended abstract of the research plan component of your final project.

  • The final project for the course asks you to prepare a detailed research plan. For this assignment, please draft a short, preliminary version of this plan so that you can get moving with it and elicit some feedback. Please limit yourself to ≤1,000 words for this (references not included). Submit your work via Canvas.
  • I plan to assign two peer reviewers in Canvas to each of these and (assuming I can convince Canvas to do so) will make the reviews anonymous. In writing your reviews, please apply the recommendations for excellent reviewing that you find in the readings and additional resources.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 8: 11.08[edit]

Challenge: How do others see you? Crafting a professional identity

Session plan


  • Matthew Kay (CV)


Written work and activities[edit]

1. Submit a discussion provocation

2. Friendly web presence audit:

You will once again work in pairs (or so) for this assignment:

  • Search your colleague's full name. See what results come up.
  • Using a browser window with no search/browsing history and without being logged in to any services (Gmail, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc.), conduct another search for your colleague and see what comes up.
  • Conduct yet another search for your colleague's name using a search engine that you do not use frequently/ever. A good option for many of you might be [ DuckDuckGo].
  • Repeat your searches with different configurations of your colleague's name (e.g., with/without middle names, with/without quotations, with/without institutional affiliation(s), etc.). Be creative (but don't be creepy).
  • Take notes on what you learn. What do you find through the quick/initial search? What do you discover through more involved/elaborate searches? Save and/or note links/screenshots as you deem appropriate.
  • Come up with three concrete recommendations for how this person can improve their online image.
  • Prepare to discuss this analysis with your colleague in class this week.

Suggested readings[edit]

Week 9: 11.15[edit]

Challenge: How do you communicate your work? (Part II) Presentations and other means of dissemination


  • Moya Bailey (CV)

Readings, etc.[edit]

Suggested readings[edit]

  • hooks, b. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press. (note that Routledge has published a 2nd edition as of 2014 and we may have digital access: (Bailey influence)


  • Bonus special guest conversation

Additional resources[edit]

Week 10: 11.22[edit]

No class meeting this week.

Week 11: 11.29[edit]

Challenge: Where to from here? Pathways through graduate school, job markets, and beyond


Guests: Distinguished Alumni Panel

Week 12: 12.04[edit]

Final projects due at 12pm CT on Monday, December 4, 2023 [via Canvas]

See final project page for details.

Credit and notes[edit]

This course design and syllabus builds from prior iterations offered by Claudio Benzecry, Pablo Boczkowski, Darren Gergle, Eszter Hargittai, and me. It has also been shaped by input from the current faculty affiliated with the MTS and TSB Ph.D. programs as well as students who have taken earlier versions of the course.