Introduction to Graduate Research (Fall 2021)

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Introduction to Graduate Research (in TSB and MTS)
Media, Technology & Society (MTS) 501
Wednesdays 9am-11:50am CT
Frances Searle Building, Room 2-378
Fall 2021
Northwestern University
Course websites
Canvas for announcements, submitting assignments, and some files.
Zoom for any remote, synchronous course meetings and guest speaker visits.
This wiki page for nearly everything else.
Instructor: Aaron Shaw (
Office Hours: Wednesday (in-person) or Thursday (remote) 1-2pm 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) 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.
  • 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 current research conducted by TSB and MTS program faculty and an instructional seminar focused on challenges related to professional development. The class sessions will all 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 one piece of their recent research. We will also pursue readings, discussions, and written assignments related to the professional development challenge. The course will proceed through a combination of weekly in-person seminar meetings and activities/assignments conducted outside of class time.

For our guest speakers, we will open with the following questions:

  • 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?

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.
  • How to <> *in a pandemic*
  • Interdisciplinarity (or maybe anti-disciplinarity?) as a way of life.


Assignments fall into one of two categories: weekly and final (details for both below). In general, I will ask you to submit any written assignments as a PDF via Canvas. There are no specific style guidelines or formatting requirements for written assignments. 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 all 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 will consist of readings, written materials, and occasional activities related to the class topic that week. 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.

Discussion topics and questions for guest speakers: You are required to submit at least one discussion topic/question for each guest speaker each week (one topic and/or question per speaker). The Files page of our Canvas site contains copies of the CVs and readings from our faculty guest speakers. Please review each guests' materials prior to their visit and submit topics and/or questions for guests via the corresponding Canvas Discussion the Monday of their visit (i.e., submit topics/questions on Monday 9/27 for the Wednesday 9/29 class session).

Final project[edit]

Detailed description of final projects

Final projects are due via Canvas at 12pm (Central time) on December 8, 2021. The final project for the course will be a 3,000-5,000 word 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 meet some aspect of the relevant assessment rubric (more on those below). The percentage values are weights that will be applied to calculate your overall grade for the course.

  • Weekly participation: 40%
  • Weekly assignments: 40%
  • Final assignment (including all intermediate assignments): 20%

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. Below are some policy statements specific to this course and quarter.

COVID-19 Policies[edit]

My COVID-19 policies page provides specific COVID-19 policies mandated by Northwestern University. Several additional COVID-19-related policies follow below.

Teaching and learning in a pandemic[edit]

Even beyond my COVID-19 policies, the ongoing pandemic will impact this course in various ways, some of them obvious and tangible and others harder to pin down. On the obvious and tangible front, we have things like the fact that we will be wearing masks when we meet on campus (assuming we're able to meet on campus all quarter!) and that some of our guest speakers will likely participate remotely. These will reshape our collective experience in major ways.

On the "harder to pin down" side, even though (or maybe especially because) we've been doing this pandemic thing for a while now, many of us may experience elevated levels of exhaustion, stress, uncertainty and/or distraction. We may need to provide unexpected support to family, friends, or others in our communities. I have some personal experiences with this and I expect that many (all?) of you do too. It can be a difficult time.

I believe it is important to acknowledge these realities of the situation and create the space to discuss and process them in the context of our class throughout the quarter. As your instructor and colleague, I commit to do my best to approach the course in an adaptive, generous, and empathetic way. I will try to be transparent and direct with you throughout—both with respect to the course material as well as the pandemic and the university's ongoing response to it. I ask that you try to extend a similar attitude towards everyone in the course. When you have questions, feedback, or concerns, please try to share them in an appropriate, empathetic way. If you require accommodations of any kind at any time (directly related to the pandemic or not), please contact me.

Expectations for in-person sessions[edit]

Please present a green Symptom Tracker "badge" at the beginning of each class session and wear a face covering over your nose and mouth for the duration of our time in class together.

I ask everyone to come to our in-person class sessions prepared to comply with all applicable university COVID-19 policies and guidelines. We will be following Northwestern's guidelines for instructional spaces, including the use of face coverings, consistent seating, and health monitoring using the Symptom Tracker app (either the mobile or web-based version is fine).

Our classes are long and we will aim to take a break from 10:10am-10:30am, 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 10:30am as we will host guest speakers during the second half of class and it's important that we respect their time.

Expectations for synchronous remote sessions (if needed)[edit]

At the time I'm creating this syllabus, Northwestern expects that we will be able to hold all synchronous course sessions in-person on campus. In the event that we are unable to maintain this arrangement throughout the entire quarter and need to fall back on remote course meetings, the following are some baseline expectations for synchronous remote class sessions. I expect that these can and will evolve. Please feel free to ask questions, suggest changes, or raise concerns during the quarter. I welcome all input.

  • All members of the class are expected to create a supportive and welcoming environment that is respectful of the conditions under which we are participating in this class.
  • All members of the class are expected to take reasonable steps to create an effective teaching/learning environment for themselves and others.

And here are suggested protocols for any video/audio portions of our class:

  • 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 the instructor company in the video channel that would be nice.
  • 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 workspace are welcome to join our class 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: 9.22[edit]

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

Guests: TSB and MTS Directors of Graduate Studies

  • Nick Diakopoulos
  • Claudio Benzecry


Additional resources[edit]

  • Hagerty, Kathleen, Johnson, Craig, and Shapiro, Morton. 2021. Fall Welcome. Leadership notes, Northwestern University, September 21.
  • Stevens, Mitchell. 2021. Harvard-Riverside, Round Trip. Public Books, August 11.

Week 2: 9.29[edit]

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

Guests: Global culture and media (part I)

  • Larissa Buchholz
  • Jim Schwoch


Week 3: 10.06[edit]

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

Guests: Health communication

  • Courtney Scherr
  • Nathan Walter


  • Walter, N., Demetriades, S. Z., & Nabi, R. L. (2021). Seeing red through rose-colored glasses: Subjective hope as a moderator of the persuasive influence of anger. Journal of Communication, 71(1), 79-103.
  • Scherr, C.L., Getachew-Smith, H.B., Ross, A.A., Marshall-Fricker, C.G., Shrestha, N., Brooks, K., Fischhoff, B., & Vadaparampil, S.T. (2020). A modern dilemma: How experts grapple with ambiguous genetic test results. Medical Decision Making, 40(5), 655-668.
  • The Graduate School Administrative Board, Northwestern University. 2018. Guidance for positive graduate student faculty advisor relationships (pdf).
  • The Graduate School, Northwestern University. 2011. Graduate Student Expectations Document (pdf).


1. 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.

2. 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 (20-30 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?
  • What went well in this collaboration? What would you change next time you collaborate (with the same coauthor(s) or others)?

3. Submit both written texts via Canvas. (Due Monday, 10/4 6pm CT)

4. Discuss writings within your small group (to-be determined in class the week of 9.29). Note that you should exchange writings with your group members and meet outside class to discuss each others' perspectives before 10.06. Please also note that our class discussion on 10.06 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 interviews about collaboration? Were there any common threads? Any (surprising) divergences?
  • What takeaways do you have about advising/mentoring and collaboration based on these exercises?

Additional resources[edit]

Week 4: 10.13[edit]

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

Guests: HCI and Design

  • Nabil Alshurafa
  • Josiah Hester



The core of your assignment this week is to 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.
    • Upload your statement to Canvas as a pdf.
  • Conduct a round of peer feedback on your draft statement with at least one other person in the class. I'll make a new set of small group assignments 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: 10.20[edit]

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

Guests: New media, advocacy, and networked public culture

  • TJ Billard
  • AJ Christian



  • 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.
  • Return to your Week 3 small groups (I have the list if you need it), 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.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 6: 10.27[edit]

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

Guests: Global media and culture (part II)

  • Pablo Boczkowski



  • 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).
  • 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 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: 11.03[edit]

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

Guests: Media effects and policy

  • Eric Nisbet
  • Ellen Wartella


  • Dal, A., & Nisbet, E. C. (2020). To Share or Not to Share? How Emotional Judgments Drive Online Political Expression in High-Risk Contexts. Communication Research, 0093650220950570.
  • Hargittai, E. & King, B. 2013. You need a website. Insider Higher Ed: Ph.Do column, November 11.
  • Pila, S., Lauricella, A. R., Piper, A. M., & Wartella, E. (2021). The power of parent attitudes: Examination of parent attitudes toward traditional and emerging technology. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 1– 12.
  • Visibility: Building your online presence. Simon Fraser University Scholarly Publishing Resources.


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, 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 (without being creepy).
  • Write a brief analysis summarizing what you learned. What did you find through the quick/initial search? What did you discover through more involved/elaborate searches? Include links/screenshots as you deem appropriate. Also, be sure to conclude your analysis with at least three concrete recommendations for how this person can improve their online image?
  • Share this analysis with your colleague and submit it via Canvas.

Suggested readings[edit]

  • Newman, T. P., Nisbet, E. C., & Nisbet, M. C. (2018). Climate change, cultural cognition, and media effects: Worldviews drive news selectivity, biased processing, and polarized attitudes. Public Understanding of Science, 27(8), 985-1002.
  • Nisbet, E.C., C. Mortenson, Q. Li. The presumed influence of election misinformation on others reduces our own satisfaction with democracy. The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review 1, no. 7 (2021).

Week 8: 11.10[edit]

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

Guests: Digital media use

  • Moya Bailey
  • Jeremy Birnholtz


  • Bailey, M. (2021). The ethics of pace. The South Atlantic Quarterly. April.
  • Birnholtz, J., Rawat, S., Vashista, R., Baruah, D., Dange, A., & Boyer, A. M. (2020). Layers of marginality: an exploration of visibility, impressions, and cultural context on geospatial apps for men who have sex with men in Mumbai, India. Social Media+ Society, 6(2), 2056305120913995.
  • Cosley, Dan. 2014. How I review papers. Danco blog.
  • King, Brayden. 2011. The editors speak: what makes a good review? (read the entire post and all the statements from the journal editors). OrgTheory Blog.
  • Example reviews shared by volunteers(I will solicit/select these in-class on 11/3).


  • Draft an abstract (250-500 words?) of the research plan/proposal portion of your final project. You may write more than one abstract if you have not chosen a direction yet, but please limit yourself to submitting no more than 2.
  • Submit the abstract via Canvas.
  • I will assign peer pairings for feedback via Canvas.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 9: 11.17[edit]

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

Guests: HCI and Design

  • Matthew Kay
  • Marcelo Worsley

Readings, etc.[edit]


  • Create and record a prototype "pitch" (maximum 1 minute or about 150 words) that communicates your research to both colleagues and non-specialist, non-academic "civilians." You should focus either on the project you are planning/pursuing for the research plan component of the final project in this course or your research agenda overall. Feel free to consult online resources (for example, this video is a little hokey, but decent). Note that this will (likely) require you to speak to the (anticipated) results and contribution of your project!
  • Please upload the text and video to Canvas. Note that you can (I believe!) record your video directly in Canvas as well!

Additional resources[edit]

Week 10: 11.24[edit]

No class meeting this week

Week 11: 12.1[edit]

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

Guests: Distinguished Alumni Panel

Credit and notes[edit]

This course design and syllabus builds from prior iterations offered by 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.