Michigan SI Visiting Days: Impressions
After my Google Visit, I left early on Saturday morning to fly to Michigan. Michigan is my top (and sadly, only) school right now as far as graduate school possibilities go. It’s okay though, because I think Michigan would be my top school even if I was admitted to all the schools that I applied to.
I arrived to the school somewhat late. I missed the registration and about half of the introduction talk. I sat down at a table whose occupants were librarians. Pretty much everyone there was an LIS (library and information services) specialist. This wasn’t really a great first impression, since I applied under the HCI (human-computer interaction) specialization, and to be honest, libraries aren’t really my thing. Not to say that I don’t like them, but the people there just didn’t have the same interests as me.
After dinner, we broke into groups with current SI students leading the way. I went with the group that promised a song and dance routine, though unfortunately, they were only kidding. We went to Cafe Ambrosia, where I didn’t actually get anything. Instead, some random person walked up to me and said “hey, are you my room mate?”
Indeed, I was his room mate. I hadn’t met him before since I was totally late. Anyway, Adam and I started chatting about stuff outside the cafe while everyone else was talking inside the cafe. I guess we should’ve stayed inside, but whatever; we had a good chat.
The next day, we woke up to a crazy hell alarm! Like seriously, the alarm was very dissonant, and for a second, I thought I had woken up in some kind of hell. Adam thought it was scary, too. We went to get breakfast in the really snobby restaurant of the Bell Tower hotel. By snobby, I mean they played Canon in D without even thinking about it.
Then we went to the West Hall for some lectures. Like we had a few professors talk about what the program at SI was all about and some of the details of what we’d be expected to do at SI. Of special note was the PEP system, where each student is expected to do some “Practical Engagement” before he/she graduates.
After that, there were a few information sessions about the varying specializations. I chose to go to the HCI information session, then the introduction to the new MSI specializations, of which social computing is very interesting to me. I really wish the introductions to the new specializations would have lasted longer. It felt really rushed, and before we knew it, it was time for lunch.
For lunch, we walked to the Michigan League building and sat down at specified tables. We were paired up with faculty who had the same interests as us. Our table featured Thomas Finholt, a dean of research at the information school. We had some cool candid conversations regarding the new dean of the school of information. He also discussed the differences between the mentalities of the professors at Michigan vs. those at Carnegie Mellon, who both have very highly respected HCI programs but very different way of approaching it.
I also would have liked to talked to Paul Resnick, the faculty coordinator for the Social Computing specialization. I think I’ll email him separately with my questions on the subject.
After lunch we had a lot of lectures. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and I just had lunch, so it was really tough not sleeping through them. Not to say they weren’t full of useful information, but at that point I was kind of information’ed out. This is a School of Information, though, so I guess I should’ve expected it. There was a talk about career services (of which the SI actually has its own department), a panel of alumni and their experiences, and a presentation about financial aid opportunities.
Afterwards, we again broke off into groups, going to local eateries and whatnot. I followed the SAA around the whole night due to their excellent choice of venues. I probably should’ve gone with the HCI group, but I didn’t want to go to the Japanese place and have nothing to eat (seafood = gross!). The SAA people were nice too, though.
Finally, the next day I had time to attend the employment information fair over at the Michigan League. I had a chance to meet the people who had interviewed me for the ULA position over at the Public Health and Informatics Library. They seemed really nice and even tried drawing a map to the library for me until we decided I’d probably get lost and miss my flight. Hopefully I’ll be chosen for that position since it seems like a way cool opportunity to affect some real changes in a real life library.
Overall, my impressions of SI were sort of mixed, but still really positive. I knew coming in that the school was very interdisciplinary, but I didn’t realize the degree to which it was. There was a statistic thrown around that 100 people were visiting this weekend, and they represented around 50 undergraduate concentrations! I thought that for sure there would be more CS majors around, but I only ran into one or two.
In a way, I felt uncomfortable due to the lack of other CS people. Hardly anyone I had met had any experience with programming, and I think they had some misconceptions about programming and programmers in general. I guess I could say I also have misconceptions about librarians and archivists too, though. It didn’t really bother me that much, but I definitely felt as though I was in an intellectual minority as far as undergraduate interests went.
This kind of intellectual dissonance made me unsure as to whether or not the coursework at SI could really challenge me and if I would actually learn anything there. I have been slightly reassured by looking at the coursework. For example, the Design of Complex Websites course is offered in Ruby on Rails. It’s very cool that the school is able to give a course like this, even though I already know Ruby on Rails fairly well. Many of the other courses, like Recommender Systems and Game Theory sound very interesting as well.
I am a little worried that the courses might be too “soft” for me because of my CS background. I have a feeling that as long as I actively try to get as much out of a class as possible, I will learn something. Hopefully the professors can push me and I can push back. In the end, I’m probably just being a CS snob about it and I have a feeling my worries will go away quickly after taking a few classes. I wish we had a chance to attend a course or two to see what they were like, though that would’ve been pretty difficult to arrange, I imagine.
I think that more importantly, the people I met this past weekend were very cool. The faculty all seems very nice and intelligent. Apparently Judy and Gary Olson are superstars in the field of HCI. I also met some really cool potential peers who are very intelligent and show a lot of passion and potential in their interests.
I think that other intangibles will make Michigan a very worthwhile experience for me if I choose to attend. During the alumni panel, it was said that Michigan has the largest alumni base in the entire United States. Though it seems a bit unfair, a few alumni talked about how their job search replies were post-scripted with “Go Blue!” at the end. Being a Michigan alumni probably doesn’t mean instant employment anywhere you want, but I’m sure it helps at least a bit.
I’ll have to wait for a reply from Google and the ULA program before I make a final decision. I’m very happy that between my two choices, I see a huge deal of potential. I think either choice will be a good one for me; it’s definitely a win-win situation. Despite my few remaining reservations about the program, I am really stoked about possibly going to Michigan for grad school.