Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Visiting Days

This Saturday through Monday is UMSI’s Visiting Days. I can’t believe that this time last year, I was visiting graduate schools and going to Ann Arbor for the first time. It was my first trip to Michigan, and I didn’t know what to expect. Since I’m originally from California, I prepared for the worst. I stocked my suitcase with boots, gloves, scarves, and coats. The current weather forecast predicts a high of 37-39 and lows ranging from 16-28, so dress accordingly. While many of the events take place indoors, you will be walking from one building to another.

Before attending MSI Visiting Days, I recommend that students think about why they want to go to graduate school, what they hope to get out of the program, and what is needed to achieve these goals. Coming to MSI Visiting Days with an agenda and having a list of questions ready can help you make a decision about which graduate school you will ultimately attend.

For me, I wanted to attend a graduate school that would provide practical application to UX design and research, improve my technical skills, and would provide me with the opportunity to work on meaningful and interesting projects.

I saw MSI Visiting Days as an opportunity to get a feel for the community of University of Michigan as a whole, the student population, and see if it would be a good fit for me. I wanted to learn about the experiential aspects of being a student at UMSI and get answers to questions that may be more difficult to answer in e-mail form. I asked current students about projects that students were working on inside of class, how they were developing portfolios, if they had projects to place in their portfolios, which classes were worthwhile, and information related to internship searches and job prospects. UMSI is very community and service driven, and I wanted to discover if the school’s values aligned with my own. I was able to get these answer through the more formal sessions as well as through the excursion events.

I also found the alumni reception to be insightful. Admitted students have the opportunity to talk to alumni and see the type of work they are doing in the field and how their education at UMSI transferred into the real-world. Students have the opportunity to network with alumni as many of them work in and around Ann Arbor. (Possible internship and part-time jobs hint hint…) Admitted students can also network with employers at the networking fair. This is also a great opportunity to work on your interpersonal skills, see the types of employees and skills that employers are looking for as well as secure a part-time job for summer/fall semester.

If you have already decided that UMSI is the school for you, you may want to use this visit as an opportunity to look for housing for August/September. The housing market in Ann Arbor is a little strange and students usually start looking for housing a year before they move in. If you do have time, you may want to contact a few property management companies or realtors to see their apartment availability and schedule a viewing.
MSI Visiting Days is a wonderful opportunity to get to know the school and the Ann Arbor community. I look forward to meeting you this weekend! Go blue!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Can Humanities majors succeed at UMSI?

One of the questions that I often hear from people who are considering the MSI program at the University of Michigan is: "I was a Humanities major in college. How can I succeed at UMSI?" I laugh a little whenever I hear this question, because it's exactly the question I asked before I arrived here. I majored in English and Religion in college, and my comfort zone included text analysis, learning languages, and writing papers. Computer programming was not in my repertoire of skills, and (let's be honest) neither was group work.

I started the program at UMSI more than a little terrified that I just wouldn't be able to hack it. But Humanities majors come to UMSI with their own set of skills. Learning to program was not unlike learning a language and considering the qualitative features of a library or collection has never been a challenge for me. The whole purpose of group work, I have discovered, is to make use of each members' strengths in order to produce the best possible product.

Before coming to Ann Arbor, I felt that working toward a degree in Information was far enough outside of my wheelhouse to be a genuine challenge. But the program here is designed to help anyone from any background succeed. The foundations courses provide a general background of the information field and potential applications; they include work and perspectives from the social sciences and humanities as well as from more quantitative and technical areas. From there, students can chart their own path through the degree by selecting courses in their chosen specialization as well as related cognate courses in other U-M departments. I was never expected to become the best programmer or to know everything about User Experience. But learning a little about those areas has helped me to be better at the work I actually want to do.

Potential students from non-technical backgrounds may feel overwhelmed by the seemingly technical MSI program. However, keep in mind that students here represent more than 100 different undergraduate majors--you will certainly not be alone. I came to UMSI dedicated to expanding my comfort zone and challenging myself in an area with which I was unfamiliar. Instead of letting the technical components scare me, I found that my personal strengths and hard work led to success I did not always expect. UMSI was a great opportunity for me to develop my skills and work with people with very different strengths and aspirations. It made no difference that my past experience was in the Humanities and not Computer Science--everyone comes to the MSI program with their own strengths and hopes to develop confidence in their areas of weakness.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Finding the Right Fit

I always thought that applying to graduate school would be the hardest part of the application process. But after the personal statements and resumes were completed, I had an even more difficult challenge that I had to face: selecting a graduate school.

Choosing a graduate school was a difficult decision for me. I found the idea that a single decision could not only alter where I would live for the next two years but affect my employment prospects and other future opportunities to be very stressful. During the application process, I half hoped that the schools would make the decision for me by either accepting or denying my admission, and there would be a very clear choice in the end. However, when you have the choice among multiple reputable schools, how do you know which one is the right school?

When deciding on a school, you may be faced with several important variables including: financial aid/scholarships, courses, prospective employment after graduation, and your other areas of interest. The truth is that there is no easy answer. When selecting a graduate school, it is important to think about what factors are most important to you and what you hope to get out of the program. A few factors that were important to me in selecting a graduate school included:

Population Diversity: Graduate schools can vary greatly in student population. Some graduate schools are geared towards working professionals and may provide more night courses but fewer opportunities to interact with other students outside of class while other schools may have a larger proportion of students directly from undergrad. UMSI is a mix of these two. UMSI students have varying levels of experience. Within any group of students, you may find someone straight from undergrad as well as someone with 2, 5 or even 10 or more years of experience. This diversity provides students with the opportunity to learn from students with different backgrounds and allows for a richer learning environment.

Focus: Graduate schools may also differ in terms of focus. Some professional degrees are accelerated and do not allow for students to explore different areas of study or maintain part-time jobs outside of school. You may want to explore the field of information, gain more experience through a related part-time job, or you may be interested in pursuing research or a PhD. UMSI is flexible in that it allows students to explore their interests while still obtaining the technical and real-world experience to be successful in an information related field.

For me, I wanted a school that would provide me with the skills needed to become a successful UX designer and give me the opportunity to grow as a person. I wanted to explore opportunities outside of the classroom to develop my technical skills as well as better understand the type of organization I would like to work for after graduation. I may only be in my second semester of school, but I have done more in the past six months that I could have ever thought was possible. Through UMSI, I have been a part of data dive: a 36-hour event held in service of several nonprofits who seek to explore their datasets and discover creative answers to their research questions, participated and selected to present in the 2014 student CHI competition, I work part-time at GE for the enterprise architecture team, I am part of the Global Information Engagement Program (GIEP) where student teams are paired with organizations in India to develop solutions for their organization. And this week I am in Chicago participating in UMSI’s Alternative Spring Break, where I am conducting usability testing for the Chicago Public Library. It’s been a very busy six months, but I do believe that I did make the right choice, and UMSI has provided me with opportunities that I would not have had at any other school.

Choosing a graduate school is not always an easy decision and not all graduate schools are the same. I hope this post helps clarifies some of the differences and factors that you may want to consider before selecting a school.