applicable to my status and goals at the time, but I did encounter several that I could participate in, submit to, present at, or simply keep in
the back of my head for future reference.
Sure, I was somewhat insecure about not knowing enough, but I
would recommend not letting that stop you from getting involved
with organizations in which you are interested or think you may have
something to contribute. In my case, the other members always appreciated the effort and were more than willing to help and mentor once
they saw I was serious and committed.
When a journal from another field looked like the most opportune
outlet for portions of my work, I exploited the discipline-specific
knowledge of my advisors about style, tone, and format to make my
work applicable. It was painful to trim out my pseudo-code or waste
space putting in well known formulas, such as those for precision and
recall, but I’ve learned that you must write to your audience if you
want your work to be well-received. Reading previous articles from the
journal shed light on how to explain my complex techniques to the
primarily non-CS audience.
I would also recommend proactively looking for sources of funding from organizations and agencies outside your field. These funding
sources are always looking for CS approaches to solve problems that
you might be familiar with or have a creative and novel solution for. I
kept my eyes and ears open and informed my advisors when I saw
potential funding streams. This creates contacts for later funding and
builds experience in the process.
Be a Sponge and a Chameleon
My fly-on-the-wall status in many meetings taught me the problems
people have in other disciplines and the vocabulary they use to talk
about them. I soaked up everything I could understand and did a little
research into what I couldn’t to obtain rudimentary levels of knowledge. These insights into other disciplines continue to provide me
with valuable context I leverage when I need motivating examples in
papers or answers to the inevitable and implicit “why should I care
about your work” line of questioning. Interesting CS problems can be
dry by themselves, but when you have a great example of an application that can benefit, people’s ears typically perk up.
More often than not, at conferences in other disciplines people
thought I was a student in that discipline. There is more than one
peer-reviewed publication on my CV that lists me as being in the
Department of Geography when I know I put CS when we submitted
My advice in these instances is just go with it. If you continue to
work in the same research area, these same editors will most likely see
your papers or be reviewing your promotion or tenure package one
day, so in my mind it’s great that they know my name at all.
Most importantly, don’t forget that you are pursuing a degree in CS.
Regardless of what I have worked on, in the end, I need to convince
CS faculty members that my work makes sufficient and significant
contributions to the field of CS in order to obtain my PhD. It takes dis-
cipline to prevent your non-CS interests and activities from drawing
you to the point where it becomes fuzzy as to which discipline you are
actually studying. I know this for a fact; I have gone too far and needed
to find my way back.
While it’s perfectly acceptable to present at non-CS conferences
and publish in non-CS journals, remember that you will be required
to show—specifically—how you have advanced the state of the art by
creating something novel, solving a particularly difficult problem, or
done something faster, cheaper, or more accurately. Be prepared to
justify time, and again why and how your work advances CS.
❝Being a member of an interdisciplinary
team means that you will have to do your
fair share of introducing your colleagues
to relevant CS techniques and principles❞
Previously published CS works and special interest groups have
been very useful for me. In my case, the ACM SIGSPATIAL proposal
specifically lists my topic, but there are many places to look. Is there a
workshop at an IEEE conference related to your approach? Is there a
special issue of AI Magazine that discusses a similar problem? Are
there CS professors at other universities whose work you cite?
Practice your explanation and have it in your back pocket at all
times. Not only will you need it around the CS department, but it makes
for excellent elevator talk should you find yourself next to a potential
funder, recruiter, or faculty search committee member while sitting in a
conference, working on the train, or enjoying a cocktail party.
Reflections Near the End
All in all, I’d say I picked the right path for my PhD. The most unique
part of this path has definitely been the scholarly opportunities that
have popped up along the way. My experience with non-CS
researchers has been particularly rewarding because I have worked on
large-scale multi-institution projects that may actually have a real
impact on reducing the burden of diseases such as cancer.
It has changed my perspective as a student and a scholar because I
now grasp how the unique talents drawn from many fields can come
together to tackle many sides of the same problem. At the same time,
because CS principles underlie much of the computational tools used
in geography and health, my experience has allowed me to delve far
deeper into the practical uses of the algorithms we CS students sometimes only get to know in theory.
Daniel W. Goldberg is a PhD student in computer science at the University of Southern California. His work in the USC GIS Research Laboratory focuses on the uncertainty of geospatial information and
processes. He is the recipient of numerous Geospatial Intelligence scholarships and is the author of the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries’ Geocoding Best Practices Guide.