One of the oddities of working in an interdisciplinary field is that PhD programs - and ultimately departments where you would like to work in the future - are often offered under different departments. For my personal example, my field is Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and I have the option to join a PhD program in (that is, have received admission offers from) departments that are housed within colleges of Computer Science, Engineering, or Information. "Rankings", to the extent that anyone cares about them, exist separately for each classification, and so they are all "top 5" within their own classification and have a good reputation in the field.

My question is: in considering a plan to seek future academic jobs after earning a PhD (especially as a professor at an R1), is the name of the home department/college that hosts their program something that one should weigh in their decision making? How might the type of department that one gets their PhD from effect one's future career?

Bonus: If department type impacts availability of internships (especially those valuable to an eventual faculty application), or just having the alternative to go into another area of industry/consulting, that could be important for a person to know and consider. "Plan A" is primarily positions in academia, so an answer need not address this to be a good or accepted one.

Note: The focus of research, topic, equipment, and even coursework will be largely comparable, faculty working in every program have degrees in widely differing topics (including some in Psychology, Art/Design, and Business/Management), and current faculty even often publish in the same conferences.

For example, if you've been involved with a hiring committee in Computer Science, have they evaluated applicants differently if their degree was not specifically in "Computer Science" and instead in Information or Engineering? Or similarly, do Engineering hiring committees have a preference for people with degrees from other Engineering departments? Issues at the administrative culture level? Have you found that informal cliches or hierarchies form between groups?

Ultimately I'd like to know if this a distinction I need to seriously consider in picking a program, or if I can instead focus on the dozen-other factors one should consider to compare options instead.

  • 1
    +1, I have been wondering the same thing about theoretical physics and applied mathematics.
    – astronat
    Feb 21 '17 at 16:44
  • Are you looking to stay in academia or move to industry?
    – eykanal
    Feb 21 '17 at 17:31
  • @eykanal An answer considering either, or both, would be good and welcome, as I'm sure others will have different goals. Personally, Plan A would be staying in academia, Plan B would be industry research, Plan C would be product development directly in industry, Plan D consulting - but even as Plan A I'd like to work closely with industry as part of my research. So if consideration of the program would be especially important for internships, working with industry, or non-academic careers, that would certainly be important to know and consider. I'll edit to be clear.
    – BrianH
    Feb 21 '17 at 18:02
  • 1
    An important difference later down the road would be the tenure process, which can have quite different expectations under different departments.
    – Nathan S.
    Feb 21 '17 at 19:47
  • The name of the department and the branch of the university don't matter in the long run. But do look at the program's requirements carefully, and why not visit to absorb the culture before choosing? // I figured out what your question is by reading your profile, but I think you could edit your question to make it clear that you are poised to choose among several departments where you would do grad study towards a PhD, and you are wondering what the long-term career implications might be. Feb 21 '17 at 21:43

My short answer is that if you're staying in academia, it probably doesn't matter much at all. If you're considering leaving, then CS > "Engineering" > IS (for many tech companies, at least), to a mild-to-moderate extent.

My longer answer is that it depends how you sell yourself. The material you learn will likely be very similar, but different communities will focus on different aspects of HCI. This will probably be most evident in the research coming out of each group. To that extent, I recommend taking a good look at the research coming out of each program. The focus of the researchers will give you a good idea about the differences between the programs.


Regardless of the field it can be hard to get a full idea, as a PhD applicant, of what a given department will really be like once you are there, and of how you may be perceived compared to those in similar departments elsewhere once you are nearing the end of your program and applying for jobs in academia or industry. Schools paint a certain picture on their web site, in recruitment materials, etc., but it's not always a completely honest one and may miss particular facets that will impact your career. Outside of aparente001's recommendation of site visits in the comments, if there is time to do so you might consider contacting current or recent PhD students at each of the schools you've been accepted to who seem to share your interests, to talk about their own experiences, perceptions, and career plans. You may then be better able to assess whether your intended career plans and research interests within HCI would be a better fit with the information school, or the computer science school, or the engineering school.

More generally, my own sense (as an information science PhD graduate with some HCI knowledge, albeit it was not and is not my focus) is that information and computer science schools are probably a little closer together when it comes to how they treat and perceive HCI, whereas most engineering schools would take a different tack. Of course, even within information schools with a focus on HCI not all are as appropriate spaces for the same kinds of HCI research, nor do they necessarily have the same perception on the job market. Of course, this isn't an absolute make-or-break decision; if you find a department and PhD program that is a good fit for you, based on the best assessment you can provide, then you should be able to sell yourself appropriately (as eykanal answered) as you get near the end of that program to academia or industry. Good luck!

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