The H Factor

Life and times of a human factors PhD student.

Hello! I am Ian Robertson, a PhD student in human factors/human-computer interaction at Rice University. This blog is a reflection on my life as graduate student. I hope it can serve as a resource for aspiring grad students, a wellspring for research ideas in human factors/HCI, and a narrative about my personal journey through academia.

"I often tell my students that the inequities they run into are not their fault, but it is their problem to work out what their response to those injustices will be."

Interesting opinion piece on balancing activism and educational pursuits. My take away is don't let your passion for activism undermine your education Its much more nuanced than that and very much worth a read:


The Many Hats of the Academic

One of the more challenging, as well as fun, aspects of being an academic is you get to wear many hats. Many a young aspiring scientists, myself include, have a romanticized vision of "the scientist." This mythical career in which you do nothing but conduct research, perhaps wow and astound with your scientific insights, and collect accolades whether that is a Nobel Prize or a BuzzFeed article on the poppsychology of your findings. The truth is, the majority of your time as an academic will not be spent doing "science." Instead, you must engage in the meta-activities that can hinder or enhance your research depending on how well you handle them.

Case in point, my goal for the year is to improve my writing. I never thought that in addition to be a scientist I would need to be a competent writer as well. For me, writing is like a funnel I use to package all the work I have done up to that point. If I am a poor writer the funnel is small and it takes a long time to get my product ready to ship. No matter the quality of the research, if that funnel is small its going to take much longer than I like to package and ship it to a journal. Not only does that protract a current project but it will interfere with other projects by delaying them. I rob myself of time that could be spent on newer work. Or, as I move on to new work, I may let an old project fade into the abyss.

As inevitably happens with a small funnel, I will lose product as well. A small funnel is going to sometimes overflow and spill. If you do good science and then fail to effectively communicate it, you do yourself a disservice. Therefore, if I take the time to practice and discipline myself as a writer that funnel starts to get much bigger. I can package my research much more quickly and get it out to journals. I can move on to new projects or take a break if needed. This has the effect of keeping my productivity high.

TLDR: Good writing enhances good work and can even enhance science of lesser quality. Poor writing can protract projects and obfuscate good work. Even if I never envision myself as a "writer" I recognized the need to improve these skills and the benefits it will have for my research.

Other hats that I have identified to this point are mentor, manager, accountant, data analyst, teacher, marketer, public spokesperson and many more. I am not going to touch on any of these today but will in a future post.


Oldie but Goldie: Why You Should Aim for 1000 Rejections

I'm just going to plug a post from an older blog today. It really speaks to the importance of making a habit of writing. Continually submitting to journals and applying for opportunities such as grants and fellowships. I will summarize it with a quote from the blog, "Samuel Beckett wrote, Fail, fail again, fail better. " You can read it here:


Autobot vs. Terminator

In a hilarious happenstance, a Tesla on autopilot struck a rentable robot. There is some controversy as to whether this was a true accident or a publicity stunt. Essentially, a Tesla on autopilot struck a "promobot". The incident occurred while several of the robots were being transported to a booth by walking (the robots are ambulatory). One robot went rogue and ended up colliding with the car. The incident is hazed in absurdity but also alludes to a grim issue.

We are not too far removed from the tragic death of a pedestrian last year. Driverless cars are novel to us humans as well as being relatively novice drivers themselves. It is going to be a while until road users get used to sharing the road with robots. There is a need to explore how humans respond to driverless cars and understand how humans can effectively communicate with cars as well as how self-driving vehicles can give us clear signals so we understand them.

Pedestrians and cyclists (known as vulnerable road users in scientific and some legal lingo) are especially susceptible to the consequences of misunderstandings between robots and humans. Good work is already being done to address the issue but there is a need for proactive research in this area.

There is no way to predict how long the roadway will be shared between human and automated drivers. Company predictions for fully autonomous vehicles may be as soon as 2030, but that doesn't mean we still won't have human drivers still side by side with AVs. Even if full autonomy is achieved early, for economic or social reasons (e.g., mistrust of driverless cars) many people will still be driving non-automated vehicles for some time. Not to mention, people will still be riding bicycles, crossing roads, and maybe even using motorcycles/scooters well into a fully autonomous car society. The safety dividends for addressing problems in communication between car and human can pay off well into the future.

1/7/2019 Goals

2019 is a new year! To celebrate, I am going to review what I accomplished in 2018 and what I am looking to do in 2019.


In 2018 I finished almost all of my coursework (only one course left!).

I also completed my masters degree in human factors/human-computer interaction. This marked a huge milestone for me in many ways. My marketability as a worker and my income potential increased a lot. Receiving the degree coincided nicely with my halfway point through the PhD program at Rice. It gave me something tangible to earmark my progress, which has psychological satisfaction beyond just knowing I have made it this far.


For 2019, I want to touch on my professional goals.

As an aside, I generally discourage tying goals to the New Year. From personal experience and talking to others, I find it has a detrimental effect. First, if you don't start your goal on time (e.g., the first of the year), I find people, myself included, find it hard to get started. The farther you get away from the beginning of the year the less likely you are to continue/start a missed goal. Second, it encourages putting off starting goals, "I should wait for the new year before starting X goal." Of the same coin, it also discourages the habit of setting goals. If you always wait for the new year, you are less likely to be working on setting goals throughout the year. If you find it difficult to set and/or keep goals, it may be because you just don't have enough practice. Start small (e.g., each day I'm going to read one article about driverless vehicles) and build into your more challenging goals. Make sure that your goals meet the characteristics of an effective goal: Effective goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. If you are interested in learning more about effective goal setting you can start here: There are also a lot of wonderful research articles in psychology germane to the subject, especially sports psychology.

My 2019 Goals

My current goals for 2019 are to write more, read more, and publish three to five papers.


After finishing my thesis, I became very aware of how poor of a writer I am. Going through the process challenged me to be more concise, use better phrasing, and to stretch my professional writing skills. I finished the thesis with an awareness that I have not written enough in my life to be a good writer. I can write a basic scientific article but not with the same strength of a more seasoned scientist.

To achieve this goal, I have set aside time every day Monday through Friday to write at least one and half hours uninterrupted. This time can be used for research (i.e., finding articles), creating outlines, writing, revising. The nuts and bolts of writing a research paper.

I also plan on keeping track of how long I actually worked, the activities completed and the number of words written. Depending on the project I may have general goals like find and summarize five articles or write 250 words. I may also have more specific goals such as writing the Method section.

Last month I also engaged in a lot of reading about writing. Books such as "Write It Up", "How to Write A Lot", and "The Stylish Academic Writer" have given me a lot of encouragement and practical tools to meet my goal. If you find yourself wanting to improve your writing, those books are a great place to start.

This blog is also an attempt to get myself writing more, even if it is in a casual manner.


Going hand in hand with writing more, I also need/want to read more. Now that I can see the light aka no more coursework, I have more time to read articles in my field. Truth be told, I should have been doing more reading than I have. But it is hard to read outside what is required for class after slogging through a lot of dense articles. I can no longer use that as an excuse and I only have two years to increase my expertise in the field of human factors. Now is the time for me to become more knowledgeable and reading is one of the few paths to do so.

Publish three to five papers

Stemming from my other two goals, I want to increase my publications this year. Pubs are one of the measures of success in academia. They allow your peers to see what work you are doing, its a way to get your name out to potential employers, and allow potential collaborators to discover you by reading your articles. My other two goals work together to help me achieve this loftier goal.

2019 and Things to Come

2019 will be a big year. I will finish my last class, propose my dissertation, and start looking towards preparing myself more heavily for the job market. I hope by working on my ability to write, I will increase the quality of my dissertation and increase my publishing productivity. I doubt these will be my only goals for the year but they are the ones I expect to focus on the most this upcoming year.