A Graduate Center Fellowship That Builds Digital Skills Also Yields Jobs for Alumni

Top (L-R): Patrick Smyth, Jojo Karlin, Patrick Sweeney; Bottom (L-R): Natalie O’Shea, Keith Miyake, GCDI logo

By Lida Tunesi

Until he learned to code in Python as a Graduate Center Digital Fellow, Patrick Smyth (Ph.D. ’21, English), who is blind and has only a little residual vision, felt frustrated by inaccessible graphical interfaces, such as the websites of proprietary research databases. But with Python, he said, “Suddenly I could tell the computer exactly what I wanted it to do. … It was a pretty addictive feeling.” 

That first experience of learning to code in Python led Smyth down what he describes as a rabbit hole of building digital skills that ultimately led to new professional roles. For two years after graduation, Smyth coordinated the Foundations for Research Computing program at Columbia University, which organizes events to promote research computing skills. Now he is back at the Graduate Center as a postdoctoral fellow in the Publics Lab. At the same time, he is starting his own business, called Iota School, to teach technical skills to scholars in the humanities and humanities-aligned fields and continue passing on the knowledge he gained as a Digital Fellow.

The Graduate Center Digital Fellows program, part of the Graduate Center Digital Initiatives (GCDI), began in 2012 and has since welcomed 40 students. Led by Lisa Rhodydeputy director of GCDI and director of digital fellowship programs, and Professor Matthew K. Gold (English, Digital Humanities, Data Analysis and Visualization) director of GCDI, the fellowship program allows students to develop digital research skills and to share their knowledge with the Graduate Center community by consulting on projects, leading workshops, and developing tutorials. Through their work, students also learn professional skills such as project management, grant writing, and budgeting. These abilities are boosting the careers of program alumni like Smyth. 

From Anthropology to Data Visualization

Natalie O’Shea (Ph.D. ’20, Anthropology) used her time as a fellow to teach data visualization workshops; build training resources for the R programming language and start the Graduate Center’s R User Group; and collaborate on the Data for Public Good initiative, exploring the arts and cultural landscape of New York City.

Now O’Shea works as a data visualization analyst at K-12 educational technology company Edmentum, where she collaborates with researchers, engineers, and designers to make sure the visualizations are useful to the company’s educators.

“The workshops I taught on data visualization were definitely helpful in landing my current position,” O’Shea said, “but the most valuable thing I gained from the program was the ability to engage in truly collaborative research. The ability to effectively engage with colleagues from different disciplines and cultures has been absolutely crucial in my professional life.”

Still Strengthening Digital Scholarship Services

Jojo Karlin (Ph.D. ’21, English) echoed appreciation for the fact that the fellows program is open to students in all fields.

“I learned how to work in a truly interdisciplinary space,” Karlin said, “and developed my ability to take initiative in the context of change as fellows passed through the program.”

Karlin wrote her dissertation on the poetics of Virginia Woolf’s letter writing, and studied graphic memoir and the intersection of science and poetry. As a fellow, she led workshops on the command line, git and GitHub, and the lexicon of the digital humanities. Karlin also helped organize and lead several Digital Humanities Research Institutes and organized the GCDI Sound Series, which explored research methods and ideas on sound, sound analysis, theory, production, and recording.

Today, Karlin is a provostial postdoctoral fellow in Digital Scholarship Services at New York University Libraries. Among other responsibilities, she researches digital humanities citations and visual notetaking at Zoom conferences, and helps students, faculty, and staff manage digital projects.

“The Digital Fellows program taught me so much about the type of academic I wanted to be, and has proven instrumental in my career,” Karlin said.

Standing Out on the Faculty Job Market

Keith Miyake (Ph.D. ’16, Earth and Environmental Sciences), now a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, spent their Ph.D. studies exploring topics such as racial capitalism and environmental justice in the U.S. The fellowship was an opportunity to broaden their expertise to include digital skills such as programming and digital archiving. Miyake also mentored students in developing digital humanities projects, worked on web development and design, and taught workshops on more topics than they could remember.

At UC Riverside, Miyake teaches classes such as Theory in Asian American Studies and The Prison Industrial Complex in the U.S. While their digital skills don’t always apply to their classroom topics, Miyake said the fellow experience gave them a more rounded portfolio that continues to be useful.

“The skills and knowledge base that I developed made me stand out on the job market,” Miyake said. “I still employ many of the technical skills I developed during that time.”

Applying Digital Know-How as a Professor 

Another former fellow, Patrick Sweeney (Ph.D. ’21, Psychology), also went on to become a professor, teaching in the media psychology department at Fielding University and working with Ph.D. students on their dissertations.

At the Graduate Center, Sweeney managed the GCDI workshop series in addition to teaching his own on Digital Research and Ethics, git and GitHub, and HTML and CSS. He also consulted on digital research projects, helping both students and faculty figure out which digital tools would best answer their research questions. That experience parallels what he does now as a professor, helping Fielding students figure out exactly what questions they’re trying to ask with their research, and supporting them as they find the best approach to answer them.

“The fellowship also gave me the opportunity to create workshop curriculum and explore emerging topics in digital research,” Sweeney said, “which has connected to my role as a faculty member creating future courses and contributing to shaping the direction of my department.”

In summing up his own experience as a Digital Fellow, Smyth, the Publics Lab postdoctoral fellow, expressed sentiments shared by many program alumni.

“My work, scholarly and otherwise, has been a direct result of the skills and interests I developed in the Digital Fellows program,” he said.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: OCT 18, 2021

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