Juhi Bhatnagar (’18) created a customized concentration for her graduate study at Rice University.
“I wanted to focus on human-computer interactions (HCI) and I was looking for a community with a lot of graduate student engagement,” said the MCS alumna. “Having completed a MOOC (massive open online course) taught by Scott Rixner and several other Rice CS professors while I was still a student at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi had already given me a good idea of their teaching styles. That and the chance to pursue HCI pushed Rice to the top of my list when it came time to apply to grad schools.
“From the start, Mack Joyner — the director of the MCS program — really listened to what I wanted to do in terms of my specialty focus. When I asked, ‘Is this even possible?’ he not only encouraged me to pursue my interests, Mack reviewed the courses I had selected for the HCI concentration in CS and Psychology departments. He was actually quite impressed with the color-coded Google spreadsheet I had created with all the courses I wanted to take for my three semesters at Rice! He gave the final approval for the courses and signed off on the HCI specialization.”
Bhatnagar, who has worked as a Microsoft software engineer for four years, is still convinced Rice’s MCS program was her best option. After Joyner helped her craft a specialized course of study to match her HCI interest, he met with Bhatnagar each time she prepared to register for courses to ensure she remained on the right track. But her satisfaction with the decision to pursue graduate work at Rice was also based on the opportunities she found to connect with other students.
“I learned so much beyond the classroom at Rice,” said Bhatnagar. “Moving so far from home, I sought a sense of community and a sense of belonging. At first, I did feel quite alone; I knew I needed to find people I could connect with after class, to make my time there more meaningful.
“ISAR — Indian Students at Rice — is a community of graduate students who were especially welcoming. I found out about them before I arrived because they offer an ‘alumni pickup’ service from the airport for all incoming students. I signed up for that; a Rice alumnus picked me up from the airport, drove me and my huge suitcases to the Rice Graduate Apartments (RGA). He was very helpful, and I stayed in touch with him to ask about life at Rice and ISAR.” She met the current members of ISAR at a student activity fair within her first week of classes. When they joked about culture shock, she knew hanging out with them would help her find her footing in Houston.
“Soon I was volunteering for almost every event ISAR organized and sharing cab rides with my new friends as we headed to distant parts of Houston where we could easily find our favorite foods and ingredients,” said Bhatnagar.
“I also got involved with the Graduate Student Association and became a resident associate at RGA after living there only one semester.”
Bhatnagar also sought out the Rice professor who had so influenced her perception of the university’s computer science program. Walking up to Scott Rixner, she said, “You probably don’t know me, but I took your Python MOOC and I’d like to TA for you.” Rixner asked her what she’d learned from the online course and why she enjoyed working in Python. They sat down for an impromptu conversation which concluded with Rixner offering her a job as a teaching assistant for the undergraduate course that mirrored her MOOC experience.
She served as a COMP 140 TA for two semesters and said one of the high points of her Rice experience was working with Rixner and supporting the undergraduate students in that course. “My goal as a TA wasn’t to do the work for the students, but to help them better understand how to approach the challenge or issue themselves. My favorite moments were watching them figure something out on their own and seeing that light in their eyes when they realized, ‘I got it!’ That was very satisfying for me,” said Bhatnagar.
From introducing herself and asking a renowned professor for a job to setting up a rarely pursued Rice CS grad student concentration in HCI, Bhatnagar demonstrated how potential MCS students can personalize their own path through the program.
“Keep an open mind,” she suggests to students considering the MCS for graduate school at Rice. “Yes, you can still do research as an MCS student. I spent my last two semesters at Rice doing research in the Psychology department, but many of the CS professors will welcome you to their research teams. You want to TA a course? Pursue a new concentration? Just find someone to ask.
“I was surprised more MCS students did not take the HCI concentration, but I also learned that nothing is off the table in the Rice MCS program. Make your pitch and be open to the guidance you get in return. Also, push past your comfort zone to form close connections with the other MCS students. I still feel really close to my cohort of MCS friends. We helped each other with class notes and in preparing for interviews. We exchanged notes on the career fair and where we applied. I don’t think you’ll find that kind of collaborative environment in many other places.”
Bhatnagar identified a similar collaborative atmosphere at Microsoft, both during her interview process and when she arrived in Seattle. The welcoming environment helped her feel more confident about diving into software projects with the same enthusiasm she’d shown in her ISAR and GSA activities at Rice. Plus, her HCI concentration was a good fit for the teams behind OneDrive and SharePoint.
She said, “At Microsoft, my combined software engineering and HCI perspectives have been beneficial to my projects. I work on the web frontend and use my knowledge to build features that delight customers and are easy to use.”