What makes a successful doctoral student?

Guidelines for a successful PhD career

Students frequently ask me how one goes about "getting a PhD", in particular in our group. To give you an idea of the characteristics of successful PhD students from my past experience, here's a rough list of some guidelines. I hope they will help you to get a feel for what kind of people have been successful to get their PhD in my group in the past. Some of these characteristics are my personal preferences and may be different at other labs, some apply to most research positions in HCI, and some for research work in general.

International applicants should also find the information provided by the International Office helpful - what's required to start a PhD at RWTH Aachen University, where to apply, etc.

Jason Hong at CMU has compiled a great collection of advice for PhD students in Computer Science. I highly recommend having a thorough look at the materials on his list.

Note: This page is not a job posting or part of one. None of the guidelines below are requirements to apply for a position with us. In fact, hardly any of the people who have joined our group so far fulfilled all of them when applying.

Successful PhD students in our group typically...


  • Are quick, smart, creative, sociable, outgoing, and funny
  • Enjoy working with others in a group

Past performance

  • Finished their BSc & MSc at a German university (in 12 semesters or less) or international university of high standing, with outstanding results (A / "sehr gut"..."mit Auszeichnung")

Domain knowledge

  • Have a CS and HCI background, ideally from BSc + MSc studies
  • Know the basic introductory HCI literature (see my top 10 list.)
  • Know the stuff covered in our classes DIS1, and ideally DIS2 and Current Topics
  • Have good programming skills
  • Have worked with Mac OS X or iOS already
  • Have a sense for good and bad user interfaces and how to create them (the good ones)

Research skills

  • Have already published a peer-reviewed conference or journal paper as primary author, ideally at CHI or UIST or a related "tough" conference

Teaching skills

  • Have worked as teaching Hiwi or in other teaching activities
  • Enjoy teaching, working with, and advising students

General skills

  • Are very quick at picking up new information
  • Fulfil the "first-derivative" rule: In the end, being quick at learning new knowledge is much more important than their current level of knowledge (for example in HCI)
  • Have a self-driven interest in uncovering and solving unknown problems
  • Are able to work hard and creatively without constant supervision
  • Fulfil the "fire-and-forget" rule: I love working with people who go off with a task without coming right back with questions that I think they could have easily answered themselves (Google is your friend).

Language skills

  • Speak, understand, and write English fluently
  • Speak and understand German, or are willing to learn

I hope these guidelines help you think better about your own career in HCI research, at our group or elsewhere.

— Jan Borchers

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