Graduate Studies in Crowdsourcing

[This post was originally published March 2, 2012, at It has been migrated and updated here.]

A few prospective graduate students have reached out to me over the years about pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I suspect my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other universities have received inquiries as well. It’s not a simple task to advise someone interested in studying crowdsourcing at the graduate level what programs are the best fits. Graduate study is indeed all about fit, and crowdsourcing’s terrain is odd, its scholars far-flung, and its disciplinary location varied. For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say to someone wanting to get a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I welcome my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other institutions to help round out my comments.

Which Crowdsourcing? – Navigating the Language

One of the most confusing parts about the study of crowdsourcing is how many interpretations there are of the term “crowdsourcing.” Heck, some people don’t even spell it correctly (Note: it’s spelled “crowdsourcing,” not “crowd sourcing,” “crowd-sourcing,” or “CrowdSourcing”). Because crowdsourcing’s theoretical roots can be traced to human computation, open innovation, collective intelligence, open source software production, and other concepts, some scholars working in these fields refuse to ever use the term “crowdsourcing” in their work. Some scholars don’t see crowdsourcing as a phenomenon distinct from these other concepts, though I have tried to make the case in my work that crowdsourcing is a unique, different kind of thing, part of a larger and more diverse landscape of online participatory culture phenomena. Some scholars lump Wikipedia and open source software and YouTube in with crowdsourcing, but I certainly do not. There are different interpretations of what crowdsourcing means as a scholarly concept, and there are even more haphazard characterizations of crowdsourcing in the popular press.

The point here is that if you go looking for a graduate program where some crowdsourcing scholars might be, you won’t find the whole group of us by search the term “crowdsourcing.” I consider Karim Lakhani and Luis von Ahn leading thinkers on crowdsourcing, but I don’t think either of these men have ever used the term “crowdsourcing” in their published scholarly work. Rather, you’ll find these guys publishing on issues of “open innovation contests,” “broadcast search,” and “human computation.”

The more familiar you can become with the scholarly literature on crowdsourcing, the easier it will be for you to track down a good graduate program for you to pursue these kinds of questions. Mine the bibliographies from the published work on crowdsourcing and see where that leads you. Learn the theoretical pathways through crowdsourcing and you’ll be able to identify where the fertile ground is for you to pursue your scholarly questions. There’s good research happening about crowdsourcing that goes by many names. The trick is to locate it.

What Discipline?

To my knowledge, there are no degree programs (yet) specifically in crowdsourcing. There aren’t even that many programs in Internet studies specifically (I know of two: Curtin University and University of Oxford). Because there aren’t many dedicated Internet studies programs, most of the people doing Internet research come from other departments. A look at those who attend the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) conference or who subscribe to the AoIR listserv will turn up a number of academic departments: sociology, information/library science, communication studies, journalism & mass communication, anthropology, art and art history, architecture, design, computer science and engineering, political science, business, urban planning, and so on. We Internet researchers are a motley crew (and AoIR is our island of misfit toys, a place where we can all be at home in our different-ness).

So how do you know which discipline is the best discipline to get a degree in where you can focus on crowdsourcing? Well, that depends on exactly what kinds of questions you have about crowdsourcing. If you’re interested in how to actually design and engineer crowdsourcing platforms and systems, how to optimize their performance, and so on, then you’re probably better off in a computer science program, or perhaps an information science or computer engineering program. If you’re interested in the performance of crowdsourcing applications (i.e., how to know when they’ve succeeded or if they’ve improved a business function), then an academic graduate program in business or management (academic: MS. As opposed to professional: MBA) would be the best fit. If you’re interested in how and why crowds form, how they are motivated, and their perceptions of crowdsourcing applications, you could look into a journalism & mass communication program, a psychology program, a sociology program, information science, and so on. If you’re interested in a specific topical domain, such as journalism or urban planning or governance, you could look to those programs (though be aware that some crowdsourcing scholars are engaged in research outside of their home department’s topical domain. I, for instance, am housed in a journalism school but frequently do work in urban planning and governance).

Crowdsourcing has its tentacles spread across many disciplines, and those of us who spend a lot of our time studying how and why crowdsourcing works and extending its reach into other domains and problems come from a variety of backgrounds. But the home department where you get your degree will color the way you approach questions about crowdsourcing. An M.A. in journalism and mass communication, for example, will require you to take required core courses in the department, such as Media Law and Mass Communication Research Methods. And a methods course in mass communication will focus on the methods and research of the discipline, which is influenced by theories such as agenda setting and other “classic” mass communication theories. And each university’s mass communication department has its own methodological bent, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative in nature. On the other hand, a master’s in urban planning will require you to take courses in land use planning and other practical courses relevant for planners. And a master’s in communication studies from a strong critical/cultural studies program where most of the professors are rhetoricians will no doubt inject you with that view of scholarship. Basically, you’ll get a big dose of whatever the dominant paradigm is at that university, in that department, in that particular program. If you’re not particularly drawn to, say, the topic of journalism, then a program in journalism & mass communication may not be the best fit, even if you’re hoping to work with a crowdsourcing researcher who teaches in that department (like me!).

After the required core courses, though, many graduate programs will let you carve out your own path, sometimes encouraging you to take course work outside of the home department or even outside of the university. Generally speaking, for graduate programs that do not have a strong lab culture (common in the hard sciences, this is where you basically affiliate with a lab and your graduate work is focused almost entirely on the work of a professor’s lab or grant), you will probably be able to write a thesis or dissertation focused on crowdsourcing if you’re persistent. Because crowdsourcing can tie so well into many theoretical, methodological, and topical domains, you have a lot of wiggle room to pursue studies in crowdsourcing within the bounds of a given degree program.

Questions You Should Ask When Checking Out a Graduate Program

If you want to study crowdsourcing, there are some key questions you should ask yourself when evaluating whether or not a program is a good fit. This check list works well with just about any topic you’re interested in studying, actually:

  • Is there a professor in this program who studies crowdsourcing (or a related concept)? Is this professor willing to take on new advisees? Is this professor qualified to supervise my research? These are the most important questions to ask yourself. Graduate study is an individual pursuit, and scholarly life is about people, personalities, and individual research agendas. It would be better to go to a program that has just one professor who is a perfect fit for your research than to go to a program that generally fits your interests but doesn’t have any single professor who is a great fit for your particular interests. You go to graduate school to study with people, not to study topics. This is especially true for Ph.D. programs. There should be someone at that program who you admire, you should be familiar with his/her work, and you should be willing to work with that person closely for at least a few years. It’s also important to inquire whether that professor is willing to take on a new graduate student as an advisee. That professor may be booked solid with other graduate students and may say no to taking on any new ones until his/her current students graduate. A professor may also not have enough grant money to fund a new graduate student, and many programs are moving into a grant model where professors only get grad students that they can fund with the grants they win. And be sure that the person you want to work with is qualified, or allowed, to supervise your work. Some schools have faculties where only a portion of them are actually qualified or allowed by the university to supervise graduate work. Most universities have rules that say professors can only supervise graduate students who are pursuing a degree they already have, too, which means that a professor who has a master’s degree but not a doctorate may not be allowed to supervise a Ph.D. student.
  • Is the graduate program flexible enough to allow me to pursue my research interests in crowdsourcing? Some graduate programs are highly structured, where all or nearly all of your course work is prescribed for you. But some graduate programs are highly flexible, requiring only 1-3 core courses of all graduate students and letting you create your own path through the degree. Because there are no graduate programs specifically dedicated to crowdsourcing, you’ll probably want some flexibility to craft your own degree path. Figure out what’s required in the curriculum and what courses you’ll get to curate into your degree plan. Some of the most interesting work in crowdsourcing is interdisciplinary, so find out if you’re encouraged (or even allowed) to take courses in other departments, too.
  • Are there other professors in the program or in the university who have affiliated interests? Let’s assume you’ve found a great program that has one expert crowdsourcing scholar on the faculty you’re dying to work with. You still need to identify a few other faculty members to be part of your supervisory committee. Most Ph.D. students have to round up a chair (dissertation director) plus 2-4 other faculty members who serve as members of the supervisory committee (dissertation readers). Sometimes there are rules, too, that say that one of these other members needs to be from outside the department. It is important that there are other faculty members in that program or elsewhere at the university who are willing to serve on your supervisory committee and are capable of making sense of your research. If the crowdsourcing scholar you’re working with is the odd duck in the department, you may have some difficulty rounding up a committee that supports your work. And remember that crowdsourcing is an Internet-based phenomenon. If the rest of the faculty isn’t Internet savvy, for instance, it may be a challenge to round up a committee that can best support your work. This doesn’t mean professors are unable or unwilling to bend in new directions – if anything, it’s a joy to step outside your comfort zone to advise new students with exciting research questions. But it sometimes causes problems.
  • And then all the regular questions about grad school: Do they offer fellowship funding? Are the grad students and faculty collegial and welcoming? Is it in a place I want to live and can afford to live? Is this program going to prepare me for future employment or continued study in a satisfactory way? Am I ready to take on this commitment for the next few years? Will my family or partner kill me if I go to grad school? Etc.

The Outside Committee Member Option

Many schools are open to the possibility of having a student’s supervisory committee consist of one or more members from outside of the university entirely. Programs like Skype make this even easier. I had Karim Lakhani on my Ph.D. committee from a distance – he was in Boston, I was in Salt Lake City, and he attended my defense meetings via conference call. If you find that one program is a better home for you but you’re still eager to have one specific person on your committee from a distance, see if the university will allow that person to sit on your committee remotely and Skype in for meetings. This is becoming quite common. There are some technical headaches, but it’s generally a good thing.

So Who are the Crowdsourcing Scholars? Where are they Located?

This list is not exhaustive, and I welcome other folks studying crowdsourcing (and willing/eager to take on new grad students) to contact me and add their name to this list. Here are some folks studying crowdsourcing and related phenomena:

I welcome any other input from folks out there studying crowdsourcing. What do you think are the best programs for this kind of study? What other folks am I missing from this admittedly short list?


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  1. Pingback: Andrew Karpie » Graduate Studies in Crowdsourcing

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