Computing & Data Sciences Now Accepting Applications for Its New PhD Program
Interdisciplinary work will be at the heart of the curriculum
With its state-of-the-art Center for Computing & Data Sciences scheduled to open in 2022, BU’s Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) is now accepting applications for a new cross-disciplinary PhD program, where candidates will be able to work under the guidance of faculty within CDS as well as CDS-affiliated faculty in a domain of their choice.
Azer Bestavros, associate provost for computing and data sciences, says PhD students in CDS will have the opportunity to pursue research that stands to impact a variety of disciplines. “That’s what computing and data science research does,” he says, “so the idea is to have a program where it is possible to marry data science with another discipline. That discipline could be in the social sciences or the humanities or it could be in engineering or life sciences. That will be up to the student.”
The program, which is the first degree program offered by CDS, will start in fall 2021. Students will spend the first two years in what Bestavros calls a “cohort phase” of the program, where they will take some required courses and participate in common activities with their peers, including two required lab rotations to be completed in a research lab at BU or in industry.
“There will be a big emphasis on the ethical and responsible application of computing technology,” says Bestavros. “Given how computing technology has become so intertwined with our everyday life, paying special attention to ethical consideration will be very important for anyone who is developing informatics products.”
The cohort phase of the program will include symposia, where faculty from many disciplines present their computational or data-driven research. The goal, says Bestavros, is to give students an opportunity to look around and explore cross-disciplinary research they might pursue after their first two years.
Bestavros likens BU’s two-year cohort period to dating, in contrast with the “prearranged marriage” model of most doctoral programs. “During that time,” he says, “students are not bound in relationship with a specific faculty member. They are supported financially by CDS.”
After two years, they will pair up with faculty members to pursue research in the field of their choosing, and their study will be funded by grants awarded to their advisors. Bestavros says the program is designed to prepare students to pursue careers where they lead cutting-edge research and development agenda in academics or industry.
Pankaj Mehta, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of physics and a CDS founding faculty member, says PhD students in CDS might, for example, work with him on his current efforts to build predictive models of synthetic biology circuits.
“This is something that spans modern biology and synthetic biology, as well as data science and physics,” Mehta says. “That’s the whole idea behind a data science PhD. You could have biologists who need to know enough data science to solve a problem, or it could be a data scientist who needs to work with a quantitative biologist. These projects are done in collaboration with students who are able to transverse disciplines, and that works best if you are an expert in one thing and fluent in the other fields. That’s the vision here. I think all of these things are going to merge, so it’s a good time to start a PhD program like this.”
Wesley J. Wildman, a School of Theology professor of philosophy, theology, and ethics and a founding member of the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences, says computational simulation is extremely useful in studying complex social systems, which is a focus at the Center for Mind and Culture, the nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan research where he is executive director.
“We are also interested in mapping the evolution of academic fields,” Wildman says. “Computing and data science techniques such as natural-language processing and network analytics can be applied to publications and authors in a particular field, which illuminates how aspects of a particular field emerge, and then decline, or perhaps split into more than one type of literature. That can generate profound insights into the history and development of specialized academic fields.”
Elsewhere, he says, big data analytics can be used to analyze the dissemination of disinformation, including the convergence of religious worldviews and conspiracy theories, which is the focus of one of his current studies.
Daniel Kleinman, associate provost for graduate affairs and cochair, with Bestavros, of the Taskforce to Envision Data Science at Boston University, anticipates that much of the initial cohort of PhD students may come with faculty that is hired for CDS. There may also be students working with some of the founding faculty who decide to move from their current department into CDS, Kleinman says.
Applicants with and without connections to the faculty are invited to apply.
Bestavros emphasizes that the evaluation of candidates will be holistic, with no requirement for GRE test scores. Careful consideration will be given to creative projects or work done in an industry setting, as well as to a candidate’s online interview. CDS faculty will pay special attention to applicants from underrepresented minorities.
He says he hopes to enroll about five students a year for the first few years of the program, and he anticipates that most students will complete the program in six years. Applicants are expected to have earned a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in one of the disciplines relating to the computational and data-driven areas of scholarship in CDS. Those with degrees in applied areas of CDS, such as information systems, economics, bioinformatics, physics, astronomy, earth and environment, and emerging media, are expected to have basic mathematical and computational competencies, including probability, statistics, linear algebra, programming, data structures, and algorithms. Applicants with degrees in one of the core areas of CDS, such as computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and mathematics and statistics should have a portfolio that demonstrates propensity for cross-disciplinary work.
In addition to the standard pathway for admission, students in good standing who have been enrolled in a related PhD program at BU for no more than three years and are interested in working on research projects pursued by CDS faculty members may petition for transfer into the CDS PhD program.
“Given the demanding nature of cross-disciplinary research,” Bestavros says, “students admitted to the program should have exceptional credentials and letters of reference that attest to their readiness.”
Interested students can apply to the program here.