Crystal Lee (she/她)

Advice for potential MIT HASTS applicants

I get a lot of emails about these topics; please see if your questions are answered here before emailing me! You can also follow me on Twitter for more resources and to get a sense for this space.

CAVEAT: I do not have personal insight into the admissions process, and I also started this program in 2016. While I have tried to maintain this FAQ as best I can, there have likely been a lot of changes to the program that this post does not account for. Read at your own risk! [last edit June 5, 2023]


What is HASTS like? Do you like it?

Welcome! HASTS is a weird and wonderful niche of MIT where we study the cultural, social, and political dimensions of science and technology. The program is made up of three departments — history, anthropology, and STS — and students are required to take classes from all three as part of our core curriculum. Methodologically, students and professors in HASTS conduct qualitative research via archival work and ethnography, and all students usually work on some aspect of science and technology. In many ways, MIT is the ideal place to be doing this kind of work: we have unparalleled access to labs, classes, and colleagues in science and engineering compared to most humanities departments, but it’s also strange to be a lone humanist in a world of STEM.

The greatest thing about HASTS, in my opinion, is its flexibility and interdisciplinarity. I often joke to my friends that I’m getting a PhD in everything and nothing at the same time. The program requirements are relatively light compared to other departments in the same field, and the open posture that students and faculty take towards dissertation projects often means that you have much more freedom to pursue things that strike your fancy as they come. For myself, that means that I get to do work on the history and anthropology of computing (advised by the inimitable Graham Jones, an anthropologist of magic) while doing research in human-computer interaction (advised by great Arvind Satyanarayan in EECS, a computer scientist who works on data visualization). It is difficult to imagine doing a project with such an eclectic mix of methods and topics in any of the other programs I was admitted to, though I’m sure I would have been just as happy, just doing different, potentially less weird, work. So, in all, I have really enjoyed my time in HASTS.

So, as far as things that aren’t as rosy, I’d say that the program has some real issues when it comes to money and strict disciplinarity (you can read more about it in this section). However, I’d say that it’s a really great place to do work if you find your footing in a supportive cohort, committee, and MIT community. None of that is for certain, of course, but I am privileged to have found all of those things in my time at HASTS.

What is it like to do disability studies stuff at MIT?

To be up front, there are very few faculty members who specialize in disability studies in HASTS. The one I can think of off the top of my head is Stefan Helmreich, who has done great work on sound and Deaf studies, and he advises two of my favorite people at MIT who also do disability-related research: Tim Loh and Di Wu. I personally do not work with Stefan, but I have a fantastic support network on disability studies related things with faculty and students at other institutions, notably Ashley Shew (Virginia Tech + Tech and Disability Lab) and Gracen Brilmyer (McGill + Disability Archives Lab). So, while I do not have a direct faculty mentor at HASTS on DS related topics in my dissertation, I don’t feel like I’m at a loss for interlocutors on these topics. If anything, I count my lucky stars that I get to think and work with such a wide range of people — including two students in my admittedly very small program! Certainly it’s strange doing critical disability stuff in a land where plenty of technology is being developed to overcome disability, but I still find it to be a very productive place to think.

I’m really interested in the stuff you do about technology and society. What should I read and how can I get involved?

Here is a very long list of centers, reading lists, and other resources compiled by the amazing Angèle Christin. If you are interested in working on these issues in Cambridge, and if you are an undergraduate student with a marginalized identity, you may be interested in the MIT Summer Research Program. Most of the opportunities are STEM-focused, but there are opportunities available in the social sciences and architecture. You may be interested in applying for an internship at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society (you do not have to be an undergrad); there is also a separate process for the BKC Cyberlaw Clinic.

I’m interested in doing computational social science. Is HASTS the place for me?

In a word, no. The short story is that there is a healthy dose of skepticism at computational methodology. I would say that the program takes computational and technical methods in STEM fields as an object of study rather than a method that students and faculty use. Our methods are primarily grounded in history and anthropology (i.e., archival research and ethnography). You may instead be more interested in the political science or economics departments or the PhD program in Social and Engineering Systems in IDSS. These are much more quantitative in scope. Political science, for example, requires a statistical boot camp for students; our methods courses do not.

What do people do after HASTS? What do alumni career trajectories look like?

You can see professional placements of students graduating from the HASTS program here. The people coming out of our program have very (disciplinarily) heterogeneous paths, though they are largely still in academia. As for industry jobs, it is a slightly more difficult thing to answer: as with many humanities PhDs (an STS PhD can become a social science one, but this really depends on the program / what you think social science really is), there is not a clearly defined path, and a lot of it depends heavily on individual students making their own way. That may be a frustrating and vague response, but what I mean by it is that (1) it’s not orthodox and (2) as such can be a very lonely and frustrating process. This is not to dissuade you from applying, but it’s worth thinking about.

By and large, HASTS graduates tend to enter academia in a whole range of departments (anthropology, history of science, communications, law, etc). The interdisciplinarity of the program is a large factor. There are also very successful alumni who do work outside of the university in government, the private sector, and beyond. HASTS is a very strange program that gives you very strange outcomes — that’s often what makes it so exciting!

How should I compile my HASTS application materials? What is the admissions committee looking for?

I have no insight into what people are looking for on the admissions committee as I have never been on it, and from what I can tell from others the faculty have very different criteria for what they think is important. When it comes to writing the personal statement and compiling the writing sample, I defer actually to the advice of others that I found enormously helped me, despite these people applying for PhDs in other disciplines. They have thought more deeply about the process and have said everything that I would have wanted to say (and they do so more eloquently).

Here is a comprehensive list written by Kalpesh Krishna that collates advice from professors on how to apply to PhD programs. Emma Pierson also has a guide on how to write applications for prestigious fellowships like Rhodes, NDSEG, and Hertz. If you would like to apply for a NSF Graduate Fellowship to fund your studies, Alex Lang has a comprehensive list that also includes his own advice. If you want very comprehensive videos that walk you through every part of the admissions process (and academic life after you get in!), Casey Fiesler (a professor) has an entire YouTube channel devoted to this. Here is another guide from Berkeley about how to write a statement of purpose with some other things to consider. Here is a sample SOP annotated with comments by Berkeley faculty.

Also, if there’s conflicting advice, this is actually very normal! Different people look for different things in a prospective student, so they give advice on what _they _might be interested in (and this degree of heterogeneity occurs at HASTS, too). All this to say: there is no magic bullet for this, and you can read over these resources and see which ones resonate with you and go from there.

The HASTS admissions process seems totally weird. Could you walk me through it? What does and doesn’t HASTS offer as a doctoral program?

I don’t know much about the inner workings of the admissions committee or how it works, but in my own experience, HASTS is unique among its humanistic peers in that there is a formal interview weekend and no visit day (which can make it a little unsavory because every other program puts on a fancy song and dance about why you should choose them, whereas the one time you visit HASTS is to be evaluated). I think you should treat the interview as a mutual one (acknowledging that there are power dynamics here): both you and the program are in the hot seat! I say this especially since HASTS is unique in good and bad ways.

If you are looking for a program that will strictly discipline and induct you into a specific academic track, HASTS is not a good place to do that. Traditionally trained historians and anthropologists can look down on the HASTS approach as being methodologically indecisive, and many do not think that the history and anthropology of science should require different training. Additionally, you have to be sure that you want to be at a research university that prizes STEM and looks at programs in the humanities and social sciences as secondary. The interview is an excellent place to gauge whether or not those things are right for you, and if being at a place like MIT (or Cambridge more broadly) is something that you would enjoy.

Okay, caveats over. Unlike other PhD programs who over-admit assuming that some candidates will choose other programs, HASTS only has 5 live offers at any given time (i.e., we do not admit 10 people assuming a 50% matriculation rate, we only accept five at any one time). If someone rejects the offer, then they will make an offer to another candidate. This ensures that there will be five (and only five) students which the program can fully fund and support on the job market. So coming back to the original question: like other programs, you submit your application materials, the committee does a first read and then (unlike other programs) chooses finalists for the interview.

There are usually 2 interview weekends, where the program will fly you out with other candidates (you have to book your own accommodation from what I recall and the program will reimburse you—if that puts you under a lot of strain, they can work with you). That being said, I assume that everything now will be conducted solely on Zoom. During the weekend, you will get presentations on what the program looks like and there will be lunch and dinner with current students, who are quite friendly and welcoming. The actual interview sounds a little intimidating, as you will be interviewed by a panel of current faculty and one graduate student representative.

In my interview, there were (if I recall correctly) 3 faculty members who I had mentioned in my personal statement and had similar interests along with the graduate student liaison. To prepare for the interview, I had sketched out some points that I knew I wanted to talk about in the interview: my goals for grad school / why getting a PhD was _essential _to a certain path I wanted to take, a brief sketch of the things I’m interested in, experiences in school / internships that applied to what I wanted to study, things I really liked about HASTS, and a few questions (I honestly don’t remember what mine were). All of the questions from the panel were very kind and none of them were gotcha questions that required me to demonstrate any specialized knowledge; I genuinely felt like they wanted me to put my best foot forward and were keen to answer any questions to the best of their ability. To that end, I never felt like I was ever being “sold” something as I did with some of my other PhD programs. It felt like a very honest and kind approach to what HASTS could and couldn’t offer.

Should I email faculty I’m interested in working with before starting the application?

Given the way that faculty email inboxes look like now, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I don’t think it hurts, but I also don’t know how much it helped since I know people who got responses but were rejected, and others who didn’t write any emails and were accepted. When I was applying, I did write a short email to all the faculty I was interested in working with, and it just so happened that the only people who responded were the only people who ended up admitting me. To be clear, this was in 2015 — way before an election or a pandemic. I do think that it’s a crucial difference to what it’s like now; I think it would be fine to express interest but not much more than that. From talking to the faculty after I was admitted, the fact that I wrote an email didn’t help me that much in the process; it just so happened that they were good fits for what I was interested in doing and the email stars had aligned. Many of the people I ended up working with at MIT were people who generally don’t respond to these emails very much, though; this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be interested in working with you.

What did you say in these emails?

I kept it short and sweet (and frankly I think it could have been even shorter). Here is the general format I used adapted to different people:

Dear Professor X,

My name is Crystal, and I'm currently at Stanford finishing a co-terminal BA/MA in the history of science. I recently decided to apply to PhD programs in the history of science and have been encouraged by my advisors to write to you. I am incredibly excited by your work and by work at <department>, and would like to ask if you are accepting any students this year.

As an introduction: I completed a senior thesis at Stanford on <thesis topic> and I have held research assistantships at <various places>. I became captivated by your research when I first started thinking about <theme I teased out in my application specific to this program.> In fact, your book on XYZ helped me think through <idea that I thought was very interesting in their work.>

I would love to work with you should I gain admission to <PhD program>, but I also wanted to ask if you might suggest other professors who work on similar subjects (especially if you think that I might not be a good fit for the program at <institution>).

Thank you for your time.



Could you help me with my application?

Unfortunately, I have pretty limited time to read and comment on applications. As such, I do not want to subject you to shoddy comments that may harm rather than help your application. However, if you are a BIPOC, trans, disabled, or first-gen student applying to HASTS, please get in touch. I will not be able to look over your materials, but I’m happy to answer questions that are not already listed here (which I will later post here for others) and to share my application materials with you. Please don’t circulate or plagiarize them, and do consider doing something like this in the future since seeing other applications is so helpful (and often a privilege afforded to people who already have a lot of resources to apply to graduate school).

Student life

How do HASTS professors choose projects to supervise? What factors do they consider (methodological expertise, mentorship chemistry, etc.)?

How HASTS profs choose the projects they supervise is not something that is clear at all — and I don’t think I’d be able to tell you for sure what the people on my own committee look for in a project to advise! I would say that it’s actually less important that you have individual people like your project than it is for the amorphous committee to — you are fundamentally admitted to the program, and not to an individual advisor. While it’s certainly useful to have a few people on your side, there is no expectation that they are your potential advisee. In other words, I wouldn’t worry about this specific question too much — concentrate more on making sure that you would have an array of advisors who would be helpful in pushing your research interests forward.

How is funding like for ethnographic fieldwork you'd have to conduct overseas? Does it mostly come from external fellowships?

Everything for research is external; we only have $400/year in travel funding from the department proper. There are, however, funding opportunities from within the Institute (e.g. Kelly Douglass, the GSC Travel Grants, Center for International Studies) that we can apply for to fund conference travel and research.

Is it difficult to secure teaching assistantships in HASTS?

No — in fact, it’s very easy! This is the primary way that you are funded as a student, and you are assigned TAships from the department. You are required to teach at least 3-4 times during your time at MIT. It is also relatively easy to TA classes at Harvard, especially in the history of science department.

Is the stipend that HASTS gives enough to live in the Boston area?

It really depends on how you like to live and I’m assuming that you do not have to support a partner, family members, or any children. This is a pretty big assumption! I know that’s really subjective, but as a comparative perspective, I would say that our stipend is similar in level to other humanities programs at Harvard (I’m thinking about my colleagues in the history of science department). They have to pay for health insurance out of their stipend, so even though their stipend number is higher, it ends up shaking out to be about_ _the same since we do not. However, many of those departments (at Harvard and at other peer institutions) have much larger research budgets for students — not the paltry $400 that HASTS has.

I would actually recommend looking at the MIT Living Wage project to think about how much money is enough in a certain place — funny that there is a project at MIT about this despite the fact that the institute is barely doing enough to make sure students can live. To be concrete: this month, I made $3,488 after taxes, and I get paid 11 months out of 12 (we have 2 months of summer funding but the rate if I recall correctly is lower, and I have a fancy fellowship this year that pays a little more than usual). So, if you look at “one adult and no children,” it’s just about enough; we don’t have insurance costs (it’s paid separately — there’s a lot more I could say about insurance but as a generality our insurance coverage really is stellar). Personally, I think I live comfortably; I do have some side gigs that pay pretty well and those are the main sources of my savings.

To be up front, graduate school anywhere is very hard and stressful if you do not have existing savings, a partner with a more substantial income, or generational wealth; HASTS (and many programs at MIT and otherwise) depend fundamentally on the reimbursement model and they often won’t process anything until _after you have taken the trip. _So, in many cases, it could mean that you are fronting thousands of dollars of travel (in the Before Times) and are giving MIT an interest free loan until your conference is over. I finally got reimbursed for a trip I took in 2019 in fall 2021 (pandemic year…but still). I have had cases where things were reimbursed immediately, some cases where a professor let me use their MIT card so I didn’t have to front anything, and instances where I had to wait ages for a big reimbursement. If you want some resources on how to address these in grad school writ large, I would recommend this document from 2016 on “how to prepare for grad school if you’re poor.” In some cases, departments will let you use a p-card to book in advance, but that is usually a special circumstance.

This is by no means unique to HASTS, but I would say that HASTS has a kind of financial strain that I think is unique — in response to this, though, I would say that students in our program are very proactive and good at winning grants. It’s not uncommon for there to be multiple winners of NSF, SSRC, or Wenner Gren grants in the same cohort (there are in mine!), which reflects on the department in two ways: because we don’t have money, we feel extra motivated to seek it out and often do so very successfully. However, being motivated by scarcity can be emotionally difficult and torturous. Why be stressed out if you don’t have to be?

All this to say: it has been enough for me to live relatively well — I go out to eat on Fridays and have never really worried about whether or not rent will be on time — but I also don’t really have savings. This is possible because I do not have student debt or dependents, and I have a safety net if I need it in my partner and family, all of which is an immense privilege. I do get stressed about future finances given that I haven’t really made much money in my 20s — the best time to invest, I am told! — and sometimes I am waiting for big purchases to be reimbursed. Money worries are a personal trait but also something that I think is exacerbated through the program. Take that for what you will!

How did your MIT HASTS cohort function day-to-day (e.g., collaborative, solitary, etc)?

The HASTS cohorts are very small (five!), which means that there is a great deal of variation between them as the dynamic of a group can be easily changed. I know that’s probably a bit obvious, but worth saying anyways, since the last thing I want to suggest is that my experience can be generalized. Overall, I thought that my cohort was very collaborative and supportive, and they are some of my closest friends to this day. One of the things that we did, which I would suggest to future cohorts, was organize a lunch with a faculty member every week, so we met a good swathe of faculty in our first two semesters. As far as work goes, we took very similar classes so could often lean on one another; I often structured my schedule so that one of my cohort-mates and I (Jamie Wong!) could trade notes for class and for our oral exams. Jamie and I read the Common List, which is the standard reading list that all HASTS students go through, together with Will Deringer. I really cherish the relationships I have with my cohort and wouldn’t have it any other way.

More personal (ish) stuff

What has been exciting for you to work on recently? Anything you're looking forward to working on next?

(This is accurate as of June 2023, but if you asked me the same question in a month, the answer would probably be different.)

So, I think the answer that will be somewhat consistent is that I’m really excited to write my book, which is tentatively called Adventures on the Embodied Internet. It’s an exploration of how the internet mediates multisensory experience: how does (or can) the internet make you feel? We could talk about emotions like rage or joy, but there are a lot of cases that play with real, physical sensation: ASMR, vicarious eating via mukbang, sex work and camming, and beyond. I think it’s worth mentioning that this book is explicitly not about the metaverse.

As for other exciting stuff I’ve been thinking about: responsible computing curricula in Kenya and India. Anti-fatness, ableism, and diet culture in tech ethics discourse (e.g., “data nutrition,” “social media detox”). Bringing responsible tech curricula from the classroom to the board room. I feel like there are so many exciting projects I’m pumped about, but I’m scattered enough that this slew of projects will probably change in a blink of an eye!

How did you get interested in tech?

Oof, big question. I don’t have a “ever since I was a child” story with tech. As you might have gleaned from certain answers, I actually didn’t think that tech would be a very important part of my life: growing up, I wanted to do some kind of international policy work, as there was a highly probable universe where I would’ve gone to Georgetown and tried to become a diplomat. That being said, I always liked math and stats and was decent, but not excellent, at it. I think the transformation into computing in particular probably happened sometime as an undergrad at Stanford, where tech — for better or for worse — is completely inescapable. In some ways, it seemed like there was a dichotomy of believers and conscientious objectors. I bristled at the rigid ways of thinking about quantification, and the implication that I wasn’t “doing something” by studying the humanities and social sciences. The fact that historians of science very actively interrogated the concept of quantification and measurement completely unlocked the questions that I had but didn’t know how to ask. I have so many people to thank for really helping me explore my interests in the history of science — for cultivating it, for questioning it, and for pushing me to learn in more expansive ways: Jessica Riskin, Paula Findlen, Adrian Daub, Londa Schiebinger, Thomas Mullaney, Gina Anne Tam, Alex Statman, Anna Toledano, Hannah Leblanc, and Halley Barnet. Their work shaped my thinking in so many ways. <LeVar Burton voice> …but you don’t have to take my word for it!