As one of the Open Hardware Trailblazer Fellows, I hope that my experiences can be informative, or at least bring some sense of solidarity, to other PhD students working on open hardware (OH). PhD programs seem to be isolating experiences by design. After all, you’re supposed to do original research — by definition, doing something that nobody else has ever done. How do you find community when you’re the only one doing what you’re doing?

I think my answer is to find connections with other people who are making things with similar features, and asking similar questions. I try to ignore traditional labels and disciplinary silos like “researcher”, “artist”, “engineer”, etc. so to some, the connections I make might seem like big reaches. My research in textiles and maker tools falls under the human-computer interaction (HCI) umbrella, and building hardware is my way of ensuring that my output research can not only support textile makers in their designing processes, but also play a part in the physical fabrication of those designs. Through the Trailblazers fellowship, I met academics who were working on very different projects, but we found unexpected connections anyway. I was the only person working with textiles, but everyone struggled in their own way with staying on top of documentation and hustling for recognition. Meeting with the other fellows during our cohort meetings gave me comfort that I wasn’t alone, even if I felt like my project was weird and niche. Moreover, most of the other fellows were faculty rather than students and many of the mentors worked outside of academia, so I had constant reminders that the stress of my PhD studies was only temporary, and open hardware would lead to much more exciting places in the future.

However, sometimes doing open hardware and PhD research added more stress to my plate, despite the community I found. Because my research focuses more on the design theories around and qualitative evaluation of the hardware in question, my writing needed to mostly discuss these aspects and heavily streamline the implementation details. Thus, I couldn’t use much of the technical documentation I wrote for the OH project for my academic writing. I essentially had twice the writing to do. And I already had a lot of writing to do.

I noticed other conflicts between academic output and OH output when judging how “ready” the work was. For the Loom Pedals, my advisor suggested that it was “publishable” once I had a proof-of-concept prototype. The Loom Pedals were nowhere near their current level of functionality and polish: I hadn’t designed the PCB yet, the enclosures were an earlier boxy version, and I was still ironing out the software interface. The crux of the manuscript was to be the “novel” concept of creating a customizable interface for a Jacquard loom. If I were to post about the project online, as I have with some personal hardware projects, I would’ve waited until I had documented things better and organized my files — a “pushable” state. Maybe this is just my perfectionism speaking, and/or specific to publishing in HCI, which is so focused on “novelty”. 

Lastly, I can’t forget my dissertation. This fellowship lined up with my final year as a PhD student, so for my final few months, my primary focus was just putting together my dissertation. I hope I’m not sounding repetitive because all of my issues have been with writing. But writing has been the single most prominent aspect of academia that I wouldn’t think about so much if, say, I was working as an engineer in a start-up.

Starting with this one parallel, I’ve been thinking about other ways that academic tasks mirror open-source practices; and going even further, ways that academic spaces could learn from open-source communities to become more nurturing and collaborative. 

As a minor example, I ended up putting my dissertation (LaTeX files, images, and other assets) into a Git repository because I was overwhelmed by organizing my files and tracking changes in response to my committee’s feedback. On a whim, I made it public on GitHub, like so many other projects that I’ve just thrown online. I’ve already sent the link to a few other students who wanted ideas for their own dissertation processes. I’ve realized that I want my academic work to include my process to transparently show the mess that preceded a polished manuscript. I want to be honest about my struggles, so I can share and create resources with others (like a living dissertation template that will be updated every year, not every decade). I want my work to exist outside of paywalls and institutions. And most of all, I want to dispel the myth that academics are solitary geniuses who periodically emerge from their wizard towers, publications in hand — a myth which only perpetuates elitist, exclusive institutions that isolate and burn out prospective academics who lack certain privileges.

I recognize that some (maybe most) of my feelings of isolation stem from doing my PhD during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conferences were moved online or outright canceled, and in a field that heavily emphasizes publishing in conference proceedings, I missed out on a lot of networking, commiserating, and collaborating with other students that would normally take place at in-person conferences. Nevertheless, I would love to talk with others who might feel similarly and brainstorm ideas to support each other. Discord server? (entirely serious)

If you would like to commiserate about PhD angst and lament about not having actual wizard towers, you can find Shanel Wu at: (website) / (Github) @sminliwu / (Instagram and Discord) @pipernell / (email)