Machine Agency is a research group at the University of Washington in the department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE). Machine Agency is directed by Prof. Nadya Peek. Our research focus is on harnessing the precision of machines for the creativity of individuals.
What’s a PhD?
PhD students are students who have completed basic training (e.g. during Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees) who are now conducting research! Typically, PhD candidates take some classes at the start of their PhD, but mostly they dedicate their time to research and teaching. PhD students typically get paid in the form of Research Assistantships or Teaching Assistantships, and their compensation includes their tuition, their health insurance, and a living stipend. PhD students become PhD candidates after passing their general exam, typically around their third year, and graduate after completing their dissertation thereafter.
Prof. Nadya advises PhD students in Human-Centered Design and Engineering (her home dept), in Computer Science and Engineering, and in Mechanical Engineering.
Applying as a PhD student to Machine Agency
We are always looking for creative, technical, hardworking, and collaborative PhD applicants. Applicants are expected to have a strong interest in digital fabrication, (small-scale/laboratory) automation, human-centered robotics, open-source hardware, and science and technology studies. Successful applicants have demonstrated skill in design and engineering, including in computer programming, mechanical design, interaction design, architecture, electrical engineering, or product design. Writing and presentation skills are essential, as PhD students are expected to regularly publish in and present to diverse venues.
To apply to Machine Agency, you must apply through the graduate student admission process, name Prof. Nadya Peek/Machine Agency in your application, and include a link to an online portfolio of work. Machine Agency has students from many different fields, including Human-Centered Design and Engineering (Prof. Nadya’s home department), Computer Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Each of these fields has separate admissions processes:
Applications are due in early December for admission the following September.
Machine Agency has limited space for self-funded visiting PhD students from other universities. Visiting PhD students might come to the Agency for a quarter or two to collaborate on a research project that is of mutual interest.
Getting Research Experience at Machine Agency as a UW Student
Machine Agency runs several Directed Research Groups (DRGs) where undergraduates and master’s students can gain research experience for academic credits. For current offerings and application processes, see here. For examples of prior DRGs see our archive. If you are currently a UW student interested in a DRG, feel free to reach out to Prof. Nadya or other Machine Agents for more information.
We may have limited space for postdoc positions. If you feel like you would be a good fit, please contact Prof. Nadya directly.
Q: When do I apply?
A: Admissions to the PhD programs are due in early December, and you are typically notified by late March. Applying to a Directed Research Group as a UW undergraduate or master’s student happens every quarter.
Q: What kind of PhD students does Machine Agency look for?
A: We are looking for interdisciplinary students who engage deeply with design, technical challenges, and broader societal context. This often translates to students who self-identify as builders, tinkerers, makers, or hackers but also understand how tinkering fits into a research agenda.
Q: Do I need to have a master’s degree to apply to a PhD program?
A: Unlike many other programs around the world, PhD programs in the US generally do not require applicants to have a master’s degree when applying. Some students in Machine Agency have started their PhDs directly after finishing their bachelor’s degrees, and some have taken time to work in industry between their undergraduate and graduate studies. The department of Human Centered Design and Engineering offers a path to getting a master’s degree while doing PhD work, but it is not a requirement for completing a PhD in HCDE. Computer Science and Engineering awards a master’s degree after passing the qualifying exam, typically in the second year.
Q: I do not have prior research experience, can I still apply?
A: We definitely are interested in applicants who have prior experience in publishing in Human-Computer Interaction and related fields. However, it is definitely not a requirement. We look at an applicant’s prior experience holistically, and evaluate their interest in asking and answering research questions, whether or not they have done so before in prior publications. For example, we highly encourage applicants from the maker community to apply.
Q: Can I get feedback on my application before I submit it?
A: We encourage applicants to reach out to the academic advising staff about their applications! Their contact information is listed here.