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Aini Putkonen: 'The life of a doctoral student is very versatile'

Doctoral student Aini Putkonen thinks that the doctoral degree prepares students well for both academia and industry.
Doctoral student Aini Putkonen
Aini Putkonen is a second year doctoral student at the User Interfaces research group. Photo: Sebastian Szyller.

Welcome! Can you introduce yourself and the topic you’re working on at Aalto University?

My name is Aini Putkonen. I’m a second year doctoral student at the User Interfaces research group, supervised by Prof. Antti Oulasvirta. My research focuses on user modelling, and specifically on modelling decision-making in interactive systems. This means that we build models of how people use applications on different devices, like on smart phones, tablets or computers. The goal is to capture user behaviour in a computational model. More broadly, my research falls under the area of Human Computer Interaction, or HCI in short.

Can you give a concrete examples of one of the projects you’re working on?

Sure. In a recently accepted project we explored using so-called theory-based models as foundations for modelling game players. These theory-based models come from fields like cognitive science and economics, and hence they have the benefit of being interpretable. That means that it’s possible to explain how and why a model makes a particular prediction, with fairly little domain knowledge. In the game example this could translate to explanation of why a user chooses a particular action, like a tool to use.

What is it that drew you to this particular topic or this particular area of studies?

HCI is a very interdisciplinary field, which I enjoy as I like combining my understanding of several different areas in my work. I did an undergraduate degree in Economics and Management, before moving towards computer science related fields. I became interested in HCI as a field of research during my master’s, when I was writing my thesis at my current research group. I’m interested in how and why people behave the way they do, which is exactly what I ended up researching. HCI is also a field that’s tackling a lot of very topical problems, since interactive devices are ubiquitous. There’s potential for big impact for different user groups.

It sounds like you landed at the right place – are you where you want to be?

Yes, I did. And I’ve been very happy here.

Yes, that’s clear!

I think a lot of people would be curious to hear what a doctoral student’s life at Aalto looks like on a daily basis. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Well, this has radically changed in the last few months because for the first year of my doctoral studies I mainly worked from home due to the pandemic. Now we’re returning to campus, which is excellent.

In general, the life of a doctoral student is very versatile. You get to develop many technical and soft skills. Examples of skills you develop are naturally those related to your own topic. You’re going to know a lot about your own topic, as well those related to it. In addition, in HCI research you often have to implement solutions to your research problems by programming. You also learn how to express your ideas both in writing and via presentations. You will probably also do some teaching. There are many ways in which you learn to express complex ideas to different audiences. Really, your own interest – and of course time -- is the limit to how many skills you can develop

I find research to be much more versatile than, perhaps, I thought before starting my doctoral studies

Whatever I decide to do, I’m sure that the doctoral degree will be useful.

Aini Putkonen

What is your favorite thing about your programme? If there are lots of them, name three things.

I’ll go with three things.

First of all, I really enjoy the freedom. Your job is to think and generate new knowledge in your field. Of course, you’re somewhat constrained by the topic you work on, but there’s a lot of freedom to explore things that you find interesting. This aspect of discovery is great about research.

I also enjoy the versatility of the work. I get to read, I get to write, I get to code, I get to present… improving all of these different skills.

The third thing is that you get to collaborate with top people in your field. These collaborations are very rewarding.

Internationally, I assume, not just locally?

Yes, around the world.

When you started the doctoral programme, did you feel like you were sufficiently prepared by your previous studies, or was it a sudden and deep dive?

The answer is yes and no. As I did my master’s thesis in a research group, I had an idea of what to expect, but of course research is challenging. The good thing is that you learn quickly!

Along these lines, what advice would you give to people who are considering applying to a doctoral programme in your general area?

I would definitely suggest trying to gather some research experience during your undergraduate or master’s studies. A good way to learn research skills is by being involved in actual research projects. I would also try courses from fields other than your own, since you can find cool topics that way. I discovered my topic by attending a course I wasn’t even planning to take initially.

What are your plans after you graduate? What are you planning to do with this degree?

Whatever I decide to do, I’m sure that the doctoral degree will be useful. I would like to stay in research – we’ll see what the future holds. Typically, the two avenues are academia or industry, and I think a doctoral degree prepares you well for both.

Interested in doctoral studies? Become a doctoral student at the School of Electrical Engineering

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