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Sep 10, 2020

Over 20 Years of Doers and Thinkers: School of Information Ph.D.s

Just over 20 years ago, the School of Information launched its doctoral program, offering a Ph.D. in Information Management and Systems. We now have over 50 Ph.D. alumni, and their paths are varied: they are academics and researchers, or they might work in data science and engineering. Many, like alumnus Bob Bell (Ph.D. ’15), are in public interest tech, which uses technology expertise to advance the public interest and promote the public good. 

In the first of an occasional series of Ph.D. alumni profiles, the I School spoke to Bell about his time as a student and where his degree has taken him. Bell graduated in 2015, and currently works as an Economic Affairs Officer in the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Section at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva. This group services the UN commission for Science and Technology for Development. 

Tech, Innovation, and Developing Countries

“My work is a lot of research and analysis,” Bell said. “I write issues papers on policy-relevant papers that then go to the UN Economic and Social Council.”  He’s also part of the core writing team that writes the Tech Innovation Report, which is the flagship report that researches tech and innovation for developing countries. This year’s report will focus on frontier technologies and inequalities, which Bell says will “speak to the larger question of how artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other technologies impact the poor other marginalized groups and will offer governments a set of policy options to start to address the issues.”   

Doers and Thinkers in One Place

Bell said that his time as an I Schooler (Jenna Burrell was his dissertation advisor) is intrinsic to the work he does today. “The I School approach is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary,” he said, noting that there were some students in his Ph.D. cohort that focused on the tech or engineering side of problem-solving, and there were people — like him —  who were looking at issues from the sociological or economic perspective, using an almost “anthropological lens”.  

“The I School approach is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.”
— Bob Bell

Bell went on to explain that the way he likes to see himself and the work he does in the world is “to do and to think.” The I School provided that template. In many academic programs, he said, they focus on just doing and deploying, or they’re focused on thinking and critiquing. What makes the I School a unique space is, “it’s where the doers and the thinkers are all in one place, sharpening each others’ views of their work. It’s very useful.” It informs his current work, he says, where he sits at the boundaries of many different communities and is able to translate their needs and priorities in ways that others cannot. “What I think the world is missing — and I see this in my work — are these intermediaries like me, who sit at the interface of many different types of communities to shape their futures. More than any other program, this is what the I School prepares us to do.” 

Celebrating 20 Years

While Bob Bell’s path led to a role with an intergovernmental organization, our Ph.D. alumni can also be found in tenure track positions at schools like UC Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Georgia Tech, as well as in leadership positions at companies like Airbnb, IDEO, and Facebook.  

“Our Ph.D. program is a special place,” said Associate Dean Steven Weber when asked to comment on the 20th anniversary of the program, “where intellectually courageous researchers come to do exciting and important work — and the success of our alumni in academia, government, and industry proves it.”

Ph.D. Career Outcomes


Ph.D. graduates 2010–2018.

Ph.D. alumni: Share anecdotes about your I School Ph.D. experience by emailing, and look for an invitation to a virtual happy hour with the Head of School at the end of September. Email with any questions.

Last updated:

September 14, 2020