Whether to do a Ph.D. or Not
There are a lot of people out there who recommend that nobody should do a Ph.D. The argument is that there are too many Ph.Ds with too few jobs already, so the system is broken, will only get worse, academia is going to hell in a handbasket, and therefore nobody should touch grad school. I respect many of the people who give that advice, and it’s based on many assertions that I think are accurate – there are more candidates than jobs, higher education does seem to be contracting, the right wing in the US especially really do seem hellbent on gutting public universities, tenure, and critical studies, and it can be rough out there. But as blanket advice for everyone, it’s bad advice. First, it occasionally reeks of someone who has climbed the mountain telling other people that it’s impossible to climb so they shouldn’t even bother. Second, the surplus of Ph.Ds is worse in some fields (English, I’m looking at you) than others, so occasionally that advice is field-specific. Even as the humanities at large bleed out, many media programs are expanding nationwide, or at least holding strong at their current size. The prognosis isn’t as bad for us, in other words. Third, in this day and age, what business isn’t highly competitive? The people telling you not to go to grad school may have no effective frame for comparison, bear in mind; or, rather, check if they do if that’s their advice. Certainly, you’re making a perilous mistake if you come to academia because you think it’s a growth area bound to give you a great, high-paying job, so you’ll need to love it to advance happily. Similarly, if you’re just staying in school because you don’t know what else to do, that’s a lousy reason to continue. But if you really love the area, are equally excited by the prospect of researching and teaching, don’t want to do anything else anywhere near as much, and have checked your ego enough not to be entitled into thinking you’ll get a high-paying job at a wonderful school just because you turned up and wrote the dissertation, read on.
Rather, then, my key points of advice regarding whether to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place are:
(1) Be sure that you want to do this. The people who advise you not to go to grad school do so because they know the road to a job is a rough one. The Ph.D. itself can be a long, isolating process, you may struggle to get funding, and your reward for finishing may be a lukewarm job market that might deliver you a starter job that you’ll desperately want to leave. Love what you do, and be confident that you’ll get enough personal reward out of the path ahead that some of its slings and arrows deflect off you.
Note that this is what good MA programs can offer if you’re not certain if you want to pursue the Ph.D. If you’re on the fence, don’t apply for Ph.Ds – apply for an MA. Many programs in the US don’t offer “terminal” MAs, but there are some great programs that do, and you’d also be wise to look overseas, especially to the UK, where one year focused MA programs are the norm. My own MA at Goldsmiths was something of a “taste test” of media studies, I loved it, and I stayed, whereas many of my peers there realized that they were done. Sometimes people want to do a Ph.D. simply because they don’t know what else to do, or because going to school is all they know. Those are crappy reasons. Know that you love and want it, and if not, get thee to an MA program.
A word, too, on what “it” is. Academia requires writing and researching. Any truly smart undergrad likely has it within him or her to stay up late the night before an assignment and knock out a pretty awesome draft. But to succeed at future levels, you’ll need to be more than a last-minute writer – you should love not just the ideas and the discussion of them, but the process of exploration. If you find writing lonely, if it’s only ever tortuous, and if papers are the worst part of your academic experience, if you don’t truly love libraries and reading, if you’re worried about the prospect of spending significant chunks of several years sitting down and reading about things, you won’t be happy. Teaching is the most visible part of an academic’s job for undergrads, but as you advance, you’ll realize that as massively important as teaching is and should be, way more of your time will be spent with class prep, with research, with writing, with lots and lots of reading (and probably a lot of committee meetings at some point). Gut check time: does that sound exciting, tolerable, or excruciating? Unless you’re excited or at least think you might be excited (see advice on taking an MA above), don’t do it.
The same of course goes for teaching. There are a few places in the world where you can work in this field and just do research and administrative work, but they’re rare, and largely don’t exist in the US (at least at the junior level). If your passion is research and the prospect of teaching annoys, terrifies, or disgusts you, please don’t go further, for your sake and for the sake of all those students who’ll be in debt for life paying for the class you’ll teach poorly. You don’t need to be a good teacher now – you may need all sorts of help and training to get there. But you should want to be one.
Let me also say something about skills you should have to succeed. Self-discipline is key: academics may only have three or four things in their weekly schedule, and the rest relies on you applying yourself, not getting distracted, and finding the motivation to work when there’s not an immediate deadline. The grad students and academics I know who do the job well can set their own deadlines and keep to them, actually want to write, and can shift gears from the here-and-now to the long game and back again. Those who can’t do those things suffer.
(2) Be realistic about the prospects for success with a Ph.D. from some places. As I’ll note below, ideally you want a brilliant program with a brilliant, high-profile advisor/committee, and with funding, since getting a job’s hard, way way more so when you’re not from a premier program and/or helped by the advocacy of a high profile individual or five. Lack of funding means the degree may need to be part-time. One of the first two – great program or great advisor – without the other two might be enough. But once you’re getting neither of those first two, your path forward will be extremely hard. If you’re not getting the connections you need, the level of supervision and instruction you need, the vigorous testing of your ideas from smart profs and peers, and are getting no favors on your CV, you’ll have a steep road uphill, and at that point it’s worth asking yourself if you’re willing to take a road that may involve even more intellectual isolation, and that will require all the more energy and fight from you to get where you want to go. A poorly paid academic makes barely more – and sometimes less – than someone on minimum wage, so if you’re really struggling to get into a top program, and if you’ve had several cracks at it, you might be wiser to try something else. Or just be prepared to be scrappy and to be remarkably proactive and productive for the next few years. Or jockey your way up: go to the best MA program you can, prove yourself there, then apply for top Ph.D. programs later.
How to Choose a Program
As I said above, the ideal is a premier program with a brilliant potential supervisor and with funding. Add a school in a great place to round out the ideal.
Program can matter for a variety of reasons. If it’s a great program, it’s produced other people in the field (indeed, this is a key test for whether a program is great, not what some silly ranking system says – since most of those rankings are created with an awful formula – and not whether the university has a good name, since it’s the program that counts in the first instance) … or it might be seen as an up-and-comer that’s in the process of doing so. It will have buzz. When you apply for a job down the road, being from there will mean something. You may even be applying to someone from there who likely has a small bias towards their alma mater. But even before then, the reputation will help you elsewhere (people in the field are often interested in what great new scholars are coming through the system, and they may more often look to the top programs first for signs). And great programs are hopefully great for a reason – they’ve worked out how to create top-notch scholars. They have a culture of success and participation. They might hold conferences, or often play a key role in funded research, or create other opportunities for you to network. If their greatness is well-known within their home university, they’re hopefully on safer, sturdier legs when it comes to funding and institutional support. Moreover, because they’re a top program, they’ll attract other top candidates, meaning that ideally your peers will be excellent scholars who help push you forward, and from whom you’ll learn a lot. Remember that you may be spending a lot of your time with your peers, and a great program will give you peers who inspire, support, drive, and push you in exciting ways. If the program has a job opening at the faculty level, they’ll also attract top candidates there, meaning that they have a greater chance of staying at the top of the heap, even if they lose faculty as well.
Supervisor or potential supervisor matters because that’s likely your primary colleague on your project, and the person who’ll have the most influence on what you do with yourself for the next few years. If this person is crap, unequal to the task, or simply mediocre, you’ll always be needing to provide the smarts yourself, and higher level academic inquiry is a deeply dialogic affair, I believe, meaning that monologic learning is neither preferable nor profitable. But if they’re a great fit, they can push you, shine lights on things you hadn’t thought of, and be a valued quality control valve on your work. This is also the person who’ll be your advocate, who’ll hopefully fight to get you a job and/or to open other doors for you, and thus you want someone who knows the field well enough to do so, ideally who has the power and pull to do so, and who you’ll want in your corner in the first place. Think of it this way: a good three years of your Ph.D. will likely consist largely of you writing for one reader, so make sure that one reader is appropriate. If s/he has considerable profile in the field, that could help, for the same reasons that a good program matters, but of the utmost importance is whether s/he has the skills to help you with your project. Of course, dissertations are meant to be original, so no supervisor will know your entire topic matter, but s/he should be able to help in ways that make sense.
You may not know when you apply, but if you progress through the admissions process, try your very best to gauge how receptive the advisor is to your work, and what kind of advisor they are and will be. Not all smart people are good advisors. Not all “big name” scholars are good advisors. (Nor, though, are all “big name” scholars bad advisors.) Different styles work for different people, too: perhaps you need someone who’ll be a task master and peer over your shoulder constantly, or perhaps you work better with a lighter touch.
But, while I say supervisor, be aware that in fact a great faculty as a whole is the ideal. Practically, remember that academics move. So you want to be very careful about going anywhere with a lone individual who’d work for you. What if they left? Indeed, my first Ph.D. supervisor left Goldsmiths a semester after I arrived. But since Goldsmiths had numerous people who worked for my topic, it didn’t hurt my academic development. Similarly, you should ensure that you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. A certain degree of risk is inevitable – if you want to work with an expert on X, chances are that many universities will not hire another expert on X if they already have one, so if that person leaves, you may be left without anyone else who does X. But if you have a topic that’s neatly situated between the research interests and expertise of the various faculty, you’re protected by getting the Y and Z that the others can still give you.
And realize that you’ll learn as much, if not considerably more, from your peers, so think a lot about research culture and environment. Is the place competitive and cut-throat, such that your peers will be antagonists, or is there a warm camaraderie that will let you benefit from their time and intellect? Think, too, about what kind of learner you are, and whether you’d profit more from a larger program where you may get less one-on-one time from faculty, but more peers, who might even be organized into research groups or clusters of people doing very similar projects. Or would you prefer the intimacy and attention of a smaller program that is unlikely to provide research groups or clusters? If your candidacy at a program advances, try to seek out current or recent graduates to ask about their experiences.
Funding matters, too, and of course, because writing a Ph.D requires a lot of slavish attention, and if you’re trying to balance work somewhere else with your studies, the latter may fall by the wayside, or not get the energy it requires. Funding may also matter because of the form it takes. At some places, it means being a research assistant or teaching assistant, and hence it gets you research and/or teaching experience that could help you prepare for your career, and that could improve the look of your CV. And funding can play a large role in determining the character of a program. Programs that don’t fund everyone require more competition if peers must fight for the scraps that are available, but they also require peers to go elsewhere to find jobs, which can result in lonely programs where students come in for classes and advising appointments then rush off. By contrast, when everyone is funded, the need for competition dissipates or disappears altogether, and the likelihood that people will stick around for a guest talk, reading group, or simply a beer is probably higher.
Think carefully and wisely about funding, though, and don’t just smile on the highest bidder (or lowest bidder if we’re talking about tuition costs). Consider differentials in cost of living, for one, since $20,000 at one university may have the real equivalent of $12,000 or $30,000 elsewhere. The form that the funding takes may matter, too: fellowships are lovely for some, but would you perhaps prefer the teaching experience that a TAship would give you? And what will you be TAing, for that matter? Realize, as well, that grad school may pay you, yes, but you’re there for training and as an investment, so don’t simply prioritize the place that pays you best.
Place matters for obvious reasons. Nobody wants to live in a dump. But some places may allow you to focus more, with shorter commutes and less distractions. Or perhaps “distractions” are what allow you to feel good about life, and hence what allow you to focus later.
Well, the above is the ideal. Obviously, you may need to sacrifice somewhere, or you might find the tradeoffs to be worth it. Maybe it’s a superb program with great people in a place that you love, but you’re going to need to fight for funding. So be it. Or maybe you couldn’t get into one of the top places, but found a wonderfully supportive faculty member and a program that’s willing to fund you elsewhere. Or maybe there’s a program that looks great, but that doesn’t offer someone who works on anything closely related to what you want to do, meaning you’re much better to go work elsewhere. Or so forth. Just be sure you know what you’re not getting, and have a strategy for how to deal with or make up the difference.
Make sure you see the place before you commit, and make sure you meet the people. The more research you can do into this, the better. If the school is interested in you, and if it gives you an offer, ask about faculty-student relations, and about student-student relations. Ask about funding, and what form it takes. Ask about what former grads have gone on to do. But don’t just take other people’s words for it. When, as I noted above, my initial Ph.D. supervisor at Goldsmiths left, he very kindly offered me the chance to move with him. My eventual supervisor at Goldsmiths wisely recommended I go to the other campus and walk around, to see what I thought. It just didn’t feel right. I realized how much Goldsmiths and I were on the same wavelength, and I’d never have known that to the same degree without being there. Likewise, you want to know what the people involved are like.
A final word, before we move on, about topic. Especially if you’re entering a Ph.D. program with just a BA, no MA, it’s unlikely that a program expects you to have a fully developed sense of what your dissertation will be on. Which also means you may have no idea of who your supervisor will be. Just make sure there are possibilities. And the best program for you in this instance may be the one with faculty who work on a variety of the issues in which you’re interested.
The Application Process
Now that you know the programs you want, how do you make them want you? There are no easy answers here, since not only does every program care about different things, but every individual in those programs will care about different things. For instance, some committee members and programs really care about the numbers, meaning that GREs and GPAs are the coin of realm, while others care less about numbers than about personal statements, writing samples, and rec letters.
Consider the situation. Many of the top programs receive a huge number of applications for very few positions. Every year, for instance, I’ve looked at at least 100 and sometimes as many as 250 applications, yet for anywhere from 3 to 8 positions. So bear in mind that the job of an admissions committee isn’t simply to see who has passed a line of minimum achievement: they need to decide who is the very best for them (more on those italics later). This can be a tortuous task. Every year, I’ve seen many more brilliant-looking candidates than we have spots, and I fully expect some of the people I’ve “rejected” to go on and succeed elsewhere. But it should frame how you go about preparing to apply, assembling your materials, etc.
Bear in mind, too, that most if not all applicants similarly desperately want someone to give them a chance. Enough so that the plea to “gimme a chance” is rather mute (and moot): your enthusiasm to prove yourself is matched by pretty much everyone else’s enthusiam to prove themselves. The onus is thus on you to deliver the goods, and to craft a compelling application that makes admissions committees excited about you. Merely proving that your GPA and GREs are okay, that your writing sample is literate, and offering a vague personal statement that suggests you’re interested in “the media” with no specificity puts you on par with 200 other people, and is nowhere near enough to get you accepted.
Instead of compiling materials to prove you’re good enough, then, compile materials that will excite. Write a personal statement that makes it clear that you have original and smart questions that you’re asking, and that you’re driven by similarly compelling interests. Think about the fit between those interests and faculty at the program to which you’re applying.
Submit a writing sample that shows you at work in a relevant context. If you haven’t ever written a paper that is close to what you’re proposing to study (if you’re changing fields, for example), realize that this puts you at a significant disadvantage, since 100+ other applicants will have done so. Be prepared to write something new and on-topic, and if that seems like an annoying chore, that’s a good sign that you probably shouldn’t be going to grad school to study this topic.
Watch apologism. Trust that sensible committee members can predict and detect some common reasons for under-performance. I’ve seen many candidates, for instance, with GPAs of 3.1 whose other materials are great, and whose transcript reveals they stumbled into university taking chemistry classes that they sucked at, but that they pulled off a GPA closer to 3.9 or so when they moved to the liberal arts. If your own reason for under-performance needs more careful explanation, at least don’t lead with it (introduce yourself as competent before noting evidence to the contrary), and realize that the rest of your materials will need to overcome this ding against you. A superb personal statement and writing sample can go a long way towards making me reflect kindly on low GPA or GRE numbers, for example.
Give specifics. Every year, I read countless applications from people who say merely that they’re interested in the media. There’s little to distinguish them from the other 100 or so people saying the same thing, if this is their “pitch,” though. Instead, then, say how and why you’re interested. What’s at stake in studying the media for you? What sub-fields, areas, and approaches appeal particularly? What could you contribute to the mix? Importantly, especially for Ph.D. program applications (though less so for MA program applications), it’s good to present yourself as a potential creator, unearther, and developer of knowledge, not simply as someone who wants to sit in class and take notes.
Read everything the program says about itself online. Then read it again. It saddens me to see how many applicants, for instance, don’t read that my department isn’t a terminal MA program, and thus apply saying they want to get an MA then go conquer the corporate media world. Or some people don’t read that my department has four grad programs, and hence apply to Media and Cultural Studies wanting to work on a topic that we don’t handle in MCS. That’s just my department: everywhere has its own parameters, so know them and consider them carefully. When information is easily available on a program’s website and you haven’t consulted it, you’re not only shooting blind, but you’re giving the admissions committee a great reason to exclude you: as noted above, jobs are hard to get in academia, and advisors want advisees who are professional, who don’t sit around waiting to be spoonfed, who are proactive in doing what they can, so you’re signalling that you’re not such a person when you’re ignoring the easily available and accessible information about a program.
And beyond just reading the “rules,” craft each application separately. From your perspective, it may be frustrating and time-consuming to need to think about how you’d fit in each program separately, and it would definitely be more efficient simply to craft one application that could go anywhere. But an admissions committee is looking for the best candidates who want to be at that specific program, and who fit that specific program. So who are the profs you’d like to work with (and make sure they’re still there. I’ve read more than my fair share of applications from people hoping to work with John Fiske here)? Are there other things associated with that program (a specific archive, an extracurricular thing, a particular approach to studying media) that mean a lot to you? Answering these questions will require research, so read some things from the scholars you’d be working with (and if that sounds like a chore, what do you think the rest of grad school or academic life will entail? If you’re not excited to read things by potential advisors, grad school is a bad idea), check into what conferences or publications or so forth are associated with the department or program, read up on who has graduated from the program to get a sense of what sort of scholar they produce.
Re-read your own application before submitting it. Typos aren’t attractive in something like this, especially if your GRE verbal and essay scores are already iffy. But watch that you don’t send your statement for Texas to USC, for instance: sure, committee members may understand how you could’ve made such a mistake, but if they’re reading a statement telling them why you’d love to study at another university, at best it’s a lost opportunity for you to have told them why you’d like to study with them, at worst it’s another sign of sloppy professional skills.
Stay on topic, too. Personal statements aren’t spaces for long biographical sojourns. The “story from when I was four that is really cute because it suggests I was born to be an academic” genre is a little tired, and reads a bit too much like the “It was a dark and stormy night” of applications. By all means draw from your past experiences, perhaps even amusingly so or with a touch of poetic or narrative license, if you can do so well and efficiently. But don’t do so at the expense of getting down to the business of saying exactly what you’ll study, why you want to do this, and what matters for you.
Should you contact faculty before actually applying to test the waters or to try and make a better impression? Maybe, maybe not. First, remember that most of the people you’d be contacting are over-worked, and needlessly creating more work for them won’t be a great way to stand out. You’re not doing that if you’re impressing them, and the better ones will hopefully be open to engaging in smart, thoughtful discussion, but if you’re just using an email as an excuse to touch base, and especially if you’re asking questions to which their website offers easy, clear answers, that’s not helping. Indeed, and second, remember that they’ll be evaluating you the whole time, so don’t just stumble into a conversation: know what you’ll say in response to them. If they ask what you’re interested in, for instance, and you give anything other than a clear, smart answer, you’ve probably hurt your case significantly. Be nice and grateful, too: I’ve sadly gotten a lot of attitude from such emails, as though the person inquiring is my boss and I didn’t hand in a report on time, but why would I want to engage in a 4-7 year relationship with such a person?
And yet, prior contact can be especially helpful to gauge fit. I really don’t like it when I see applications come across my desk that are patently, obviously unfit – when the person is proposing to do work that of course we couldn’t supervise, for instance. I feel awful that this person has paid money to apply to UW-Madison, and I wish they didn’t. And selfishly, I don’t like that it’s another file on my desk. It’s both way easier and more humane to shoot a quick email about fit, get an answer, and work with that.
A final recommendation is to try and be upbeat. You’ll likely get rejected from some places, but as noted above, sometimes rejection is more about fit than about quality. You’ll email some profs and get no response. You’ll wait for seemingly forever until you hear back. You might make a waitlist and feel crap about it. But if every communication between you and your preferred school(s) carries airs of recrimination, disappointment, and self-pity, that ground game will almost definitely hurt you.
Best of luck!