Several years ago, I wrote a series of three posts for my (now hacked dead) blog The Extratextuals about applying to grad schools in media, cultural, and communication studies. They were some of the most read posts on the blog (admittedly an easy competition!), but with a new site, I thought I’d revisit the posts and republish with edits.
First, a big warning: these represent my own personal thoughts, beliefs, and observations. They shouldn’t be read as an official statement from Media and Cultural Studies or Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin, Madison. But they are about media, communication, and cultural studies: different fields have different norms, and the advice here may be horrible for other fields. Moreover, I have no secret access to truth and The Way It Is, and whereas some commentators out there recklessly suggest they do know The Way It Is, I can’t pretend to offer that. Take what I say with a grain of salt, therefore. Indeed, a key piece of advice I’d offer from the outset is to ask for advice from many people: we all see different things, don’t see different things, and you’ll get the lay of the land better if you ask more people.
My original post had three sections, and I’ll stick to them here, albeit in one post organized by tab.
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.