So, it’s that time of the year again, and so the inevitable question comes from a few graduate students: Where’s a good place to get a communication Ph.D.?
Well, first of all, that’s probably the wrong question. The right question is: “Should I pursue a Ph.D.?” and the answer I will always give is “no.”
Should I go for a Ph.D.?
No. There are lots of good reasons not to pursue the doctoral degree:
1. People really won’t respect you more. Some folks actually do pursue a Ph.D. with the thought that they can then be called “Dr. X” (OK, maybe not Dr. X. Heck, it would be worth it if you could be called “Dr. X.” I mean they want “Dr.” in front of their own name.) I’ve talked to these people, and don’t understand it. There’s no special power a Ph.D. grants–it doesn’t certify you for much of anything, with the below exception. In other words, if you are doing the Ph.D. because you want the prestige, it’s really not worth the effort. Besides, this is America! No titles, remember? If you want the Dr., just use it; or, as a co-worker did, Senator.
2. You won’t make more money. At least not with a communication degree–it may be different with an engineering degree, for example. Someone is now sure to come up with a statistic that says that you make an extra million dollars in your lifetime with a Ph.D., but (a) it’s false causation and (b) you’ll spend that on therapists and paying off debts.
3. You’re really good at coursework, and so you think it’s the natural next step. Generally, it’s not. Particularly if you are in a program that is designed as a “terminal degree,” like the Informatics program at UB, or our MS program at Quinnipiac, you probably are not very well prepared to pursue the Ph.D. People have successfully moved on, but it isn’t a smooth transition. If you gain admittance, you’ll probably be scrambling to catch up with students who have been on the research path during their masters programs. Moreover, although there is generally coursework at the doctoral level in US institutions, it isn’t the major part of the work of the degree. The Ph.D. is always a research degree–you are expected to come in and be an apprentice researcher fairly quickly, on top of your required coursework.
4. You want to be a college instructor, and you think this is where you learn to do it. I was actually lucky in that my program did talk a little bit about teaching, but that is certainly not the focus of a Ph.D. program anywhere; except, of course, in education programs. If you aren’t ready to teach after finishing your masters degree, that isn’t going to change by the end of the Ph.D. You should already be a master of your field when you have the masters degree in hand, the doctorate means that you have made a significant contribution to that field. Many doctoral programs graduate excellent researchers who would be horrible if unleashed on an undergraduate class.
Now, it’s true: it is increasingly the case that colleges and universities will only consider Ph.D.s for their teaching positions. But the problem is two-fold. First, if you are really primarily interested in teaching, you are going to be very frustrated spending 18 hours a day doing research for several years. As a result, you probably won’t be very good at it. Second, as noted below, you probably won’t be able to get a teaching job after all that anyway.
Dirty Ph.D. Program Secrets!
Still not convinced? OK, the two dirty secrets of doctoral education:
1. Many people don’t finish. It’s bad enough that you are going to be alienating your family, and going into debt (and this is assuming that you aren’t paying tuition, but just for living, etc.), you may end up not finishing. The lucky people drop out in the first year. Many get through the coursework, only to be unable to complete general exams. A much larger number get through any required coursework and exams, but find themselves unable to complete the dissertation. If you don’t think you can write a 300 page book now, don’t expect that is going to magically change by the end of your program. There is a reason my university sent out “Ph.C.” (candidate) diplomas. A lot of people end up stuck indefinitely on the dissertation, and in at least some cases, this isn’t even their fault. Sometimes departmental politics or shifts in the field make completing a dissertation in your area impossible.
2. Of those who get the degree, only a small fraction actually get a job teaching in a college or university. An even smaller number end up teaching at an institution as good as the one they attended. Now, you may not want to do this, and you have another target, which is fine. If you do want to teach, you should definitely have a strong “plan B.” Oh, and when I say teach, I mean anywhere. I have colleagues who are brighter and more accomplished than I am who are either unemployed or who are teaching under conditions they hate. A large number of doctorate-holding individuals are stuck in the perpetual hell of adjunct work, hoping one day to “make their break.” Just read through the archives of Invisible Adjunct to get a feel.
You have self-confidence, or you wouldn’t be even considering this. But be realistic about that self-confidence–it takes a lot to make even a minor splash. I know that the JD and MBA people will eat me alive for saying this, but there is usually some clear path out of the top programs for law, business, and medicine. Unless you are at the bottom of your class, you’re likely to get some job in your profession. The truth that schools won’t tell you is that even among the most elite programs, a tenure-track position is far from guaranteed. The majority of graduates go into something else. You would be surprised how many movers and baristas hold doctorates from top universities.
Not Dead Yet!
So, still here? Is there a good reason to pursue a doctorate? Yes, I think–and this is just my own opinion–that there are two good reasons. First, you love to do research. You aren’t just a curious person–everyone says they are a curious person–you live on curiosity and Top Ramen. You do not care particularly about being rich, but you want to be challenged every day. You are passionate about learning and helping others to learn. You will need that passion to sustain yourself through the idiocy, politics, and bureaucracy of the typical doctoral program. Doctoral programs virtually guarantee stress beyond what you have experienced before, which accounts for the strange bestiary that is the typical university faculty.
Second, you like spending most of your life around people who are smarter and more driven than you are. If you are used to being the smartest person in the room, get over it. (Contrariwise, if you think everyone who pursues a Ph.D. is brilliant, be prepared to be disabused of that notion. Many of the brightest people said “screw this” several paragraphs ago and are signing up for the GMAT/LSAT/MCAT as you are reading.) That was really important for me, because I am naturally both lazy and competitive. If there aren’t people around me doing really interesting stuff, I am less likely to be doing so. There was something really exciting to me about being in a room with people who were likely to change the world, and hoping that I could too.
Finding a program
So, now that you are sold on the idea of a doctorate, where’s the best place to go for one in communication? There isn’t a single answer to that question. As you will find, if you haven’t already in your coursework, there isn’t really a field of communication. Really, it’s more of a family of topical areas and approaches that gets bundled together under that name. As one of the younger fields of study, what you find in one communication department is unlikely to be identical to what you will find in another. There are certain affinities among some programs, but there isn’t any clear leader.
The best way to find a program you would like to study in is to identify the dozen or so living researchers you would most like to be a
slave assistant for. Whose thinking really excites you? Now, it may be that their work on paper is a really poor representation of what they are like in person, but this will at least get you going down the right path. Honestly, if you can’t think of anyone you would get excited about working with, you have a lot more homework to do before you consider going on to a doctoral program.
You probably shouldn’t choose a program based on just that one person. Once you find where these folks are working, you should take a look at the rest of the faculty, and see whether there are other people you would like to work with there. This is pretty important, since you are likely to be taking classes with them, and one of them may end up being your advisor, depending on how the department assigns students to committees. Finally, if you can figure out who the students are, see if you like the kinds of research they are doing. Email some of them and ask about the department: current students are often the best resource for deciding whether this is the kind of place you want to go.
Set up a time to talk with the chair of the department and the faculty members you are most interested in. Yes, even (especially!) if the campus is in another part of the world. There is a good chance you will be relocating for graduate school, so you better find out if you like the city and the campus as well as the people. Equally importantly, although I don’t know of doctoral programs that explicitly interview candidates, by becoming a real person to the faculty, you are more likely to be in mind when they consider admissions and tuition awards.
I will reiterate: don’t go unless it is paid for. There are a handful of programs that do not award assistantships to new students, but most use the assistantships mainly, or even exclusively, as a recruitment tool. Don’t expect, in those cases, that you are going to show up, pay tuition for a year, and wow them into supporting you. Too many students do, and then find themselves in impossible financial binds and heartbreak.
But, you ask, isn’t there a ranking of Ph.D. doctoral programs? I would like to say “no,” but there is such a ranking. The National Communication Association does a reputational ranking of doctoral programs in a number of subfields. There are a couple of caveats to bear in mind. First, “reputation” doesn’t necessarily mean quality. If Princeton decided to offer a Communication Ph.D., it would quickly rise to the top of these lists, largely because of the name. That’s not to say that a Princeton Department of Communication would suck, just that the reputational measures might outstrip the reality of the program itself. The other piece of this is that the NCA does not represent all of communication. In fact, a lot of scholars in the field may choose the ICA as their primary affiliation, or IAMCR, for example. So the ICA people might have a slightly different take on the best schools.
Making the application
Once you have picked out five or seven schools that you think are worth applying to, spend some time working on the applications. It’s really hard to gauge what admissions committees will do with your application. A letter of recommendation from a colleague that is well known in the field might go a long way. Stellar GREs might attract attention. While good grades are expected, they are more likely to look at the courses you took to decide whether you have the appropriate preparation for a doctorate. But most important, for many schools, is a statement of purpose that shows that you have a clear expectation for your future as a researcher, and that you know about what their program can offer you. It is pretty common that students receive admission and an assistantship from one of their most desired schools only to be rejected by one of their less interesting picks. Admission to doctoral programs tends to be very idiosyncratic.
I would strongly recommend against limiting yourself geographically. I have to admit that the city of Seattle was a major part of the reason I ended up at the University of Washington, and that worked out well for me. Had I stayed in San Diego, I would have done fine with UCSD. Both programs are of very high quality, and also happen to be in great cities. But if you are limiting yourself to a local university, and that university is not among the top in the US, consider seriously whether it is worth your time and effort to commit to a Ph.D. there. Without naming names, there are Ph.D. programs that really are sub-par. There is an unfortunate amount of snobbery and nose-turning as it is, often at cross purposes. Put someone from Columbia, Wisconsin, and Austin in the same room, and there is a chance all three will consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. If you are completing a Ph.D. at Pudunk U., you may be limiting your possibilities. Since only fools do the Ph.D. more than once, do you really want to put that effort into a university that has an undistinguished program?
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I loved graduate school. I’ve talked to many successful researchers who hated it, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I would have loved it even if it turned out that I didn’t get the chance to work in academia, and I’m really happy that I do. But doctoral programs often share their Kool-Aid widely, and are lost in a haze of self-appreciation. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions: What percentage of people finish? What percentage of those get tenure track jobs? What do the others end up doing? Are the students happy? Are the faculty happy? Is it a supportive environment? This will be your entire life for a good number of years, you should go in with your eyes wide open.
Update: Also, don’t even think about a Ph.D. in physics :).