Ask Alex: Getting a Communication Ph.D.

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 :).

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  1. Posted 5/15/2007 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Hmmm… I just went to the school up the street for my doctorate cause I could walk there. As for the degree, well it seemed to be a good idea at the time. I spent too many years working in business to ever find it of much appeal.

    I have to agree that there’s no value in doing it for the social status. If you want to be a good teacher, get a BEd as well. Though I find that the value of the school you went to is mute. You’re more likely to get judged on the paper you just presented or the book you just had published. The school you went to only lasts for a couple of years.

  2. alex
    Posted 5/15/2007 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Jason: Yeah, but you didn’t live up the street from Podunk U. While I agree it’s less the school you go to than what you make of it, it is a lot harder to make something of it if you are at a school that doesn’t have a strong reputation. Yours did; as did mine. It’s certainly possible not to take advantage of that, but it’s more of an uphill climb from a lot of universities. I agree that the reputation of your school only carries you a couple of years, but if you can’t get a position in your chosen field for a couple of years, that’s going to suck.

    I should note that the “school up the street” for us is the University of Connecticut. I don’t think anyone else offers a Ph.D. in communication within the state. None of the above should be taken as a dig on UConn. In some areas–particularly tech and health–they do well. Of course, if you count New York or Boston to be up the street, there are a lot of other opportunities as well.

  3. Posted 5/15/2007 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    what a great and helpful post, alex – thanks. i’ll no doubt send students to it for consultation.

    (yo, your spam protection (for comments) works but i’d suggest adding something about capitalizing the A of Alex. i was lucky and lost a two sentence comment but it would have sucked if i lost a longer comment.)

  4. Liz
    Posted 5/15/2007 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    That’s great advice, Alex. I followed the PhD program up to my dissertation and the last two research papers. I really did want it, but was burned out from having to work so much as the department advisor (rather sad – my own department hurt my progress! lol) and then moved to Virginia and got a LIFE. I lost my motivation completely, after that. I love teaching at the undergraduate level, but many of the colleges – even community – (what few are around here!) want a PhD. Also, as Alex stated, communication programs are wildly varied! I have looked in Virginia and Texas as well as New York when I was there. I have both communications (journalism mainly) and communication (interpersonal and intercultural com), but find it hard to find a department that mixes it. There is also the fact, as Alex stated, that tenure is difficult to obtain. Many schools keep faculty on as adjuncts or yearly contracts. I have found that I’m better of working as staff and getting a good retirement plan – especially since at 44 I don’t have time to play the waiting game.

    I am glad I tried for the dissertation, but I highly agree with all of Alex’s words. Some part of me is sad that I didn’t finish. But I am not the diehard researcher I should be, either. I am very curious and LOVE learning, but I don’t have that drive (at least not any more) to devote so much time to it. I also am not a very quantitative person! I prefer the qualitative. But that in itself makes for a lot more work. I’m enjoying being a wife again and living a quiet, peaceful life. I read a lot of non-academic books now, which is nice. But I still find myself looking for nerdy non-fiction stuff. Luckily, my husband is just as much a nerd. :) So we sit and read and learn for our own sakes. Not for a degree.

    People really need to read Alex’s advice carefully and think hard about WHY they want a PhD. My goal was mainly to help build my skills so that I could write books on interpersonal communication. But I can still do that without the PhD! I just have to get myself motivated again. But we’ll work on that later – after I read this really fascinating book on Tolkien. haha – **waves to Alex (I’m that short grad student from UB! lol)

  5. Posted 5/17/2007 at 11:44 am | Permalink


    This is a very interesting. It reminded me of the answer you gave me the first time I asked you about PhD. I always wanted to have a PhD so I can teach, and do research!! May be I am crazy but it’s hard to give up. When I applied for PhD last year, I was accepted into two schools for PhD one of them my current school in Engineering (HCI) and I won’t name the other one (on west cost). I was also accepted into one the top schools in USA but they wanted me to do my Master’s again (with no funding) and then reapply for PhD upon completion of a second MA. I totally agree with the advice of talking to students and faculties from schools you want to attend. Current and former students that I met last year during the AMIA conference in Washington DC helped me a lot. They told me that I would be wasting my time going to the other school on west cost (one of the problem being that the program is new and doesn’t have a focus). I know what could happen to a new program!!!! I also heard and know good and bad things about my current school and this HCI program in particular. For the Ivy League school, besides the name, people told me that it might be not worthy spending ~$50000/year for the name only. I also looked at some profiles of graduates from there and I didn’t see what I was expecting. Yes the name sounds good, but should I go for it? I recently went to a conference and one of the speakers was from this Ivy League. She advised students to not go the name anymore but focus on personal interest. She also mentioned the student makes the biggest contribution to what he/she becomes after PhD.

    I guess I was warned and I will keep this e-mail in mind as I make my final decision.

  6. Posted 5/17/2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Alex. The subject of my PhD is the process of doing a PhD in Australia, where it is done quite differently from the US (and possibly not as well). But opinions like this are still interesting and help with my thinking.

  7. Susan
    Posted 5/20/2007 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    You should submit this for publication, perhaps someplace like the ‘In My Opinion” column of Newsweek or some such national rag. You’d be doing even more people a favor.

  8. Posted 5/27/2007 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    How can you get into a PhD and continue doing research? What about considering doing a PhD research for a company? Is this usual or possible (and would you advise to do so)?

  9. alex
    Posted 6/4/2007 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Sole: Sorry for the late reply. That really depends a lot on the field and the school. You must do research in order to get a Ph.D. (with some rare exceptions), but it is usually not the case that you can continue doing the research you are doing for a particular company. Most schools will limit the amount of work you are getting paid for that can count toward the degree, and most businesses will not allow you to publish your research in such a way that will make it possible to publish it and engage in joint research with faculty, etc.

    That said, this differs significantly by field. My only experience has been in communication, and it is pretty rare to see that sort of corporate-education working cooperative, though not unheard of. Generally, if this is something you are interested in, you will already have an “in” in terms of a partnership between your company and an educational institution.

  10. alex
    Posted 6/14/2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, David! Lowercase now works too.

  11. Ace
    Posted 6/19/2007 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Alex wrote,

    “I don’t think anyone else offers a Ph.D. in communication within the state. None of the above should be taken as a dig on UConn. In some areas—particularly tech and health—they do well. Of course, if you count New York or Boston to be up the street, there are a lot of other opportunities as well.”

    Well, that’s not entirely true. In New York, yes, there are several options, but in Boston, there are none. The only communication Ph.D. program in Massachusetts is at UMass Amherst. It’s a very strong program. That and UConn Storrs are the only two communication Ph.D. programs in New England.

  12. alex
    Posted 6/19/2007 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Ace: Well, yes, “lots” is relative. If you expand your definition to include cognates, like journalism, media studies, etc., the numbers increase somewhat (e.g., the MIT program at MIT, for example, or Columbia’s PhD in Journalism, New U’s program in Media Sociology). Again, hard to say what the field is. But yes, you’re right, there aren’t a whole lot of programs on the right coast, especially north of NYC.

  13. monica
    Posted 7/12/2007 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    this is a highly idiotic and outrageous statement which i will never agree.

  14. Wil
    Posted 8/29/2007 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    You present very interesting idea. I totally agree with what you write in this blog. To finish Ph.D., it is quite tough and take a long period of time. You couldn’t know whether you will be success or failure. However, I just start my first year of study in research degree and I feel so scare a little bit more everyday.

  15. Said
    Posted 6/14/2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink


    Your post on whether to get a PhD in Communication is exactly what I was looking for. I wish I’d read this before joining graduate school. I am an international student and am through with my first year of MA in communication, now contemplating a PhD. I have been sensing all of the problems you talked about in your post and have trouble deciding if I should go on for my PhD. I am not particularly interested in research and all the politics that go with academia disgusts me, already. I am interested in identity studies, interpersonal communication and critical cultural studies and have taken courses in these areas. I am not sure if you can help me with this but if one doesn’t go for a PhD, what can one do with a Masters degree in communication outside of academia? Esp. a research-focused Masters program?


  16. alex
    Posted 6/14/2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Said: I wish I had a great answer for that. The truth is, a research-based masters generally does not lead directly into a professional field, in the same way that a professional (terminal) masters does. So, while a law student will generally practice law, and a medical student medicine, it’s not as clear what a communications student might do for a career.

    As a practical matter, many become professional communicators. This is the obvious path for someone who has studied public relations, organizational communications, advertising, and the like. However, many whose studies have been more theoretical also pursue careers as professional communicators. But some of the skills you have learned, or–more importantly, demonstrated–as a graduate student are marketable in a range of areas. Some go into publishing (academic or otherwise), others go into project management. The traditional employment for humanities graduate students has been in education: while teaching may be harder to find at many universities without the Ph.D., many who receive a masters degree go on to teach in community colleges or in private high schools. Some who study interpersonal communication move into fields (counseling, for example) where it can be directly employed, and others teach these skills within companies and other organizations.

    Examine what drew you to issues of identity and critical/cultural studies. It may be that you will find fulfillment working with activist groups, non-governmental organizations, or the like. I hesitate to be pollyanish, but the first thing to do is find something you like doing, and then figure out how to make money doing it. There isn’t anything particularly that the masters degree qualifies you for, though it demonstrates that you are capable of structured thought and self-organized learning, qualities that are valuable to many employers.

    At the beginning of my own master’s degree, I was working in a budget office for a small city. I was surprised to find that one of my bosses, an accountant and budget analyst, had received his master’s degree in communication at NYU, writing a thesis on restroom graffiti several decades earlier. Since then, I’ve found people with master’s and doctoral degrees in communication working in a wide range of professions.

    So, in short, the degree can be of help in certain fields for demonstrating an intellectual ability, but it does not provide a clear path to a particular profession in the way that professional degrees (in law, medicine, journalism, nursing, business, etc.) might.

  17. Amy L
    Posted 1/19/2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    This article excited me so much. I love research and do it religously on any topic I can get my hands on. It is what I do in my spare time and what I would do all day everyday if I had the chance. Your article did the opposite of scare me, it made me think that I could really do something I love. Thank You for your information.

  18. Nick L
    Posted 2/16/2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    I obtained a Ph.D. in Communication with the goal of being a college professor. I had a great job at a premier university, but that only lasted 6 years. There were 3 requirements. By the time of your tenure review you had to have “excellent teaching ratings” from students (50% more on the “excellent” side), which I had. You had to have published 3 articles in referred journals (which I had done). And you had to have a book published (my book was published). My department gave me a full vote, all members voted in favor of tenure. The dean then denied the vote based on one fact, he said my book was published by a “second rate press” and not a “first rate press,’ and that wasn’t good enough for this particular university (true, it was a “second rate press,” but it is one that MANY communication and cultural studies scholars publish with). I was given a “grace year,” to publish more and to have another hearing with him, but this was for naught. He denied it again, saying the same thing once again. He and I were in totally different fields and he also hated the field of Communication. He was a new dean and hard set on showing the “Communication softies” what he thought they deserved (I was the first to come up for tenure under his administration). So my point is, there I was, having jumped all the hoops, and even then not getting tenure in the end.

    I left academia and wandered through several different non academic jobs. I now find myself doing market research as a freelancer. I can’t get a company to hire me full time because most of those where I apply have no Ph.D.s on staff and there are several fears: 1. I will want more money, 2. I will want more power and try to “take over” my manager’s job, 3. I am smart and therefore won’t budge when it comes to being a so called “team player.”

    I am very proud of my work as a former professor. Just make sure that if you get a job at a university you have it spelled out in chyrstal clear terms, exactly what is expected of you. In fact, if I had it to do over, I would have asked for an actual contract.

  19. Janice
    Posted 3/30/2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your very informative post. I understand that a doctorate degree is primarily for those interested in teaching. However, would you recommend pursuing a PhD to someone who is more interested in research or consulting work, say for private companies or international organizations? Is it possible to land a job in the industry after completing the PhD, or is it the norm to go the academia route and parlay the experience into research/consulting jobs?

    Thanks in advance for your reply.


    A little about me – I have a professional Master’s degree in Mass Communication and 5+ years of experience in financial journalism.

  20. alex
    Posted 3/30/2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Janice!

    Whether the doctorate is intended for teaching is an open question. I think most who teach in doctoral programs–at least in the US–see the ideal position of their students as being hired into faculties at prestigious research universities. In practice, of course, many do end up in industry for a wide range of reasons. In my area, it is about as common to go into industry as it is to go into academia. Relatively fewer students come in to the program with that intent.

    But yes, it is absolutely possible to go from a doctoral program into “applied research.” My advice would be to talk to the programs and get a feel for how they react to that idea. As I said, there is a none-too-invisible pull toward the faculty side, and you may find that plum supported positions, or co-authoring, or other pieces of the doctoral experience tend to go to those who at least express an interest in working in the university. Obviously, you want to aim for a program where applied research is on a better footing, and where you won’t be marginalized for being on an “industry-track.”

  21. Janice
    Posted 7/4/2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex!

    Thanks so much for your very helpful reply! Am now researching doctoral programs in Communication, bearing in mind your advice to evaluate whether there is support for students keen on doing applied research. I noticed there was mention of UConn on this page; incidentally, the university is in my list of potential schools. They seem to prepare students for careers inside and outside academia. Do you have any information to share about UConn? I plan to focus on health communication, and the Center for Health Communication and Marketing at the university is a major draw for me.

    Thank you very much!

  22. Kris
    Posted 9/11/2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink


    Thank-you for a very informative post. I have a B.A. in Psych and a 25 year career in the financial world. Honestly, I love the people I work with but hate what I do. Some time ago I determined that a Master’s in Communications would be a good way to go as it encompasses my tremendously eclectic interests. The program in the city I live in has a focus on writing to APA standards and that is what I would like to do. Additionally because I am an absolute research junkie,( I just can’t help myself,) I have often thought the PhD would be a good choice for me. However, I am also a solo parent of three children and only the first one is nearly through college so I have to think carefully how I want to navigate as I make the serious career change. Your points are well taken on selecting a program and it has been good to be reminded that the financial income and stress are not necessarily very rewarding. I have had the really successful career but am tired of not doing what I want and sometimes working 100 hours a week for what is now chicken feed. I want to research and write and share with others what I have learned in terms they can understand. Thanks to your article, I think the master’s degree will suffice just fine as the goal is to be freelance and not necessarily work for someone else. The reality of politics and stringent expectations at the college level isn’t very attractive…too much like corporate crud. Your insights are well expressed and very helpful!

  23. jenny
    Posted 10/7/2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    If I wasn’t really certain about what I want to do before reading this post, I would have called it quits. However, I like it. It tells it as it is.

  24. Karen
    Posted 10/10/2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I am a current graduate student at NYU (MS degree in Corporate Communications and PR) and while writing my Master thesis I discovered that I really enjoy doing research. The topic that I am exploring is such a passion of mine that I am considering a PHD. I do not want to do it for the name or the money or the job or anything else, other then that I want to research the topic in more depth than I possibly have the time and means for by just doing a Masters thesis. Furthermore, I love teaching and have been invited already to teach a guestlecture.

    However, I am not exactly an academic 4.0 star (I average around a 3.6) and my GRE scores for Graduate school weren’t extremely high (around 1100). I had a hard time with the GRE because I am an international student and the verbal part really got me down. Would I even stand a chance applying to any programs with these numbers? I have a pretty good resume and I am wildly enthusiastic about my topic. Which brings me to another question. I only want to pursue a PHD if I can research my own topic. My thesis advisor thinks it is also a very good topic for a PHD. Would I be able to apply with a specific hypothesis that I want to research? And will that give me any advantage? How exactly do I find schools that would be interested in my topic and suit me?


  25. alex
    Posted 10/10/2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I can respond only from my personal experience. Grad grades tend to be inflated (sorry, but true)–a less than perfect GPA is not a killer, however, in many schools. Likewise, a very low GRE will hurt you but I don’t think it’s the main criterion for anyone. The key is whether you can demonstrate that you can write and do academic work at a high level. Have published work? Have you presented at conferences? These two things can offset less than perfect quantitative measures, since they reflect the sort of academic work you’ll be expected to do.

    All Ph.D. students in our field generally research their own topic. I say “generally” because it isn’t like some of the hard sciences where your research is whatever your supervisor has her team working on at the moment. And usually we would expect an applicant to Ph.D. program have a bit of a research agenda in place: a topic area. If, however, you expect to do your dissertation your way, you won’t be happy as a student. A dissertation is necessarily a process of give and take, and you have to be prepared to be flexible.

    Choosing is a lot easier if you know what you want to do. Go through your most recent bibliography and pick out the three people who you think are doing the most exciting work. Check out the school where they are doing their work.

    • Posted 8/23/2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      Hi Alex … first time reader; first time commenter.

      Great advice. I would add that communication professionals consider closely linked fields that rely (very heavily) on communication theory. My undergrad is in Communications, and I eventually made my way into education (but playing mostly on the “corporate” side of learning — M.A. in Educational Policy & Leadership Development). I eventually earned my Ed.D. in Instructional Technology & Distance Education about 5 years ago. I am continually amazed at how much of my UNDERGRAD applies to the work I do in the field with my Ed.D. and I think this is a huge advantage to those in the Communication profession. Good writing, understanding the goal of the message, the perceptions of the medium selected on your target audience, yadda yadda yadda … lots and lots of overlap.

      So, while I’m not well versed in the wonderful world of Communication Ph.D. programs, I can say that there’s other avenues with which to pursue that terminal degree that may be in wickedly close fields. I’m just sayin …

      Dr Steve Yacovelli
      Owner & Principal
      TopDog Learning Group, LLC

      (PS: The “research bug” did indeed bit me during my doctoral studies and I have found a lot of success at applying academic research methods to business problems. Qualitative research kinda rocks) …

  26. sarahstewart07
    Posted 9/7/2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Great post. You summed things up really well. I dropped out of my PhD this year and am doing fine without it. BUT I will be re-enrolling because I am finding that a PhD gives me a tad more credibility for things like publishing and getting research grants.

    My advice to PhD students to pick your supervisor extremely carefully…developing riles and boundaries with him/her around things like contact etc…and have a signed contract between the two of you that you can refer to if/when things get sticky.


  27. Tomson
    Posted 10/5/2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating article. I am a lecturer at a college already with an MA in Mass Communication and 7 years experience in the broadcasting field. My college is almost forcing me to obtain my PhD. Here are my questions:
    How does the typical program affect those of us with teaching jobs already?
    Do I have an argument at all that my practice in the field is enough?
    Are there any other options for me to pursue? I am a strong believer of practicum above philosophy (which usually frowned upon in higher Ed).
    Thanks for any advice you or anyone might lend.

  28. JSelah
    Posted 2/5/2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Great article Alex!! Okay, I have a quick question: Is the Scripps School of Communication at Ohio University a top-tier program?? I keep hearing so mant wonderful things regarding their school…

    • Posted 2/5/2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      Well, I don’t want to be in the business of handicapping schools against one another. The college of communication at Ohio has a strong reputation, generally, though I’ll admit to not being familiar with all of their schools/departments. I know several great faculty and students who have come out of Ohio, and so I’m sure that reflects well on the quality of their programs. From there, it’s just a question of fit to your interests and approach.

      • JSelah
        Posted 3/21/2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Thank you VERY much Alex!!

  29. Kara
    Posted 3/20/2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    My first thought is the author is very bitter and had a horrible experience in Grad school. Perhaps I was fortunate with the grad school I attended at UAF. We were pushed to work hard but had great support. I had an TA’ship and came out with 2 full years of teaching experience. While I do agree with the social aspect pointed out, there are many good reasons for attending grad school. I can only hope that anyone reading this article will do more research and not rely on one spurned opinion.

    • alex
      Posted 3/20/2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      Hi, Kara. Not sure how you manage to read “I loved graduate school,” as a bitter and horrible experience. I, um, loved grad school. And I think it’s fair to say that most of the people that finished around the time I did also loved grad school. The ones who didn’t usually dropped out along the way.

      I’m also not sure what a “spurned opinion” is, or who would be doing the spurning :).

      I was lucky enough (and luck had a lot to do with it) to come out of my program with an R1 tenure-track offer in hand. This may not be what everyone wants when the go into a Ph.D. program, but far more people want it than get it.

      I’m all for more research. As I say above, prospective students should talk to current faculty and students at the schools they want to attend.

      You can help. You note that you were supported with a TAship, which is great for you (as it was for me). I also presume you got the job you wanted. What percentage of your peers at UAF were supported as TAs? How many get tenure-track jobs upon graduation at schools where they wanted to teach?

      The point is not that the Ph.D. is dismal for everyone, just that it is a very hard row to hoe, that if it is pursued in the hope of a faculty career you should be prepared for the extreme difficulties in finding work, and that universities should be more forthcoming in letting students know this.

  30. Posted 4/6/2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s a real testament to the quality of this post that people are still reading and commenting, Alex, and that you continue to reply. The commenter above who suggested publication in Newsweek – I absolutely agree, although in The Economist there is a longer article which is non-specifically about the economics and hardship of doing a PhD in any area, not just Communications. It is here: The Disposable Academic”.

    For those wanting to find a cut-price 3 year PhD program that gets straight into the research without requirements for graduate classes, you might consider the UK. I am a Professor at a UK institution that is increasingly taking the American model of tenure and also pumping out PhDs. There is no exact equivalent to ‘Communication’ but there tends to be more tolerance of interdisciplinarity amongst PhD students, depending on your supervisors, and disciplines such as Philosophy or Cultural Studies at the ‘new’ universities (formerly Polytechnics, pre-1992) and English or even Human Geography in the ‘old’ universities, allow more adventurous reading and research. Fees are lower, the quality of tuition is patchy but sometimes excellent, the cost of living is high but the program is short – Universities in the UK get penalised if their PhD students aren’t finished within 4 years, and they encourage submission in 3.

    Having said this, the reason I was looking at the post is because I will soon be a visiting Ass Prof in Communications at Pitt, and am desperate to leave the UK. It is a toehold as my partner has been offered a tenure-track position in Philosophy there. The cuts and the UK government’s philistine attitude to education is deeply shocking, and we don’t want to stand by and watch more and more cuts to public services happen when, in the past few years, our welfare state and national health service was something to be proud about.

    If more prospective PhD candidates read your post, Alex, and the Economist article, they would be disabused of any notion of ‘status’ that the PhD brings, and aware of the many potential pitfalls. It is heartbreaking to think how many human years of unpaid and unrecognised labour is out there in the system so that only a few tenure-track positions can be sustained.

  31. Gwen
    Posted 5/21/2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this honest post. I have been researching PhD programs worldwide, but am still very much on the fence as to pursue on or not. Currently, I am at a university overseas teaching on a non-tenure track which I do not mind, given that my husband and I are open to living in other countries.
    I have been finding, as part of my ‘to pursue pr not to pursue’ research, that the sheer lack of tenure track positions is why so many people feel discouraged about pursuing a lengthy PhD program. I actually just read some interesting research on The Chronicle, in which university presidents showed interest in having even fewer tenure track positions and instead offering long term contracts. Could this ever lead to the PhD becoming an ‘overinflated’ degree if tenure is no longer the light at the end of the tunnel?
    Also, in reference to Mark’s post, is the same value placed on PhD’s earned outside of the US, if we intend to pursue an academic career within the US? I have found so many quality European and UK universities that are dissertation based programs, as opposed to courses + dissertation, are with reputable schools, prestigious faculty and a fraction of the investment in time (relatively speaking) and cost. Would programs of the nature, through Univ. of Leeds or Leiden university for example, be worth pursuing?

    Thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

    • alex
      Posted 5/21/2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      First, in terms of university presidents wanting to reduce the number of tenure track lines, that’s not at all surprising. That said, I don’t know that it will have an impact on the desire for people to get the Ph.D. Many university positions that formerly were held by non-Ph.D.s now seem to require the Ph.D. Community colleges, for example, that might have hired many more people without the Ph.D. in the past now have a larger pool of degree-holders to choose from, and so increasingly it’s a matter of degree-creep. Many of our non-tenure lines are held by those holding Ph.D.s. Heck, in Manhattan, most of the private high schools list the number of faculty with advanced degrees. It just seems like degree inflation in many ways, but I don’t see that tide turning any time soon, unfortunately–it’s less a matter of a Ph.D. getting you a leg up and more a matter of not having the Ph.D. potentially excluding you from a search.

      I’m sure that it is field-dependent, but generally I think the reputation of the university is more important than whether it’s in the US. As long as it is a globally recognized program in the area you are pursuing, you’re in fine shape. You can actually see that by looking at the make up of most department faculties in the US–you’re sure to find at least one or two holders of foreign doctorates in many. In recent hiring processes we’ve had finalists with degrees from the UK, France, and Latin America–all from schools you would immediately recognize at top-tier. So yes, there is space to do that. As above, what matters more is establishing yourself as a budding scholar, with a solid publication record.

      My impression is that higher education in the UK, particularly in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, is in a bit of turmoil, and so you may find that you are among a number of other, more experienced job seekers attempting to make it across the pond. But that’s anecdotal, and comes from some folks I know who are in that situation at present.

  32. Erica
    Posted 10/12/2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post! I realize this is a very delayed comment, but saw that there were others from earlier this year, so I figured I would give it a try… I am on the fence about applying to PhD programs, though I would really like to pursue the degree (not for the “status,” but because I love research… I just found out how much I enjoy it a bit late in the game). The conundrum is that my undergrad GPA is less than stellar – 3.3 (though it was 3.8, at a community college, prior to transferring).

    I completed my masters program with flying colors, graduating with a 3.9. It was, however, a “professional” program that offered (but didn’t encourage) a thesis; being young and stupid, I didn’t do one. I have taken the GRE, and did mediocre, at best (1150).

    I am wondering if it would be worth my time and effort to apply to a PhD program, with these limiting factors. As I mentioned, I found when I was nearing the completion of my MS that I really love research; I just hadn’t gotten enough of a chance to do a lot of it until that point to find out sooner. I had always thought teaching would be a suitable match, but had planned on doing it after I was a bit older.

    In any case, I am passionate about my topic of interest, and would be thrilled to research it in depth. If it would be ill-advised to pursue a PhD right now, do you have recommendations for making myself a more appealing candidate, in the future? I’m only 24; I can’t give up yet. Thanks in advance.

    • alex
      Posted 10/16/2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      You didn’t say in what field. The GRE is not predictive, on the whole, of future success in a graduate program, but I know that our faculty used it as a kind of “low pass filter.” Unfortunately, an 1150 is probably pretty low pass. You might want to put that time into bringing up your score. You didn’t say how you had prepped for the exam, but especially if your prep was relatively lightweight, you should be able to raise it significantly with some concentrated effort…

  33. Kakageldi
    Posted 10/20/2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Alex, good post.

    I am a new immigrant to the United States. I recently graduated from M.A in Professional and Business Communication program in the United States. I got my Bachelor’s degree from post-Soviet state and I have 3-4 years of international experience at broadcasting organization. I can speak 4 languages including Russian.

    Recently, I quit my job and now I am at the crossroad. I have three options: 1) MBA, 2) PhD in Communication or 3) look for another job. Given the unemployment figures for the time being, which of the above would you suggest so that I can live good life in the future.

    • alex
      Posted 10/27/2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      This, of course, depends very much on your definition of the good life!

      If financial stability/wealth tops that list, the PhD is probably the wrong route. I can understand the desire to “wait out” the current recession in an MBA program, but it’s not clear to me that an MBA always pays off, given the expense. I suspect that the $40K (at a minimum) you would end up spending on an MBA would be better spent starting your own business. Given your language abilities and training, I would look for freelance work while continuing your job search.

      That said, the primary advantage an MBA would probably bring is a set of contacts that can lead to opening doors. Particularly if you are able to enter an elite MBA program, that may serve as an expensive, but viable, path into a business career.

  34. Dave
    Posted 11/14/2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink


    Fantastic post, and I am glad to see that you are still responding to people who stumble upon it like me. I am currently developing my “go back to school in 2013” plan and your post here has been very informative.

    My plan basically revolves around maximizing both private sector employment and academic employment options upon graduation, this basically translates to applying to a few top-20 MBA programs, and also some highly regarded Communication MA programs – the thinking being that at the conclusion of either path, I could always go back and get the other option if I feel the need. Call me a pessimistic late twenty-something, but I feel the job market – even for MBAs – is rotten, and I do not plan on it getting much better soon, if ever in the USA.

    Despite this plan I have developed, there is still one aspect of a Ph.D that is tempting me: more and more academics I am talking to have identified college teaching as a growth industry over the next twenty years due to a disproportionate number of soon-to-retire baby boomers in the profession. Not everyone shares this opinion however, I was curious as to how you feel about this?

    By the way some background – I graduated from a highly regarded Organization Communication BS program with a 3.8 GPA and a final research paper that was good enough to maybe publish in some smaller journal had I cared to deal with all the review and letting some PhD put their name on the top! Over 6 years as a young professional post-college, however, I have been unlucky in climbing up the organizational ladder and have found myself (I feel) needing more education and more options going forwards. Thanks again for this great post.

  35. James
    Posted 12/7/2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Hello Alex.

    I’m in the bind — in more ways than one — of being someone with 10 years of experience as an adjunct (business wriitng, journalism and lately, academic English) who was just informed my contact will not be renewed at a state college next semester. They opted to give the position to an ABD nearing a PhD in “writing.” Other ABDs were hired this semester, apparently endangering us M.A.s in the department. The competition is fierce now even at the community colleges — hundreds of applicants for a few openings, and PhDs get better consideration.

    I looked into getting a doctorate myself, but as someone out of school for many years, I did poorly on the GRE (just under 1,000, thanks to a low math score, but I got a 5 out of 6 on the writing part). I imagine that won’t get me past the first level of admission in most programs. I have published several books, many articles, have a list of journalism-related awards and I’m a former Fulbright scholar. The worst part is I’m in my mid-50s, and a single dad with a young daughter. Also, and don’t take this wrong, I am Caucasian. At this point, I’m headed for the dole, (as is my former office mate who also did not make it).

    One program I found claimed that I could have a PhD in communications in as little as 2.5 years if my communications M.A. and other college courses transfer. I’m an excellent researcher and writer. I figure I still have at least 10 productive years left. Might it be worthwhile to puruse the doctorate? Is it a gamble to borrow for the tuition, but at least have a better shot at a teaching spot, even as an ABD? I do not expect to ever have a tenured job.

    Or, is there a second act for washed-up adjuncts? Thanks.

    • alex
      Posted 12/9/2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      That is a terribly depressing story, and I fear not unique. As I hinted at above, because there is an abundance of Ph.D. holders, particularly in the humanities, there seems to be a significant amount of credential inflation. It’s hard to be the person without a Ph.D. competing with newly minted Ph.D. folks. There may also be more to this story: those with less experience may, for example, be more pliable and willing to take direction, or it may be that they are the students of friends at a nearby university?

      In any case, I guess the question is whether it makes any kind of economic sense to pay for three more years of school just to possibly tread water as an adjunct. You’re right, the Ph.D. isn’t going to make you magically more attractive as a candidate for TT jobs–all of those ABDs you are now competing with are gunning for the same positions.

      I suppose the exception here might be if you decided to take things in a completely new direction and seek further work at a tangent to what you do now. No, I don’t know what that means: content strategy for the web? Science writing? Technical writing? I don’t know. But if it’s far enough from what you are doing now, and is an up-and-coming area, then maybe the Ph.D. makes sense? It’s a big gamble, though, both in terms of ultimate job prospects and three years of opportunity costs.

      I will continue to say what I said above: don’t pay for the doctoral program. If you can get funding from the school or from an outside fellowship, that’s another story. If you can’t, not only are you accumulating debt that is basically sunk, you are also competing against the folks who did get fellowships and will use them as leverage in the marketplace after.

      Beyond this, depending on where you are geographically, it may be possible to make more as a high school teacher than as a college adjunct. And good writers are in demand in the corporate world, as long as you can market yourself well.

  36. JSelah
    Posted 2/5/2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Hello Alex! Well, it has been exactly one year since I last posted at this site. I decided to visit Ohio University/Scripps College of Communication in Jan of 2011 and I had such a great experience! Shortly after, I was admitted to the PhD program, where I now find myself fast becoming a true scholar. The program is intense, but fantastic. Your words here went a long way in pushing me in this direction. I love research and earning this degree will allow me to finally do all the sorts of interpretive, qualitative work I have long envisioned.

    If you truly are the type of person who wants to do research, plus you don’t mind hard work, find a high-quality PhD program in communication and apply!

    The Bronxite Selah

  37. Posted 7/5/2012 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Since it took me two months to finish reading this I think I need a break. LOL

  38. Anjor Bhaskar
    Posted 11/24/2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Nice Informative Post. Seriously makes me doubtful, not much about my intention – that is at a very nascent stage – but my chances – having done a Bachelors and Masters in Economics and Research Jobs in all areas of Development from Nutrition to Waste Management – anything but Communication – and that too far from the U.S. – in India.. I can’t imagine anyone who would give me a recommendation either – all my supervisors and colleagues would think I’m crazy and not take it seriously..

  39. JSelah
    Posted 3/21/2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Well Alex, this is my third year (of four) in a communication doctoral program. I am busy writing the first three chapters (intro-lit review-methods) of the dissertation and will head to West Africa for archival research (my area of concentration is in Semiotics Studies) in July. The decision to give up a decent paying job to embark on the road to a Ph.D. has been EXTREMELY rewarding. I would make the same choice again without fail. Time REALLY flies by when you are in graduate studies at this level Alex.

    I will add more in 2015, inshallah!!

    Peace in the Middle East,

    The Bronxite Selah

  40. Elsa
    Posted 12/2/2018 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one ho want to do Ph.D. because I am sick of doing Job. It’s the same thing again and again for the rest of your life. I seriously fall in love with papers and writing after getting my a Job

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