Home > Grad School > Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 1

Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 1

July 22nd, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

Last year when I was publishing my series on looking for academic jobs, I got some email requests from Masters students who were looking for PhD programs to expand the series to encompass that issue too. At the time, I wanted to go through another year of decisions for our own grad program at UW, so that I could make some notes on the whole process while it was happening. I’ve now done so and am ready to comply with those requests. So, if you know someone who wants to go to grad school in media and cultural studies, feel free to pass this on to them.

A key warning first, though: these are simply my suggestions and thoughts. They may not apply to other grad programs in media and cultural studies. They will almost definitely not apply, at least in total, to a lot of grad programs outside the field of media and cultural studies. And even if you’re applying to the Media and Cultural Studies program at University of Wisconsin, Madison, I’m not the only one who makes decisions, and I’m not speaking here for my colleagues, so please don’t see this as a How to Get Into Wisconsin document.

And a key request: I would love if some other practicing academics would chip in with their own two cents. Similarly, prospective candidates should feel free to fire questions my way (though please only send the generic ones via the blog. I won’t address personal issues and cases in this public venue).

I’ve broken the advice into three posts:

(1) Should you even go to grad school?

(2) Where should you go?

(3) How do you get in?

These aren’t strictly chronological, as you’ll find that some of my suggestions in the second post are directed towards those with several offers in hand, and hence to those who have already aced the third topic. But it’s a way to avoid a 6500 word blog post! Let’s start with the first one …~~

1. Should you even go to grad school?

Everywhere you look in academia, there are people advising everyone against getting a PhD, especially in the humanities. The litany of warnings is long, but mostly circle around the suggestions that (a) you won’t get a job, (b) it’ll spoil you for other work, and (c) it’s a waste of time. See below for a much-circulated example:

Personally, I think that way too many people apply for grad school without knowing why the heck they want to go (the kind of thing being made fun of in this video), and this creates all sorts of knock-on problems, so I don’t think anyone should do a PhD unless they really know why they’re there (an MA program is another thing – you can test the waters there, but don’t swim beyond the MA till you know where you’re going). And yet the “don’t get a PhD in the humanities” warning crowd also annoy me.

First off, let’s be clear that some people warning you against getting a PhD are really just looking for some ego stroking. They’ve made it down a long and arduous road, and there aren’t enough people applauding, so they need to drive those numbers up by making academia seem like it’s five times worse than any poor house you read about in Charles Dickens. “How did this wonderful human being make it through the system alive?”, they hope you’ll ask. As with the above video, there’s an elitist, self-congratulatory edge to some of these complaints, suggesting we are good enough, but you aren’t. Or some doing the complaining may simply be so locked into this field that they’ve never stopped to realize that most other careers are also hard to get into and pay poorly.

Second, you should realize that an academic who complains about his or her lot in life is a successful humanities PhD. We pursue truth, beauty, social justice, and equality. And those things never really come to fruition, and are always frustrated. Which means we criticize. Show us something wonderful and we’ll usually tell you how it sucks too. And don’t get me wrong – I think the utility of this is significant, as we’ll never get better unless we’re constantly looking for ways to improve. But it does mean that we can all too easily apply this to ourselves. We don’t get enough money, respect, or free time; students suck; academic politics suck; tenure expectations are too much, and then when we get tenure, service expectations are too much. You get the point: it’s in our nature to complain. So you must always take a humanities PhD’s complaints about his or her profession with a large grain of salt. Which is not to diminish many of the very real structural problems that we face, especially since many of them seem only to be getting worse (read this for the full picture). Indeed, I’ll very shortly recommend that you listen to the complaints and know what you’re getting into. Just know that there’s more to the picture.

Third, not all humanities are currently equal. Some disciplines are much closer to crisis point than is media studies. By and large, the latter is doing alright, as many universities expand their offerings, students flock to the major, and society as a whole requires more careful examination of the media. When you hear the loudest complaints about getting a PhD in the humanities, though, you’re usually hearing from someone in English or another lit program. Certainly, the situation there can be dire: job competition is absurd, since there are way more lit PhDs than good jobs, and student numbers are dwindling in numerous universities, making it hard for administrations to justify increasing hiring. The situation in media studies could be a lot better, and it’s hard out there to get a job (which will lead me to another suggestion. Keep reading), but we’re not English or Comp Lit.

So what should you do with all these warnings?

Don’t ignore them outright. If you start a PhD without knowing how the academic system works, and what the nature of the job market is, etc., you’re foolish (perhaps endearingly, naively so, not aggressively ignorant, but it’s still not a position to be in). Thus, listen to people’s complaints and warnings, but try to cut to the details. Talk to trusted professors of yours and ask for their opinions. Younger ones will be better able to tell you about the lived realities of looking for a job (since they’ve likely done it more recently); older ones may be in greater positions of power, and hence may know how the system as a whole works better.

While talking to profs, ask them about their everyday lives too. Most people who have no real clue about what a professor is. The mediated image of us is pretty laughable, for instance: according to Hollywood, we give inspiring two-minute lectures all day long, then sleep with our students. Undergrads, meanwhile, usually only see a limited part of what profs do. They see us teach undergrad classes, but they likely don’t see us research. They likely have no idea about service responsibilities. They don’t see us prep classes. And so three of the major four components of academic life are hidden. Ask about how those components work. Get a sense of how much you’ll be expected to publish, and ask about how the profs divide up their week between teaching, class prep, service, etc. Then think long and hard about whether this is the life for you. Do you really just want to teach, for instance, and have no interest in research? Know that there are very different types of academic jobs – work at a leading research institution, and your research will be paramount; work at a community college and your teaching will be paramount. You can go in various ways, but try to get a sense of what each of those ways offers, in salary, in workload, and so forth. (For instance, community college teaching may sound awesome to you, but know that it often pays poorly and involves huge amounts of teaching and grading.)

And, for the record, I think academics have an awesome job. We get paid to think about issues we care about. And to talk about them with others. We even get paid to take trips to talk about them with others (though for some that pay is indirect, granted). The spirit of exploration and research is fantastic when it’s thriving, and I love it. I also love teaching, and while bad student evaluations can ruin one’s month like few other things, when you get an email from a student you taught multiple years ago, who just wanted to check in with you and say thanks, you get a sense of what an impact you can make and your halo shines brightly. Academia’s also a rather blessed space in that a lot of the other people around you are trying to change the world in whatever ways they can, or are at least analyzing what’s up with it. We work way more hours than people think we do (no, most of us don’t “get our summers off”), but we do have enormous flexibility with our schedules that allow anything from holidays to sleeping in to being able to spend more time with your children. So, just in case this post was getting all finger-waggy, there’s a huge upside to the job.

Back to our scheduled programming, though: after looking into what academics do, then ask what you will contribute. What are the questions you want to ask? All good researchers should have questions they need to answer. Be in the blue and green parts of the above graph. A good grad school will change, modify, and add to your list, and they’ll help you ask even more, even better questions, but you should have a sense going in of what you’re there to do. This is all the more true if you already have an MA and are now seeking a PhD: in such a case, you really should know what you’re going to study. Make sure there is some specificity too. Saying “I want to look at the media” is bound to get you into the “no” pile, or put so far behind your peers that you might as well not bother. Know what it is about the media.

And if you’re in the yellow part of the graph, realize that grad school is not as overtly social as undergrad – you have less classes, which meet less often, and you get less assistance and prodding. It’s a miserable life if you’re not totally digging the material. I’d recommend that you try something else (anything else) before doing a grad degree simply because you don’t know what you want to do with your life. Realize that it’s normal for people not to know what they want to do at the end of their undergrad degree, but if you’ve come out the other end of an undergrad degree and know that you don’t really want to stay in academia, go try something else.

If you’re still interested, and are wishing I’d shut up with the warnings already and get to it, I’ll see you in the next post.

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  1. Andy Myers
    July 22nd, 2011 at 13:18 | #1

    Thanks for doing this series! I’m a masters student and had thought about emailing you to request that you expand the series—so I’m glad others spoke up. I found this very instructional and I’m looking forward to the next post.

  2. July 22nd, 2011 at 14:52 | #2

    Hi Jonathan,

    Great advice and fun column. As per your request I’m sticking in my 2cents as an alterna-academic view. Full disclosure: I’m in Information Studies, not Media Studies, so my perspective may be different.

    One other aspect of faculty life I’ll add – I wish I had known how socially isolated one is as a new faculty member. It gets way better over time (after all, I’m friends with you right?!) but I was pretty bad at first.

    You can’t (ought not) hang out with students, you have way too much work to do to have a social life, many other faculty are older/have families etc. Even if you meet fun people, you see them maybe once a week.

    It is NOT AT ALL like graduate school where you are in a class/study group with people and see them all the time.

    You type, alone, for long periods of time, all week long.

    I actually find the increased service burdens of post-tenure life at least more social! Meetings = people.

    my 2 cents,


  3. July 22nd, 2011 at 17:12 | #3

    @Kristin Eschenfelder
    great points, Kristin, and thanks for contributing. I was in a long distance relationship for my early years, and so I just chalked my isolation up to not bothering to make friends, since I needed to save all my $$ to go see my now-wife. But clearly it wasn’t just me: “the life of the mind” kinda requires one to be okay with living within one’s own mind.

  4. R. Colin Tait
    July 23rd, 2011 at 21:04 | #4

    Thanks for putting this together Jonathan.

    I think as someone nearer to the end to the beginning of the Ph. D. I would offer to folks considering grad school that that figuring out your relationship to money should be your most important consideration. Figuring out what you can live with, live without and how much debt you will incur are three honest discussions you ought to have with yourself, especially as the recession seems to have compressed what was previously “guaranteed funding” for many students.

    I had a sobering moment in my first term where I fortunately realized that I was happy doing what I was doing, but if I didn’t love it, I would be completely miserable. Before this, I thought that grad school was for everybody, and soon after I realized that it wasn’t.

    Thanks also for highlighting how great the job is at its best. After years of waiting tables and working crappy jobs, I feel extremely fortunate to be researching, writing and teaching what I do, as well as the amazingly unique opportunities that only grad school provides.

    Just two cents.

  5. Jason Buel
    July 25th, 2011 at 08:22 | #5

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on the field. I’m currently preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs, so your post is not only very helpful but also perfectly timed.

  6. Josh S.
    July 25th, 2011 at 15:24 | #6

    A very helpful post, Jonathan, that I wish I had read when applying. I’d add just two nods of support to what’s here:

    1) While pedigree is important for eventual matriculation, prospective students should choose a destination based upon having someone to work with on their specific research interest. It’ll be 5-8 years until you’re on the market so while pedigree is important make sure you don’t determine a good chunk of your life on ranking alone. That #12 program with the specialist who works on exactly what you’re interested in will likely provide stronger training and support than the #3 program working from an unrelated methodology. On this note, having an advisor who will provide the right kind of personal attention is crucial–in other words, find an advisor who will know how to cultivate your research concentration, will go to bat for you, will care about the quality of your work, and who will thus take you to task to improve your writing and thinking without condescension.

    2. On the teaching question: while it’s true that institutions favor teaching vs. research in different degrees, I would personally advocate that one who is considering becoming an educator should ask themselves if they’re inspired by the idea of teaching as much as being a researcher. There’s a healthy spectrum of institutions that favor research vs. pedagogy, but academics are basically ‘lifers’, and from an existential level you don’t want to spend the next 50 years wasting your students (and your own) time by viewing dialectical interaction as a necessary evil. In other words, the prospect of the nitty gritty of long discussions and late evenings grading should be as exciting as the eventual ‘title’.

  7. Jonathan Gray
    July 25th, 2011 at 18:28 | #7

    @Josh S.
    Thanks Josh. Great comments. So spot on with both. Re: the latter one — I recently talked to someone interested in grad school who said she’d rather work at a coffee shop than TA, which made me wonder what kind of life she imagined she’d be living post-PhD! And as for the former one, I definitely should have said that pedigree is often as much about advisor as about program. So thanks — two excellent additions!!

  8. Jonathan Gray
    July 25th, 2011 at 18:30 | #8

    @R. Colin Tait
    Thanks Colin. Sobering yet very important reminder.
    And I’m glad that my love of the job came through, too, and that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I really can’t imagine any other profession that would make me feel as happy as this job does.

  1. September 1st, 2014 at 16:17 | #1