Home > Grad School > Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 2: Where Should You Go?

Applying to Grad Schools in Media Studies, Part 2: Where Should You Go?

July 25th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

There are too many universities with grad programs. Some have no clue what they’re doing, other than making money. But here’s the thing you need to know: it is very hard to get a good job with a PhD from a second or third tier program (unless, of course, your supervisor is the acknowledged expert, and is regarded as a first tier program in and of herself or himself). Competition for academic jobs is such that even lower end universities can and do limit their search for job candidates to those educated at the better institutions. So make sure that you ask around about the good programs. I’m not going to list them here, since I’d undoubtedly miss a few and get flak for it, but also they vary according to what you want to do: I’d highly recommend one school for one topic, and warn you to run for the hills rather than go there for another topic.

Indeed, as much as US News and World Report rankings and such may have you thinking about good schools, make sure you look into which are the good programs. Some great name schools have really awful programs in certain areas, or no program. Meanwhile, though I’m struggling to think of a great program in a bad school, many similarly-ranked schools will differ massively in the quality of their programs. Ask the professors whose work you find most like your own, or at least who know what your work is best, where they’d recommend. Look at the scholars who you’re quoting and reading and admiring and find out both where they’re teaching and where they did their PhDs (though remember that some of the older profs may’ve been with a program in a different era). Read the course offerings and see if they speak to you. Find out what current grad students are researching, and see if that scares you off or excites you. Don’t bother with published rankings, since most are deeply flawed and limited (case in point: the National Research Council’s recent rankings of Communications programs in the US applied their social sciences rubric to several humanities-based programs, meaning that books that would have counted as 6 articles for those in the humanities counted as a single article for the programs in question, and other lunacies).

Most of all, think about who you’d like to work with. When I look at the applications to UW’s Media and Cultural Studies program, unless I think that a student would benefit from working with my colleagues and I, I will never pursue the application any further. Sadly, many applicants know simply that they want a PhD, but haven’t stopped to think that any given program will consist in large part of a small group of faculty, their courses, and the peers in the grad program there. Not only does this usually kill their chances of getting in – as I’ll discuss in the next post – but more to the point, it means they’d be miserable if accepted. You want and need advisors who will help you get where you want to go, not ones who are constantly talking about X when you don’t really give a damn about X.

The above paragraph may set an intimidatingly high bar to clear for some. So let me be clear that a good program will realize that not everyone who applies to their program has their ideas set in stone. Especially if you don’t already have an MA, and are applying straight out of your undergrad, you may still be fairly new to the field. You may have a very wide set of interests, which may make it extremely hard to work out who you want to work with. That’s all fine. What you don’t want, though, is to be applying somewhere where you’re already not a fit.

What other considerations should you take into account? Below I’ll consider the American picture first, then talk about the UK separately, since there are some important differences (I’m only discussing these two countries’ PhD programs, since I really only know these two countries’ PhD programs).

Funding should be at the front of your mind. Some grad programs accept only those students who they can fund, and hence promise funding packages. Some offer no such promise, and instead leave you in a competitive situation, in which there are a few TA, RA, and/or fellowship positions to be had, and you need to muscle out your peers to get them. Some pay your way for a while, then it’s up to you.

Personally, I highly recommend the first type of program, for a variety of reasons. Economically, going somewhere without the promise of funding is perilous. Starting academic jobs do not pay all that much and it could be many years until you could repay loans. Or if you end up trying to balance your studies with work that pays for them, you’re looking at an arduous existence with very little free time, and likely without enough adequate time to be the best academic you can be. When you’re sidetracked by financial issues, you’re likely to do what the human body does when it goes into shock, directing all energy to what you see as the major organs – here, your dissertation and class papers – while allowing the extremities – here, conference papers and publications – to go cold. You’ll need the latter to get a good job, though. Even beyond economics, and even if you’re rich, programs that don’t fund everyone by nature become competitive. Your peers need to jostle for favor and one’s success is another’s failure, whereas programs that fund everyone can allow for more camaraderie and support, not to mention less angst. You may not have the luxury of choosing which type of program you can go to, but if you get multiple offers, and if all other things are equal, I’d recommend the fully funded programs as the place to be (unless you thrive on competition, of course, in which case you might prefer to be elsewhere).

If there is funding, ask about what form it takes. If everyone gets TA work, what will you be TAing, what are the hours, and what’s the pay? If there’s RA work, who will it be with, and what kind of work can you expect? Some programs pay much better than others. Of course, some places are way cheaper than others. So rather than simply comparing salaries, find a price of living converter online, ask to be put in touch with current grad students and ask them for a realistic sense of the price of living, and so forth, and then compare ($25,000 in an expensive city, for instance, may well get you nowhere near as far as $18,000 in a cheap one). You should also be looking not just at salaries, but also at whether the work will actually help you. Will you TA courses that are connected to your studies? Will you do work that will make your CV look better, or that will fund you but not really add highly desirable experience? Indeed, though some people are very lucky to get lucrative fellowships, rather than have to work as a TA or RA, remember that teaching is good experience and colors the CV. Work out the whole picture and think about what you most want and need.

Location may matter a great deal to you. That may even be tied to funding, especially if you’re able to get in-state tuition at some places. You may have extremely good reasons why you need to stay in a certain area, or why you can’t go to other areas. This is very personal, so I won’t say much here, except to implore you not to drop your academic standards merely to stay in the “right” location. All of my comments about selection above still apply, and remember that grad school is a pit stop, not a terminus, so you won’t be there for life. I’ll also remind you that location may matter a great deal depending on what you want to study. If you’ll need to travel a lot, how easy or hard will that be? If you’re doing historical, archival work, where are the archives you want to use? If you hope to do ethnographic work, how easily can you access your field site?

Size of the program should be a consideration. How many faculty are there and how many students? You don’t necessarily need lots of faculty and very few students, as it can be energizing to have a lot of peers (indeed, too few is a problem), and practically you won’t be working with all the faculty anyways. I would recommend going somewhere with at least two faculty members with whom you can work closely. Why? Because academics move, and you’re risking a lot if you’re going somewhere to work with a single faculty member. If you do so, do at least try to size them up for their likelihood to stay. Know, too, that not all faculty are invented equal – some only work with one or two students at any time and do so poorly, while others can handle way more with great skill. If you get a campus visit or an offer and a chance to discuss the program more with the people there, try to get a sense of how busy your faculty mentors will be – are they due for sabbatical, and if so will they still work with you while on sabbatical? How many students are they working with? What kind of projects are those other students working on (could you be part of a research group, even if there are a number, as this might be a good thing)? Ask their current advisees whether they’re happy. Think about what kind of student you are, too, as you may be very independent, and not need hand-holding, or you may really want an intimate hands-on program.

The above paragraph covers much of this, but quality of mentorship should be paramount. Do the faculty actually seem to care about their grad program and advisees, or do they appear to have checked out? Are the current students happy? Do the current students appear to care about welcoming newer students and helping with mentorship themselves? What form does said mentorship take? Importantly, do you respect these people, and do you think that you can learn a lot from them? Does the prospect of learning from them and working with them excite you, or will you forever be swimming upstream? A lot of people hate, dislike, or otherwise shun their advisors, so why go somewhere if you know that’ll be the case from the outset?

Look also at the success of the program. Who, in other words, have they graduated? This will tell you several things. First, you’ll see how well the program actually prepares grad students for the field. Second, it’s a clear sign of the regard with which that program is held. Third, you’ll see what kind of network you’ll be connected to, since alumni are often especially close to others from their program. Fourth, you’ll see the kind of work and the kind of scholars that come out of the other end of the program, and you can get a sense of whether that’s you or not.

Finally, if most vaguely, should you get the opportunity to visit the campus, ask yourself afterwards whether you like the feel of the place. Try to sit in on a grad class if you can, meet with other grad students and faculty, and then ask if this seems wholly foreign and icky, or whether you’re enthused by it. Generations of sports commentators have realized the importance of “intangibles” when measuring would-be championship teams against one another, so you should too. Make sure it feels right.

What if you can’t get into the really good programs? If you have a BA only, you might consider enrolling in the best MA program you can get into and aiming to use that as a stepping stone to a PhD program. But my personal advice would be to not even bother with a sub-par PhD program. Your road to getting a good job will be too hard, and at this point, you’d be better off looking for another line of work.

MA programs provides a nice segue to discuss UK universities. I did two MAs (the first in Commonwealth/Postcolonial Lit, the second in media and cultural studies) and my PhD in the England, and I’d highly recommend the UK for MAs in particular (more on PhDs in a second). Whereas a lot of American universities roll the MA and PhD into one program, there is still clear stratification in the UK, with the MA being separate. And most MA programs are only one year. If you’re not British and paying the lower (though skyrocketing!) Brit fees, this still means only paying for one year, whereas you’re likely looking at two years’ worth of tuition costs in the US (funding is in theory possible but rare for MA-only programs). Meanwhile, UK universities are keen on running multiple MA programs per department, each in specialized areas, so, for instance, the Dept of Media and Communication Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, currently offers 16 MAs ranging from Gender, Media, and Culture to Brand Development to Political Communications to Transnational Communication and Global Media, as well as the more general Media and Communications. You’ll take classes with people from other programs, but such programs can provide a focused path through the material with like-minded and -interested peers. Finally, many UK universities have remarkably international student populations in their MA programs. This was especially the case for me at Goldsmiths, where there were few Brits but many Brazilians, Taiwanese, Greeks, Norwegians, Singaporeans, Israelis, Danes, Canadians, Turks, Koreans, and so forth. The diversity of thought and background is thus itself a selling point. For many reasons, then, the UK is a great place to go for MA studies.

Do be prepared, if you’re not from the UK system already, since the UK system is usually more hands-off than the American one, with less class time (10 week terms are common, for instance, versus the 15 week terms of US schools) and less hand-holding (reading lists will just as often be a list of about 30 possibilities, rather than a brief set of demands), and the split side of the international student body is that they’re there because the UK schools tend to use their MA programs as cash cows, and hence they admit way more students than they can often deal with all that well. But this also gets you ready for PhD life, requiring you to be a more pro-active learner, not just someone who sits in class, takes notes, and studies them for a final exam.

A major caveat here, for both MA and PhD programs, is that the UK is currently going through arguably the largest shift in post-secondary education in its history, with radically new funding structures being put into place. So it’s a time of turmoil. Some programs are bound to wither and perish in this environment, rankings may shift radically, and surely faculty are more likely to jump ship and try somewhere else than normal. The country has already had a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in place for a while, a national, govt-sanctioned ranking system upon which funding relies, and though above I noted that many such evaluations are crap, those programs and universities that have not been doing well in the RAE are especially at risk, so it would be wise to know what the RAE thought of your intended home. Do your research on these programs, in other words.

As for PhDs, the Brit system is considerably more hands-off than the US system. Classes are stacked up mostly within the MA, and then an average PhD program may have a couple of classes you must take, followed by dissertation research. This can be especially lonely, and it requires a more pro-active researcher. I would never recommend this system to those who need hand-holding, but then again I wouldn’t recommend the life of academia to those who need hand-holding. There’s a beauty to the system, too, since it really values putting a lot of time into the creation of a top-notch dissertation. I’m often horrified to hear about US programs in which PhD students trundle along, apply for jobs, get one, and then write 60-100% of their diss. in a few quick months. The UK system allows and encourages you to take more time. So if that sounds preferable, you might consider doing a PhD there. The Brit professoriate can be remarkably personable too — if tales of dons in cap and gown at Oxford have you expecting austerity and pomposity, you’ll have to look hard and wide to find that in the very funky field of media and cultural studies, where the profs are often way more relaxed than their American counterparts.

However, do be warned that while it’s easy to move from an MA program in the UK to a PhD program in the US (or from a US MA to a UK PhD), it’s quite a lot harder to move from a UK PhD to a US job or from a US PhD to a UK job. I did it, and I know others who have, so it’s clearly possible, but expectations of productivity are different in the two systems, your network will be different, and there’s still a degree to which a lot of people in each country simply don’t know the system in the other country and hence worry unfairly about how well it prepares one for their own system. The path of least resistance, with regards these two national systems, is thus definitely to get your PhD in the country in which you wish to live and work. If you’re not doing it that way, though, just make sure that you know and meet the expectations of the other system (the US system hires with the expectation of more publications, for instance, whereas the UK system hires with the expectation of a more polished diss. that could become a book in a very short time), and try to create a network in the other country (if you’re in the UK and want work in the US, go to SCMS, ICA, etc.; if you’re in the US and want work in the UK, go to MeCCSA, some of the smaller boutique conferences that the Brits love to run, and perhaps IAMCR).

Funding works differently in the UK, since traditionally the best funding has come from the govt’s research boards, who only fund British nationals. This means that most programs have many unfunded individuals too, and teaching work is usually harder to come by, so my above comments about funding, competition, etc. change in a British context. Just make sure you spend the time to look into what’s available, both through the school and in your home country. Don’t assume that whatever you know to be the case in the US will be the case in the UK.

A final selling point of Brit universities: the regalia you’ll get from them at the end is way cooler than what you’ll get in the US. Every year at graduation, multiple people I don’t know want pictures with me simply because they think my robes and hat are cool.

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  1. July 25th, 2011 at 20:34 | #1

    Great advice as always! I’d emphasize the importance of talking with & trying to get a sense of the grad student culture of different programs. While it’s true that the faculty are crucial to your education, it’s really the cohort of peers from whom you learn the most, and they will be your friends & colleagues (& collaborators & spouses…) for decades to come. It’s changed with social networking, but really your cohort will be your main entry point into the profession, so they are key.

    And where’s the picture of your kick-ass regalia?

  2. July 25th, 2011 at 22:25 | #2

    Thanks so much for these posts! I will definitely recommend them from now on to anyone who asks me about applying to grad school in media studies and related fields.

    I do wonder, though: How exactly would your comments about funding change in the British context? You allude to a distinction but don’t really go into much detail. As an American working toward a PhD in the UK, I get asked about applying to PhD programs in the UK a lot, and it’s hard to be encouraging with respect to the availability of funding. Since the standard advice is “don’t go unless they pay,” I usually tell US citizens not to bother. What would be your approach?

  3. July 26th, 2011 at 05:40 | #3

    @Jason Mittell
    thanks Jason. Good point re: cohorts.
    re: my regalia, “always leave them wanting more” ;-)

  4. Jonathan Gray
    July 26th, 2011 at 05:50 | #4

    @Casey Brienza
    Casey, yes, I kind of took a pass on that one. See, I’m Canadian and (more importantly here) British. So I was able to get Arts and Humanities Research Board funding, and would’ve paid local tuition if not, which means I simply don’t know the funding situation very well for non-Brits.

    That said, the Marshall scholarship can pick up a couple of MAs (it’s two years long); one could apply for the ORS (“Overseas Research Scholarship”?) once at the school when I was there; and some schools have some good VT (Visiting Tutor = TA) and grading work, that while competitive, can do a lot for you while there. So there are possibilities.

    My recommendations really would be threefold for non-Brits:
    (1) Totally consider an MA there, since few MA-only programs anywhere will fund you reliably
    (2) Start the thinking process early and scour the internets for any scholarship for which you’re eligible and with which you can travel
    (3) Then make a judgment based on your personal finances. If you or your parents can afford it, some of the programs there are excellent. If you can’t, be realistic.

  5. July 26th, 2011 at 06:22 | #5

    Thanks for these, Jonathan — I cannot tell you how much I’d have appreciated this series when I was first looking at schools. Another thing to look for (I’m going to sound like a bank commercial): hidden fees. The Texas University system has essentially gotten away with still calling what it gives TAs “tuition remissions” (meaning you don’t pay for tuition if you TA). In actuality, they charge all sorts of “fees” (mentoring fees, building fees, technology feeds), as well as the normal student body fees AND this weird tax deal (don’t ask me to explain) where you pay a 1/3 of your tuition at the beginning of the semester and then they give you 80% of it back. Add it all up and you’ve got between $1000-$1500 to pay each semester, which might necessitate taking out loans (if you’re not already). I’d advise potential students to be very, very specific when asking about how the tuition remission works and if there any additional funds they’d need to spend.

    The second thing to look for: A UNION! I did my MA at Oregon, which has a tremendous and effective union. I absolutely did not appreciate it enough — they bargained for lowering of fees, kept pay high, advocated for student housing, made sure our insurance was really, really awesome, and played the role of graduate student defender in any dispute with the school/department. Texas is a right-to-work state, so unions aren’t allowed, and there’s just no delicate way to put it — it SUCKS. There’s very little way to actually protest graduate student exploitation, which, like many schools, runs rampant here, not because our program is bad or exploitative (it’s great) but because university-wide cuts have forced it to be this way (lack of offices, lack of raises to match increases in cost of living, really crappy insurance, etc). And there’s essentially nothing we can do about it. We can organize, but that organization will have no leverage or actual voice.

    Which brings me to health insurance. Whether or you’re single or with a family, grad students are getting older, which means that we have more things wrong with us (aches, pains, massage for the tension in your back whilst writing a dissertation, you get the picture). Look for decent coverage in your health insurance, but also look to see what’s going on with dental and vision. I know many people of approximate grad student age who have gone deep into debt from dental bills, and dental care should be a must for any conscientious grad student. Also see if you’re going to be nickel-and-dimed via your school’s coverage. (Again, check for extra fees: It’s $20 a month extra to get dental and vision here, which again adds up). I realize this seems trifling, but when you’re deciding if you’re prepared to go into deep debt to get a Ph.D., such little things matter.

    Consider what research opportunities and archives are in the area? I ended up doing a ton of research on subjects I hadn’t considered (Gloria Swanson and Robert De Niro in particular) because their papers were a block away at the Harry Ransom Center. I know that many a Madison grad student has happened down similar research paths.

    And finally: summer funding. Grad students are bad at getting jobs in the summer. For most of us, it’s important that we DON’T get jobs in the summer, because we have our “other” job of preparing for comps, revising articles, writing dissertations, going on research trips, etc., all of which are near impossible to do with a full-time summer gig. Which means that you need to somehow survive, either by TAing and getting paid that way, taking a class and getting loans, or simply getting paid straight-up summer funding (the luxury!) Oregon had something called the “summer sandwich,” which meant grad students could get a tution remission on summer classes if they’d TAed in the summer and fall, plus a handful of summer teaching positions. Texas has very limited summer teaching options and charges full out-of-state tuition for out-of-state students wanting to take grad classes, which means most students have to either find work or take out extra loans in the Spring to carry over into summer.

    I’m sorry I’ve turned this into my second dissertation, but I realized, while writing, how important each of these things turned out to be — and what I’d wished I”d considered before. I will say that I did know the downside of some of these Texas options, but knowingly overlooked them because of the caliber of scholarship and mentorship I’d receive while here. I did receive both of those — in spades — but I also had to deal with all of the above issues.

  6. Jonathan Gray
    July 26th, 2011 at 06:37 | #6

    What a great list of very important considerations, Annie, and I’m embarrassed to have forgotten them, but extremely thankful that you added them.

  7. Lindsay H. Garrison
    August 3rd, 2011 at 11:38 | #7

    Great series, Jonathan, and great comments by all – so much helpful information here. I just wanted to chime in to echo Jason’s point about talking with current graduate students at the programs (or even in the general fields of study) you’re considering. Many of us in grad school are happy to talk with prospective students and applicants to help them get a feel for the place and pay forward/make up for the help we did/did not get ourselves at that stage.

    When I was applying, I got some great general advice from alums of various programs, but it was the current grad students who helped me get a feel for each place (which, like you say JG, is really important!) and understand the ins and outs of things I wouldn’t even know to ask about (like unions or student fees).
    So, in short, don’t be afraid to email a grad student! Most of us will certainly be glad to offer advice. [insert PhD Comic about generic grumpy/internet-surfing/procrastinating/nervous/overwhelmed/broke grad students here].

  8. R. Colin Tait
    August 5th, 2011 at 07:03 | #8

    Hi Jonathan,
    As always, thanks for putting together what is increasingly becoming a comprehensive guide for all things academic.
    I wanted to weigh in to recommend Canadian schools as an option as well, especially at the MA level. As a lot of programs up north have yet to solidify some of their Ph D programs in Film and Media studies, the benefit has been that many of the MA programs are excellent. Some of the good things are very small instructor to student ratios, great faculty as well as value for money spent, as well as often providing the opportunity to TA at the Master’s level.

    The University of British Columbia (full disclosure, that’s where I got my MA), Concordia University, The University of Alberta, The University of Western Ontario and McGill all have excellent programs worth checking out and the University of Toronto just introduced a one-year MA program.

    As all of these schools are “public” the costs are often way below what American (and even British) schools are, even for international students. The ability to TA often reduces some of these costs, as well as providing valuable experience down the road.

  9. August 5th, 2011 at 07:33 | #9

    Colin, thanks for covering this. I got my BA in Canada, but it was in English, so I just don’t know the details of the grad school programs, and I’m glad to see you add this.

    What I can add, though, is enticement that going to the Canadian system by no means closes doors to other systems as far as I’ve seen. I can point to many people who’ve crossed the border, either way, with no cost to their profile. Looking close to home, for instance, Our PhD program at UW currently has two excellent students who came to us with Canadian MAs, each of the last two years I’ve seen several other brilliant candidates from Canada, and we just hired someone fantastic with a PhD from McGill.

    Plus, you’d be in Canada, God’s chosen country. While I will remain silent on the appeal of Edmonton (home of U of Alberta) and London (home of Western), Vancouver (UBC), Toronto, and Montreal (McGill) are all fantastic cities that regularly make and top Most Livable Cities in the World lists.

    Cost is an important factor, as Colin notes. One of my best friends went to UBC since he found it cheaper as an American than in-state tuition in the US! Plus, realize you’d be in a country that believes in social services, many of which (health care! a belief in maternity and paternity leave! community centers with lots to do!) are nice for impoverished grad students.

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