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). Read more…
, Grad School
, media studies