Early winter term in the United States brings with it graduate-recruitment season, which means admissions committees find themselves in the throes of reading and rereading packets, calling references, and hosting campus visits for their short-listed applicants. My department hosted a two-day campus visit for prospective graduate students earlier this month, and like last year, the group that arrived, equally nervous and excited, was a clear reminder of the expansiveness of our field.
Though the dozen or so prospective students were all looking to enter a graduate program, they were at different life stages and brought with them varying intellectual and nonacademic experiences. Some had finished their Bachelor’s only last year, while others were working on their Master’s thesis. A number of them had worked for a few years outside of academia, many in far-flung places, while others had remained in school. The group collectively hailed from Washington state, across the United States, and around the globe. Some had lived in one region their entire life, while others had been third-culture kids. Understandably, the diversity of this set of applicants brought to the table markedly different academic interests.
In my one-on-one meetings with these prospective students, I was struck by their questions – not only those about specific research topics, but about graduate school in general. In many respects, those latter questions spoke to issues that traverse one’s academic career.
For instance, I have so many disparate interests. How do I choose which one to focus on for graduate school? Many of us have been blessed with a plethora of choices when it comes to research interests. Even those who are interested in what they perceive to be a single communication phenomenon are given options: In which social contexts does this phenomenon emerge? What texts do I want to analyze? Which method(s) can I use?
In answering this question about foci – whether it comes from prospective students or students who are juggling dissertation ideas – I inevitably talk about the accordion (an instrument with which I have no direct experience): The first year or two of graduate school exposes you to a breadth of theories and methods, then you find yourself fully absorbed with one theory or method, then realize that single theory or method will not sustain an entire dissertation, which forces you to expand intellectually again. That middle ground will emerge naturally, I assure them.
Of course, this is not to say those with PhDs in hand have complete control over the breadth of their research. For better or worse, many times that decision is taken out of our hands. Given institutional constraints such as tenure and time clocks, expectations that a record for tenure must reflect a coherent body of research, and the time commitment required of delving into, becoming sufficiently proficient, and publishing in a new research area, junior scholars are often encouraged to be conservative in their research breadth. “Wait until after tenure,” they’re told, “when you have some luxury of time.”
Who would serve on my committee? Who can I work with? Dangling preposition aside, this question cuts across much of academia (and life in general). Some graduate students pose this question as a way of asking whether the breadth of their research interests or thesis or dissertation is appropriate or viable. Others ask it as a way of trying to discern personalities and working styles – what’s pragmatic and what’s not. Indeed, personalities and working styles, alongside skill sets, are critical, and often make or break collaborations.
Will I get the support I need? For graduate students and faculty members alike, support comes in many guises – an intellectual community in which one can thrive, even if temporarily; resources for research; emotional support from family, friends, and/or colleagues; and so forth. Our intellectual communities and professional networks have been redefined by social media and communication technologies, and they offer support as we wish to draw on them.
Of course, professional conferences offer a wealth of intellectual and emotional support for all types of constituents: graduate students who find validation for their own research when listening to other presentations in their area; freshly minted PhDs who are eager to reconnect with their graduate-school colleagues; scholars who wish to connect with their former students, embark on new projects, or merely stay their intellectual course.
The questions posed by prospective graduate students are ones we hear regularly. Indeed, many of us have asked those same questions – and many of us ask those same questions today, merely in different contexts.
ICA’s long-awaited conference schedule went live Friday. It’s a preview of the latest research in all corners of our discipline, an exciting document that hopefully will shape the ideas and intellectual communities of many, not merely graduate students.