Choosing a Doctoral Program

November 14, 2014

Dear Dr. Laura,

I was the first in my family to obtain a master’s degree, and I feel I’m missing some important tacit knowledge about academia. I’m interested in pursuing a PhD in information science, or maybe communications. How do I go about choosing a doctoral program?

Potential PhD

Dear Potential PhD,

Thank you for your question! It raises two issues: (a) whether a PhD of any kind is the right way to go and then if it is, (b) how to choose the right program.

Is a PhD Right for You?
The first thing to be aware of is that unlike the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, the PhD is focused on research. So when considering the PhD, you’ll want to identify some topics that you’d be interested in researching—some questions you’d like to answer—and possibly even be able to describe a research study or two that you might like to undertake. Being able to identify questions and envision a study is easier if you can problematize an area of interest. By problematizing I mean being able to identify areas that would benefit from research. This can include identifying disagreements or gaps in current thinking, a need for analysis, incomplete exploration of issues, or descriptive statements about an issue but little coherent explanation or interpretation. At this point in your journey, a research topic doesn’t have to be fully developed but begin thinking about areas where you could contribute to the body of knowledge.

Given that the PhD is primarily geared toward turning you into a researcher, it’s important to give serious thought to whether the process of research really appeals to you; because if your passion lies somewhere else you may need to do some soul searching before you commit to a research-oriented degree. I have had friends enter PhD programs to find out that they really didn’t want to conduct research studies or write papers for publication. And sometimes this can be an expensive discovery: you’ve lost a year or two in tuition, fees, and a regular salary, and you’ve been out of the job market and now have a gap on your resume. This also goes for teaching. As a doctoral student, you’ll spend more time researching than teaching, if you get to teach at all. You’ll have to stick it out until you’ve finished the doctorate to get a faculty position at a school that emphasizes teaching, but you will still be expected to conduct research while teaching a heavier load of classes than those faculty at schools that emphasize research.

So those are the hard knocks…

How to Choose the Program that is Best for You
If you have decided that a PhD is right for you, then your main question comes into play: how to choose a doctoral program?

Potential PhD, you had asked about choosing between communications and information science, so let’s start there. First off, if you can identify the questions that really excite you, that may help you narrow your focus some. If you’re still left feeling pulled in two directions, never fear! You have some options you can explore. For example, you can always apply to both types of programs and as you learn more about them through the application and interview process, you may begin to narrow your interests down. Or, many information science programs are now partnered with communications programs! Florida State, University of Tennessee, and Rutgers, to name a few, are all partnered with schools of communication. University of Tennessee’s College of Communication and Information offers a PhD in Communication and Information! At Rutgers, you would apply to the interdisciplinary PhD program and prioritize your choice of concentration (e.g., library and information science, communication, or media). If you need to change that concentration, I understand it is easy to do so; but find out if that is the case for other interdisciplinary programs you might be interested in.

Today, many PhD programs stress an interdisciplinary approach anyway. For example, although my PhD is in information science, it is very relevant to communications. I took courses in the linguistics department and one of my committee members was a faculty member in an English department.

Do Some Research
To determine if a program is the right fit for you, take a look at program websites. Start with the faculty directory. Is anyone conducting research related to your interests? (This is good preparation for the application process because you may be asked to list faculty that you’d be interested in working with—i.e., advisor/committee chair—if accepted to the program.)

Some faculty have their own websites where they provide more information about themselves, so don’t stop at the school’s faculty listing. Look at faculty vitas, including a listing of their published articles. You can try contacting interesting faculty and starting a dialogue about their work and the program.

Next take a look the doctoral students directory and their personal websites. What do they work on? Who are their advisors? Contact the ones that focus on topics related to your areas of interest and set up a time to talk. Ask them what they think the strengths and weaknesses of the program are, what kinds of funding opportunities the school provides, what kinds of activities their program offers to enrich learning and professional development, etc.

Look at the degree requirements and courses on the program’s website. Is there enough to interest you? Can you take courses in other departments? How many courses do you have to take? How many hours of dissertation credits? Will you have an opportunity to teach if you’d like to do that?

Some students even contact the school and arrange a visit. Most schools are very open to this and will help you get together with some of the doctoral students and faculty. You could arrange a tour of the campus and ask the doctoral students if they can show you around town. Remember, this is a place you will live in for quite a while, so you’ll also want to ask yourself if you can live there.

As you’re conducting your research, you’ll also want to determine what opportunities and resources are available to doctoral students to support research and scholarship, such as libraries, labs, research colloquiums and seminars, internal research and travel grants? For example, at UNC we have the Odum Institute, which is a fantastic resource that a lot of schools don’t have. They have walk-in help with statistics, statistical software packages, study design, and much more. We also have the Center for Faculty Excellence, which offers a variety of teaching seminars that doctoral students may attend. On the down side we have a writing lab but it is mostly for undergraduates.

And lastly, ask yourself if you can afford the program? Interest rates on student loans have doubled over the past 10 years and they can really add up. If you rely heavily on student loans you could find yourself in a situation where you owe what is essentially a nice mortgage payment each month after you graduate. So learn more about what the school has to offer in terms of tuition remission, stipends for research or teaching assistantships, and other kinds of financial support. Then balance that with the cost of living in that area. This is another subject you can address with the doctoral students you talk to—how do they support themselves? How expensive is it to live there?

Some Final Reality Checks
I also want to make you aware of some other differences between undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs. Doctoral programs are more work—a LOT more work. So be prepared to work 7 days a week for long hours sometimes. It can be fatiguing but I offer some tips on maintain balance and energy in Maintaining Balance and Sanity.

Also, in a doctoral program, you are expected to be a self-directed, self-motivated, self-managing learner, or rather, entrepreneur because you are building a lifelong research agenda which is like a product you are developing for a special market—the field of study you choose. You will need to learn to be your own boss. Faculty will not give you a to do list for the week. Instead you will be given quite a bit of autonomy and you will be expected to handle it well. If you are the type of person that needs someone to wave a carrot or a stick at you to get you going, a doctoral program may not be the way to go.

Potential PhD, good luck with your decision! I hope this has helped. I know that some of it has been a bit of a bitter pill, but I want you to make a decision you’re happy with. I believe arming you with solid information will help you do this. Working with students, searching for answers to questions of your own design, and directing your own day can make faculty life a joy. So be sure to talk to faculty about why they love their jobs! You’ll learn a lot. Happy hunting!


Dr Laura



  • First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which I'd like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Cheers!

      • Dr. Laura
        Replay Cancel Replay
      • August 10, 2015

      This is a great question. There are a few of things I do for this that I hope will help.

      • One is starting with an outline, so I can always have a prompt to keep me going. For example, I may draw a blank on one section, but I can whip out my outline and start another section that is more inspiring to me. I always start with an outline that I jam-pack with my notes. This also keeps me and the writing organized.

      • Another trick is to re-read the earlier paragraph to get me going (this assumes you've written something). Usually I find things I don't like in the earlier paragraph and I start editing it. This will then inspire me to keep going with new paragraph.

      • Another trick is just biting the bullet and writing a couple of crummy sentences, knowing they are crummy and that's okay. Then once I start, momentum builds and I can keep going. I just need to get moving!

      • A suggestion someone made to me, which I haven't tried out yet, is to start by writing the conclusion. How do you want this to end? If you figure that out, it might shed some light on how the earlier sections should unfold.

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