Reflections on my experience getting a Ph.D. in Communication

For four years I attended graduate school at the “Department of Communication” of The Ohio State University.  This is something of a reflection upon what it means to have an advanced degree (in my case, a Ph.D.) in “Communication,” and especially upon what it means not to have any sort of employment gained from it.

So here is my story: between 1992 and 1996 I was in graduate school, getting a Ph.D. in Communication.  Between 1996 and 1998 I worked on my dissertation, defending it successfully in August of 1998. Anyone who is writing a dissertation knows that it takes a lot of work and research to get it completed and ready for marking. Using a Dissertation service provider can seriously help people who are in the same boat. When I finished mine, it was a huge relief, so I can understand the worry that goes through people’s minds when dedicating your academic life to it.

So now, I came to the department where I would get my Ph.D. with a Master’s degree in English.  This, in hindsight, was a good thing, as I’ve made more money off of the Master’s degree than off the Ph.D..  I’d still, of course, like to have a full-time job as a professor somewhere.  Wish me luck.

At any rate, my hopes of getting a full-time job after graduation were pretty much dashed when my administrative “adviser” said she would not recommend me for full-time jobs.  Moreover, my intellectual interests at that point had diverged quite a bit from what they were when I was doing coursework.

Now, what I think I should be working through, here, is the matter of what’s in a department of Communication, what makes it so attractive, and why it seems so pointless.  Remember, if I’d actually been able to conform to the dictates of the system, I wouldn’t be blogging here before you, I’d be working on tenure.  So this is kind of an exploration, couched in intellectual terms, of why that didn’t happen and of what chances it has of happening in the future.

1) What’s in a department of Communication?

“Communication” is an academic discipline made up of a number of subfields which came together in “Communication” because they were marginalized when they were studied elsewhere.  There are three fundamental divisions in a typical department of Communication in a standard-issue American university:

  • Mass communication — in the subfield of mass communication, people analyze technologized media as such, from newspapers to movies to radio to TV to the Internet.  Those who study mass communication are typically either into studying “effects,” which involves taking surveys and otherwise studying audiences, or they do “textual” criticism, which involves analyzing particular media “texts” (e.g. movies, radio shows, TV programs, etc.)  This subfield comes to us from sociology.
  • Interpersonal communication — In the narrow sense, this is the study of face-to-face, dyadic communication — two people in conversation.  It can also, however, include the study of small group communication.  I’ve taught interpersonal communication at the community college level.  Much of the research helps people “in relationships” communicate with each other.  Much of what counts as “interpersonal communication” is quantitative research, using elaborate statistical devices.  This subfield comes to us from psychology, or social psychology.
  • Rhetoric — Originally, “rhetoric” was about the art of persuasion through the medium of public address.  It has since been expanded to include arts of persuasion in all communication media.  Work in rhetoric is usually about studying a “text” or, more distinctly, an “artifact” — see, for instance, Sonja K. Foss’s manual Rhetorical Criticism, in which students are asked to “select an artifact” before writing a paper about it.  This subfield comes to us from departments of English, in which it was marginalized due to the hegemonic influence of “literary studies” there.

Most everything else, at least to my experience, goes under those divisions.  There is, I suppose, a fourth specialty, “critical/ cultural communication” — my department accepted my admissions application because I was good at this, but what the study of “critical/ cultural communication” really is, in the departmental context, is the study of mass communication larded down with extravagant philosophical terms.

So what made the study of “communication” seem so attractive to me?

Well, back at the beginning of the 1990s, I was very much interested in radical philosophy.  This was introduced to me as being centered around the socialists and anarchists of the 19th century, and 20th-century people associated with “Western Marxism” (Gramsci, Adorno), “postmodernism” (Foucault), and communication theory (Habermas and his associates).  However, at that time one did not study radical philosophy in a Department of Philosophy, at least not in the English-speaking world.  No, at that time one studied radical philosophy in departments scattered throughout the humanities and social sciences in which there existed what was (and still is) called “cultural studies.”  And so, armed with a Master’s Degree in English, I went to the college catalogs (remember, there wasn’t much of an “online” yet back then, so these were all in paper issues) in search of a place in the world where I might continue my studies.  And one of these places was, lo and behold, the Department of Communication at The Ohio State University.  They admitted me in 1992 and granted me a teaching associateship.

So what happened then?

Soon after entry into the program, I concluded that my teaching associateship (which for the most part was about teaching public speaking classes to Ohio State undergraduates) was boring, and that my colleagues in “the field” were studying some rather quotidian stuff which was rather remote from the broader concepts which excited me in my studies of radical philosophy.  

The people whom I thought were doing exciting things were scattered throughout other departments at the university.  One of those became my dissertation supervisor.  The subfield of communication which I eventually chose for my dissertation was, well, depending on how you categorized it, either “instructional communication” or “ritual communication.”  These choices doubtless marginalized me when it came time for the job search, not that I wasn’t already marginalized when my administrative “adviser,” the one who signed off on the papers to grant me the degree, told me (when I finally worked up the nerve to start applying for positions!) that she wasn’t going to recommend me for full-time jobs.  That downsized me pretty quickly, and thereafter my personal, intellectual, and career interests drifted out of range.

Why did all of this work seem so pointless in the end?

When you get a Ph.D. in the liberal arts, it’s pretty much understood that you are doing it to become a professor.  Being a professor means reproducing the ritual practices of a “field.”  You have to write like a professor does, and you have to write lots of that stuff, in order to be granted tenure.  At some point my personal interests drifted away from this task, at least as far as the “field of communication” is concerned.  The main question for me is one of whether or not I can be “back on task.”

Now, a lot of prominent academic writers in the humanities and social sciences spend some time critiquing their field.  The best of these critiques are in books such as Ben Agger’s Public Sociology and Sharon Crowley’s Composition in the University.  These texts go through their fields and examine them historically and ethnographically to try to figure out what good they achieve in the world.  I’m not going to be that thorough here.

Those of you who have been reading my diaries here (since ’06) know what I think the main problem is, with our society, with the political issues, and with our world.  Our leadership is saving capitalism for a dying planet.  We are threatened by all sorts of social and environmental problems, from the health care fiasco to the enormous disparities of wealth in ownership patterns to abrupt climate change.  Industrial society is killing off the planet, but the people in power are too busy keeping the rich in profits to be effective in the real world.  To resolve this problem, I feel, we need to be organizing locally, in communities, to get power for ourselves and to resist the undertow of predatory capital as it sucks the planet clean of wealth.  

So, now, let’s look at the main divisions of the “field of communication,”  to see if they are any good as against the main problem.

  • Mass communication: the problem, as Noam Chomsky pointed out some time ago, is that the mass media are about the power of their owners, and about your powerlessness as an audience.  Oh, sure, “reception studies” will reveal a wide variety of readings of the mass media, some of them conforming, some of them resistant.  What’s important to each of these opinions is that those in power control the media agenda which defines them.  The primary economic fact about world society is that it is a society of 794 billionaires living amidst a bottom half of humanity living on less than $2.50/day, with a middle class helping to consume the planet to death somewhere in between.  Is this a statistic you ever hear on network news, or read in your newspaper?
  • Interpersonal communication: is the problem with most problematic face-to-face communications that they are badly performed, or is it that the circumstances of communication are themselves at fault?  If it’s the circumstances, then how is “studying communication” going to lead to better communication?  

    There is a prominent chapter of Rebekah Nathan’s ethnographic study My Freshman Year in which the international students in Nathan’s study are given voice to criticize the American students who are the primary focus of the ethnography.  Americans form friendships easily, and most international students tell Nathan they like that.  But, they say, American friendship is rather shallow when compared with the friendships international students form with their comrades back in their home countries.  So this is the thing — America is a big shopping mall.  Will better face-to-face communication lead to deeper friendships in such a context?

    As for most of the research itself, the loads of statistical math they use impresses me as a set of attempts to compensate for the relative unimportance of the researchers’ actual findings.

  • Rhetoric: now, I have a great sympathy with the rhetorical approach.  It’s the idea of studying rhetorical “artifacts” which I find uninteresting.  The Quarterly Journal of Speech is full of this stuff — I don’t bother to subscribe.  When future societies study our present-day world society, the will look at its “artifacts,” communicative or otherwise, as evidence of late capitalism, not of “rhetoric.”

    And what of the “rhetoric” we use these days?  Sales rhetoric, which deluges our society, is a joke.  They will tell you anything to get you to buy stuff.  Political rhetoric is also mostly nonsense — Murray Edelman could have told you that.  Does it really matter which tropes the politicians use when it’s clear from the way they live their lives that they’re out for themselves and their corporate sponsors and that little else matters to them?

In summary, then, communication studies suffers from its endlessly-repeated wish that what is important about communicative phenomena be ready-to-serve as an individual, measurable, specific communication which can be studied as an “artifact,” or which can be subjected to some sort of statistical calculus.  Meanwhile, the ritual continuum which pushes forward the entire trajectory of events, i.e. the capitalist system with its capitalist discipline, continues unabated.


So it looks at this point that, if I am to make any claims to being a “professor of communication,” that this will have to happen when someone is impressed by my background in ritual communication or educational communication.  This, of course, will depend upon when and if the states ever come back from bankruptcy — most of the professor jobs are in state colleges and universities.  (Whom am I kidding?  Nobody hires in “ritual communication.”)

Should I have gone into another field?  Minqi Li graciously suggested sociology.  No, I think I would be marginalized there as well.  The problems one can see in the “field of communication” are endemic to the entire academic-military-industrial complex.  

And did you people say you were into politics?  Here is a thought for your political adventures: really, seriously, we need to change our university system.  It’s too sucked into the politics of its academic departments, which have become new versions of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  It employs too many people in esoteric fields, and it fails to cut through to the great contradiction enveloping our ritual lives: capitalism.

Or maybe we just need to start our own university.  Is anyone here up for the task of creating a new university of our own, one which would give me a job?


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  1. Too centralized,  too fractured and on and on with the too’s. Academia seem to be a bureaucratic world with it’s own definitions and pecking order. You seem to me to be a good teacher. Have you ever thought of entering say an alternative to the current locked in system. On the model of perhaps  magnet/community schools?

    My husband went to Antioch College where his professors were to say the least off the beaten path of acadamia. He majored in Music and the head of the dept was Cecil Taylor a jazz musician who was known to destroy piano’s and call it music.

    I went to art school where as long as your good at both teaching and your medium they hire you. Outrageous scoundrels from the real world not academia. I guess I’m saying that instead of trying to fit into the closed political world of our official universities you might find a place in schools off the beaqten path.

    I agree with the problems involved in communication but hey herre I am an anti intellectual lol communicating and learning from an economic wonk with a lot to offer.        

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