On the Rhetoric of “Fit” and Being Seduced by PhD Programs

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In my personal blog, I wrote about how crazy it was for me during the past two months as I received the acceptances from a handful of doctoral programs I applied to and visited two of the universities before heading to Indianapolis in mid-March for the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. After weeks of sleeping on the options for which programs to attend, I finally made the call and sent out my decisions to all the programs in the final week of March.

It didn’t take long before my emails were replied by graduate program directors extending their congratulations and understanding for my decision. Many of them, however, have asked me to share which program I will be attending and what the deciding factors were for me in this process.

Instead of replying to all of the inquiries, I thought it’d be more helpful to flesh out my experience here so those who are interested in recruitment in the future may be able to access and share this with their colleagues.

I called it the rhetoric of “fit” because: 1) I don’t know how else to frame it, and 2) I have been advised to only go somewhere I feel my scholarly interests match with the faculty of the program and where I have the opportunity to challenge myself intellectually through courses, teaching, researching, and other professional activities. A program that fits should be a program that allows me to excel. But in all honesty, I was just like a hungry consumer shopping for the right restaurant, and the way different programs “sold” themselves to me had had a huge impact on my decisions.

First Contact

I thought it was a nice gesture for some program directors and professors from the recruiting program to phone me and deliver the news about my acceptance through their voices rather than texts over emails. The programs that did call were the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and the University of Arizona (in that order). To me, it was more personal to hear someone’s voice. It also shows they cared about getting the right details to the prospective students and allowing them to ask questions. Yes, it was pathos: the appeal to the prospects’ emotions. Beyond rhetoric, I have also considered the psychological impact of these calls. Though I am not sure how much the psychology of recall was factored into my decision, the primacy effect suggests a person may have a cognitive bias towards information that are presented to them first than those presented later on. Since the University of Minnesota was the first to call me (in first weekend of February), I might have had an unconscious bias for them to begin with.

Campus Visit

The University of Minnesota and Iowa State University were the two programs I visited in late February and early March. They paid for all of my transportation expenses and meals, and provided me with really comfortable lodgings during my stay. Their hospitality has definitely added points to their appeals. More importantly, being able to meet with the faculty members and PhD students in the department has helped to establish a bond that I consider critical in making my final decisions later in the process. Being able to see the physical buildings where the department is housed and classes are conducted also helped me to choose my preferred working environment for the next 5-6 years. I consider this as part of how the programs boost their ethos: by showing off their campus architecture and traditions, not to forget the resources available for the prospectus student to consider for their research purposes.

During both visits, I was also given a chance to experience how being a PhD student in those programs would be like. The current graduate students put together a small colloquium and presented their research. At Iowa State, I even had the opportunity to sit into one of the grad courses and one undergrad course taught by a PhD student. This kind of immersion, though rather brief but sweet, made me feel like a part of the scholarly community of the program. Both universities I visited also held a closing reception for all the prospective students where the entire department was invited to come and speak to the prospects. One was less formal than the other.

Program Requirements & Opportunities

The last, and most crucial, deciding factor for me was the coursework and program specifications for the degree. As each program is unique in its own way, I spent a good amount of time comparing and contrasting between the programs I’ve been accepted into, and shortlisting the ones I felt would benefit me the most given my aspired trajectories. Among my top three choices, I had to choose between rhetoric & composition, rhetoric and professional communication, and rhetoric and technical communication. Being the Type A control freak that I’ve always been, I needed clear overviews on what I am getting myself into. So, overall, I think how the programs explained their courses, qualifying exams and defense requirements, and other particulars of the program had had a huge effect on my decisions.

Another deciding factor for me under this section was the assurance that someone in the program had my back, in terms of my research interests and possible dissertation project. The University of Minnesota gave me this affirmation by assigning an advisor to me right off the bat. This scholar is also someone who I have great interests to work with, as indicated in my letter of intent. Together with the clear description of program, there was a distinction of the rhetorical logos, which enabled a reasoned discourse to help the prospective students to identify what works best for them and what not. (Or at least that was the case for me.)

Other Considerations, i.e. Funding & Location

Most of the times, funding is out of the control of the PhD-granting departments, just as how they can’t choose where the university is located either. Fortunately, for most of the programs I was accepted into, I was given complete funding through teaching assistantship and tuition waiver, on top of health benefits. It so came down to the teaching load for PhD students. It is 1-1 at the University of Minnesota, 2-2 at Iowa State University, 2-2 at the University of Arizona, and 1-2 at the University of Texas-El Paso. Teaching loads for George Mason University and the University of South Florida were not specified to me.

As for the location, I factored in my preferred lifestyle and opted for an urban area while being conscious that the living cost would be significantly higher in the cities. But I think it’s time for a change. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the programs on their end.

To sum it all up, I think my experience was enriched through the campus visitations and that really helped me to make up my mind about joining the programs. Though I could have visited the other campuses as well, I simply didn’t have the resources to do so. As such, I think future recruiting teams should really consider investing into bringing their prospects to campus as it would give them an edge in entrancing the students through the various rhetorical appeals we are all so familiar with.

To spell it out, I will be joining the PhD program at the University of Minnesota this fall.

P.S.: If you’re reading this and were one of the graduate directors/professors of the programs that admitted me, please know that I am very grateful for your support and acknowledgment. I only wished I could attend all of the programs I got into… but I am not yet a ninja. I do hope we could continue the relationship by collaborating on scholarly projects in the near future. Also, I would also like to meet with you in person (if we haven’t already did) at conferences to come. Just leave me a message.

Ph.D. Finder for Rhetoric and Composition Programs

PhD Finder promo

Earning a higher educational degree is a notable pursuit. This pursuit usually starts when one has developed an interest around a certain area of study and began looking for universities and programs that meet his/her academic needs. Yet, as a graduating master’s student and Ph.D. applicant, I cannot rant enough how frustrating the process of school-finding can be. My first instinct was to speak with my advisors about possible programs to look into, and then go on Google to find out more about these schools – about their department culture, Ph.D. dissertations written by students, faculty members’ research areas, criteria for admittance, etc. Miserably, I felt luck was a huge, integral part of the search process.

To help Ph.D. applicants narrow their searches, Rhetoric Review conducted its fourth Survey of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition in 2007 and published a print article in RR 27.4 (2008). Later, a Wikia site was set up to allow program directors update their department or program information. However, if you take a look at both the original site and wikia, you may find it challenging to navigate through the sites for a comprehensive outlook across the programs reviewed.

This is why we designed and launched Ph.D. Finder – an interactive app that allows users to find Ph.D. programs in Rhetoric & Composition that most closely match their admittance aptitude and research interests.

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Our algorithms are designed to rank programs based on the user’s selection of research interests and self-ordered strength in the criteria commonly used by Ph.D. admission committees for candidate evaluation. We aggregated data from the Rhetoric Review Survey and picked out programs that currently offer a Ph.D. degree in Rhetoric and Composition. Users will be able to see real-time adjustment on the program ranking as they select their area(s) of research and order their admittance aptitude.

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As this app is still in its infancy stage, we realize there are rooms for improvement and look forward to add more programs to our existing database. Since this app is a startup-like project created by two college students, we are, nonetheless, looking for fundings to help us expand this endeavor. Please contact us if you are interested in a partnership or backing us up.

At the meantime, check out the app and let us know what you think!

Ph.D. Finder is created by Ivan Okhin and Jason Tham, both social entrepreneurs (wannabe) and technology enthusiasts based in St. Cloud, Minnesota.