Circles of Hell: Resources and Reflections on Applying to PhD/Grad Programs in Rhetoric (part one)

The PhD application process was an Experience. One that involved a lot of Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence” on loop while eating ice cream straight from a carton and wondering why in 2015 I still have to buy stamps. I don’t want anyone else to accidentally put postage on a thing of Ben & Jerry’s, so I thought I’d write a little about my own experiences/things I wish I would have done differently, and post some resources that helped the process along.

Disclaimer: I’m definitely just dipping my toes into the waters of academia. As such, don’t take this as a Professional Opinion. Most of the information here I received from my own experience, research collected through reading FAQs, message boards, and published articles, and discussions with colleagues and advisers. It’s a complicated process. Seek more than one resource with this kind of thing–I’m just someone writing a blog in their basement surrounded by feral cats.



1. Know What You’re Looking For

As rhetoric students, there’s dozens of different names for what we do. Knowing what your research interests are, and what else they might be called or what other departments they may be housed in, is a huge part of figuring out what program you want to apply for. While I don’t believe this is the definitive list, here are some of the program names I came across while searching for PhD schools:

  • Composition Studies/Rhetoric and Writing/Composition: Typically emphasizes the role of rhetoric in composition, usually in relationship to pedagogy or occasionally digital rhetorics.
  • Technical/Professional Communication: Typically (but not always) deals with either applied/professional writing, technology and writing, visual/multi-modal rhetoric, or other more research-orientated approaches to rhetoric. I have also seen titles like Information Design, New/Emergent Media Studies, and Digital Media which seem to imply similar focus
  • Rhetoric and Culture/Cultural Studies: Emphasizes on the connection between society/culture/style and rhetoric

In addition, here are some similar content areas to rhetoric I saw which might be applicable:

  • Cultural Theory/American Studies (usually its own department/occasionally in Gender Studies/Women’s Studies/Ethnic Studies)
  • Communication Studies (sometimes housed in Mass Comm or Journalism departments)
  • English and Education / Writing Program Administration (housed occasionally in Higher Education tracts)
  • Rhetoric and Community Studies (sometimes housed in Mass Comm, Community Studies, or Political Science)

2. Start Looking Early

Of the programs I researched, most had deadlines falling somewhere between December 1-February 15th for Fall (and therefore funding) admittance. Some things that will take time:

  • Getting letters of reference!!! Most professors want at least an advanced notice of a month, and since application season is also usually around finals, things get hectic. There’s also no guarantee that the professor in question will be willing/have time, so it’s good to give yourself more time to ask around if it’s necessary
  • Tests/Examinations — most (but not all!) PhD programs require at least the GRE, and some require GRE Subject Tests (usually Literature) on top of that. Tests aren’t always available and ones like the GRE typically fill up fast so be sure to check testing sites well in advance (not to mention, you probably will want time to study? Or time to pretend you’re going to study while you marathon that sweet, sweet Netflix). On that note, also allow at least a week for test scores to actually be sent to the university
  • Transcripts — not a huge deal, but they do have to be mailed or ordered and that can be a pain
  • Funding and rolling admissions — if you see a program with rolling admissions, applying earlier than the deadline can help your odds for acceptance. Funding can go on a first-come, first-serve basis too and it’s often limited (one school I looked at only offered eight funded positions)
  • Getting your writing samples ready (more on this in Part Two)
  • Graduate offices losing your materials. I applied to four schools. Two of them lost parts of my application materials. Applying early gives some CYA time that’s needed to avoid the full-scale panic attacks when it goes awry

So, in short, I think it’s a good idea to start seriously looking at PhD programs sometime in the late summer/early fall (about a year before you plan to attend).

3. Ask Around

Don’t be afraid to ask professors who are familiar with your research interests for program recommendations– a school I was accepted to wasn’t even on my radar until it was suggested by a member of my thesis committee. Also don’t limit yourself to English department programs–there were a lot of amazing programs in Community Studies, Mass Comm, Political Science, and various areas of Cultural Studies that all had a heavy rhetoric presence

4. Make a List

The amount of programs can get ridiculously overwhelming. And I gave up about twenty times before caving and making The List of what was important to me. The List helped with figuring out my research interests, what I wanted out of a PhD program, and other priorities. Some things to consider when looking at PhD programs:

  • Faculty of the program and their research interests — from most sites and articles I’ve read, this is a number one deciding factor in admittance to programs. As a PhD student, you’re essentially taking on an apprenticeship and the better your interests correlate with those of the faculty, the better chance you have for acceptance (that’s what they’re basically saying when you read “candidate’s fit for the program”)
  • Location — living expenses, size of the town/campus, culture of the community, culture of the campus
  • Tuition — odds are, you’ll be paying out of state tuition. Those numbers can be terrifying
  • Funding Opportunities — can you get that tuition lowered? There’s a lot of differences in funding levels as well, I’ll get into that later
  • Assistant Directorship, Internship, Research, Publishing, or Teaching Opportunities — likely essential for job placement
  • Residency — how long do you have to stay on campus? Is distance or online learning an option? When are most classes scheduled?
  • Size of the program — I’ve seen anywhere between 20 graduate students to 120 in rhetoric programs, and between 5 rhetoric faculty members and 20
  • Reputation/Prestige factor — in my research, I’ve found this to be a nebulous term. I’d highly recommend looking at specific areas (for example, technical communication or creative writing) instead of the university or sometimes even the department as a whole. A school can be ranked #125 in English but #3 in Technical Communication. Different programs have different content strengths
  • Job Placement — first of all, are they posting it on their program website? Second, where are recent graduates receiving (or not receiving) employment (tenure tract, non-tenure tract, etc.)
  • Student Dissertations — a big deciding factor for me was looking at the content of former/current PhD student dissertations–the program should have at least the titles posted, typically under FAQ pages

5. Frustration is Going to Happen

I felt totally destroyed, discouraged, and overwhelmed for about 80% of this experience. It seems that’s the norm. Don’t worry, crying over boxed wine and the episode of FRIENDS where Ross is Totally Fine is a-okay.


  • A general map of rhetoric PhD programs in the United States
  • Rhetoric Review Survey: an extremely helpful wiki that breaks down the mission statement, faculty/faculty interests, acceptance rates, funding, and deadlines of a wide variety of programs. Note: A lot of the data is severely out of date (most recent I saw was statistics from 2005/2006 academic year) but it’s still a good starting point
  • The Rhetoric Society of America (RSA)‘s catalog of Rhetoric graduate programs. Note: Not all of these offer PhDs
  • This blog post a technical communication writer made detailing their search process was very helpful to me
  • The GradCafe forums are where students, applicants, attendants, and occasionally faculty meet up to discuss programs (all forms of English [Creative Writing, Literature, Rhet, Linguistics, etc.] are umbrella’d on this message board) and it’s a good place to get first-hand feedback. Note: This website also allows applicants to post their acceptance/rejection notices and that can definitely not be good for your mental well-being. Go in with caution, the site is a big black hole for your time/anxiety producer.
  • The 2012 Survey of Programs
  • Rhetoric Review survey of doctoral programs
  • Doctoral Consortium in Rhetoric and Composition (list of programs)
  • Any suggestions? Let me know and I’ll update this sucker

That’s all for now, feel free to make suggestions for how I can improve this thing.

Up next: Part two, application materials and why they make you die a little inside

Circles of Hell: Resources and Reflections on Applying to PhD/Grad Programs in Rhetoric (part one)

2 thoughts on “Circles of Hell: Resources and Reflections on Applying to PhD/Grad Programs in Rhetoric (part one)

  1. Great post–I know from my own posts on this subject that many students find the information useful, and I know that this post will be appreciated as well. I applied, was accepted, and entered a PhD program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric in the fall of 2013. Regarding your post, as you said, it’s complicated and therefore seeing how different people approach it is valuable insight. I have a draft blog post that has been sitting since March 2013 (I just checked the date) where I was going to detail my experience–it is titled “Why I chose to get a PhD in technical communication: How I got accepted to a PhD program in technical communication at Texas Tech University”. I think that you identified many of the primary areas of focus for those looking to apply. If I had to give my essential tips, they would be (similar to yours): 1) start looking early–the application process is long and complicated as you indicate. 2) The statement of intent is the most important part–this took me 3 months and 31 drafts to write; it was the most difficult 1000 words I’ve ever written. 3) As many can probably guess, a PhD program is a lot of work and challenging; nevertheless, even knowing this going in, it is still much more time-consuming and difficult than I expected–so I think that choosing a program you really like, with professors you really want to work with, is very important.
    I can’t wait to keep reading about your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback (I actually just started reading your blog about a week ago, and it’s been extremely helpful–so thanks for that too!) !

      The inspiration for documenting resources (or, at least, making an attempt at it) definitely stemmed from the desire to help out the fellow rhetoricians in my department since it’s been a common topic during our teaching practicum for the last two years. As someone who was completely new/naive to the processes of applying for higher education tracts, it’s been a little overwhelming, to say the least. And it’s a huge relief to know that I was not the only one who went through a ridiculous amount of drafts on the Statement of Purpose (probably the most brutal writing experience I’ve ever had as a student).

      As an aside, it’s also awesome to hear from a Texas Tech doctoral student– it’s actually one of the four programs I applied to (the faculty & facilities look AMAZING) !


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